When I hear other people talk about “laws of nature,” I recognize that their view of science seems to be quite different from mine. It is not that they call them “laws of nature.” Rather, it is what people say about scientific laws that leads me to see a difference. For example many people conclude, on the basis of science, that there is no such thing as free will and that the universe is governed by deterministic laws. I am unable to find any basis for those views. So here, I present my own understanding of science.
I guess Jennifer Hecht started it with “Down with Agnosticism.” John Wilkin disagreed in “Positivism about agnosticism.” And the Larry Moran added his two cents, with “Trying to Understand Agnostics.” This post is mainly a response to Larry, partly because he expresses his view (with which I disagree) with clarity.
Firstly, for the curious and partly based on the title of this post, I’ll say that I am a yawner. Of the more standard terms, I’m inclined to think that “agnostic” is the best fit. But I am not going to be upset with Larry, if he prefers to say that I am atheist. At least Larry expresses that in a more temperate manner than does Jennifer Hecht. That I won’t be upset with Larry, is because I don’t find the distinction between deist, atheist, agnostic to be very interesting. And that’s why I am a yawner.
Mathematicians are generally pretty smart people. So when Granville Sewell originally came out with an argument based on the second law of thermodynamics (see here), I was saddened to see a mathematician come out with an argument that is so foolish, so ignorant, so wrong. Recently Sewell has repeated his arguments in a post at the Uncommon Descent blog.
My first reaction was to scratch my head, and wonder how a mathematician could come up with such appallingly poor reasoning. But then it struck me. Maybe Granville Sewell is a mole.
Physicist Alan Lightman apparently thinks that there is a central doctrine to science.
As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.
First a little context. Lightman is apparently arguing the view that science itself involves some kind of faith. That’s a claim that we often hear coming from theists. However, Lightman is no theist, so it is a bit surprising that he makes this assertion. John Wilkins argues against the view that science involves faith, and it was John’s post that led me to Lightman’s Salon article. John criticizes the view that science involves faith, and rightly so. But he does not directly comment on the question of whether there is a central doctrine. Dan Dennett criticizes Lightman in a follow up Salon article but Dennett does not comment directly on the central doctrine question. I will comment on it here.
I try to follow the Uncommon Descent blog, to get an idea of what is happening in the world of ID proponents. Some of the posts deserve a good laugh. The last few days have been particularly rich in the humor that they have supplied.
1: In Embryo and Einstein – Why They’re Equal, vjtorley argues against abortion. Given that the UD blog often claims that ID is a scientific program, and not a religious program, one wonders why. But then vjtorley attempts to explain that his argument is not religious, with:
The aim of this essay is to demonstrate on purely philosophical (i.e. non-religious) grounds that a human embryo is a person, who matters just as much as you or I do.
I usually prefer to stay away from the religion wars. However, Larry Moran has raised the question in an interesting form. His recent post arises from the public discussion of the debate between John Haught and Jerry Coyne. Larry asks:
Here’s the question. Is it okay for those scientists and philosophers, and their supporters, to fight back (e.g. Jerry Coyne)? Or is it considered “bad form” to attempt to refute the arguments of one of the “good guys”?
In a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Barash asks what is The Hardest Problem in Science? Barash is, of course, talking about what Chalmers has dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness.” Or, in the words of Barash, it is the problem of “how the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth.”
So why is this problem so hard? I think it is not merely hard — it is impossible. It’s not that there is anything mystical or magical involved. Rather, the problem is being framed in a way that makes it unsolvable. In discussing the problem, Barash says:
After all, it’s the brain that does the thinking and experiencing, so how difficult could it be to ask that brain simply to look at itself and report back to my mind?
Well, no, it isn’t the brain that does the thinking and experiencing. It is the person that thinks and experience. For sure, the brain is used in that thinking and experiencing, but it involves the whole person, not just the brain. That probably came across as a petty quibble about the use of words. But I think it is more than that, and I see the difference as important.
The hard problem is usually being looked at as a design problem. We think we know how to design a robot that behaves in ways somewhat similar to humans. So how do we design in the ability for that agent to have subjective experience? From that design perspective, people tend to think of the brain as the component that has to solve the “experience and thought” part. But it is that “intelligent design” way of looking at things that leads us astray. We are not the products of intelligent design. We are the products of evolution. And it is unlikely that there was ever a stage in our evolutionary history where our ancestors had the behavior but not the experience.
If we want to understand human cognition, we need to drop that design perspective, and start thinking about how behavior and experience might have evolved.
Why I am a heretic(2)
In an earlier post, I suggested that part of why the way I look at things is different from that of traditional philosophy, is because philosophers place so much emphasis on logic to the exclusion of other approaches. Today, I want to discuss what I see as the limitations imposed by logic.
I’ll begin by reminding the reader that I am a mathematician. The way that mathematicians use logic is different from the way that it is often used in philosophy. Some people distinguish between the two by using the expression “philosophic logic” to refer to the use of logic within traditional philosophy. The reader should be warned that my view of the limitations of logic is colored by my background as a mathematician.