Wish you were here!

I’m having a lovely time here at Beyond Belief 2 — you should all be here (and of course, you will be; as they did last year, everything will be available after the meeting on the web.) It’s an eclectic mix of all kinds of interesting stuff outside of my usual range: yesterday, we had terrific sessions on the history of the Enlightenment, evolutionary economics, evolution of religion, and some speculation and cosmology. It was vastly entertaining, and lest you think this was a bunch of thugly atheists preaching to the choir, let me reassure you that I disagreed with about a third of what I heard.

Case in point: David Sloan Wilson. The first part of his talk I found to be a wonderful discussion of the importance of multiple levels of selection, and I think he made a persuasive case for group selection (but then, I’m already partial to the idea anyway). Then at the end he made his arguments for the scientific evaluation of religion, and I loved it, but not because I agreed with him — but because he was so vigorously confrontational, strongly chewing out both Dennett and Harris (who were right there in the audience), and taking a few swings at Dawkins (who is not here, so Wilson abstained from going on at length). That’s what I like to see at these meetings, an unapologetic airing of grievances that will prompt uncompromising responses. Fabulous! It was like getting a ringside seat at a prize fight!

Still, I think Wilson was wrong. His gripe with Dawkins was explained on eSkeptic, and Dawkins has replied for himself, but Wilson was unsatisfied. He put up a list of interesting questions about religion, with the first being whether god exists, and complained that Dawkins has unapologetically stated that his book was only about the first question…and Wilson then states that Dawkins was practicing bad science. These guys who get so close to religion…it’s like he’s going to unconsciously overlook the fact that the majority of people on the planet are practicing really bad science, because they don’t recognize that their very first premise, that a god exists, is false. To complain that Dawkins only spends a few paragraphs on group selection, which is not a subject that he favors anyway and which was not the subject of his book, while blithely overlooking the fact that his book does address the biggest question of all in his list with an answer that the public to a large degree rejects, is missing the forest for the trees.

Oh, and Dennett sat in a panel with Wilson right after. They mixed it up a little bit (more would have been better), but you’ll have to wait for the videos to watch it.

Another flawed highlight of the afternoon was Stuart Kauffman, who gave us a preview of his upcoming book on recovering the sacred. I’ve been a big fan of Kauffman’s work for years — he always has big and radical ideas about the origins of life. In this case, he was making an argument against reductionism: that we have this idea that in principle, that all of biology and all of the mind can be reduced to physics. He argues that while it is true that nothing in biology is going to violate the laws of physics, the range of possible configurations of a single protein is so vast, far greater than the number of particles in the universe, that it is effectively incalcuable. It’s an argument that emergence is a real phenomenon that shouldn’t be discounted, but also that it is an entirely natural process, an expected consequence of the way the universe works. I liked it, and I’m ordering his book, but then he got a little soft at the end. He wants to “reinvent the sacred as the creativity in the natural universe”, and in the interest of finding common ground with diverse communities, he proposes that we call this Spinozoid concept “God”.

I really don’t think anyone will be fooled. As Dennett mentioned earlier in the day, the religious have a mistrust of the hypocrisy of scientists who claim to be respectful of religious belief yet do not share it themselves, and I think this would be a prime example.

Oh, and before I scurry back to the meetings, I’ll mention that the physicist, Sean Carroll, is here. He gave an excellent talk on cosmology and suggested that it’s entirely possible that the universe is eternal — there was a Big Bang, of course, but that that might have been an event in an eternal universe, which has some interesting implications for those who are fond of using the Big Bang in their theological speculations.

Sean briefly addressed Kauffman’s anti-reductionist proposal, in a way that I find incredibly unsatisfying. These mathematicians and physicists, some days you have to wonder about them. His reply was to propose that if you knew the vector of every single particle in a glass of water, you’d have complete knowledge of what was there; and that if you had an infinitely fast computer and complete knowledge of the initial state of everything programmed into it, you could compute every subsequent state. That doesn’t actually address Kauffman’s more pragmatic statement that the mathematical possibilities are so immense that a real computer or brain cannot compute them.

It seemed a little ironic that Kauffman was proposing that the complex results of natural processes ought to be called “god”, while Sean was rebutting that by postulating a computer with such immense and supernatural powers that it ought to be called “god”…but of course, he wasn’t going to call it that.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    November 1, 2007

    Glad to hear that there is an afterlife to Beyond Belief.

    the physicist, Sean Carroll, is here. He gave an excellent talk on cosmology and suggested that it’s entirely possible that the universe is eternal

    Yes, well, Sean Carroll is for my money a clear-headed thinker and atheist to boot. About the only thing he discusses which I personally have a hard time to see as entirely agreeable is his and Jennie Chen’s time-symmetric version of cosmology.

    Sure, that the universe looks low entropic when looking back can be due to a simple symmetry breaking, we happen to be here instead of in a part of the multiverse where the arrow of time goes backward. But then again, we can see symmetry breaking without having the other possibilities realized.

    It is therefore with some joy I note that he has started to discuss more regular eternal inflation scenarios, a cosmology that makes my head hurt much less. :-P

    That doesn’t actually address Kauffman’s more pragmatic statement that the mathematical possibilities are so immense that a real computer or brain cannot compute them.

    There are two cultures that clash here, on several levels.

    One level is that Kauffman and others, often solid state physicists, are promoting emergency as a unique phenomena and sometimes as a possible path towards a deeper quantum theory.

    AFAIU theoretical physicists in general thinks this is misguided. I don’t think they say that for example biology can be understood effectively on a physical level, but that emergence is observed on systems that still interacts according to simple physics. As Carroll says, the system states still have a physical model.

    The other level is that physicists and for example computer scientists may use idealized machines or gedanken experiments to broaden knowledge. Carroll’s Deep Thought doesn’t look as much as a religious agent to me as an oracle that can decide non-computable functions.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    November 1, 2007

    This morphism would be an isomorphism if the system can progress from B back to A. In a simple system like a pendulum — with nice, closed phase-space trajectories — all the points along a trajectory would then fall into an isomorphism class. Decategorify, and bam! You’ve got yourself the macrostates of the microcanonical ensemble.

    Interesting. I would at a hasty guess think that you capture macrostates in ergodic systems that way. But I don’t see how dissipative, fundamentally time-asymmetric processes and possibly chaos would not deviate from such isomorphism behavior.

    Re comment #24:

    this would tell us all there is to know about the universe.

    IIRC Bell test experiments have verified that there are no local hidden variables to ~ 15 sigma. And I believe I read a press release on a new experiment that lie more in the line of the original EPR suggestion, presumably with fewer potential loopholes, that pushed it to ridiculous 23 sigma or so. It must be one of the best verified “no-go” result or result of any kind we have.

    For my money, there is definitely no more “more” there. But again, identifiable variables is the principle, and knowing the actual states is the practice. Let’s see if we can decide whether particles are particles or strings first.