Pharyngula

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Casey S
    November 1, 2007

    Not having read or seen any of David Sloan Wilson’s comments, one of my biggest complaints about TGD was the scant and unsupported treatment of the evolution of religion. His other books are so excellent at conveying the state of recent research in evolution in a rigorous, but accessible way, that I was surprised to find the section on evolution to be the weakest. I sorta found the book boring because I wasn’t learning any new science. It appears that there was a great deal of anger and cynicism (rightly so) present in professor Dawkins when he wrote the book, which biased his normally cool, objective look at both sides of the issue and his role as an educator. I could understand why somebody who seriously took a look at the positive and negative cultural implications of religion and the potential evolutionary advantages/disadvantages it imparts in their research would be peeved at Richard for trampling all over everything. Perhaps he was trying to reach beyond the audience of science enthusiasts and present a non-nuanced display of religion as the poppycock it surely is.

  2. #2 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.

  3. #3 Sastra
    November 1, 2007

    Calling the universe “God” is about as effective in the long run as calling reason “a faith” or calling humanism “a religion” or calling feelings of awe and wonder “an appreciation of the sacred.” Religious people gladly accept all the new terms and proceed to do what they always do: blur together superficially similar concepts and let the less reasonable one ride on the back of the reasonable one so that they both seem reasonable. If they’re really just different versions of the same thing, it seldom weighs in favor of what was already credible.

    Is prayer a petitionary request to God, or is it an inner meditation which seeks acceptance of what happens? It’s either; it’s or; it’s both at once.

    Does the Power of Positive Thinking lie in optimism, focus, and hard work, or do positive thoughts have a force which can magically change the cosmic structure of the universe? It’s either; it’s or; it’s both at once.

    Is God a disembodied, conscious, personal intelligence who created and helps us like a father, or is it the Ground of Being, Mystery, and the Actuality of the Potential? It’s either; it’s or; it’s both at once.

    Are the stories in the Bible myths and metaphors which express truths about human nature, or did they really mostly happen? It’s either; it’s or; it’s both at once.

    Religious thinking usually involves holding two opposing ideas and believing them both. Stuart Kauffman’s grand plan of redefining God into being something reasonable is not going to make religion more rational and nonbelievers-in-traditional-God-only more acceptable. It will simply be blithely retranslated into woo and the stigma against “atheism” will continue being encouraged.

  4. #4 J Myers
    November 1, 2007

    Perhaps he was trying to reach beyond the audience of science enthusiasts and present a non-nuanced display of religion as the poppycock it surely is.

    You are correct–this is precisely what Dawkins was doing with TGD. It was not meant to present a rigorous scientific treatment of anything; anyone who read it with such an expectation completely misjudged its author’s intent.

  5. #5 Alric
    November 1, 2007

    Beyond Belief was wonderful last year (except for the anethesiologist kook). The best bit for me was the exchange between Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    http://onegoodmove.org/1gm/1gmarchive/2006/11/beyond_belief.html

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    November 1, 2007

    Working in the complex-systems field (I’m in the hotel lobby at ICCS 2007 right now, uploading pictures) one hears the word “reductionist” thrown around a fair amount, almost always as an insult. This bothers the heck out of me, actually, because everybody here is doing reductionist science, in the only sense of the word I can find reasonable. It’s no less reductionist to say “I can predict the behavior of this system because it’s a scale-free network” (or because it’s on the period-doubling route to chaos, or whatever) than it is to say, “I can predict what’s going to happen because it’s made of protons, neutrons and electrons.”

    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 doubt any physicist who has paid attention to statistical physics since at least the 1970s would be in the least shocked by this. Ken Wilson’s formulation of effective field theories was a long time ago, people. Even the Feynman Lectures on Physics talk about laws of physics which do not “reproduce themselves at higher scales”. If you think this is a revolutionary concept, then you must have slept through freshman physics in 1963.

    A proper answer to Kauffman, or at least a better one than Carroll gave (on the spur of the moment, I expect), is that we implement Kauffman’s programme every time we teach how to derive thermodynamics from statistical physics. We do not consider the position and momentum of every atom in a gas to predict its behavior; instead, we look at the emergent phenomena of temperature, pressure and volume. Douglas Hofstadter points out that trying to build a simulation which tracks every particle is actually a step backward, since pressure isn’t a property of any individual atom, but the collective effect of many atoms, bashing themselves into the walls (and it doesn’t even matter which particular atoms those are).

    John Armstrong has suggested that one could interpret this in the framework of category theory. Emergent behavior, like the laws of thermodynamics, would be the decategorification of the micro-scale physics. I don’t know if anybody has tried to formalize this or wring any useful ideas out of it, but it’s interesting to think about.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    November 1, 2007

    Here are the remarks by John Armstrong I mentioned above. Curse this one-link-per-comment limit.

    My first guess at implementing his idea would be to consider the phase space of a classical particle (technically, this would be some manifold with a symplectic geometry, I suppose, but I don’t think that matters right away). Construct a category by taking the points in this space as objects, and use for morphisms the time evolution of one point to another. A morphism exists from A to B if the system can progress from A to B under Hamilton’s equations of motion. 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.

    Or, well, maybe. I’m basically making this up as I go along.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    November 1, 2007

    He [Wilson] 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.

    The God Delusion was not a book intended for other scientists, but for the general public. Dawkins had a point to make: that there is no evidence for, and considerable evidence against, the existence of the kind of god to whom most people pray. He chose, wisely in my opinion, to make this case using the most well-established scientific knowledge available: physics, astronomy, biology. The fact of evolution and the fact of the Big Bang are far better supported than the propositions we have concerning the origins of religion. In that area, we have a paucity of hard data and a profusion of overlapping hypotheses.

    Making one’s case with the most solid science possible is not a crime. Wilson wishes Dawkins had written a different book, but the one which Dawkins chose to write is the one the world needed.

    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.

    Exactly.

    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).

    I wanna hear more! :-)

  9. #9 Sastra
    November 1, 2007

    I think the reductionism issue is really over supernaturalism. Natural viewpoint are distinguished from religious ones by the basic direction in which explanations go: are they cranes, or are they skyhooks?

    Did we start out with morals and meanings and minds? Are they forces which act down on matter and energy? Or did those things evolve, the result of what Michael Shermer called “a stepwise, bottom-up natural self-organized complexity out of simplicity.”

    Sure, there are various ways of explaining or defining “reductionism,” and there are quarrels in science on explanations for the relationship between what goes on at the small level and what goes on at the big level. They argue at conferences and in papers.

    But the only argument against reductionism which really matters is the one that says that there is more to reality than matter in patterns of motion, because Pure Mental Being and the Life-and-Love Force are not physical.

  10. #10 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.

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    November 2, 2007

    windy (#33):

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I’ve been trying to get Blake and the other group selection enthusiasts to comment on this article. Let’s see if I get a bite this time.

    As far as I can tell, the take-home message of that article is that the terminology is hopelessly confused, and as an outsider trying to learn about the subject, I’m tempted to agree. However, it doesn’t address at all the subjects which I personally find most interesting, in particular the effect of spatially extended populations and the breakdown of mean-field assumptions. For the record, I don’t give a damn whether environmental inheritance, group selection or kin selection is philosophically “nice”; I don’t understand why people care which explanation is “warm and fuzzy”. We begin with the observation that human beings and other animals can perform acts of cooperation and self-sacrifice. Explaining that in terms of maximizing the fitness of microscopic components doesn’t change the validity of the original assumption, any more than the discovery of atoms reduces the pain I feel when I slam my foot into a rock.

    Again, I wanna hear what PZ thinks.

    Torbjörn Larsson, OM (#39):

    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.

    Time asymmetry would be a problem, yes. I think you’d have to incorporate some kind of coarse-graining, yielding a weaker definition of “isomorphism”. Maybe we should build a 2-category, in which functors exist to take time-evolution morphisms to other morphisms whose targets are in the same coarse-grained region of phase space?

    It would be neat if category theory provided a formal framework for discussing issues of time asymmetry, ergodicity, emergence and such.

  12. #12 Val
    November 8, 2007

    Dr. Myers, even though I deeply respect you and your work, I completely disagree with you on ‘he (David Sloan Wilson) made a persuasive case for group selection’.

    First, I fail to see how he could do that, when he completely lacks any experimental evidence for group selection. His main strategy is to obfuscate existing data with a lot of verbal gymnastics on top. Truly bright minds have already shown, demonstrated and convinced everyone else (well, almost) that group selection, thought theoretically plausible, is NOT a significant force in evolution. Period. Let the philosophers rumble on.

    Second, being vigorously confrontational is ok if you have a name and a career behind you already, but building up a career just on confronting serious scientists and researchers is what I would call charlatanism. And this DSW guy is just such a person. He thinks he is in the same league as Trivers, Williams and Dawkins. Come on.

    Third, we can doubt the scientific integrity of someone who accepts funding from the Templeton Foundation (suffice to say that it also funded the Discovery Institute?) and next thing we know, surprise surprise, he claims that religion can have an evolutionary explanation. Through group selection, of course.

    Someone should once and for all tell him to shut the f up and do some serious research for a couple of decades before putting his boxing gloves on.

    Cheers
    V

  13. #13 unkle e
    November 27, 2007

    Thank you for your summaries of this event, which I found very interesting – I’m sorry I’m a little late in finding them.

    I’m going to start with a real clanger – I am a theist. But I am not going to try to argue with your atheism per se, I think that would just waste both our time. But I would like to comment on just one comment of yours: “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.”

    If you wish to provide a reasonable alternative to the beliefs you find so objectionable, I suggest this is not the way to do it, for several reasons:

    1. You assume that belief in God is the “very first premise” for many believers, but I wouldn’t have thought it was the first premise of any believer I know. It is certainly not my first premise. A quick read of a few of the books of ex particle physicist John Polkinghorne would I think demonstrate that it is not true for him either. And while it may be true of some or even many believers, you have not offered any evidence for it. You are subtly putting down believers by alluding to their less logical representatives, when fairness would demand that you engage with the more thoughtful ones. If I made similar statements based on my assumptions about unthoughtful atheists, I think you would object, so is it unreasonable for me to request the same courtesy in return?

    2. There is in fact a long history of philosophical, historical and personal argument, based on accepted facts (including some scientific ones) and claimed facts which support belief in a god in many people’s minds. You obviously think the facts point to other conclusions, and you may find the arguments “unscientific”, but there are many thoughtful people who would contest your conclusions, and some of them are eminent scientists. None of which proves anything about the actual (non)existence of god, but it does mean that many people start with something other than God (i.e. the world as they experience it) and use reason to arrive at their conclusions. Please don’t pretend none of that is there, or just ignore it, or misrepresent belief as being totally non-logical.

    3. You say with great authority “that a god exists, is false”, when in reality that is a metaphysical statement that you really cannot justify. Repeating it in an authoritarian manner doesn’t change that. Even Richard Dawkins recognises this and says that in his view God almost certainly does not exist.

    Why do I raise these points? Because I believe some scientists are speaking with all the authority of their scientific study into areas where they can no more speak with certainty than I can. Such a view provokes misunderstanding, and could in the end lead to just as adverse consequences as the excesses of religion atheists often decry. By all means criticise our view, but please base it on a correct understanding of the beliefs of thoughtful theists, and please don’t claim more than you can actually know. It may make good polemics, but it is poor science and poor logic and poor humanity.

    Thank you for allowing me to make these comments. I think discussion of these issues is important, and I appreciate the opportunity to read about “Beyond Belief” and respond in this way. Best wishes.

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