Friday, September 03, 2010

Dawkins, you’ve done it again

As advertised by PZ, Dawkins does a good job of answering questions put to him by, of all people, the Times religious editors. 

I think PZ picked the right question/answer to highlight and it’s worth repeating here.  The three questions are part of a single question by Ruth Gledhill, apparently inspired by her interview with “David Wilkinson, principal of St John's Durham and astrophysicist”:

Q: One [question raised by Hawking’s statement] would be the the purpose of the universe. Although science might discover the mechanism, we are still left with the question of what is the purpose

A: Why on Earth should anyone assume that there IS a purpose?

Q: Second is where the laws of physics come from. Science subsumes the laws but we are still left with the question of where the laws come from.

A: Even if we are left with that question, it is not going to be answered by a God, who raises more questions than he answers

Q: Third is the intelligibility of the universe. It strikes me as interesting that Stephen Hawking can make it intelligible. Albert Einstein once said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. For many of us who are struck by the intelligibility of the physical laws, the explanation is that the creator is the force of rationality both for the universe and for our minds.

A: What would an unintelligible universe even look like? Why SHOULDN't the universe be intelligible?

These are excellent answers to feeble questions.  The first is eye-rollingly thoughtless.  What degree of hubris is required to assume without question that the universe is here for a reason?  Presumably Gledhill is after an answer that would explain her particular place in creation.  Such arrogance!  This is only a question if you decide to make it into one: the purpose of the universe only requires an explanation if you personally decide that there is purpose and there’s no reason to make that assumption.

The second is familiar god-of-the-gaps reasoning and Dawkins must have sighed when he read it.  It’s not at all clear that science won’t answer where the laws come from.  Indeed, I haven’t read Hawking’s book yet, but I suspect that’s more or less what the book is about: why are the laws of physics the way they are?  Why aren’t they some other way?  Isn’t it all a bit suspicious?  The whole goldilocks business.  This time, there probably is a question to answer, but there’s not the slightest reason to believe that science won’t eventually answer it.  There is every reason to believe that religion won’t, because just saying that god did it doesn’t explain it at all for several reasons.  First, because you still have to explain where god came from and second because there would still be questions of why and – more interestingly to my mind – how.  I’m not sure why everyone is so interested in god’s motives.  I’d prefer to know how he pulled it off rather than why he did it.  If there’s a god, she has to be a geek.  Her motive is going to be something like “because it's cool”.

While the first question is thoughtless and the second ignorant, the third is probably the most proactively stupid.  I was planning to expand on Dawkins’ answer by talking about what comprehensibility might be and the fact that humans have evolved abilities to comprehend the universe even when it seems to defy common sense.  But this just clouds the issue.  Once again, it isn’t a question unless you consider that an incomprehensible universe (whatever that would mean) is vastly more probable than a comprehensible one.  The anthropic principle pretty much de-fangs the question anyway: it seems doubtful that anything that could ask questions like this could evolve in a universe that it could not comprehend.  I think the issue here is that ‘laws of the universe’ are considered in the abstract.  What are we actually talking about here?  The law of gravity?  The laws of conservation? Boyle’s Law?  Special and General Relativity? The laws of motion?  Or chemistry?  Or electromagnetism?  Qantum laws?  Fluid dynamics?

If any of these laws were incomprehensible, could there be anything about that could comprehend them, even in principle?  This isn’t – as many people characterise it – an argument that the universe must have been designed, but rather the opposite: that there’s no need to believe someone might have designed it.

Anyway, my explanations muddy the water, Dawkins’ answers are concise and excellent.  Sadly, Gledhill does not conduct herself so well.  Here are some of her responses to his answers, which seem to show that she is largely incapable of thought.  You can surely plug them into the proper places in the conversation, remembering that it’s a webchat and therefore somewhat out of sequence:

Good point, Richard, don't we need other modes of thought to answer these more existential questions?  Or would you say there is no point in trying to answer the question "why?"

What would ‘other modes of thought’ be?  If you’re going to propose such a thing, I think you have a responsibility to elaborate.  No point in trying to answer “why?” No, I don’t think so, but it’s only a question in the first place if you assume there actually is a reason (a point Gledhill seems to have missed even when it was spelled out so beautifully by Dawkins) and as I argue above, why is a less interesting question than how to anyone who has much imagination.

Richard, one might as well ask, equally, why assume there is no purpose?

One might, if the goal is to ask stupid questions.  You don’t need to assume there’s no purpose to something, it is the claim of purpose that needs defending.  Gledhill seems to think she’s scoring a point here, but all she reveals is how little she understands about both logic and evidence.  She has an exchange with Richard over this issue, which does not go well for her.

Anyway, my intention was not to bash Ruth Gledhill but to congratulate Richard Dawkins on his excellent answers.  Ruth is to be congratulated on keeping the conversation going even though she seems incapable of making a worthwhile point.

9 comments:

  1. It pains me that any credence should be give to the rather silly notion of a god anyway. The latter idea being merely a legacy of the many superstitious myths passed down from primitive peoples.
    On the other hand the "fine tuning" of the universe, particularly when extended down to include aspects of chemistry and technological development is indisputible.
    The evolution of species is certainly not a random process. It is driven by random events which produce mutations.
    Most importantly these mutations are then filtered by the prevailing environment.
    This is the process of natural selection which gives the development of life its direction. Which, in a limited sense, can be equated to "purpose"
    In Palin's example of the watch both atheists and atheists consistently fall into exactly the same trap.
    It is the trap of anthropocentrism whereby any phenomenon that exhibits what can be called "design" or "purpose" must involve a reflection of our own particular mental processes.

    As discussed further in my recent book "Unusual Perspectives" (Ch 10) this is a logical error of the "package deal" variety. Both the watch and the eye can be considered to have design or purpose within this model.

    We consider ourselves to design such things as watches. This arrogance can only be justified in a very limited sense.

    In actuality, watches have evolved! Albeit by a non-genetic mechanism.

    They are products of nature and we merely the vehicles for their evolutionary progress.

    There is absolutely no need to invoke a "designer". Or for that matter a "creator" of what is quite conceivably a continuous automatic process.
    The "fine tuning" of the observed physical constants that critically permit the existence of biology. These have been discussed by many, a particularly exhaustive treatment having been presented by Barrow & Tipler in "The Cosmological Anthropic Principle"

    In chapter 11 of "Unusual Perspectives" this kind of analysis is extended "downstream" to provide, within the context of the unique properties and timely abundancies of the chemical elements, very compelling evidence of further "fine tuning" that not only allows, but essentially makes inevitable, the observed exponential development of technology for which our particular species has been the vehicle.
    (continued in next post)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Several ways to account for this indisputable "fine tuning" have been proposed.

    1. Creationists have seized upon the evidence to support the idea of a deity or "higher intelligence". I suspect that anthropocentrism alone promotes this kind of interpretation. Adding any kind of "higher intelligence", of course, makes for a very extravagant hypothesis. But it is not disprovable.

    2. The existence of a multiplicity of universes, perhaps infinite, each with a different set of physical properties. So one of them had to get lucky, right? This is favoured by many of those theoretical physicists who choose not to just stick their heads in the sand to avoid the implications of interpretation 1. Again, it can be neither proved or disproved but is even more extravagant.

    3. The "anthropic cosmological principle", the non-superstitious version of which seems to boil down to "we're here, because we're here, because we're here...
    By virtue of its tautologous nature it is not disprovable.

    4. The Everett "many worlds" model, inspired by the "Schrodinger's cat" kind of dilemma that arises from quantum mechanics. This essentially can be viewed as continual bifurcations of our universe such that, in the instance of the cat, in one of the resulting universes is is dead and in the other, alive. The bifurcations, of course, result in a multiplicity of "parallel universes. Again, very extravagant but probably not disprovable

    5. A far more economical model, derived from consideration of the gross evolutionary patterns that we observe in biology and, more recently, technology, is presented in "Unusual Perspectives" the electronic edition of which is available for free download from the eponymous website.

    To properly appreciate the reasoning therein, however, it is very important to first discard the anthropocentric mind-set that leads to problems with concepts such as "purpose" and "design". They, like "gods", "intelligence" and "free-will", are merely components of our inherited mental environments that preclude objectivity.
    My present work "The Goldilocks Effect" is a rather more straightforward treatment of this evolutionary model and will be soon ready for publication. Meanwhile, "Unusual Perspectives" is available in its entirety for free download from the eponymous website.

    ReplyDelete
  3. > On the other hand the "fine
    > tuning" of the universe,
    > particularly when extended down to
    > include aspects of chemistry and
    > technological development is
    > indisputible.

    Explain why. Don't point me to your...book... explain why.

    > This is the process of natural
    > selection which gives the
    > development of life its
    > direction.

    What direction is that? How does a process that works on only an extremely local basis have some kind of direction or goal?

    > Which, in a limited sense, can
    > be equated to "purpose"

    What you've done here is invent a direction and then from there invent a purpose. There's no evidence for either.

    > In Palin's example of the watch

    Do you mean Paley?

    > both atheists and atheists
    > consistently fall into exactly
    > the same trap.

    Both...atheists and atheists, eh? Anyone else fall into this atheist trap?

    > It is the trap of
    > anthropocentrism whereby any
    > phenomenon that exhibits what
    > can be called "design" or
    > "purpose" must involve a
    > reflection of our own particular
    > mental processes.

    I don't fall into any such trap.

    But.... then you fall into it yourself and don't stop falling. If you really have a 'model' in which the watch and the eye can be considered to have design or purpose, then are you prepared to say what it is? Don't point me to your 'book' which doesn't seem to say anything at all. Can you summarise it in a few paragraphs?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sorry Peter, your second comment got stuck in my spam filter, which is why it didn't appear on the site right away.

    > Several ways to account for this indisputable "fine tuning" have been
    > proposed.
    >
    > 1. Creationists have seized upon the evidence to support the idea of
    > a deity or "higher intelligence". I suspect that anthropocentrism
    > alone promotes this kind of interpretation. Adding any kind of
    > "higher intelligence", of course, makes for a very extravagant
    > hypothesis. But it is not disprovable.

    Well be slightly careful. The claim that there's some being or other that created the universe and then hid all evidence of its own existence and its handiwork then took a back seat and didn't interfere further can't be disproved. This unprovability isn't a special feature of gods and it's not a matter of being unable to prove a negative (lots of negatives can be proved). It's just that things that can't be observed can't be proved or not proved. You're right that some people invoke this kind of god and jubilantly cry that nobody can prove that such a god *didn't* set up the universe and then vanish up its own arse.... But those are few and far between and are not the creationists we've come to know and hate. Most of those creationists believe in a specific god that does things we can in principle detect, such as efficacy of prayer. Such a god would be disprovable. Refusing to define what your god is and insisting that what it does can't be detected *naturally* makes it non-disprovable, but equally naturally makes it not the kind of god most people believe in.

    ReplyDelete
  5. > 2. The existence of a multiplicity of universes, perhaps infinite,
    > each with a different set of physical properties. So one of them had
    > to get lucky, right? This is favoured by many of those theoretical
    > physicists who choose not to just stick their heads in the sand to
    > avoid the implications of interpretation 1. Again, it can be neither
    > proved or disproved but is even more extravagant.

    Extravagant how? What does extravagance mean in this context and does extravagance make the explanation less likely? Perhaps you mean that taking many universes as an assumption without any evidence is a big leap. I'd agree. We can speculate along those lines, but need to be careful about the conclusions we draw. I'm not a physicist, but I'm given to understand that there are some good reasons to hypothesise multiple universes and in principle some possible ways to test whether they exist or not. Which brings us to whether the idea is provable. It seems reasonable to expect that you probably can't detect other universes directly. However, there might be other types of evidence. For example, perhaps we'll learn that a universe like ours can only form if there are lots of other universes. I don't know. But there's no reason I know of to suspect that the idea of multiple universes is not provable or disprovable in principle.

    ReplyDelete
  6. > 3. The "anthropic cosmological principle", the non-superstitious
    > version of which seems to boil down to "we're here, because we're
    > here, because we're here...
    > By virtue of its tautologous nature it is not disprovable.

    It's not really a tautology. Your mistake is in using the word 'because'. The principle doesn't claim that we're here *because* we're here, it says that since we're here, we know that the kind of universe that can contain us is possible. Since we have a sample size of 1, there's no reason to suspect that this is necessarily improbable.

    > 4. The Everett "many worlds" model, inspired by the "Schrodinger's
    > cat" kind of dilemma that arises from quantum mechanics. This
    > essentially can be viewed as continual bifurcations of our universe
    > such that, in the instance of the cat, in one of the resulting
    > universes is is dead and in the other, alive. The bifurcations, of
    > course, result in a multiplicity of "parallel universes. Again, very
    > extravagant but probably not disprovable

    I'm not sure how you propose that this addresses the question of why there's something rather than nothing. Isn't it just a version of the many universes approach? Your charge of extravagance is surely addressable here. If you take this interpretation (I hate that word in this context) of quantum physics literally, then I think you have to accept that reality (not just a specific universe) *requires* all those universes (if that's what we're going to call them, the word seems inadequate). In that case, I think the charges of extravagance and improbability are tamed.

    > 5. A far more economical model, derived from consideration of the
    > gross evolutionary patterns that we observe in biology and, more
    > recently, technology, is presented in "Unusual Perspectives" the
    > electronic edition of which is available for free download from the
    > eponymous website.

    A website that seems to be chock full of half-arsed ideas, lacks of understanding and pseudo-science. And happens to be owned by you.

    > To properly appreciate the reasoning therein, however, it is very
    > important to first discard the anthropocentric mind-set that leads to
    > problems with concepts such as "purpose" and "design". They, like
    > "gods", "intelligence" and "free-will", are merely components of our
    > inherited mental environments that preclude objectivity.

    Do I *look* like someone who has any truck with concepts like 'purpose' and 'design' when it comes to things like organisms, ecosystems or universes? I don't. Do I seem like the sort of person who believes in free will, when the only way to even begin explaining free will seems to involve some kind of separation between minds and brains that I see no evidence for?

    > My present work "The Goldilocks Effect" is a rather more
    > straightforward treatment of this evolutionary model and will be soon
    > ready for publication. Meanwhile, "Unusual Perspectives" is available
    > in its entirety for free download from the eponymous website.

    Yes, and if anyone can survive the assault by multiple fonts, colours and simple bad web design, they might realise that you've nothing substantial to say.

    ReplyDelete
  7. > 3. The "anthropic cosmological principle", the non-superstitious
    > version of which seems to boil down to "we're here, because we're
    > here, because we're here...
    > By virtue of its tautologous nature it is not disprovable.

    It's not really a tautology. Your mistake is in using the word 'because'. The principle doesn't claim that we're here *because* we're here, it says that since we're here, we know that the kind of universe that can contain us is possible. Since we have a sample size of 1, there's no reason to suspect that this is necessarily improbable.

    > 4. The Everett "many worlds" model, inspired by the "Schrodinger's
    > cat" kind of dilemma that arises from quantum mechanics. This
    > essentially can be viewed as continual bifurcations of our universe
    > such that, in the instance of the cat, in one of the resulting
    > universes is is dead and in the other, alive. The bifurcations, of
    > course, result in a multiplicity of "parallel universes. Again, very
    > extravagant but probably not disprovable

    I'm not sure how you propose that this addresses the question of why there's something rather than nothing. Isn't it just a version of the many universes approach? Your charge of extravagance is surely addressable here. If you take this interpretation (I hate that word in this context) of quantum physics literally, then I think you have to accept that reality (not just a specific universe) *requires* all those universes (if that's what we're going to call them, the word seems inadequate). In that case, I think the charges of extravagance and improbability are tamed.

    ReplyDelete
  8. > 5. A far more economical model, derived from consideration of the
    > gross evolutionary patterns that we observe in biology and, more
    > recently, technology, is presented in "Unusual Perspectives" the
    > electronic edition of which is available for free download from the
    > eponymous website.

    A website that seems to be chock full of half-arsed ideas, lacks of understanding and pseudo-science. And happens to be owned by you.

    > To properly appreciate the reasoning therein, however, it is very
    > important to first discard the anthropocentric mind-set that leads to
    > problems with concepts such as "purpose" and "design". They, like
    > "gods", "intelligence" and "free-will", are merely components of our
    > inherited mental environments that preclude objectivity.

    Do I *look* like someone who has any truck with concepts like 'purpose' and 'design' when it comes to things like organisms, ecosystems or universes? I don't. Do I seem like the sort of person who believes in free will, when the only way to even begin explaining free will seems to involve some kind of separation between minds and brains that I see no evidence for?

    > My present work "The Goldilocks Effect" is a rather more
    > straightforward treatment of this evolutionary model and will be soon
    > ready for publication. Meanwhile, "Unusual Perspectives" is available
    > in its entirety for free download from the eponymous website.

    Yes, and if anyone can survive the assault by multiple fonts, colours and simple bad web design, they might realise that you've nothing substantial to say.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete