Pharyngula

Paulos summarizes Beyond Belief

Cool — John Allen Paulos has a roundup of the events at the Beyond Belief conference this year. It really was a stellar meeting, in part because there was such a variety of talks (almost all in attendance were atheists, but there were some deep disagreements). Paulos had one of the talks I found copacetic rather than irritating…and, by the way, he has a new book out: Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s a slim little thing that comes right to the point—and this is a reminder that I ought to pull it down off the stack and get it read.

Comments

  1. #1 Graham
    January 7, 2008

    ‘copacetic’ ?
    Oh, come on. Its a USA word. Spare a thought for the rest of the world (Im from oz).

  2. #2 Zeno
    January 7, 2008

    I have in past years occasionally assigned Paulos’s Innumeracy as supplemental reading in my math classes. The strongest negative reactions from students came from those who were horrified that Paulos mocked the story of Noah’s flood. This latest book will confirm their worst fears that Paulos is not a Bible-believing Christian. I guess he’s just going to have to go to hell.

  3. #3 dd
    January 7, 2008

    have in past years occasionally assigned Paulos’s Innumeracy as supplemental reading in my math classes. The strongest negative ????
    ???
    ????
    ?????
    ????????
    ????????
    ????reactions from students came from those who were horrified that Paulos mocked the story of Noah’s flood. This latest book will confirm their worst fears that

  4. #4 Brandon P.
    January 7, 2008

    This is one of few moments where I regret disliking math (or at least advanced algebra). I couldn’t read that stuff no matter how interesting it would be.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    January 7, 2008

    I read it last weekend. It’s pretty good: succinct, maybe a little choppy in places.

  6. #6 Fesh
    January 7, 2008

    dd, what are those random links in your comment~

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    January 7, 2008

    Brandon P.:

    It’s not very advanced. He mentions Conway’s Game of Life but not anything really more sophisticated than that.

  8. #8 Curt Cameron
    January 7, 2008

    ‘copacetic’ ?
    Oh, come on.

    It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

  9. #9 OsakaGuy
    January 7, 2008

    Wierd, does DD have a virus that inserts spam links into comments you write? Do such things exist? Maybe it even filters his browser so he can’t see it. Am I paranoid? Yikes!

  10. #10 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    I’ll take a pass on critiquing Paulos’ arguments until I can look at them, but one thing to ask anyone who knows: Does he even deal with the question posed by modal realists, who rightly challenge the idea that “material existence” over and above platonic form existence, can be strictly logically defined (AFAICT, it can’t be, and all we have, ironically for “rational materialism” is our experiential feel of existing, some circular muddled affirmations, etc.) If so, that has some really weird implications.

  11. #11 Becky Potters
    January 7, 2008

    I bought Paulos’ Irreligion book a couple days ago and am loving it. Very smart, concise, interesting and…copacetic. I was glad he linked to the Beyond Belief conference in the ABCnews article, too. good stuff

  12. #12 Reginald Selkirk
    January 7, 2008

    I read Paulos’ book on Dec. 26. It didn’t do much for me. He didn’t present any arguments I haven’t already heard. At least it’s short. A voracious reader like PZ should be able to handle it in a single evening.

  13. #13 Escuerd
    January 7, 2008

    OsakaGuy: “Wierd, does DD have a virus that inserts spam links into comments you write? Do such things exist? Maybe it even filters his browser so he can’t see it. Am I paranoid? Yikes!”

    Nope. Look at the preceding comment by Zeno. It’s just a partial copy with the spam inserted. Dd is the spammer.

    I guess you could write a trojan or virus like that, but I’ven’t seen one that did that yet (probably doesn’t mean much).

  14. #14 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    You guys will get a kick out of the below from ArXiv, better posted here anyway.

    BTW, I can understand explaining phenomena using the laws of nature already given, but where are you going to get the metalaws that explain them? “Just wondering.”

    Also, here’s a query to mull over:
    What if you saw a drop-dead convincing theoretical argument about something that we could likely never prove in principle (like, what would be found if we could go through a wormhole, but anything entering would be destroyed completely – something like this might actually be competently argued.) Would you let the argument convince you, and shrug off the trouble ever proving it? Or would you resist accepting the terrific theoretical argument because of some insistence that it just has to be testable to be “meaningful” etc?

    Here’s the peculiar ArXiv article, from http://arxiv.org/abs/0801.0246:

    Does God So Love the Multiverse?
    Authors: Don N. Page
    (Submitted on 2 Jan 2008)

    Abstract: Monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Christianity affirm that God loves all humans and created them in His image. However, we have learned from Darwin that we were not created separately from other life on earth. Some Christians opposed Darwinian evolution because it undercut certain design arguments for the existence of God. Today there is the growing idea that the fine-tuned constants of physics might be explained by a multiverse with very many different sets of constants of physics. Some Christians oppose the multiverse for similarly undercutting other design arguments for the existence of God. However, undercutting one argument does not disprove its conclusion. Here I argue that multiverse ideas, though not automatically a solution to the problems of physics, deserve serious consideration and are not in conflict with Christian theology as I see it.
    Although this paper as a whole is addressed primarily to Christian cosmologists and others interested in the relation between the multiverse and theism, it should be of interest to a wider audience. Proper subsets of this paper are addressed to other cosmologists, to other Christians, to other scientists, to other theists, and to others interested in the multiverse and theism.

    Comments: 26 pages, LaTeX, to be published in Melville Y. Stewart, ed., Science and Religion in Dialogue (Blackwell Publishing Inc., Oxford), from a series of lectures sponsored by the Templeton Foundation and given at Shandong University in Jinan, China, autumn 2007; see also arXiv:0801.0245 and arXiv:0801.0247
    Subjects: General Physics (physics.gen-ph); High Energy Physics – Theory (hep-th)
    Report number: Alberta-Thy-20-07
    Cite as: arXiv:0801.0246v1 [physics.gen-ph]
    Submission history
    From: Don N. Page [view email]
    [v1] Wed, 2 Jan 2008 20:24:48 GMT (23kb)

  15. #15 Ken Cope
    January 7, 2008

    Would you let the argument convince you, and shrug off the trouble ever proving it? Or would you resist accepting the terrific theoretical argument because of some insistence that it just has to be testable to be “meaningful” etc?

    That strikes me as speculative fiction bereft of the capacity to entertain. It’s one thing to use it to hand wave away any objections to a flat disc on the back of four elephants so you can get on with the ripping yarn; when taken seriously, earnestly proposed to prop up some rationale for whatever fantasy world that you need to be really really for reals, to get you through the night, you end up with something no less pathetic than, say, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

  16. #16 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    Ken, it’s a perfectly good conceptual insight question based on possible implications of general relativity. That’s the sort of question that would appear in any philosophical discussion of radical versus less stringent forms of empiricism, etc. It’s validity or interest stands perfectly aside from whatever “uses” I may try to put it to, which is your diversionary obsession. (One of the first rules of being a legitimate debater is, you aren’t supposed to tangle the issues or questions themselves in ad hominem red herrings about supposed motives or later uses etc. pertaining to the presenter. You didn’t care to live up to those ideals.) I also note that you didn’t even take a shot at coming up with an answer at all – not up to it? Really, all this complaining about the emptiness of religious thinkers and how hard working rational people try to answer questions etc, and you just blew it off. Maybe you could do better, but what a waste your pointlessly empty and dyspeptic response was.

  17. #17 Sven DiMilo
    January 7, 2008

    Great Grateful Dead Lyrics, part 47:
    Got a steady job
    Haulin’ items for the Mob (2x)
    You know the pay was pathetic
    It’s a shame those boys couldn’t be more copacetic.

    -R. Hunter, West LA Fadeaway

  18. #18 flynn
    January 7, 2008

    You’re positing a “drop-dead convincing theoretical argument” that we can pass through a wormhole, but would be destroyed completely? Did you think that one through? I mean, I can pass through a blender, but I can’t shake your hand afterward.

    I also note that you didn’t even take a shot at coming up with an answer at all – not up to it?

    You’re asking for a personal assertion. Hardly an intellectual challenge. You want an answer? I would probably, provisionally, say, “Hard to argue with that.” I’m not a scientist so I always have to wait for someone else to do the work anyway.

    But you’ve wrapped a lot in the question: We could likely never prove it? How likely? Is that just an assertion, or do the dangers that you invent have some evidence? What can we learn about what happens when something goes through your wormhole? Could you give me all the data before I decide?

    I think it’s a silly question until you give an example. I like silly questions at midnight bs sessions but the light of day is shining where I am now.

  19. #19 Lance
    January 7, 2008

    Hypotheses that are not falsifiable are by definition unscientific and fall into the realm of philosophy.

    No matter how logically compelling and supported by inductive reasoning, such concepts can never be called “valid” in the same way that scientific theories can be stated as such.

  20. #20 chaos_engineer
    January 7, 2008

    What if you saw a drop-dead convincing theoretical argument about something that we could likely never prove in principle (like, what would be found if we could go through a wormhole, but anything entering would be destroyed completely – something like this might actually be competently argued.) Would you let the argument convince you, and shrug off the trouble ever proving it?

    OK. Suppose someone came up with a Theory of Gravity, and it was more elegant and accurate than any competing theory, and one of the implications was that wormholes existed and had particular properties. And suppose that implication couldn’t be tested.

    It’s reasonable to tentatively assume that the implication is true. But it’s also reasonable to speculate that the theory is incomplete, and that there might be additional factors that come into play under “wormhole” conditions. (After all, Newton’s Theory of Gravity looked OK when he came up with it…but the equations don’t work under some conditions that were beyond Newton’s abilities to observe and measure.) And it’s also reasonable not to form an opinion at all.

    So it comes down to personal preference, I think.

    I flipped through the article you linked to. It looks like the latest incarnation of the “God of the Gaps” argument.

  21. #21 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    Finally, Lance gives an intelligent, to the point answer. I don’t agree for reasons given below, but first, Flynn:

    You’re positing a “drop-dead convincing theoretical argument” that we can pass through a wormhole, but would be destroyed completely?
    No, what I *said* was, (is that so hard to find?): what if we had a drop-dead argument for “what would be found if we could go through a wormhole” – the argument is about what might be on the other side. I am taking the destruction for granted, the destruction is what makes finding out what’s on the other side untestable. So I am asking if you would refuse to believe a fabulous theoretical argument, based on known physics, about the nature of something you could not find out about. The point is to see if you really want to believe in radical empiricism/logical positivism of the sort that Lance adheres to (and he falsely thinks that his view is a consensus of philosophers of science.)

    Now, Lance may have a good point. I am not going to claim I can prove he’s wrong, just question whether we should believe that. So, let’s assume that non-falsifiable hypotheses are “unscientific” no matter how reasonable. Well, what about “things continue to exist even when not being observed”? What about Hume’s objections to our basic confidence in the continuity of physical law? If that is too extreme, is it wrong to believe that life probably exists on some other planet based on extension from this one? You could say, we might actually find it but it may or may not be found, so why isn’t it “unscientific” to believe in such a thing *meanwhile* before the evidence is in yet? I am unconvinced that the issue of whether we *can* find out should be the critical factor even before any evidence shows up.

    However, you could argue that “science” is by definition based on such falsifiable hypotheses, because you get to construct a program to have desired traits that way. The trouble is, in claiming that such hypotheses are not “valid” – now you are using a concept about intelligibility etc. and have to justify the connection of whatever you mean by “validity” to “falsifiability” – is it really that easy?

    I think the most telling point is, physicists have long indulged in believing in things like “the many worlds hypothesis” when it suited them, so they don’t care very much about their supposed founding principles (much as in real life, politicians don’t really feel bound by the US Constitution.)

  22. #22 Ken Cope
    January 7, 2008

    Your hypothetical one-way wormhole is useful for speculative fiction, but then only in skillful hands. Asserting that it has value in the context of bolstering theism followed by your Margaret Dumont routine reveal that you’re piling a lot of significance on the consequences of your apologetics experiment. Your one-way wormhole ranks alongside that perpetual motion device blueprint I couldn’t quite transcribe while the LSD was wearing off, and the great American novel I dreamed I had written, expanding my wing of the great library of unwritten books curated by Lucien in the Kingdom of Dream. If you’ll just step through this wormhole (get into this grandfather clock, hit yourself over the head with this bottle of champagne, put in three dimes, and set the dial for a thousand), I’ll show you my Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

    CATHERWOOD: Nancy! Nancy! It’s a success! I have proof! I’ve been to Ancient Greece. Look at this grape!

  23. #23 flynn
    January 7, 2008

    No, what I *said* was, (is that so hard to find?): what if we had a drop-dead argument for “what would be found if we could go through a wormhole” – the argument is about what might be on the other side.

    Not hard to find for people who are paying attention. Sorry.

    Could you rephrase the question, though? It seems to fold back on itself. If I were only convinced by evidence, then “drop-dead convincing” would seem to require this, and therefore such a convincing argument would convince me, and an argument without it would only appear fabulous to those who didn’t care about evidence. If I could be convinced by arguments, then of course an argument that convinced me would already have done so.

    I think the question is interesting, but don’t think my belief has any bearing on reality. If the convincing argument is wrong, I’m still wrong.

    Well, what about “things continue to exist even when not being observed”? What about Hume’s objections to our basic confidence in the continuity of physical law? If that is too extreme, is it wrong to believe that life probably exists on some other planet based on extension from this one? You could say, we might actually find it but it may or may not be found, so why isn’t it “unscientific” to believe in such a thing *meanwhile* before the evidence is in yet?

    I love thinking about the first question because it ties my brain in a knot. However, I don’t have an answer to it. I don’t really “believe” anything about this. I behave as if it were true, because in general that works, except in the case of brownies. I also wouldn’t go farther than opinion on the question of life on other planets. I can want it to be true, act as if it were or could be (sending messages for example) but won’t really “believe” until we know. Possibly this is just a problem in the way I’m defining “belief”–after all, if I change my behavior that seems significant. Perhaps my comfort with this level of uncertainty is merely a semantic trick after all! But I always feel belief is a poor word to describe what we get from examining evidence. I wouldn’t know how to tell if a belief is “scientific” or “unscientific” except in the basis for the belief.

  24. #24 John Marley
    January 7, 2008

    @Neil:

    what if we had a drop-dead argument for “what would be found if we could go through a wormhole” – the argument is about what might be on the other side. I am taking the destruction for granted, the destruction is what makes finding out what’s on the other side untestable.

    How could you have a “drop-dead argument” for that. By the constraints of your argument(unable to test), any speculation about what might be on the other end of this wormhole would have to remain pure speculation.

    So, yes. I would not believe the argument. It isn’t about belief. It’s about evidence. If you can’t, even in principle, test your hypothesis, then it may be an interseting idea, but has no necessary basis in reality.

  25. #25 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    Ken, it is incredible that you continue to go off on an utterly irrelevant tangent about what fundamentally is just a question about how strict Lance’s (via Popper) falsifiability claim is. (Note that he didn’t realize that that very claim is not *empirically* falsifiable, nor are the very important foundational axioms that get set theory/math off the ground, which is why positivism isn’t all that well regarded anymore as a strict constraint.) And don’t you know anything about wormholes, the theory of how they might connect “other universes” etc? Uh, silly, I didn’t make that up, physicists did – why don’t you go complain to them? It would have value regardless of what particular question it was applied to, but you continue on your wild goose chase “God only knows why” ;-) referencing all sorts of weird non sequiturs about actresses and whatever – speaking of “LSD, I have to wonder… But I don’t think it’s that bad, you (like a lot of the freeper-like posters here) just can’t stand that someone can articulate reasoned arguments that go against your presumptions. You’re used to beating up on kids (religious “believers” which I’m not) and have gotten soft.

    chaos_engineer – you may be right, but it is not logically assured that a good theory predicting such things would be testable. That challenges strict empiricism/Positivism/Popperism. As for the paper, I’m not trying to endorse the conclusion. My own argument is that very gee-whiz stuff about fundamental reasons why should anything exist and all that stoner stuff (OK, maybe you do need Acid to appreciate such things.)

  26. #26 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    Flynn, your magnanimous honesty about an oversight is refreshing and hard to find, I salute you. The basic point is (this answers to John Marley as well), we have existing physical principles around that can be used to predict what “exists” in various circumstances. I deliberately didn’t say, “find” because that presupposes that the idea we are critiquing, Positivism/Popperism (must be provable/must be falsifiable, subtly different) is correct. Physical theories really do say that certain things happen in various circumstances, they don’t have testability (at least in any *feasible or practically significant way*) literally built in by strict logical necessity because of things like black hole horizons and etc.

    For example, John Marley said:

    How could you have a “drop-dead argument” for that. By the constraints of your argument(unable to test), any speculation about what might be on the other end of this wormhole would have to remain pure speculation.

    The trouble is, theoretical predictions should not be called mere “pure speculation.” Once we have theories for example about curved space-time, there’s nothing to keep them from positing things like one piece of that breaking off and forming a separate bubble – like I said before, don’t blame me, that’s what physicists say! If so, it might be impossible to get there and find out what’s going on. The theories describe specific consequences once you “have” initial conditions, based on other things we really do know. The theories being originally based on real laboratory experiments or similar doesn’t intrinsically force their implications to be similarly accessible. (Likely not the best-put answer, but you can get the feel for it by looking at descriptions about many-worlds, black holes, wormholes, etc.)

  27. #27 Ken Cope
    January 7, 2008

    Calling us freepers, and accusing PZ and commenters of practicing scientism, along with your latest exercise in fatuous solipsism, entitles you to mockery and derision. Don’t act all surprised if you don’t care for such a response or follow the references. Your poser has been done to death in both good SF and bad. View this treatment of the idea, an episode from The Animatrix, and tell me whether they treated the idea properly or not (you may get all goose-pimply when you read the name on a tombstone near the end). As lame and sophomoric as the Matrixverse got, the Animatrix sequences at least had some fun with the ideas, and added some value to the old workhorse that’s such a shiny new idea to you.

  28. #28 Foggg
    January 7, 2008

    if you would refuse to believe a fabulous theoretical argument, based on known physics,

    The little phrase “based on known physics” might falsely give the implication it’s been empirically tested.

    You actually mean “extrapolated from known physics with all sorts of other premises/assumptions thrown in to make it applicable to this exotic situation far outside our experience.” Then to get to your imaginary “drop-dead convincing theoretical argument“, you’re implying all these other prmss’s/assmptn’s are apparently utterly incorrigible.

    What people are saying is that the burden is on you to show us this is possible before we have to worry about whether or not it’s “accepted”-until-tested. On the face of it, it sounds ridiculous to me.

    the most telling point is, physicists have long indulged in believing in things like “the many worlds hypothesis” when it suited them

    What physicist has ever thought they have a “drop-dead convincing theoretical argument” for the MWH?

  29. #29 Lance
    January 7, 2008

    Neil B.,

    You are quite correct about the gray area one enters when lifting the rug to peer under the foundations of the scientific method. One strays into the epistemology of science and not science itself with these fun but often cyclic forays.

    However, one can look at the output of an electron microscope, to test falsifiable theories about microscopic systems, without dismissing the validity of those results due to an imperfect understanding of the electron. In the same way one can attach higher value to conclusions reached based on repeatable and falsifiable observations using the scientific method than ones based solely on reason (or perhaps revealed prophesy).

    For example should one attach the same weight of credence to cleverly stated and argued but unverified constructs as one does to the trajectory of macro-objects in day to day experience?

    While I sometimes encounter people, such as Neil B., that make such equivocations in philosophical discussions I rarely meet individuals that put this idea into daily practice. Neil, would you step out of a building into what appears to be 200 ft of free space if I made a compelling logical argument that you should do so?

    I bet you would look down and maybe toss a penny or two into the apparent void before taking that first big step. This would show your preference for conclusions backed by sensory validation.

    I think some of the confusion in this discussion can be attributed to semantics. The words “belief” and “believe” have been bandied about somewhat carelessly in this discussion. I don’t “believe” in Kepler’s law in the same way that medieval priests “believed” that God guided the planets and stars through their orbits around the earth as stated in the Bible. I have a strong expectation that this law approximates the behavior of planetary bodies that can be verified in repeatable experiments.

    Plenty of ideas and concepts appeared to be logically supported based on unsound premises, such as the geocentric earth model. In fact plenty of hot air, and quill ink, were expended making just such arguments. All were quickly undone by simple observations of the motion of objects in the solar system.

    So go ahead and take that first big unverified but logically consistent step Neil, just don’t expect me to follow you down.

  30. #30 chaos_engineer
    January 7, 2008

    Now, Lance may have a good point. I am not going to claim I can prove he’s wrong, just question whether we should believe that. So, let’s assume that non-falsifiable hypotheses are “unscientific” no matter how reasonable. Well, what about “things continue to exist even when not being observed”?

    But science isn’t about discovering the “Ultimate Reality”. That’s unknowable…we can’t tell if we’re in the real universe, or a dream, or a simulation. Science is about observing patterns in nature, and constructing models to explain those patterns and predict how they’ll continue in the future.

    So we can form the hypothesis, “Things act as if they exist when they aren’t being observed”. This is falsifiable…we can run experiments to find out if a watched pot boils faster than an unwatched pot.

    Now, we can take that observation and spin it off into competing models, “Things exist when they aren’t being watched”, and “Things don’t exist when they’re not being watched, but they act as if they do.”

    It’s quite possible that the second model is the “true” one. (Especially if we’re living in a computer simulation.) But both models are equally useful in terms of calculating how long it takes to boil a pot of water. In fact, it’s fair to say that the first model is more useful, just because it’s simpler.

    I think the most telling point is, physicists have long indulged in believing in things like “the many worlds hypothesis” when it suited them, so they don’t care very much about their supposed founding principles

    The Many Worlds Hypothesis is one of several competing models that are consistent with the available evidence. It’s not clear which of the models is the most useful. I don’t think it’s fair to say that physicists “believe” it, although some of them might “prefer” it to the other models.

    That said, if you find a physicist who insists that the Many Worlds Hypothesis is the only useful model, then I’ll agree that he’s ignoring the founding principles of science and you can tell him I said so. What a jerk!

  31. #31 Owlmirror
    January 7, 2008

    What if you saw a drop-dead convincing theoretical argument about something that we could likely never prove in principle (like, what would be found if we could go through a wormhole, but anything entering would be destroyed completely – something like this might actually be competently argued.) Would you let the argument convince you, and shrug off the trouble ever proving it? Or would you resist accepting the terrific theoretical argument because of some insistence that it just has to be testable to be “meaningful” etc?

    I think that when the theory is sufficiently remote from testability, even in that case, it is useful to examine it and determine if there are any parts of it that can be eliminated to make it simpler, which is to say to follow the principle of parsimony.

    Granted, parsimony is not always correct. Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complicated than Newton’s. Yet it is no more complicated than it needs to be to explain real, testable, physical phenomena. If Einsteinian physics is every replaced by something more complicated, that complexity will have to be something that explains real world phenomena as well.

    At this point in time, we do not know whether the parameters that went into our universe coming into existence can be modified from what they are. Yes, physicists can perform calculations that posit physical constants that differ from ours, and show that a universe that was based on those constants being different would not be viable. But we have no way of knowing if that difference could actually occur, or if the constants are constrained by some higher-order symmetry or rule of which we are currently unaware.

    The reason why the many worlds/multiverse hypothesis is parsimoniously preferable to one where some deistic entity forced the physical constants to be what they currently are for us is that they both posit the same thing about the physical constants — that they can indeed vary from what they are — but the many worlds/multiverse scenario is simpler: the entity that forces the constants to be one particular way is removed. The physical constants vary randomly. Stable universes like ours that evolve life are simply those that are selected for that character out of a pool of less stable universes. No deistic entity required.

    And of course, it also resolves a very real problem: How does an entity complex and intelligent enough to set physical constants of universes itself come into existence? Such a thing would need its own explanation, its own theory!

    At this point in time, we don’t know if the many worlds/multiverse theory is correct. But it is simpler and more parsimonious than the deistic one, and is therefore philosophically preferable.

  32. #32 Neil B.
    January 7, 2008

    OK, some decent replies here (as often the case, and I know and acknowledge that Ken!) and here’s my response. Briefly, there’s still some confusion: stepping out over empty space because one hears a good “logical argument” for why you wouldn’t fall involves literally contradicting expectations from experience, whereas the sort of theoretical arguments I was talking about, concerning the content of connected universes etc. would not. Again, you folks keep saying I have to do this or that, and I am saying this is first of all a stipulated hypothetical, and second, not based on anything I made up myself. (Of course, if the argument about why you wouldn’t fall was so good – by definition, there would likely be something that would keep the expectation from happening. And still, careless mixing together of the base question with expectations of how the speaker may want to use it, not good debate practice.

    As for the multiple universes with different principles idea, I have mentioned that before (why stop at the sort of things we call worlds analogous to our own, once you “unhinge” what can exist, why not any possible being etc. and so that still doesn’t get the metalaws off the ground telling us how the universes vary etc. unless you want totally anarchic modal realism – and then what?)

  33. #33 Owlmirror
    January 8, 2008

    As for the multiple universes with different principles idea, I have mentioned that before (why stop at the sort of things we call worlds analogous to our own, once you “unhinge” what can exist, why not any possible being etc. and so that still doesn’t get the metalaws off the ground telling us how the universes vary etc. unless you want totally anarchic modal realism – and then what?)

    I’m not sure what exactly it is you’re asking, here. If you have made some objection elsewhere, perhaps you could point to it, or copy and paste it, or reword it here.

    Regarding “metalaws” about how universes vary — well, obviously there are limits to what we can speculate on. We can only make suggestions based on what we already have discovered.

    And now I think of it, the same objection could be raised regarding the deistic entity hypothesis: How do you know there isn’t some even more transcendent entity that is the actual creator of universe-creating entities?

    At some point, speculation becomes completely useless and incoherent. Again, parsimony is the best guide to keeping things at least somewhere in the area of meaningful.

  34. #34 windy
    January 8, 2008

    I repeat my reply to Neil in another thread

    If all possible “worlds” exist, then why not all possible “beings”, including maybe some ultimate boundary condition example?

    Whatever, but once you invoke the multiverse as support that such a “boundary condition being” may exist, such a being is then totally unnecessary to explain why our world is “the way it is”.

    (See, you folks want to corral the multiverse into a nice suburb of physics-oriented realms, but how can you keep it so circumscribed?)

    Well, since it’s a theory of physics…

    Neil also seems to be confusing the bubble theory of multiple universes with *possibly* different physical constants, with the quantum many worlds interpretation of parallel versions of this universe.

  35. #35 OsakaGuy
    January 8, 2008

    Escuerd, thanks! I didn’t notice that.

    As for Paulos, I think PZ posted it before, but if you google “beyond belief” you can find videos from the Beyond Belief 2 conference which include the talk by Paulos.

  36. #36 Blake Stacey
    January 8, 2008

    Peter Shor, an expert in theoretical computer science and its interaction with quantum physics, once wrote,

    Interpretations of quantum mechanics, unlike Gods, are not jealous, and thus it is safe to believe in more than one at the same time. So if the many-worlds interpretation makes it easier to think about the research you’re doing in April, and the Copenhagen interpretation makes it easier to think about the research you’re doing in June, the Copenhagen interpretation is not going to smite you for praying to the many-worlds interpretation. At least I hope it won’t, because otherwise I’m in big trouble.

  37. #37 Neil B.
    January 8, 2008

    Owlmirror wrote:


    The reason why the many worlds/multiverse hypothesis is parsimoniously preferable to one where some deistic entity forced the physical constants to be what they currently are for us is that they both posit the same thing about the physical constants — that they can indeed vary from what they are — but the many worlds/multiverse scenario is simpler: the entity that forces the constants to be one particular way is removed.

    Well, first of all, believing in a multiworlds hypothesis, even for a supposedly “good (maybe not “drop-dead” as will see) argument, violates the principle of falsifiability (classic Popperism) put forth by Lance above and seconded by John Marley:


    Hypotheses that are not falsifiable are by definition unscientific and fall into the realm of philosophy.

    No matter how logically compelling and supported by inductive reasoning, such concepts can never be called “valid” in the same way that scientific theories can be stated as such.

    Posted by: Lance | January 7, 2008 2:42 PM

    A hypothesis is “falsifiable” only by actual empirical findings (in some sense) per Popper’s thinking, so no argument alone is good enough by that standard. We apparently can’t find or enter or interact with those postulated other universes, so they are therefore “meaningless” by that standard. It’s no self-consistency problem for me because I don’t accept empirical falsifiability, I think good pure arguments are adequate grounds for warranted belief (not as much, for professing “certainty.”) Maybe you guys can hash out your differences together. (Hey, what’s sauce for the goose …)

    As for whether your argument is that great anyway, well: I was never very impressed with “simplicity” arguments. Simplicity isn’t provable from purely logical considerations as being “more likely” in some inherent sense. It is pitched as being more “reasonable” in principle some how, but really it is a claim about how the world should work, and that is dangerous – why should I consider simpler situations more likely to be true? What about the nature of the universe gives me any reason to believe that? And even if our world tended that way, the idea that multiple universes are somehow more likely than one universe “and God” because of the appeal of some unproven supposed rule of thumb, count me unimpressed. (But you are welcome to tell me *why* simple things are more likely to be true.) Actually, many thinkers say that is just a heuristic rule for the practical purpose of simplifying *investigation*, and not to be confused with a principle “about the world” or worse, beyond that, that could be used to say what I should consider likely to be true. I agree with them.

    Also, for windy:


    Whatever, but once you invoke the multiverse as support that such a “boundary condition being” may exist, such a being is then totally unnecessary to explain why our world is “the way it is”.

    Sure, but I don’t believe in such a self-sufficient multiverse anyway. My point was a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the idea that all possible universes etc, exist (and maybe I didn’t make that clear.) So I’m saying, that if you try to evade a supreme being by “unhinging” the potential to exist, so as to have all sorts of “universes”, you are left not easily able to explain why a more unlimited existential anarchy does not apply, in which maybe “all possible worlds” or entities exist, including something like “God” in every way except not being “needed” to make the other things. Well, maybe “everything” does exist as modal realists say, I just want people to realize what a gross mess it makes and ask if they really want that. My own idea is that there is one fundamental thing that really exists of its own accord, and everything else is existentially dependent – so it really doesn’t matter how many of those other things there all anyway, it’s all a matter of the principles behind “existing” per se.

    > (See, you folks want to corral the multiverse into a
    > nice suburb of physics-oriented realms, but how can you
    > keep it so circumscribed?)


    Well, since it’s a theory of physics…

    Sure, no prob as such, but my point is: the fact that you *want* to play with a theory of physics doesn’t’ mean you have good *grounds* to circumscribe the possible in that way. According to modal realism, once you remove the specific “unwarranted existential selection” you might as well give “reality” to cartoon realities and such. Please, read up on it, and I didn’t invent that and don’t agree with it anyway.


    Neil also seems to be confusing the bubble theory of multiple universes with *possibly* different physical constants, with the quantum many worlds interpretation of parallel versions of this universe.

    No, I am quite aware of the difference. The quantum many worlds have the same laws as ours except though maybe the ones that diverged at the beginning of the universe, check up on that. Note that the quantum MWs are also not directly available as per Popper’s criterion, which I regard as only a useful heuristic and not a circumscription of meaning itself.

    However, agree or not as we may, I give you latest posters high marks for engaging this issue in an intelligent and respectful way. My final take is, we can’t be sure about such issues, it’s ultimately a matter of “taste.”

  38. #38 Pyre
    January 9, 2008

    Neil B., I’m not sure whether the problem is one of differing beliefs / worldviews or one of differing semantics, or something else entirely, but I have some trouble following an argument which claims that physicists “believe in” hypotheses such as Many-Worlds and Multiverse.

    The term “hypothesis” indicates an idea which is proposed but untested, not a dogma, not a belief system, nor yet a theory (in the technical rather than colloquial sense). This connotes a possibility, but neither certainty nor certitude of “truth”.

    Physics models and equations, Newton’s or Einstein’s or anyone else’s, are asked to describe or “fit” observed behaviors of matter, well enough that we can hope to predict behaviors not yet observed — and if such a prediction fails, doesn’t “fit” the later observation, then we look for something better.

    This is a measure of “usefulness” rather than of ultimate “truth”.

    Despite failing at subatomic or near-luminal scales, Newton’s equations are still adequate to describe what happens in car crashes, still useful and actually used for discussing events on such an everyday experiential scale, within our rough precision requirements.

    That doesn’t make them “ultimate truths”, enshrined as a belief system to which physicists must adhere — otherwise relativistic and QM physics would be quashed.

    Likewise, those later models are not presented as “ultimate truths” but as useful, so far. Simplicity, Occam’s Razor, is itself a guideline toward usefulness.

    Everett, Wheeler, and Graham proposed a hypothesis, but (to the best of my knowledge) they have neither demanded nor proclaimed a “belief” in its “truth”.

    Whether it will ever be useful remains to be seen.

    Please alert me to any Interworld Transit developments, as I’d like to relocate to an appealing alternate history branching off around December 2000.

  39. #39 Neil B.
    January 9, 2008

    Pyre, some of them write that they believe in such things, maybe they don’t demand it but that isn’t the point – if it’s really “meaningless” you aren’t even supposed to make the point at all – what then would it be? I don’t remember details of wording, try perusing books about such things and get back to me. Actually a better example is, a claim about what happens to protons colliding at 10^20 eV. Do you really want to consider that a “meaningless” statement, implying semantic emptiness, just because we can’t really do the experiment? And what matters in “verifiability”, being testable “in principle” or being testable in practice, and why?

    PS: What a relief to have you fine folks to talk to here, instead of the food fights in some threads.

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