Pharyngula

Conversations with Ken Miller

Jack Krebs has his summary of the KU talk by Ken Miller, and I’ve also had a bit of a private conversation with Miller in email. I’m not going to post it, but I will summarize my ideas after getting more of the story.

  • Miller is not trying to redirect creationists to fight atheists, and he’s very clear that all of us need to stand together in our opposition to bad science (I also agree the religious and the non-religious should be united on this issue.) Krebs mentions that this was a new section of his talk, so I suspect this is one where he’ll be reworking some of the wording. I hope.

  • Miller should speak out vociferously against atheism, just as I should speak out against religion. While we have a united front against creationism, that doesn’t mean our disagreements on other issues should disappear.

  • There is a distinction to be made between small “c” creationists who believe in a creator god, and big “C” Creationists who wage a culture war against good science. Miller may be a believer in a creator god, but he’s a staunch opponent of the Creationists—despite disagreement on matters philosophical, I should be clear in saying that he is on our side.

  • I think we both agree that the debate with creationists needs to shift in direction—the science is settled and has been resolved for a long, long time. Where that argument should go is unsettled, and I don’t think his talk helped clarify matters much. I think it muddied them, if anything.

I’ve also listened to that section of Miller’s talk where he is proposing a “road to peace” in the creation-evolution wars, and I’ve seen several different interpretations in the comments now. I think the problem is that I still don’t know what the hell he is proposing, how it will work, how it will lead to a resolution of the problem, or how he sees this happy world will turn out, nor do I agree with his premises about the causes of the conflict. Maybe the real source of our disagreement is that he announces that he has the answer, and then serves up such a vague mish-mash that anyone can read anything into it.

Comments

  1. #1 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    Materialism and atheism are not “metaphysical” conclusions that don’t necessarily follow from the nature of science. They’re necessary consequences of the application of logic to our attempts to understand our world.

    The scientific concept of ‘material’ extends itself every time a new discovery about the composition of the world is made. Everything that we know about is ‘material’. The things which we don’t know about right now, but that interact with the material world (that is, the things that exist in some way), are material. If a thing exists, we call it material, and thus it is logically impossible for an existant thing to be nonmaterial. One is just another way of talking about the other, and vice versa.

    As for god — the traditional conception of gods makes as much sense as an immovable object meeting an irresistable force. The very category is logically inconsistent. Concepts of divinities that do not discard reason are available, and those gods are certainly possible — but there is absolutely no evidence that any of them exist, in the same way that there is absolutely no evidence that the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus exist, despite both being logically permissable, though perhaps not compatible with current physics.

    If Miller thinks he can cause his irrational faith to become rational by asserting that it is over and over again, he’s a fool. We need to reject his false arguments as invalid; no matter how beneficial his correct arguments about evolution are to our cause, we cannot value truth while pandering to convenient falsehood.

  2. #2 David Wilford
    September 10, 2006

    Jack Krebs summarizes Miller:

    “It seems to me that what he [Miller] is saying to creationists is this: if you want to argue against atheism then argue against atheism, not against evolution.”

    That’s fair enough. But I can’t help as an intellectually fullfilled (and occasionally snarky) atheist to note that when I tell certain Creationists that we and the other apes share a distant common ancestor, they say that Adam and Eve are our ancestors and that evolution is wrong. If Miller can teach some atheists as well as theists on how to not wrong-foot themselves when discussing the subject of evolution, I’m all for it. I’m not sure stating that it’s the fault of those darn atheists for riling up Creationists by deigning to bring up the subject of evolution does that very well though.

  3. #3 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    Miller is not trying to redirect creationists to fight atheists, and he’s very clear that all of us need to stand together in our opposition to bad science (I also agree the religious and the non-religious should be united on this issue.)

    One more thing: the idea that science and religion are compatible is not only false, but it defames the nature of scientific inquiry. The religious and the non-religious should indeed be united in asserting their disunity.

  4. #4 Consigliere
    September 10, 2006

    First: “Thanks, Dr Ken! I know what side you’re on, now…it’s you and the creationists, best friends 4ever!”

    Now: “Miller may be a believer in a creator god, but he’s a staunch opponent of the Creationists–despite disagreement on matters philosophical, I should be clear in saying that he is on our side.”

    There might be a lesson there PZ.

  5. #5 rrt
    September 10, 2006

    FWIW, I’m glad to see that you’ve clarified this with Miller directly. I’m pleased to see he’s not as far gone as he was sounding, but I share your discomfort and confusion with his current stance. It sounds like he’s trying to sort some things out even for himself.

  6. #6 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    Miller isn’t on our side. We simply share an enemy with him.

    This constant prostrating yourself in the mud to claim that one person or another supports us is not only disgusting, but echoes the behavior of the most idiotic theists, PZ. Show some spine for a change.

  7. #7 Whatever.
    September 10, 2006

    Pr Mllr! Th Cthlc pr Drwnn hmslf s gng t nd p htd lmst s mch s th nt Drwnn Cthlc Bh.

    ctlly, t srvs hm rght fr gttng n bd wth th thsts.

    Thy t thr wn.

  8. #8 David Wilford
    September 10, 2006

    Actually, it’s trolls that eat their own. Whatever… :-)

  9. #9 Chris Ho-Stuart
    September 10, 2006

    I’m with you in thinking that Ken’s proposed “road to peace” doesn’t make much sense as expressed in his talk. I could make sense of a road to peace for an individual who is in the camp of the creationists; but it will involve abandoning creationism. That is the only way for making a kind of peace with material science and with faith… and not everyone is going find that a satisfactory place to remain. Many going that route end up abandoning faith altogether. Once you start to rethink your faith, everything is up for reconsideration..

    Those who do find internal reconciliation are still going to be in conflict with others. They’ll still be called weak minded superstitious simpletons from one side and unfaithful compromises of the truth from another. So this is not a road to peace in the sense of avoiding strong disagreements with others.

    I don’t see any great need for a shift of direction in debate with creationists. There’s no magic bullet; when engaging creationists I keep my cool by reminding myself that sufficiently obdurate stupidity is invincible. So we just keep on pointing out the errors and absurdities, again and again and again for each new generation of kids… because I think that is where it is mostly at; with young adults who are often meeting up with real debate for the first time and struggling through the conflicting messages.

    By and large I think the side of science has got its act pretty much together, and doesn’t need any great new strategy. The need is simply individuals with energy and with knowledge to get involved. I suspect that the positive impact of blogs like this one is enormous.

    I gather Ken would also like to make a positive case for belief in the context of a recognition of science. His book apparently attempts to address both the empirical errors in creationism, and the positive case for faith. Review after review after review suggests that he does a great job in showing up the straightforward empirical errors of creationism, but that he gets rather muddled and unclear when it comes to making a case for religious belief. I’ve got no objection to him trying, or to unbelievers making a contrary case for God’s non-existence.

    Cheers — Chris

  10. #10 bernarda
    September 10, 2006

    Poor Ken should read the book that I linked in an earlier thread, “The Follies of the Wise”, by Frederick Crews.

    At the limit, one could perhaps accept that he is some sort of wishy-washy deist. But how can any rational person accept the dogma of something as stupid as xianity?

    Even the most elementary investigation shows that it is at best pure mythology. Even more obvious is that it is hodge-podge of compiled texts written by anonymous writers who didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground.

    Hasn’t Ken done any investigation on the origins of superstition and particularly the judeo/xian/islamo superstition?

    Hasn’t Ken ever heard about the Council of Nicaea where a group of priests called together by dictator Constantine told them to get their act together and come up with a single–not necessarily credible–story to sell to the suckers?

    How much denial do you have to be in to accept any xian dogma, much less the specific dogma of the totalitarian misogynists in the Catholic hierarchy?

    Maybe Ken can explain to us that Jesus existed, and maybe even the mystery of the trinity, three gods in one.

    As American writer Ambrose Bierce described it “The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadquate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as part of the latter.”

    –The Devil’s Dictionary(can be found on line).

    That seems to describe Ken’s position very accurately.

  11. #11 Russell
    September 10, 2006

    Caledonian writes, “the idea that science and religion are compatible is .. false.”

    Be careful. “Religion” is a word with broad scope. Not all religions include fideistic doctrine.

  12. #12 poke
    September 10, 2006

    I have some problems with the “and now we’re doing philosophy/theology” argument that crops up here and also seems to also be what Miller is arguing.

    Firstly, people who use this argument tend not to apply it to themselves: they’ll makes lots of “science is…” and “science is not…” assertions as if they’re definite principles when they’re actually “doing philosophy.” On the other hand, this doesn’t mean we’re always “doing philosophy” either; many things can be said while simply practising science. For example, delimiting the scope of science by definition (i.e., “science by definition is limited to the natural world”) is doing philosophy, while saying “theory x lacks evidence” is practising science.

    Secondly, it’s possible to be an atheist and a metaphysical naturalist without ever “leaving” science and “entering” philosophy. Saying “this is all there is” while wearing your scientist hat is not “doing philosophy.” “This is all there is” is consistent with scientific method (in the practical not definitional sense) because there is no evidence for anything else. This applies not just to God and the supernatural but anything non-natural that philosophy may posit, such as a priori reasoning, etc. This isn’t true of any other position in this debate; therefore the theist, or even the agnostic and non-naturalist philosopher, must accept that the burden of proof lies with them. Note that this position is also the position of contemporary philosophy.

    The fact is that the most popular defence of religion (even or especially for non-theists) is simply to attack atheism. Either the arguer attacks naturalism as a default position or attacks atheists themselves. I think both forms are little more than simple bigotry in most cases; although the former has more claim to legitimacy. Arguments of the latter sort are more common; most of the language believers use takes this form: “I want something more than this” (with the implication the non-believer is lacking in something), “I want to be spiritually fulfilled” (with the implication the non-believer cannot be), all the arguments from morality (with the implication the non-believer is immoral), etc.

  13. #13 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    Caledonian writes, “the idea that science and religion are compatible is .. false.”

    Be careful. “Religion” is a word with broad scope. Not all religions include fideistic doctrine.

    Be careful yourself. Not all religions claim to have doctrines which must be accepted to be followed. Some even claim that they have none. But ALL have them.

  14. #14 lo
    September 10, 2006

    “Miller should speak out vociferously against atheism, just as I should speak out against religion.”

    Actually no you shouldn`t you should use your brain and realize at some point that the only REAL change you can make is directly by influencing children, indirectly by influencing the environment of children and their parents – over a long period of time. (e.g. just as the media does). You may not wanna hear and realize it but the media had more impact on your children than you as a father.

    If all scientists would do is gab and gab all day long we might just as well be in the stoneage. Now i am aware that you don`t just gab, but i hat you see to waste time when you actually built of a potential reader and listener base – but none of which you could change in any way due to their age.
    Guess what the church isn`t interested to convert old geezers either, rather to bring newborns and young ones into their fold as soon as possible.

    But you know as well as i do that Miller is never ever going to convert you to adopt his religious values and how can you be so naive to believe it is any different vice versa. Simply because are just as ignorant, as many scientists and not sufficiently interested in other scientific disciplines beyond the one of biology. Isn`t the most intriquing questions of all to understand human nature and behavior first – instead of seeing in every human being a completely new unexplainable phenomenon.

    One of the most valuable lectures in my live were those of human and animal psychology. Before that i deemed psychology not even worth to consider a science, because i thought it to not be precise enough to yield absolute and reproducable results. I was proven wrong and taught yet another lesssion in how ignorant we all are.

    I can`t change my nature and in any religious freak i see nothing but a lost cause who can contribute in no other way than a robot can. Altering my convictions would prolly take years over years and especially my own volition to actually change them – which there isn`t.

    To fight for a useful cause you gotta know your enemy first, and the enemy who produces all those wonderful phenomena of human interaction just as well as the diseases are ultimatly genetics. (To the readers i should annotate that genetics these days is mostly about gene expression – the obsolete idea that the DNA is linearly responsible for the cells gene products is one that is a dream that has been blasted away decades ago). Our biggest goal as of yet is to get a functional model of molecular gene expression for a primtive eukaryote like S. cerevisia and ultimately devlop one for the human cell.

    I am always fascinated by scientists who actually contribute to science significantly and thus to societies cause, regardless of their religious convictions – i mean HOW CAN ONE NOT UNDERSTAND THAT: a human being is neither responsible for its genes nor its environment which it lives in, which ultimately dictates your neurological adaptation. Many scientists are religious but it doesn`t interferre their work, in fact is part of their parential and cultural heritage, it`s a meme. I respect those people utmost so much as that i would even listen to their stories sometimes, without ever considering to argue about that, because it is a waste of time – what isn`t is to see their glare when they talk about the wonders of nature – in which we all live and are equally fascinated with.

    You PZ are educating students, who are highly interested into their field anyways – i am sure you motivate them even further but the point is virtually nothing could stop them from becoming scientists. You`re however not increasing nor decreasing the numbers of scientists in the world. Nor does your argumentation about this and that alter the world in any way at all. Because in reality most of the atheists are just as ignorant as the religous folks in stead of rationally and scientifically asking what causes this strange differentiation, and could these two behaviors perhaps have a common neurological root and thus scientific explanation. And if so what could i do if i would actually wanna make a difference.

    What you are trying to do dear PZ is to change the gene expression in every cell out of billions of them (without RNAi) instead of realizing what insanous undertaking that is when you could start at the single cell stage, effectivly meaning that what you are trying to do is reassosicate every experience they had in their live and was linked to prior experience early on in a persons life when you could actually try to influence young people early on in their life so that the will base any further experience based on that understanding of the world. You can then trust evoltion to have provided man with certain areas in the brain that fire when something doesn`t make sense based on the experience early on in their life, just as the neurons of a person who was religiously influenced early in his life fires away telling that person “hold it, life originated 7000 years ago, that evolutionary concept that can`t be right and are prone to dismiss it”. The truth is both are right, neurologically speaking each for his own – what matters are our children – these are our future our heritage , the most valuable gift we have.

    How bout you show some interest in biology beyond your cephalopods, and include people as well.

    I know one thing, even if i focus my further career entirely on basic research and medical technology my impact would pale in comparison to the difference what a few hundred more next generation scientists could do in this world – with educational equipment and technology that i couldn`t even imagine, even though i dare say i am quite the futurist.

    In the end in one thing we humans are all the same, our possible spectrum of human emotions and our instinct of survival. Religious or not, everyone wants to live as long and qualitative as feasible.

    But your ranting doesn`t help.

  15. #15 Scott Hatfield
    September 10, 2006

    PZ:

    Thanks for taking the time to interact with Miller on a personal level, and detailing your thoughts. I hope you found your conversations with Miller helpful, in the same way that I find much of what is on your blog not only edifying, but delightful.

    Sincerely…Scott

  16. #16 Great White Wonder
    September 10, 2006

    Wouldn’t it be cool if Ken Miller suddenly realized, “Hey, this religious stuff is sort of bunky. I see now that life is an atheist would be more fulfilling and honest”?

    Perhaps instead of arguing with Ken, we should be begging him to join us.

    Or paying him.

  17. #17 Todd Adamson
    September 10, 2006

    lo makes some very interesting points, but I think there is something missing here that all sides don’t completely understand.

    Discussing these issues in a science class is the wrong place. If science education is abysmal in the U.S., philosophical education is nonexistent. When Ken Miller attacks material reductionism, he’s making a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument. And yet, most high school and college graduates don’t even have a rudimentary understanding of the ideas put forth by Plato, Hume, or Nietzsche. Couple that with a completely nonexistent understanding of basic rhetoric and logic, and you have generations of people who have absolutely no ability to tackle questions dealing metaphysics, epistomology, ethics or logic.

  18. #18 Pierce R. Butler
    September 10, 2006

    Caledonian: Everything that we know about is ‘material’… If a thing exists, we call it material, and thus it is logically impossible for an existant thing to be nonmaterial.

    Do you consider things like, say, “science” or “philosophy” (or “love” or “fear”, or “excellence” or “foolishness”, or “measurement” or “difficulty”, or “xxx…ism”, or any other abstraction) not to exist?

    A mental model that rejects all these concepts as non-material will almost certainly fail its user in terms of human functionality, though it may work fairly well for non-verbal organisms.

    The examples I cite are at least derived from observable phenomena, unlike, say, ideas of the supernatural; they also meet the criterion of usefulness (ditto). Exactly where along the path of abstraction our feet leave the ground, and whether this is perhaps necessary, remains an open question – one that imo shows how poorly our mental tools have been employed on developing themselves.

    Miller, despite his very poor choice of words, apparent political naivete’, and acquiescence in childhood indoctrination, is not a fool – or at least, not more than the rest of us.

  19. #19 Pat Hayes
    September 10, 2006

    I think this is a very useful discussion. While I don’t completely agree with either PZ or Ken Miller (I do think this last post comes much closer to my own point of view) both have done something very useful in getting it rolling.

    Part of the difficulty is that the different points of view overlap scientific, theological, philosophical, and political considerations.

    Where do we place our priorities?

    Non-believers, among whom I number myself, are a despised minority who, increasingly, clamor to come out of the closet. Some believe that should be our first priority.

    Others, who fear the growing political power of the religious right, want to unite with religious moderates to defend the science curriculum, church state separation, and tolerance of gays and ourselves.

    Those are both political questions on which we must make a judgement. Do we do one, or can we do both?

    The philosopical questions have been around, with varying degrees of urgency, for a couple of millenia. They are not likely to go away.

    I do see a parallel between capital “C” Creationists who want the authority of scripture and those on the humanist side who want science to stand for Truth with a capital “T.”

    In my own view, science, by its very nature is limited in scope. It is evidence based, using observation and experiment to understand the natural world. It doesn’t find trancendent truths. It is a method of inquiry.

    Existential questions — among the most important we humans ask — are beyond the ability of science to answer.

    These philosophical questions do have a bearing on the political.

    We are against various sects on the religious right using science classrooms to proselytize for their peculiar religous beliefs. They offer the counter-argument that teaching evolution amounts to teaching atheism.

    If we insist that evolution proves in a scientific sense that there is no god, we play into their hands legally. And we may end up uniting moderate Christians with fundamentalists politically.

    Non-believers, being a tiny minority, need to seek allies in this battle.

    In the long battle in Kansas over science standards, these issues — and how we handle them — have been critical in organizing moderate Christians to vote fundamentalist Christians off the board of education.

    There are undoubtedly atheists in foxholes, but there are none on the Kansas Board of Education — even among the pro-science moderates.

    In my own view, this discussion will go on and on — as it must. I have placed my own priorities on defeating the fundamentalists because I fear the far-ranging consequences of their political ascendancy — now more advanced than I ever would have thought possible.

  20. #20 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    Materialism and atheism are not “metaphysical” conclusions that don’t necessarily follow from the nature of science. They’re necessary consequences of the application of logic to our attempts to understand our world.

    how, Caledonian? you can devise an explanation for observations by patching together a horrid quilt of logically incompatible hypotheses. it’s only until notions of parsimony or beauty or coherent principles are thrown in until you get anything like science. those are extra. i think they are valid, just as i am now an atheist (having experienced an upbringing similar to Ken Miller in the same town where he now lives), but i can’t see how you can discover these. they need to be imposed.

  21. #21 mtraven
    September 10, 2006

    Congrats to PZ for moderating your kneejerk response a little bit.

    I look upon this as a strategic question for atheiests. Do you take the strategy of attackng religion of any kind, whenever it rears its head, or should you take the Gouldian NOMA approach — let religion be, but restrict it to areas other than explaining the natural world. People like Miller are willing to cede science the entire material world — that’s pretty good. Of course not all of his fellow religionists are willing to do that, but he may make some headway in convincing them. Science will keep increasing its territory and religion will be able to natter on about spirits and things unseen.

    Given that religion seems to be part of the human cognitive hardware, it’s probably NOT a good strategy to try and battle it head on. Containment seems more likely to work.

  22. #22 JJP
    September 10, 2006

    Miller is basically a totally dishonest scumbag (or a complete fool). When push comes to shove he is on the side of Dembski et al., (as is that creep Michael Ruse). One cannot be a methodological naturalist six days a week and then on a Sunday believe in the mystical invisible pink unicorn that ‘cares’ if you live a ‘good’ life. Well one can at the expense of being an incoherent buffoon.

    Moreover Miller is a disgusting bully; check out the debate on ‘Speaking of Faith’ about evolution and faith [http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/darwin/unheardcuts.shtml]. During the question and answer session a young women tells the panel that she lost her faith and her increased knowledge of science was a key element in that process; just hear the bullying and patronizing responses from Miller et al.

    As Sam Harris argues in his book ‘The End of Faith’ so called ‘moderate’ believers like Miller are the true enemy in the fight for a sane and rational society. They prevent the truly absurd nature of religious beliefs to be fully appreciated, nor do they have the intellectual and emotional courage to give up their comfort blanket/fairytale. Thus moderate believers thought sophistry and woeful dishonesty have prolonged the religious ‘game’ far longer than it otherwise would have persisted.

    As for evolution and faith; well what is radical about Darwin’s thought is that he destroys natural theology. Darwin was and is the destroyer of natural theology, not its preserver. He was certain that the central tenets of natural theology — a benevolent, intelligently-designed, man-centered universe — were false. More importantly, what kind of God does Darwin leave us? An absentee landlord in a universe governed by chance. What kind of faith is this?

    Theistic evolution, the idea that an omnipotent God would need to use random mutations and natural selection to produce life is as about as meaningful of a concept as that of a square circle. Natural selection necessarily means that nothing outside of nature is necessary to explain it. Darwin’s theory was and is revolutionary in part because it shows that humanity is not at the center of creation, and not its purpose either.

    Perhaps little more than the muddle offered by the likes of Ken Miller can be expected. The incoherent drivel of Miller, Ruse et al., appear to offer strongest corroboration for the biologist William Provine’s infamous rule: if you want to marry Christian doctrine with modern evolutionary biology, “you have to check your brains at the church-house door.”

  23. #23 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    how, Caledonian? you can devise an explanation for observations by patching together a horrid quilt of logically incompatible hypotheses.

    Um… no, you can’t. That’s what logically incompatible means.

    it’s only until notions of parsimony or beauty or coherent principles are thrown in until you get anything like science. those are extra.

    Those aren’t extra. Coherence is inherent to basic logic, and parsimony arises from the need to make implications match observations as closely as possible.

    i think they are valid, just as i am now an atheist (having experienced an upbringing similar to Ken Miller in the same town where he now lives), but i can’t see how you can discover these.

    Then either the quality of your thinking needs to be drastically improved, or you need to do some research into the history of humanity’s attempts to understand the world. If you’re not smart enough to generate them from first principles, you can at least learn them the hard way.

  24. #24 Caledonian
    September 10, 2006

    The things Butler lists are physical. They’re just not tangible in any useful sense. Pretending that ideas are somehow mysteriously different from any other things, magically embedded in a ‘physical’ world yet outside of it, isn’t just philosophically unsophisticated and logically incoherent — it’s outright stupid.

    Miller, despite his very poor choice of words, apparent political naivete’, and acquiescence in childhood indoctrination, is not a fool – or at least, not more than the rest of us.

    Exactly.

    Ever heard of Sturgeon’s Law, Butler?

  25. #25 steve s
    September 10, 2006

    Theistic evolutionists such as Ken Miller are like children who continue to believe in Santa Claus after their parents explain where the presents really come from. Sure, he may not deliver all the presents, they argue, but he’s still behind it, in some vague and uspecified way.

  26. #26 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    Those aren’t extra. Coherence is inherent to basic logic, and parsimony arises from the need to make implications match observations as closely as possible.

    implications which are tested can be wrong. yes, we learn from those. and it’s not like parsimony is such a specific metric that it produces unique or definitive formulations.

    do the parsimony and coherence derive from observations? or do they derive from how our own heads work? surely, i agree, they’re needed to do this project we call science, in order to extend the fringes and devise explanations for things which happen.

    all experiments are local in the sense that they may be moved by a meta theory or theory, but they are constructed using rules peculiar to the phenomena being tested. couldn’t these “local theories” simply be expanded into nightmarish catalogues of properties? again, i understand, that’s not science, and i never claimed it was. but it would be a way to proceed.

    Um… no, you can’t.

    yes, you can. granted that my illustration begins with components which are already the product of extensive logic and science, but take Maxwells equations. what drives people to unite electric fields and magnetism? couldn’t they just be left as separate laws, with corrections, cross terms, depending upon materials, situations, etc? it would indeed be like the epicycles of the old Ptolemaic system, entirely unsatisfactory, but it could be made to work.

    take another instance: few people study tribology. yet it’s a phenomenon observed in the macroscopic world with important implications, explained in terms of microscopic or molecular interactions, but the transition from macro to micro is ignored because it’s “messy”, not lending itself to theories of conservative forces and the like.

  27. #27 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    If you’re not smart enough to generate them from first principles, you can at least learn them the hard way.

    Russell’s efforts demonstrating the Frege project was doomed and the non-computability results of later years put limits on how much can be derived from principles. even Judea Pearl’s arguments about Simpson’s paradox (which i don’t agree with but grant are serious) suggest data isn’t sufficient.

  28. #29 Pierce R. Butler
    September 10, 2006

    The things Butler lists are physical.

    No, Caledonian, they are abstractions, a subset of the class of symbols. Symbols are not subject to the laws governing matter & energy: they can be created and destroyed, just to start with.

    Ever heard of Sturgeon’s Law, Butler?

    Yes, Caledonian, it’s one reason I try to avoid unnecessary pugnacity. Have you considered its personal relevance?

    Here’s what the man himself called Sturgeon’s Other Law:

    “Nothing is always absolutely so.”

  29. #30 Kristine
    September 10, 2006

    I think the problem is that I still don’t know what the hell he is proposing, how it will work, how it will lead to a resolution of the problem

    My thoughts exactly. I’m confused. However, assuming that Miller doesn’t get into this “solution” in his book, which he wrote years ago, I’m hoping that his book will help my relative. I need to talk to her at the place at which she already is.

    I’ll read it first, when I get a little free time. I wish I could have seen Miller myself (and that I could see the upcoming speakers!).

    Those are both political questions on which we must make a judgement. Do we do one [come out of the atheist closet or unite with moderate religious believers], or can we do both?

    False dichotomy for me. I am already united with moderate religious believers in my personal life, and have personal relationships with creationists. Because members of this or that religion tend to favor their own, they assume that atheists do the same. Maybe some do, but I just laugh at the idea. I mean, good luck with the world, then! We’re a minority, and our viewpoint isn’t handed down in our genes.

    I have to believe that if I can figure out why people that I know believe what they believe, I can get through the resistance. I love the statement “I don’t believe in anything that divides people,” so I’m struggling not to let this divide me from anyone else, too. But it’s not easy.

  30. #31 Scott Hatfield
    September 10, 2006

    Well, my two cents to the exchange between Pierce and the pugnacious one is this:

    1) First, the fact that a hypothesis or a theory may not be logically compatible with other observations is not necessarily a barrier to its adoption in science. It is a truism, for example, that special relativity and quantum mechanics do not mesh all that well together. They don’t agree at all levels of scale, and it is hoped another theory will emerge, more all-embracing, of which they are limiting cases.

    Yet we continue to use them, logical incompatibilities and all, because taken as a whole they have more explanatory (AND predictive) power than any other model.

    2) Second, the aesthetic qualities Pierce appeals to really are relevant to the practice of science. After all, one of the chief criticisms of the Standard Model is that it is not all that pretty; part of the appeal of its would-be successor, string theory, is the alleged beauty of the mathematics behind it.

    BTW, the acknowledgement of nuance in these matters is no way demonstrates the supernatural. It’s possible to imagine phenomena which are not material, or physical, but which are still completely explicable in terms of natural causes. In fact, the very possibility of such a Gedankenexperiment is….but I think I’ve made my point.

    Scott

  31. #32 Scott Hatfield
    September 10, 2006

    Kristine:

    What a wonderful sentiment. It reminds me of Jacques Barzun: “Nothing human is alien.” You are right; striking that balance is not easy.

    If you want to see Miller in action, he’s not so immodest that he doesn’t leave a trail to follow. You can find NPR radio appearances and streaming video of presentations/debates at one of Dr. Miller’s web pages, right here:

    http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/

    I hope you find that helpful in understanding Miller’s views and in meeting your friend where she’s at.

    Best wishes….Scott

  32. #33 Timothy Chase
    September 10, 2006

    Miller should speak out vociferously against atheism, just as I should speak out against religion. While we have a united front against creationism, that doesn’t mean our disagreements on other issues should disappear.

    I think it would be a tactical mistake for Miller to come out against atheism. For one thing, atheism isn’t any sort of threat to society, and atheists have been a fairly small minority in the United States for a very long time. (I remember reading that it peaked in the 1890s, and as a cultural force has been generally in decline since.) For another, his presence currently undercuts the creationists’ case that people must choose between modern science and religion and the rest of their “us vs. them” ideology. However, to the extent that he devotes any of his energy to attacking atheism, he will unwittingly play to their strength by making religion the issue rather than making the extremism of the creationists (as evidenced by their opposition to science) the issue. To the extent that religion is made the issue, the literalists will have the advantage as they will appear more consistent and devout.

  33. #34 baiseur
    September 10, 2006

    Fuck Miller and fuck his fairy tales.

  34. #35 Gerry L
    September 10, 2006

    “Miller should speak out vociferously against atheism, just as I should speak out against religion.”

    Why is this? Why should anyone speak out AGAINST either aethism or religion? What is the point? What is to be accomplished? Win converts? Yeah, right.

    Speak out FOR atheism or FOR religion or FOR … whatever.

  35. #36 Pierce R. Butler
    September 10, 2006

    Scott –

    Eh? I’m tired and in a questionable neurochemical state, but your comments seem tangential (at the closest) to the little dialog between myself & C.

    Which is okay, I s’poze, since we weren’t moving in any clear direction anyway…

  36. #37 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    The New York Times carries a summary of Benedict XVI’s speech against “secularism” in Bavaria yesterday. science didn’t escape mention. i’ve made my comments.

    incidently, maybe we ought to take a hint from the Vatican’s frontsmen and put Professor PZ Myers likeness on cans of “atheist beer” or “atheist bratwurst”. see the pertinent story at Spiegel Online. after all, PZ did come in as the Fourth Hottest Science Blogger. might as well make some Cash for the Cause, don’t ya know.

    oh, yeah, this does actually pertain to Ken Miller in a kind of roundabout, tortuous, ekzeptian kind of way.

  37. #38 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    Coulter makes a blog entry on the “ABC docufictory about 9-11″ in which she says in part

    If you can get them arguing about the wrong question, then you don’t have to worry about their answer.

    maybe in terms of the politics of this all that’s what’s troubling about the Ken Miller position. if, indeed, the great masses of Christians are as Ken Miller and do indeed embrace science as another true source of revelation from the Great Creator Being, where are they in their condemnation of evangelicals who attack science and evolution? they are nowhere to be seen or heard. Miller is. but, then, the folks he’s defending aren’t. isn’t that naive?

  38. #39 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    sorry, the Coulter blog entry is there.

  39. #40 ekzept
    September 10, 2006

    damn! it must be time to go to bed. that’s CLOUTER not Coulter. what a typo!

  40. #41 Kim
    September 10, 2006

    As long as people like Dawkins and Dennet keep digging the ditch between ”The Atheist Scientists” and ”The Religious Creationist”, while forgetting that Atheism is nothing less than a believe that there are no gods and goddesses, they will be a Godsend gift for the Culture War Warriors. In the meanwhile, they are alienating all those scientists who have no problem in combining hard-core science with religious believes; worse, it is insulting. There was a petition of scientists with the Dover case, how many of them were religious, a large proportion. Until the atheists start to realise that science and religion (which include atheism) are NOT mutually exclusive, and act like that, they will remain a major problem for the fight against fundamentalist religions and a source for discontent among moderate religious folk. People are not going to give up their believe system for science, and if science is excluding their believe system, science will be out of the door, not their religion! I do not agree with Miller on the details, but I respect him a lot more than all those atheists that try to tell me I am stupid, or a bad scientist, just because I am religious as well, especially because they themselves do not realise that they themselves are as religious as I am.

  41. #42 Kristine
    September 10, 2006

    Until the atheists start to realise that science and religion (which include atheism)

    Oh for pity’s sake. Atheism is not a “religion.” How tired I am of that argument. It’s not helpful, either.

  42. #43 Alon Levy
    September 10, 2006

    Atheism is nothing less than a believe that there are no gods and goddesses

    “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you deny all other gods, you’ll understand why I deny yours.”

  43. #44 RBH
    September 11, 2006

    ekzept wrote

    if, indeed, the great masses of Christians are as Ken Miller and do indeed embrace science as another true source of revelation from the Great Creator Being, where are they in their condemnation of evangelicals who attack science and evolution? they are nowhere to be seen or heard. Miller is. but, then, the folks he’s defending aren’t. isn’t that naive?

    Bullshit. There are no atheists on the Ohio Sate Board of Education, yet by an 11-4 vote in September they tossed the ID creationist crap. Our two strongest allies on that board are equally strong Christians. Both risked their political futures to defend good science back when the majority of the Board didn’t, and one paid for it by losing the next election. Similarly, when we had a flareup in my local school district, the majority that successfully defended honest science came from Christian members of the board in the face of substantial vocal theatrics from local evangelicals and fundamentalists. (That’s the first time I’d heard repeated “Amens” from the crowd at a school board meeting.) I suggest zksept (and PZ) leave the rarified atmosphere of blogging for real politics once in a while. Those of us who are slogging on the front lines of the political battles don’t appreciate those who are supposedly on our side fucking up our alliances by bleating about the irrationality of our allies.

    RBH

  44. #45 George
    September 11, 2006

    People are not going to give up their believe system for science, and if science is excluding their believe system, science will be out of the door, not their religion!

    Fairwell t.v., fairwell computer! Fairwell, dear automobile. Fairwell electricity [sniff, sniff]. I will miss you all, but I must give up on this science that excludes religion. My religion is way more important to me!

    Honey, I will be in a hut in the backyard if anybody calls, er, scratch that, tell them to write me a letter.

    Tell the kids I can’t play video games with them tomorrow either. I’ll be out back building an outhouse, with my bare hands.

  45. #46 George
    September 11, 2006

    Okay, of course it’s farewell, not fairwell…

  46. #47 Scott Hatfield
    September 11, 2006

    Pierce:

    My apologies. I misread a “quote of a quote” (curse these posting conventions) from another poster within your message. Sorry if I incorrectly glommed on to your exchange with C, though it was somewhat pertinent to the other poster’s comments. Thanks for the note…Scott

  47. #48 John A
    September 11, 2006

    Can I ask:

    Miller should speak out vociferously against atheism, just as I should speak out against religion

    What is there in atheism (which is simply a disbelief in god or gods) that should cause people to “speak out vociferously”?

    I’m confused.

  48. #49 Caledonian
    September 11, 2006

    No, Caledonian, they are abstractions, a subset of the class of symbols. Symbols are not subject to the laws governing matter & energy: they can be created and destroyed, just to start with.

    Abstractions ARE physical. Or, since everything we come into contact with can be created or destroyed, do you now deny that the physical world is physical?

    Ideas, abstractions, and etheralities are all part of the physical world. There is ultimately no meaningful distinction between them and what we commonly consider to be ‘physical’ objects.

    “Nothing is always absolutely so.”

    An absolute statement condemning absolutes. I’m sure it’s very satisfying to the limbic associational regions, but my forebrain is registering a slight problem…

  49. #50 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 11, 2006

    “Where that argument should go is unsettled, and I don’t think his talk helped clarify matters much. I think it muddied them, if anything.”

    Perhaps it gives life to a neccessary discussion.

    Big “C” creationists is a problem for society and science, but so are small “c” creationists like Miller and Collins that use their science for apologetics. There would be no problem if the subtitle on Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God” was “A Believers Search For Common Ground Between God And Evolution” instead of a “A Scientist’s Search…” As a believer he has the right to discuss what science implies for his beliefs. But as a scientist he shouldn’t discuss that, he should in that case discuss what his beliefs implies for science. (That is, not much.) This misuse of expert authority is also muddying matters.

    poke:
    “For example, delimiting the scope of science by definition (i.e., “science by definition is limited to the natural world”) is doing philosophy, while saying “theory x lacks evidence” is practising science.”

    That argument depends on the definition being apriori. But we can as well see this definition as aposteriori, as a practical mean found to delimit predictive theories. As Caledonian I don’t think this is metaphysics but a necessary consequence of methodological naturalism.

    “The fact is that the most popular defence of religion (even or especially for non-theists) is simply to attack atheism.”

    Good point. Perhaps it isn’t the most popular defence, but it seems to be used rather often. It is in the nature of atheism to do the converse, since theists bring up the very concept that atheism find questionable. But what is the religious excuse, isn’t faith supposed to be enough (to argue from)?

    Pat:
    Your framing of the problems seems to give itself the obvious answer: the gays come out of the closet first.

    And science do give answers to some existential questions, for example why the universe exist (it seems the multiverse always has), why galaxies and planets exists (a rather long list of reasons…) and why we exist (we seem to be a product of biochemical production and its evolution).

    If you think there is a difference between “how” and “why” here, please explain how (or why :-). It seems to me that difference only exist if you assume purpose (“why”).

    Pierce:
    “Do you consider things like, say, “science” or “philosophy” (or “love” or “fear”, or “excellence” or “foolishness”, or “measurement” or “difficulty”, or “xxx…ism”, or any other abstraction) not to exist? … Exactly where along the path of abstraction our feet leave the ground, and whether this is perhaps necessary, remains an open question… they are abstractions, a subset of the class of symbols. Symbols are not subject to the laws governing matter & energy: they can be created and destroyed, just to start with.”

    Descriptions (“science, love, measurement”) and definitions (“measurement”) can be made parts of verifiable models. (If they can’t, we should be vary of their existence.) Verifiable models are part of theories, and so part of a naturalistic description. Your problem seems to be that you left out “verifiable”.

    But even if they aren’t verifiable, concepts as you describe them (“symbols”) are representations in our minds, and so are part of the physical world. Just as much as software and data as representations in a computer is part of the physical world – change any of it and the physical state of the machine will differ.

    Scott:
    “It is a truism, for example, that special relativity and quantum mechanics do not mesh all that well together. They don’t agree at all levels of scale,”

    They don’t disagree on predictions of observations AFAIK, quantum field theory is a relativistic quantum theory. I think it is more precise to say that general relativity and QM don’t mesh all the way.

    The problem seems not to be that the predictions are logically incompatible but that they are hard to reconcile meaningfully. At Planck lengths the spacetime of general relativity breaks down. Does that mean that smaller lengths and times don’t exist? No, string theory argues they do since strings map out a continuous (and Riemannian, ie metric) worldsheet, but they aren’t meaningful in the sense to be measurable.

    RBH:
    “Those of us who are slogging on the front lines of the political battles don’t appreciate those who are supposedly on our side fucking up our alliances by bleating about the irrationality of our allies.”

    Unfortunately, the discussion about having discussions or STFU will continue. :-) More seriously, the right to express opinion and the support of the claim of irrationality is strong arguments, while those who claim political problems by having said discussion haven’t made their case successfully IMO.

  50. #51 Pierce R. Butler
    September 11, 2006

    Caledonian: Abstractions ARE physical.

    Please point to one (not to something you claim represents one, just to the abstraction itself: e.g., point to science, but not to a scientist, lab, journal, etc).

    …since everything we come into contact with can be created or destroyed…

    You were speaking in terms of matter, and last I heard the laws of conservation have it that matter and energy are constant, and cannot be created or destroyed but only made to change form.

    Ideas, abstractions, and etheralities are all part of the physical world. There is ultimately no meaningful distinction between them and what we commonly consider to be ‘physical’ objects.

    Either you’re on the verge of revolutionizing epistemology with a breathtaking new insight into the nature of reality, or you’ve gone wading too deep in the philosophical pool without your rubber ducky. Time will tell, but I suggest you analyze the relative positioning of your head and the surface of the water before opening your mouth.

    An absolute statement condemning absolutes… my forebrain is registering a slight problem…

    I betcha. You bid Sturgeon, and I matched that and raised you one.

  51. #52 Pierce R. Butler
    September 11, 2006

    Torbjörn Larsson: Verifiable models are part of theories, and so part of a naturalistic description.

    Elementary semantics: the description is not the phenomenon described. Insofar as the observer and the observed can be separated (oh please, let’s not get too quantum-mechanical!), abstractions are something we apply, not something existent independently in the sense that matter and energy exist. Butterflies had vivid colors for millions of years before ever being perceived by an organism with a large enough brain to find them beautiful: the difference before and after that occurred was about the observers, while the butterflies continued much the same.

    …(“symbols”) are representations in our minds, and so are part of the physical world.

    Somewhere inside my computer now, a set of microscopic switches blocks and lets flow minute electrical currents in such a way that the characters “Torbjörn” appear on my monitor. That is the physical reality, as is the equivalent arrangement of neurons that causes me to associate those characters with stereotypes of Scandinavians, a panther icon, etc, Eventually the transistors and brain cells will be reconfigured, producing different abstractions – but the effects on your existence will be much less than those of a butterfly wingflap across the world – and no different from their effects on some other person elsewhere.
    In terms of physical reality, can we really describe this as anything beyond the passage of electrons along conducting material? Those electrons and the nuclei they encountered will still be here a million years from now, because they exist in a physical sense; the interpretations they produce will be as non-existent as “beauty” in the Permian Age.
    Please note: I’m not saying that abstractions aren’t “real” in the sense of having consequences, meaning, whathaveyou – just that they are not physical entities as C. seems to aver.

  52. #53 Mike
    September 11, 2006

    “if, indeed, the great masses of Christians are as Ken Miller and do indeed embrace science as another true source of revelation from the Great Creator Being, where are they in their condemnation of evangelicals who attack science and evolution?”

    Using their votes to turf the creationists off the Dover and Kansas boards maybe? Or ruling against the Dover board in Kitzmiller perhaps. Or have Dover, Pennsylvania and Kansas suddenly become hotbeds of the vituperative atheism we see on display from some folk here? In the USA, the pro-science side is political toast if it is to be based solely in atheism and spurns the support of religious supporters of science (even if you atheists out there think we are mistaken).

    If I were a creationist, I’d be paying to fly ‘baiseur’, ‘Caledonian’, Steve s and JJP to address public meetings where school boards are up for election. From a political point of view, such folk are a priceless gift to the fundamentalists.

    BTW, an atheist who believed that science produces atheists would happily make common cause with religious folk who believe science and religion are compatible in producing schools that provide good science education and be confident that the result of their combined enterprise would be a growing crop of atheists.

  53. #54 Steve LaBonne
    September 11, 2006

    So we should just shut up and not point out the incoherence of a position like Miller’s? If that’s not your point, exactly what is your point?

  54. #55 Caledonian
    September 11, 2006

    Please point to one (not to something you claim represents one, just to the abstraction itself: e.g., point to science, but not to a scientist, lab, journal, etc).

    No, no, no — not representation, but emulation. A scientist, lab, or journal is an abstraction, too. So is my finger, and the act of pointing. What we consider to be objects are made up of smaller components that together create the properties of the ‘object’.

    Your Bishop-Berkleyesque rock-kicking “I refute you thusly” stance is so 17th century. Like so many philosophers, you repeat invalid and worn-out arguments from the past while remaining almost totally ignorant of valid modern conceptions. Wake up and smell the Information Theory.

    Either you’re on the verge of revolutionizing epistemology with a breathtaking new insight into the nature of reality,

    This is old news; nothing new has been presented. The fault lies not in our stars, but in you.

  55. #56 Chris
    September 11, 2006

    What is there in atheism (which is simply a disbelief in god or gods) that should cause people to “speak out vociferously”?

    I’m confused.

    Simple: once you see religions from the outside, it immediately becomes apparent that they are not just silly, they are silly *and dangerous*. A society full of religions is as safe as a playground full of land mines.

    Case in point, a certain act of faith that happened five years ago today.

    If you haven’t already, read Dawkins’s essay that appeared a few days later, Religion’s Misguided Missiles.

  56. #57 Scott Hatfield
    September 11, 2006

    TL:

    I think we agree. Have you read David Layzer’s book “Cosmogenesis”?

    SH

  57. #58 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 11, 2006

    Pierce:
    “Elementary semantics: the description is not the phenomenon described.”

    I didn’t argue that. You asked “where along the path of abstraction our feet leave the ground”, and my answer is that it doesn’t. Descriptions and definitions are part of models.

    “but the effects on your existence will be much less than those of a butterfly wingflap across the world”

    No and no. No in the sense that the inner states of the computer or mind is different with different representations. (Or they wouldn’t be different.) And no in the sense that different representations (software/data, thoughts/perceptions) gives different results (output, actions).

    And yes, verily I miss my panther icon.

    Scott:
    Yes, essentially we do. No, I haven’t heard of that book before. It looks provocative so I would like to have time to read it. Thanks for the pointer!

  58. #59 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 11, 2006

    Scott:
    BTW, I have given a delayed answer to your question on http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/09/intelligent_design_strikes_out.php .

  59. #60 Scott Hatfield
    September 12, 2006

    TL: Thanks! I appreciate you telling me. SH

  60. #61 Scott Hatfield
    September 12, 2006

    TL:

    You’re going to have to help me out here, to make sure I understand what you posted with respect to parsimony. I want to make sure myself. Our views seem to be mirror images of one another! I look at the multiplication of universes as unparsimonious and ugly; you see it as resolving problems with the standard model, etc. in such a way as to be MORE parsimonious and MORE lovely.

    OK, that’s a new thought for me and I’m going to mull it over. I have to admit that, if you can simplify the Standard Model or (failing that) replace it with one with less arbitrary parameters, then that is a real gain in physics as a whole that might justify cosmological epicycles. Sort of like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

    However…let me make this principled objection. If we take that approach, the Standard Model or whatever replaces it is no longer truly universal. It’s a LOCAL model for our local universe. A different local model will be required for universes with different initial conditions. An infinity of models for an infinity of universes. That’s unparsimonious in a different sense, right? Doesn’t prove that it’s wrong, of course.

    Thanks again for taking the time to reply….Scott

  61. #62 Pierce R. Butler
    September 12, 2006

    Torbjörn – it’s a pleasure to discuss things with someone capable of disagreeing without snottiness.

    Descriptions and definitions are part of models.

    Descriptions and definitions of models may be exactly a point where we can look down and see air between feet and ground: an entrance to the space of pure abstraction where no physical referents can be found and entities follow different sets of rules which most or all of us understand poorly at best.

    Hence, I suspect, our differing perspectives on the “reality” of the abstract. Our respective neurons (& transistors, to a much lesser extent) do not configure identically while holding the “same” thought – even within the same individual at different moments. So, while our respective conceptions may have a physical substrate, their essence/utility remains discrete and operates according to non-physical rules.

    Let’s say a super-encephalographist is able to scan your brain and determine that you are thinking of a light bulb. If you then think of a million light bulbs, the super-EEG will not discern that same neuronal pattern repeated 1,000,000 times. You process that thought possibly by engaging a previously idle math routine elsewhere in your cortex – but the manufacturers and distributors of light bulbs must resort to containers and trucks, for their functions are non-symbolic.

  62. #63 Kim
    September 13, 2006

    Oh for pity’s sake. Atheism is not a “religion.” How tired I am of that argument. It’s not helpful, either.

    I should have written “belief system”. What I do not find helpful is the continued bashing by atheists of people who believe in a god or more than one for that matter.

  63. #64 Steve_C
    September 13, 2006

    Atheism is not a “belief system”.

    I know, it’s a difficult concept.

  64. #65 Goldenstein
    September 13, 2006

    Ys t s. Y r lr.

    Nthng dffclt bt tht.

    t s th blf tht ll xstnc s xplnd by mndlss prcsscss.

    f y sy thrws, y r lyng.

  65. #66 Steve_C
    September 13, 2006

    It’s a single belief. There is no god. It’s not a system.

    You’re an idiot. Satan must be causing you to type badly too.

  66. #67 Caledonian
    September 13, 2006

    If you then think of a million light bulbs, the super-EEG will not discern that same neuronal pattern repeated 1,000,000 times.

    Actually, there’s good reason to believe that human beings aren’t capable of conceptualizing such larger numbers. They seem to only be able to cope with up to a few dozen before they can no longer imagine meaningful additions.

    More to the point, no one has ever suggested that thinking of X items involves making X copies of a neural pattern. That neural pattern is a physical thing with physical properties, though, and that’s what matters.

  67. #68 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 13, 2006

    Scott:

    First, sorry about confusing you with Steve on the other thread.

    “Our views seem to be mirror images of one another! I look at the multiplication of universes as unparsimonious and ugly; you see it as resolving problems with the standard model, etc. in such a way as to be MORE parsimonious and MORE lovely.”

    Yes. I’m relying on Tegmark here, and he must defend his ideas. I do think he has a point about the many-world QM description, if one thinks about all these worlds as one part of the model, the ensemble of worlds. That means that one doesn’t care about each individual world, each instance.

    It is probably easy for him to envision, since he studies systems that may have infinitely many energy levels (or other possible states), and yet aren’t ‘infinintely’ complex. One other analog could be a volume of gas, with many individual molecules. Parsimony in a physical models means fewer parameters, not possible or used states in a statistical ensemble.

    “An infinity of models for an infinity of universes. That’s unparsimonious in a different sense, right?”

    Yes, since that would imply the possibility of universes with an infinite number of parameters. You are right, that seem to kill Tegmark’s parsimony argument. Unless we find a theory describing the possible physics of each universe. (String theory promises to do that, and also promises exactly that the number of parameters is finite.) I didn’t realise how much Tegmark’s argument rested on that!

  68. #69 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 13, 2006

    Pierce:
    “Descriptions and definitions of models

    I’m not sure if you say recursivity of models is a special problem. But it is not, recursive methods are used in both science, mathematics and computing.

    “their essence/utility remains discrete and operates according to non-physical rules.”

    Dualism such as this aren’t really arguable. But it isn’t part of naturalism (monism) or the methods of science (parsimony), so it is usually debunked by showing that the alternative model works and is predictive. For thoughts, that is mind vs soul.

    Steve_C:
    “Atheism is not a “belief system”.”

    Indeed. Since theories in science encapsulates knowledge and gives trust, not faith, it is tempting to say that factbased worldviews are “trust systems”. :-)

  69. #70 Pierce R. Butler
    September 13, 2006

    I’m not sure if you say recursivity of models is a special problem. But it is not, recursive methods are used in both science, mathematics and computing.

    It’s not a problem for me – but it is, or should be, a problem for anyone who insists that “Abstractions ARE physical.”

    Dualism such as this aren’t really arguable.

    How is it dualism to say that the “laws” of information differ significantly from the “laws” of physics? To repeat, one example is that information can be created or destroyed, while physics is a zero-sum game.

    Maybe we’re having a terminological problem here. In this context, to me “physical” means “consisting of matter and/or energy”. I don’t think I could provide an airtight definition of “abstract”, but my little Webster’s’s first offering is “disassociated from any specific instance”, implying that physical requirements such as location in time and space are inapplicable.

  70. #71 Caledonian
    September 13, 2006

    You’re playing with words, Butler. Things that are composed of matter and energy are created and destroyed all the time. They’re ultimately composed of information, as everything is.

    Suggesting that there is a fundamental duality – that the information we recognize as such obeys rules that don’t arise from the laws of physics – is a very serious problem in science. I hope you’re prepared to address that problem.

  71. #72 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 14, 2006

    Pierce:
    “It’s not a problem for me – but it is, or should be, a problem for anyone who insists that “Abstractions ARE physical.””

    So you aren’t adding anything to your original argument, it seems.

    “How is it dualism to say that the “laws” of information differ significantly from the “laws” of physics?”

    Physics incorporates emergence, as philosophers seems to define it. For example, our current field theories are all considered to be effective, not fundamental. Such laws are part of physics, methodological naturalism ensures that.

    Information as defined in Kolmogorov-Chaitin or Shannon theories are part of physics. For example, Shannons theory describes loss in an information channel, where white noise processes contains most information. You see noise processes all over in physics. So information theory describes aspects of physics as we observe it.

    “physics is a zero-sum game.”

    There is no such rule.

    Perhaps you are thinking of conservation laws such as for energy, which conserves some but not all quantities. Intensive entities like temperature or entropy aren’t conserved.

    Conservations laws are an expression of local symmetries, but nothing ensures them globally. For example, in general relativity time and energy is not generally welldefined, only certain solutions permit such identifications. Entropy has similar problems due to the problem of identifying states.

    So in cosmology it doesn’t make sense to speak of conservation of energy or entropy.

    “In this context, to me “physical” means “consisting of matter and/or energy”.”

    Matterenergy is but one aspect of nature – spacetime is another – information is yet another. As long as it is observable phenomena, it is physical. (Well, some you prefer to study as chemistry, some as biology. But we call them physical or natural phenomena.) You can’t separate out one observable aspect and say “this is what nature is”. Everything observable is nature by definition in the methods of science.

    And I have already discussed how ‘abstract’ representations such as thoughts are part of nature. If we couldn’t think of them as such, the idea of dualism (“abstractions aren’t part of the natural world”, Platonic idealism, quantum mysticism) could be raised. But as it is science has no use for it.

  72. #73 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 14, 2006

    “consisting of matter and/or energy”

    BTW, if you by that mean particles and fields, you must think the above definition of nature is sophistry. Yes, in a manner quantum field theories (which describes both aspects) describes such objects, and that is one way to try to confine “natural”.

    But it soon runs into trouble such as why we have this discussion. So the “observable phenomena is nature” gives less definitional (method) problems, and less problems with that our picture of particles and fields are dependent on how we make observations. See QM wave/particle duality – particles definitely exist, but measuring differently we see a wave nature instead.

  73. #74 Caledonian
    September 14, 2006

    If I’ve understood Larsson properly, and I am by no means certain that I have, I believe we actually agree on this matter. Butler is incorrect.

  74. #75 Scott Hatfield
    September 14, 2006

    TL: Thanks for your reply. I am flattered that you think I might be correct about parsimony in that case, but that does not make me any more or less confident in a multiverse scenario. I prefer it for philosophical reasons, but ultimately what matters is experimental evidence. I just floated it as a point for discussion.

    With that in mind, can you direct me to any recent sources regarding research progammes that might put string theory / multiverse claims to test? I think if I can learn more about the experimental stuff I can get a better handle on it without trying the (probably impossible) task of trying to read treatises on M-theory.

    Thanks for your time and interest…Scott

  75. #76 Scott Hatfield
    September 14, 2006

    Caledonian: I see so many posts like this aimed at trolls or religious ‘fellow travelers’ I thought I’d see if I could distill the wisdom that I’ve received here on that topic. Who better to arbitrate than you? If I’m wrong, you’ll insult me; on the other hand, if you happen to agree with anything I write, you’ll promptly insult anyone who disagrees.

    I feel that’s a win-win scenario for me since you’ll probably bag on me whether you agree with me or not! :)
    But, seriously, I am interested in your and other’s reaction since these things seem so foundational to the flavor of discussion here. So, here goes. As I see it:

    1) Atheism per se is not a belief system.

    2) Atheism per se is not a belief in the non-existence of any particular deity; rather, it is the absence of belief in any such deity.

    3) Atheism per se requires precious little, *if any* faith in the sense that belief systems do.

    4) Atheism *could* be one component of a belief system or personal philosophy, in the sense that it is necessary but not sufficient for that system

    Do you agree/disagree? Is there anything problematic about these formulations? I invite you to sharpen your rhetorical knives at my expense, but I would probably learn more from any comments directed to the propositions themselves.

    Sincerely…Scott

  76. #77 Numad
    September 14, 2006

    “2) Atheism per se is not a belief in the non-existence of any particular deity; rather, it is the absence of belief in any such deity.”

    If I may butt in; the way I understand it, that proposition describes something called ‘weak atheism’. The belief in the non-existence of one or all possible deities would be called ‘strong atheism’.

  77. #78 Pierce R. Butler
    September 14, 2006

    Information as defined in Kolmogorov-Chaitin or Shannon theories are part of physics.

    No doubt, but my (vague) understanding is that these theories are concerned with transmission of information, not its content. Shannon’s work at Bell Labs was concerned with keeping the phone lines working, not whether conversations thereon consisted of high-level philosophy, specific descriptions of observed events, or raving gobbledygook.

    “physics is a zero-sum game.”

    There is no such rule.

    Perhaps you are thinking of conservation laws such as for energy, which conserves some but not all quantities. Intensive entities like temperature or entropy aren’t conserved.

    Yes, that’s what I was alluding to. Considered on a purely physical basis, “temperature” is an abstraction – our way of summarizing the effect of rapidly moving particles. The particles and their kinetic energy have physical existence, which can be transformed but remains a constant.

    As long as it is observable phenomena, it is physical.

    Beauty & ugliness, success & failure, etc, etc, can be observed, but I doubt you’d say they are subjects for a physics lab or subject to the laws of physics. Perhaps “measurable” would be a more appropriate adjective?

    …’abstract’ representations such as thoughts are part of nature. If we couldn’t think of them as such, the idea of dualism (“abstractions aren’t part of the natural world”, Platonic idealism, quantum mysticism) could be raised. But as it is science has no use for it.

    So the idea of dualism, being a thought, is part of nature, yet is excluded from science. You approach self-contradiction here, though the accusation of this itself approaches playing games with words.

    It doesn’t matter (ah, so to speak) if subatomic phenomena are seen as particles or waves: their existence is undeniable & measurable, and sfawk subject to conservation laws. Abstractions are not the same (well, the lower-level ones, such as heat, can be measured – and damn near anything can be denied).

    Consider, say, a document which has deep personal meaning for you, whether it be the UN Declaration of Human Rights or a love letter. (By “deep personal meaning” I’m saying that it produced in you private thoughts you otherwise would not have had.) Those thoughts would not have come about had you seen instead a similar quantity of paper and ink in a different configuration, or if you had not been educated in the language used – that is to say, information was created. At some point you will probably experience death or other forms of memory loss, and that information will be destroyed; conversely, you may write a document of your own, multiplying that information across billions of minds such that it endures beyond the span of humankind. However, the quarks (or your choice of fundamental unit) of that original thought-provoking paper and ink will persist, possibly coextensively with time itself – a physical phenomenon, which neither disappears nor propagates.

    I’m repeating myself, albeit in different words, a strategy which sometimes works in communication but more often becomes irritating to both sides. It frustrates me that we haven’t even been able to clearly define the shape of our disagreement, which perhaps a trained philosopher or epistemologist could identify in a word. I’ll check back on this thread to see if you have further insights on this question, but at this point I’m running out of things that seem worth saying. In any case, thanks for a civil dialog that’s forced me to clarify and extend my thinking.

  78. #79 George
    September 14, 2006

    2) Atheism per se is not a belief in the non-existence of any particular deity; rather, it is the absence of belief in any such deity.

    Scott: For me, atheism does not feel like a void where belief should be, it’s a much more positive feeling.

    Maybe the initial phase I went through was absence of belief (accompanied by feelings of sadness or loss or even idifference), but I eventually arrived at full-blown, happily militant “belief in the non-existence” of a deity. The process is sort of the reverse of what Thomas Carlyle describes with the Everlasting Yea and the Everlasting No:

    From Wikipedia:

    The Everlasting Yea and No
    The Everlasting Yea is Carlyle’s name for the spirit of faith in God in an express attitude of clear, resolute, steady, and uncompromising antagonism to the Everlasting No, and the principle that there is no such thing as faith in God except in such antagonism against the spirit opposed to God.

    The Everlasting No is Carlyle’s name for the spirit of unbelief in God, especially as it manifested itself in his own, or rather Teufelsdröckh’s, warfare against it; the spirit, which, as embodied in the Mephistopheles of Goethe, is for ever denying,–der stets verneint–the reality of the divine in the thoughts, the character, and the life of humanity, and has a malicious pleasure in scoffing at everything high and noble as hollow and void.

    In Sartor Resartus, the narrator moves from the “Everlasting No” to the “Everlasting Yea,” but only through “The Center of Indifference,” which is a position not merely of agnosticism, but also of detatchment. Only after reducing desires and certainty and aiming at a Buddha-like “indifference” can the narrator move toward an affirmation. In some ways, this is similar to the contemporary philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Carlyle

    It’s an interesting distinction to think about. Thanks.

  79. #80 Scott Hatfield
    September 16, 2006

    George, totally cool post. I learned a lot. Thanks! Scott

  80. #81 Torbjörn Larsson
    September 18, 2006

    Scott:
    I’m sorry I missed to answer this thread, if you read this later.

    My answer is anyway not helpful since I don’t think there is much of a research program.

    Tegmark is interested in this ( http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/index.html ) and probing the physics of the early universe, and his Foundational Questions Institute have some projects on this ( http://www.fqxi.org/awardees.html ). And then I have seen papers by Linde ( http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0503/0503195.pdf )and Vilenkin ( http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-th/pdf/0509/0509184.pdf ) who studies their inflation models in multiverse settings. (Without much M-theory.)

    Pierce:
    “No doubt, but my (vague) understanding is that these theories are concerned with transmission of information, not its content.”

    Yes, they are looking at properties of information. It shows that “the “laws” of information” is describable by naturalism. By parsimony there will not be any ‘speciation’ of nature to a dualism unless you can specifically say how some parts “differ significantly”.

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