I object!

By Phil Plait | October 1, 2009 8:00 am

I was recently involved in a discussion of post-modernism and relativism that started when a commenter on my blog tried to support how astrology can be true and then continued when I posted on Twitter about it. I wrote:

The human condition is relative from human to human and culture to culture. But there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.

I thought my meaning was clear. What might be moral in one culture may not be in another, and in many cases that’s OK. Cultures are different. But in the objective reality of the Universe, such relativism may fall apart. Physical laws have an objective reality; we may interpret them, but they continue to do what they do whether our interpretation is correct or not.

This led to a discussion of the meaning of things, and that I think is the important issue.

A follower on Twitter said:

Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.

I think this is completely wrong. It’s objective whether we can describe it or not. Gravity exists. Since the Earth has been orbiting the Sun for 4.55 billion years — a good 4.549 billion years before humans were around — we can be pretty sure gravity is objective.

But it’s the last word he used that got me really scratching my head. "Meaning?" Of gravity? Why should gravity have a meaning? It’s a law of nature, not a piece of art.

You can look for meaning in the Mona Lisa, or a sonnet, or in a child’s smile. You can argue over the meaning with someone else, and you can both disagree and yet both be right. When something is created with artistic intent — or just simply created by the human with or without that intent — it’s open to interpretation.

But the Universe itself as a physical object isn’t like that. You can look for meaning if you’d like, but the Universe is a semi-random collection of energy and matter, and based on all the evidence I have seen was not created with intent. A nebula is beautiful in form and color, but is simply a collection of particles, photons, fields, and motions. It has no meaning outside of your personal interpretation of it. But whether you think it has emotions and is alive or not, it will still do what it does: make stars. Nebulae have been doing this for billions of years before us, and will continue to do so long after we are gone.

You might even ascribe purpose to a nebula: its job is to create stars. But that’s what’s called the Pathetic Fallacy: ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects. The nebula doesn’t want to do anything. It just does things according to the laws of physics.

You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us "Behave this way or that." There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance.

That is the difference between us and a nebula. We can choose. And that’s why a post-modernist relativism can work when describing Mozart, but will fail when applied to a black hole. The event horizon of a black hole cares not what we think of it.

Incidentally, saying that the Universe is meaningless doesn’t imply there’s no reason to live. What I am saying is that there is no direction to the Universe, no intent, no internal morals or purpose or meaning. But we still exist. People look for meaning in everything, even when it isn’t there, and it can lead them astray. Don’t ask what a halo around the Sun means, using it as a sign or an omen or a symbol. Look at it, enjoy it, gasp at its beauty and the wonder that such a thing exists. Know that the Universe obeys a set of laws, and that those laws are knowable without meaning.

And finally, don’t ask what I think the meaning or purpose of life is. I think it has neither, but that makes it no less magnificent or joyous to me. I know what I want my life to be like, and I have enough real questions to keep me busy for a thousand lifetimes. I don’t feel the need to look for ones that aren’t there.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science

Comments (130)

  1. Hypatia

    Well, if a person really wants to give a “meaning” to everything he/she experience it’s OK by me, but when that person (or a group) coax you and force you to aknowledge that “meaning” and even obligate the ones around to avoid studying actual science to give up blindly to that “meaning” that’s when things goes wrong.
    The difference with science is that every thing must be supported by evidence that , no matter your personal oppinion or what do you believe, that evidence is the same for everybody, everywhere.

  2. Paul Claessen

    “… there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.”

    There are some high profile quantum physicists who would probably dispute that!

    (Observation influences the outcome of experiments)

  3. I am not a philosopher, but I’ve entertained a hunch before that the need people have to ascribe meaning to the universe is based, in a way, on our relationships with one another. I think it is possible that certain subsets of our social behaviours were repurposed during our evolution to evaluate not just one another, but also the world around us. Harnessing the powerful social-analytical engine for double duty seems an efficient way for a complex social animal to enhance its sensitivity to its environment.

    The drawback, of course, is animism. Understanding the world in human terms may bring amazing cognitive devices to bear on a new set of problems, but also colour our interpretations of the world with a thick layer of anthropomorphic goop.

    I think the drive to insert or overlay meaningful interpretations upon nature is a side-effect which leads to intuitions which, persuasive as they may be to a ‘from the gut’ individual, in general are at odds with scientific understandings. There is no connection between the eclipse and the quality of the harvest, in fact, and the river is not possessed by a guardian spirit or water elemental or glacial ghost.

    In short, I believe we may “over-humanize” the world because so much of our big, bloated brains is devoted to analyzing and relating to other humans. We have a built-in human-filtered bias. So in the same way gossipers endlessly machinate over the motivations of their friends (or imaginary friends in television dramas), those out of touch with science machinate over the motivations of natural phenomena.

    It’s…cute, I guess. My kids went through that stage, too — thinking everything is alive and somehow (even if secretly) animate.

    But they grew out of it.

    Yours,
    Cheeseburger Brown

  4. Nemo

    Gah, philosophy! Shun it!

    As for gravity, I don’t get his point. We can describe it perfectly well. We can quantify it, even. We may not fully understand it yet, but yes, we can be objective about it.

  5. Sully Fick

    You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance.

    In the sense of laws of nature, humans are “nothing more than machines and have no free will”. Using gravity as an example, humans must follow that law, and no amount of free will will exempt us from following that natural law.

    As for “choices” this is a nebulous word in regards to science. Does a plant choose to grow towards the sun, or is this a result of the plant following natural laws. My guess is the latter. Humans certainly seem more complex than plants, but this might be an illusion or due to anthropocentric bias. Just as plants can be shown to be following natural laws, humans can be shown to do the same. What some might call “choice” can be reduced to interactions with the environment – the “feedback loop” of nature.

    I certainly agree with your post, but wanted to dig a little deeper into the words being used.

    BTW, great blog, Mr. Plait!

  6. mus

    Whether or not reality (any reality, whether just the universe or some supernatural/metaphysical reality out there) is deterministic or not is irrelevant to whether free will exists or not. The bottom line is that for every cause involved in every action, there can only be two options. One is that the cause was the latest of an unbroken chain of causes, and the other is that it is either uncaused itself or that it is the latest of a chain of causes which was uncaused.

    If something is uncaused, then it MUST be random. If it is random, nobody and nothing can affect it in any way shape or form, otherwise it wouldn’t be random.

    Since we’re talking about causes for human behavior as well as any kind of action/effect in general, that means that there’s no such thing as “free” will.

    (Sorry if I was a bit unclear, I was rushing to comment because I have to go soon)

  7. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    A twit on Twitter:

    Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.

     

    WILE E. COYOTE'S GRAVITY LESSONS_(Large 640 x 480)

  8. Gamercow

    The
    “Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.”
    argument is made to me often when I am debating with theists, who claim that my faith in physical and chemical laws are the same as their faith in a higher being. That argument and the “You can’t show me an electron any more than I can show you god, but we both know they exist” argument. I have fun shooting both down.

    unrelated:

    There are moments when one feels free from one’s own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only Being. – Albert Einstein

  9. Sir Eccles

    I got into an awful pickle with my wife the other day discussing religion and science (note to self, don’t do that again). I can’t remember the specifics of the argument (damn wine bar) but it was along the usual difference between belief and proof, scientists don’t believe in science they prove it. This somehow ended up with us discussing whether something like love could be proved, I certainly love her but I am a scientist in my thinking. I think I tried to weasel out with certain feelings evoke hormonal responses which are pleasurable etc which is the closest that science is to understanding such things. But she was wondering why loving someone was not much different to a belief in God (I may be paraphrasing).

  10. I feel about philosophy like R.P. Feynman did…. leave it for the philosophers!

  11. NiroZ

    Dear god, people are still advocating pomo for science? I’m not sure if they should be in a psych ward or a museum or a zoo.

    “If something is uncaused, then it MUST be random. If it is random, nobody and nothing can affect it in any way shape or form, otherwise it wouldn’t be random.” So maths is completely random. When you add 1+1, the answer you get is the same that you would get form looking into an 8 ball?

  12. Lars

    One nitpick about the nebula comparison. We are born, then we die. We do not choose this either. (Although we may decide what to do between these two events (provided that free will does exist), but that is beside my point.)

  13. Chris

    Gravity is always plotting against me; making me trip, or fall on my butt or making me drop my keys in a puddle. Curse you gravity! or maybe I’m a klutz.

  14. Pathfinder's Airbag

    Possibly (and I’m neither a scientist nor a semiologist nor a philosopher, but a Mere Publisher), what was being danced around with the “understanding” and “meaning” words goes more to the limits of our ability, at any one point in our cultural and intellectual development, to accurately describe within the limitations of language the phenomena we can observe with increasing clarity. And our descriptions of phenomena are not fixed; our understanding changes as our ability to observe expands.

    So if (for the sake of this post) we are in a closed box that contains all the universe we know, and that box (I love being able to do these things) is expanding at a rate equivalent to our cognitive development, then our understanding of any observed phenomenon inside the box at any time is per se subject to change as the box expands, more observable phenomena are added to the mix, and the small piece we can observe is made increasingly relevant to our context. (Hence we can’t know the “meaning” of gravity because our ability to observe, translate observation into language, and understand what we’re seeing and describing are all relative and necessarily limited.)

    Someday we may find, for wacky instance, that gravity is a function of the interaction of spatial and geologic forces that we never knew interacted, much like the flat earth or earth-centric solar system or biblical creation were accepted by the brightest minds of their time as inarguably true, despite being demonstrably false once the skills to observe and describe caught up with us.

  15. Roadtripper

    @#2 Paul Claessen: “(Observation influences the outcome of experiments)”

    This is also one of those scientific truths, verified by repeatable experiments. Given that those experiments, if performed properly, will yield this same results for anyone and everyone, it can also be considered ‘objective.’

    Rt

  16. John Baxter

    One meaning of gravity is that I should not walk off that cliff over there.

    But that’s not the “meaning” asked for, of course.

  17. Nija

    @2 – If I recall correctly observation doesn’t change the outcome of the experiment, observation (at the quantum level) IS the outcome of the experiment; Anything following is, essentially, a new experiment. :)

  18. theMark

    Well, maybe someone versed in quantum something is around here to set me straight if I’m totally wrong, but … AFAIK the whole “Observation influences the outcome” means that the way an experiment is set up (the “observation”) does determine what one can measure (the “outcome”). It’s not “Quantum goes away if nobody’s looking”.
    It’s more of “if I set up this experiment to show the wave nature of light, I get interference patterns” and “if I set up this experiment to count unique photons, I get a number of photons on my detector”.
    Or am I wrong about that?

  19. Erik

    “…A nebula is beautiful in form and color…”

    One thing that I feel is probably lost on those that would try to ascribe meaning to a nebula is that in most cases the pictures we have of nebulae feature artificial coloring, since much of the light emitted from them is not in the visual spectrum.

  20. I think this is completely wrong. It’s objective whether we can describe it or not. Gravity exists. Since the Earth has been orbiting the Sun for 4.55 billion years — a good 4.549 billion years before humans were around — we can be pretty sure gravity is objective.
    _______________

    Does gravity exist?

    To exist, something must be real – either verifiable or having a physical existence. “Gravity” is simply the term we use for the thing that holds us to the ground and keeps our planet in orbit and causes galaxies to form and also causes them to expand away from each other.

    We don’t yet actually know what that thing is. We have some ideas – it could be a force, could be a particle, could be a curvature in spacetime, could be a vibration of a superstring, could be all of the above. These conceptions are based on measurements by instruments calibrated for human eyes in three-dimensional space and our own conception of time in a base-ten number system.

    So in that sense, I think it’s fair to say that our understanding of gravity is somewhat subjective. Yes, the fact that it does what it does is objective, but aren’t our observations to an extent subjective based on the fact that we are limited in our ability to observe?

    As for the “meaning” of gravity, that’s just silly. It makes no more sense than the “color of hubris.”

    Which is pink. Bright pink.

  21. People who try to assign meaning to things like “gravity” or even the universe are just uncomfortable with all the great demtions we have suffered over the ages.

    I say the meaning of the universe is to make every being that ever came into existence DIE. That’s it. You are only born so that the universe can make you die. If you die in an amusing manner, all the better, we put you on the list for a Darwin Award. 8)

    One of my new favorite “meaning” type of questions is:
    Q. How much time is in yellow?
    A. Hydrogen.

  22. Paul Clapham

    It’s pretty clear what the meaning of life is. Evolution shows us that. The meaning of life is to produce more life which is better adapted to its surroundings than the old life was.

    At least that’s true for some meaning of the word “meaning”.

  23. AIPS_wrangler

    Phil, you have my sympathy. I have had several discussions with people wanting to apply post-modern thought to science. Post-modernism fails when interpreting science because there seems to be an underlying assumption that no interpretation is better than any other. The key to debating science with a post-modernist is to really attack that assumption, if and when they making it.

  24. MarkW

    It could be argued that religion is an application of the Pathetic Fallacy to the Universe as a whole. 8)

    Meaning is a product of intelligence; these words have no meaning inherent in themselves outside the brains of people reading them (and maybe I flatter myself that they have meaning even there). The Universe has no meaning beyond what we choose to give it.

  25. T_U_T

    pathetic Fallacy: ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects

    true only iff purpose is defined as a purely human characteristic. If one thinks purpose is merely a short for the most relevant effect then it is not a human characteristic anymore, and can be applied to anything.

  26. “…You might even ascribe purpose to a nebula: its job is to create stars. But that’s what’s called the Pathetic Fallacy: ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects. The nebula doesn’t want to do anything. It just does things according to the laws of physics….”

    Since human beings are products of the evolution of energy and matter following natural laws, the behavior of nebulae and humans fall in the same category. So humans don’t really “want” to do anything, either.

  27. Cheyenne

    As usual Ivan3Man brings the laughs.

    That’s a deeply tripy philosophical post though BA. Heady. It looks like you posted it 8:00 am. Probably should have been put up at 4:20….

    It’s amazing to think that the earth has been revolving for 4.5 billion years. I mean, that is incredibly stable (thank goodness). I wonder how many times life might have arose on other planets to then be snuffed out with an unstable rotation around its star.

  28. themos

    “We can choose. ”

    That’s your article of faith, right there. I say we can’t. We do, however, make up stories about having made choices.

  29. *applause* Bravo! Encore, encore!

  30. I tend toward the opinion that most people who go about searching for “meaning” in anything and everything tend to distance themselves from their own actions, and the consequences (“meaning”) thereof.

    It’s basically a way of trying to get off the hook. By pointing fingers at higher powers, they can excuse themselves out of any pickle they happen to find themselves in. “I’m not responsible for that…Goddtit.” “I don’t have any control over my ______. It’s in my stars.”

    And people who go on and on trying to define reality or Truth, solely through logic, semantics, or their own philosophical ramblings, are confusing mental masturbation with profundity.

  31. Um… we can describe gravity pretty well, both mathematically and by observation.

  32. Nomen Publicus

    I’ve never understood what “post modernism” means, and from the various explanations offered I don’t think that the proponents have any idea either.

    I have read “post modernist” critiques of mathematics and can definitely say the authors obviously have access to some very high quality drugs…

  33. Ken

    As far as I know, we have not yet achieved a glimmer of a clue about the nature of human consciousness. Somehow the arrangement of neurons and electrical charge in this lump of stuff we call a “brain” is translating into thought, dreams, and South Park. I assume we’ll someday figure it out, but I’m not aware of any reasonable theories at the moment.

    Now, at galactic scale you have large and small scale structure, electrical and magnetic fields whizzing this way and that, and other things that we are beginning to understand … in a way not much different than we understand how our brains physically work.

    Can we categorically say NG4522 isn’t conscious at some level? Maybe it *does* have deliberate purpose!

    No I don’t think it terribly likely either. It is fun to think about though …

  34. TheBlackCat

    @ Sir Eccles: The issue with love, or your own love at least, is that it is an emotion. By definition it is a subjective, internal thing. The evidence that it exists is the feeling itself. Since it is something that exists solely inside of you, all the evidence you need for it is also inside of you. God, in the sense that he/she/it/they is commonly defined by people, is something that exists outside of you. It is an entity independent of and separate from you. Therefore, it needs evidence independent of and outside of you as well. You can’t use something unique and subjective to you to prove the existence of something outside of your own mind.

    In short, just because you have emotions towards something does not mean that thing actually exists. Schizophrenics, for instance, can have emotions towards people that don’t actually exist. I am not saying that people who believe in God are hallucinating, I am merely saying that an emotion cannot be used as evidence for the existence of anything in the outside world.

  35. Mike

    LOL
    “We can’t possibly know [gravity's] meaning!”
    hahaha.. hahahahaha
    Oh boy, that made my morning. Thanks Phil =D

  36. BMurray

    The position that there is something special about human intent, something that imbues things with a feature (meaning) that cannot be created or manipulated by any other natural forces is bizarre.

    I think that imbuing the concept of “meaning” with supernatural aspects is a mistake. Maybe what is intended is that nothing has meaning? Or perhaps that meaning lies solely in conscious interpretation, in which case it would certainly be the case that anything can have meaning in the right context (and no reason to exclude gravity here)?

    Personally I think that meaning resides solely in the conscious interpretation of our sensation of the natural. We have manufactured some pretty clever ways to communicate this meaning from one head to another (though still imperfectly) but that does not fabricate meaning itself. It’s not intrinsic to anything. But it’s not absent just because we’re not a party to it. Spoken English is not intrinsically random noise just because there are people that can’t speak it.

  37. Nija

    @16 – Pretty much correct. If you are doing the double slit experiment and not caring what slit if goes through, then you get an interference patter, but when you want to see which slit it went through, you no longer get an interference patter. Not because any behaviors have changed, but because the experiment itself is now different. Making an observation changes how the quantum mechanics progresses.
    A top of the head analogy is if you throw a bowling ball and watch the pins get knocked over, then introduce something to measure the force required to stop the ball, the ball now behaves differently.

  38. Luis Dias

    This is why a scientist shouldn’t enter a philosopher’s den. Ever.

    Also why philosophy is *almost* obsolete.

    “… there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.”

    This is so wrong I couldn’t even know how to start against it!

  39. T_U_T

    This is so wrong I couldn’t even know how to start against it!

    Begin at the beginning, I guess. :)

  40. Yup. Right to the heart of it! This anthropomorphic search for meaning is a pet peeve of mine too.
    Good post, Phil!

    #35 Luis:
    Try us. Show us how it’s wrong and we’ll listen.
    We may well not agree, but we’ll give you the opportunity to state your views.

  41. RMlind

    I disagree with the inference in the follower’s comment “Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective.” We can describe it, and very well indeed: it appears that Newton’s and Einstein’s equations say all there is to be said. If quantum gravity ever succeeds in integrating gravity with the Standard Model, well and good; we’ll describe it still better.

    Ernie Anderson, one of the developers of radiocarbon dating, observed that belief does not affect the result of a measurement; it merely makes it possible to obtain that result.

  42. T_U_T
    “… there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.”

    This is so wrong I couldn’t even know how to start against it!

    Whether a statement is true ( whether it corresponds to the reality ), is not really dependent on us. if two squirrels met another two squirrels there were four squirrels, even before there was someone around who could count them.

  43. Brett from Canada

    “So in that sense, I think it’s fair to say that our understanding of gravity is somewhat subjective. Yes, the fact that it does what it does is objective, but aren’t our observations to an extent subjective based on the fact that we are limited in our ability to observe?”

    Umm. No.

    Gravity exists. It’s effect is absolute and measurable. It doesn’t matter who does the measuring, or where they do it, or under what conditions, the effect of gravity is present and indisputable and, as it happens, follows well-defined equations which describe it’s behaviour.

    Your mistake is in believing that something is objective iff we can explain it. And that’s patently absurd. After all, there was a time when we couldn’t explain how the sun could emit heat and light. But that fact that it did so (and, thankfully, continues to do so) was, and is, nevertheless an objective truth. Similarly, while we may not be able to provide an explanation for why the presence of the earth creates a gravitational force which draws us toward it, it is nevertheless objectively true it does so.

  44. Skeptic Tim

    “… there are scientific truths outside and independent of us.”
    This statement requires, of course, the acceptance of the fundamental “external reality hypothesis” that Max Tegmark refers to before offering his “mathematical universe” hypothesis. It remains a hypothesis; albeit, a necessary hypothesis to avoid the barrenness of solipsism; from which we then argue that this external reality obeys some set of physical laws defined by the definer(s).

  45. Roen

    I promised myself I wouldn’t post anymore links on this blog, but this one upsets me. Phil… bust this please.

    Fish and Frogs raining from the sky is the realm of Charles Fort, not science
    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,558545,00.html

  46. themos

    No statement loses anything by prepending “it seems to me that” to it.

    So what is the purpose of the term “objective” in this context that we are discussing?

    It seems to me that its purpose is to say “you should not think otherwise” and nothing else.

    I do not need that meaning of the word “objective”. Who does and why?

  47. PhilB

    This is why Alan Sokal is next on my reading list.

  48. Cheyenne

    Since we’re going with the “deep meaning” stuff and gravity is included I hope Mr. Plasma Universe guy turns up in these comments at some point.

    And hopefully the San Francisco Astrologer as well (I can only hope!).

  49. gal

    i tried to email you but i guess you cant really reply to every email
    maby here i will get lucky

    a few years ago i happened to view an article depicting a world in which it was not the “free” will of the people that governed

    but everything was decided according to science and social sciences
    back then i thought it was the stuff science fiction and Scientology were made of.
    after living i a country like Israel, I’m starting to get it.
    we are governed by panicked masses, that do not pay much attention to rational thought.

    would a world governed by science be the answer?
    i do not want to live in a place like that, giving up my voice and my autonomy
    but if it is for the greater good, my sacrifice will be small for a man and a giant leap for mankind.

    I’m appealing to your skeptic soul. please blow a giant hole in that theory.

  50. themos

    “Whether a statement is true ( whether it corresponds to the reality ), is not really dependent on us. if two squirrels met another two squirrels there were four squirrels, even before there was someone around who could count them.”

    That skirts over the issue of what it is about a “squirrel”, as a unit of something, that corresponds to reality in some privileged fashion without a human being to witness it. Is a description in terms of individual cells or quantum wavefunctions less real? How do you determine if they “met”? Maybe I’m missing the point but there really is no “view from nowhere” that is accessible to us.

  51. Leander

    “That is the difference between us and a nebula. We can choose.”

    Hm. I’m rather agnostic on the idea of free will, and I don’t think how anybody really trying to think that idea through couldn’t be. The trouble starts with the definition of choice. Do you mean absolute choice, as in all things being equal and available to you, and the individual being the only factor deciding the outcome ? I doubt it, since that’s a situation far from reality – there’s always a multitude of inner and outer factors involved, that are beyond your control, influencing and limiting your choice. And then we can dive into an endless argument of whether this relative kind of choice could still be called free will – or is just another ultimately predictable mechanism just like a nebula, only involving greater complexity. Just “richer”, as you called it.

    I for one find the idea of free will in a framework of philosophical materialism difficult, but I guess there might be arguments around that seeming difficulty. What I am certain of though is that we have no clue whether true free will, choice actually exists. We have the convincing experience of free will, but I don’t think I need to explain to you how irrational it would be to feel certain about metaphysical theories based on personal, human experiences. Having the convincing experience of talking to your deceased relatives while you’re temporarily flatlined doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an afterlife. There’s so many people running around confused about seemingly mundane things (compared to the philosophy of free will) that I find it silly to think we, being in the eye of our mental hurricane, could have enough grasp of said hurricane to be certain that the perceived freedom of will is real.

    So to me the statement I quoted you with is nothing more but a highly speculative metaphysical claim made with certainty, for which the only evidence is your personal experience. A claim I, and you, would have to take on faith. Coming from someone going around and teaching (rightfully) to people that their personal experience and perception isn’t infallible, that seems somewhat dishonest.

    “I don’t feel the need to look for ones that aren’t there.”

    Do you mean for questions that are not there ? Because they (about the “meaning or purpose of life”) sure are, have – probably always – been, and there’s a good chance they will be for some time to come. Asking these questions is intrinsically human. Maybe for you they’re not important, but for many they are – and when did it become wrong to ask questions, any question ? Making up your mind about the answers without evidence should bother you. But questions ? And what’s a wrong question then, as opposed to a “real” one ? Or did you mean answers that are not there ? Because that would be a really funny case of circular logic. Anyway, sorry, but the last paragraph of your post was somewhat garbled and, uh, weird.

  52. Mike

    Haha.. would you guys get over yourselves? There is such infantile nonsense in these comments that it’s making my head spin. WHOA MAN MAYBE LIKE THE UNIVERSE IS JUST IN MY IMAGERNATION AND ANYTHING I WANT CAN BE TRUUUUUUUE.

    Yeah, in your dreams. :rolleyes:

  53. Pieter Kok

    I have not read all the comments, so bear with me (I’ll update later).

    Phil, you place yourself squarely in the “realist” camp, as do most scientists. There are, however, problems with the realist view that are hard to ignore (e.g., how do you distinguish between something real and something that is not?). There are alternative views of science that are broadly grouped under the moniker “instrumentalism”. When one first learns quantum mechanics, the teacher typically takes an instrumentalist approach (the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, or even the “shut-up-and-calculate” interpretation).

    Personally, I think the post-modernist view is at best subversive (and not in a good way), and at worst plain nonsense (see the book by Sokal and Bricmont for details). However, the struggle between realism and instrumentalism is as old as science itself, and a little bit of care is called for when wading into these waters.

  54. God but that’s a long slog you have, to try to answer people who are dumb and stubborn and more like a camel trying to impress a llama.

    Oh, I said God. Wow.

    Why’s my website not more well-traveled? Oh, well.

    What to say? Okay, I know: Do NOT get dragged in when people charge right over from {objectivity, reason, truth} into {observation, reality, probability} and then when you say gravity EXISTS, you can distinguish “Hey, not just in the mind, Jack.”

    Let’s see if this posts. I have you in my blog, but I have always been bothered by a recurring word, PLAITZ. Well, not back before you were born, just to, let’s say 1992, in Long Beach. And it isn’t you in my blog. It is things, puzzles in language I write down, because let’s face it, words and names are roughly the same thing. Plaits are braids, maybe flat ones at that. So you aren’t in my blog. You’re in Discover magazine.

    I’m tempted. I will resist. Oh, BTW, failure to divorce logic from science will lead to politics.

  55. Tim G

    You may think there’s no such thing as objective reality…and that D+ you got for Physics exists only in your mind.

  56. Some of the comments are bringing in meaning. Well, some of the posts, anyway. The comments are bringing in quantum fluctuations. That’s—instructive—not!

    My point is that you can’t create a paper tiger–eg, astrology–bro? come on, look at #31, The Blackcat, says:

    In short, just because you have emotions towards something does not mean that thing actually exists. Schizophrenics, for instance, can have emotions towards people that don’t actually exist. I am not saying that people who believe in God are hallucinating, I am merely saying that an emotion cannot be used as evidence for the existence of anything in the outside world.

    No, schizos and belief in things which do not exist, oh, “people” who do not exist. Man! DEAD PEOPLE DO NOT EXIST. Then, somehow, they do. It isn’t existence, dude. It is talking to the TOASTER. Is it loving money as well? Tough questions.

    Anyway, Phil, I psychically put your name on my blog, just a week back, before I knew you even existed:

    http://sbillinghurst.wordpress.com/Plaitz

    and AS USUAL, just for a moment suspending disbelief read it as it was, not as a prediction of a five on guess a number between one and ten, but as a psychic writing about a sound he hears in his head and can’t figure out what it means until now. There are billions to one against that not being psychic, from all the tension you can pick up.

    Now, is it not true that you are the ONE man to see about paranormal goop? I don’t need the frustration. I can’t believe this. My post prior to the last death-quake Tsunami pinpoints Sydney and Cambodia. Now, how do I, and why do I even care any more how the distance, roughly between, ties in, with people and tranquilizers out there in roughly equal proportions trying to broadcast a jet-lag tumor-promoting inadequate definition of schizophrenia just so that they can commit genocide around the edges?

    Oh, check this out, from Kunstler’s blog of last Monday:

    It is exceedingly odd that this does not factor into Dent’s thinking, because what Peak Oil inescapably does is introduce the very sobering idea of discontinuity — that is, that the game has changed radically, especially where all our assumptions about continued “growth” are concerned. In that brief exchange on Peak Oil, Dent seemed to take the position that the “winter” part of any historical financial cycle always produced “new technology” that invariably saves the day, putting this seemingly very smart man in the camp of so many techno-cornucopian triumphalists all wishing for the same outcome: that some mythical “they” will “come up with” a set of rescue remedies to keep all the cars circulating on the freeways, and all the WalMarts groaning with swag.

    “Discover magazine”, Oh really.

    Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
    I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
    Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
    Hall window after school, look, folks!
    Right here in River City.
    Trouble with a capital “T”
    And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
    Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
    I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
    Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
    On while they’re loafin’ around that Hall?
    They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs,
    Tryin’ out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Feends!
    And braggin’ all about
    How they’re gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
    One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
    Headin’ for the dance at the Arm’ry!
    Libertine men and Scarlet women!
    And Rag-time, shameless music
    That’ll grab your son and your daughter
    With the arms of a jungle animal instink!
    Mass-staria!
    Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!

  57. Gary Ansorge

    Reality is objective:our INTERPRETATION of reality is SUBJECTIVE.

    Hopefully, our interpretation will converge on the way things really are.

    Solipsists are just ego centric nuts.

    ,,,and gravity really does suck,,,

    Gary 7

  58. ndt

    themos Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 11:16 am
    “Whether a statement is true ( whether it corresponds to the reality ), is not really dependent on us. if two squirrels met another two squirrels there were four squirrels, even before there was someone around who could count them.”

    That skirts over the issue of what it is about a “squirrel”, as a unit of something, that corresponds to reality in some privileged fashion without a human being to witness it. Is a description in terms of individual cells or quantum wavefunctions less real? How do you determine if they “met”? Maybe I’m missing the point but there really is no “view from nowhere” that is accessible to us.

    It isn’t accessible to us, but it’s still there.

  59. Sir Eccles @ #8:

    “she was wondering why loving someone was not much different to a belief in God”

    If I say “I love you”, then I’m not making any factual claims about anything outside my own mental state. Of course, my mental state is definitely something I can observe so that’s fine. If I say “I believe in God” and I’m a theist, then I’m actually making a truth statement about the external world so it’s reasonable for you to demand an explanation of how I can observe God, directly or otherwise.

    If on the other hand I really mean something like “I feel a sense of awe and love at the order/beauty of the universe” then it is like saying “I love you” – but then I don’t believe in God in the sense that Christianity etc. define him. As far as I can see this sort of deism is basically the same as atheism except for the unhelpful habit of using the word ‘god’ to refer to a general feeling of warmth and fuziness with the world.

  60. Paul Claessen

    #29: “I’ve never understood what “post modernism” means”

    Let me clarify it for you then:

    If one examines the semantic paradigm of context, one is faced with a choice: either accept subdialectic theory or conclude that class, somewhat surprisingly, has objective value. Any number of structuralisms concerning feminism exist.

    The primary theme of Humphrey’s[1] critique of Sartreist existentialism is the role of the artist as writer. In a sense, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie examines Baudrillardist hyperreality; in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, however, he affirms feminism. The premise of neocapitalist nationalism states that the purpose of the poet is significant form, but only if language is distinct from art; otherwise, we can assume that reality must come from the masses.

    “Sexual identity is part of the defining characteristic of consciousness,” says Derrida; however, according to la Tournier[2] , it is not so much sexual identity that is part of the defining characteristic of consciousness, but rather the stasis, and therefore the futility, of sexual identity. Therefore, if Baudrillardist hyperreality holds, we have to choose between subdialectic theory and pretextual nihilism. Dialectic deconstruction holds that reality serves to marginalize the underprivileged.

    However, Marx suggests the use of feminism to deconstruct sexism. The failure, and some would say the absurdity, of Baudrillardist hyperreality depicted in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses emerges again in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

    But Hubbard[3] suggests that we have to choose between subdialectic theory and subcultural deconstructive theory. The main theme of the works of Tarantino is the difference between society and sexual identity.

    In a sense, Debord promotes the use of feminism to attack and modify society. The primary theme of Buxton’s[4] model of subdialectic theory is a self-referential paradox.

    Thus, the subject is contextualised into a feminism that includes truth as a reality. Marx’s analysis of Baudrillardist hyperreality states that discourse comes from the collective unconscious.

    Hope this cleared it up for you.

  61. I did get a D+ in physics. As a chem major (transfer), I had to take one. I had to look up my teacher; make sure you didn’t do something to him. My God, they got Robert C. Dynes, and of course Sally Ride. She’s my age. Isn’t Dynes famous?

    I don’t want to do this. Okay, Sheldon Shultz is still there.

    Who am I thinking of with Dynes, dyne-centimeters? Well, who they got besides Buckminster Fuller? There’s another guy just like that.

    “In my mind”? As if my mind can’t telekinetically reach out and touch you? Who is this guy? Okay, Phil Plait. Fine. Your mother is calling you.

    “Tim G.” Wow. My D+ I got to hear about. Well, how’d I get my degree, then? Because (subjectively), I can persevere and overcome yo. Mind over matter. Go up against the surf much?

  62. Corey

    When I teach and the course has a research methods lecture, I always demonstrate confirmation vs disconfirmation using astrology. I have the students select from a list of 36 personality attributes that ones that describe them. I then run though the Zodiac and have people tell me their signs and I ask how many had the attributes associated with it.

    Then the fun part. I talk about disconfirmation. And then I ask what other atributes they selected, which invariably results in a random mix that disproves astrology as a basis for personality. I end with a discussion on the confirmation bias and use 3-Mile Island as a not-so-innocuous example of how disasterous the results of confirmation bias can be.

  63. Pieter Kok

    Paul Claessen, you omitted the references!

  64. #53, I was thinking about the view from nowhere; by extension “that which can be a priori assumed to exist”.

    you got a view of quasars from here; you got unexplained dark matter holding little galaxies together with big ones around tryna rip ‘em apart.

    Okay, you see it but it must be seeing you too, and if it doesn’t see you as such it still can stare at the socket of volume where you will be.

    That’s what I’d do, stare at that spot or write HE HATE ME up somewhere.

  65. Old Rockin' Dave

    “That is the difference between us and a nebula. We can choose.”
    John Hiatt said it even better:
    “Baby, we can choose/
    you know we ain’t no amoeba.”

  66. Cheyenne

    Paul I mostly agree but I would like to add- Baudrillardist hyperreallity naturally descends into a naked paradigm of self inspection. There can be no singular consciousness of ethos without an encapsulating social dimension – which obviously is completely retrospective of a said structuralist framework! I think you need to add a contextual dimension (granted, a somewhat Rubian granular one) to lend a degree of (for lack of better phrasing) dimensional fortitude to your thesis.

  67. Hao

    From Godel Incompleteness, we know that there are true statements that are not provably so – which is fairly close to saying there are objective truths that are indescribable. Regardless of how gravity is not a good example (because we can describe it), the twitter person’s belief is nearly as simplistic as “seeing is believing” – if knowledge doesn’t exist until it is described, then scientists are more accurately described as creators of knowledge rather than discoverers of truth…

    On another note, is there a single-word term (twittee, perhaps) for “someone who twits”? I was tempted to use “twitter”, but that would create confusion with the website/company.

  68. Gary Ansorge

    58. Hao

    Please note: there is a vast difference between a twit and a tweet. I’m pretty sure someone who TWEETS is a tweeter.

    GAry 7

  69. @Gamercow,

    You might not be able to pick an electron up and present it to someone saying “see this electron”, but you can design a repeatable experiment to get evidence for the existence of an electron. That, along with tons of other evidence, points to the existence of a tiny particle of negative charge commonly called the “electron.”

    You cannot, however, design a repeatable experiment to get evidence for the existence of God. Since science can describe the physical laws of the Universe without having to resort to a diety throwing around “let there be’s”, science proceeds as if there isn’t a God. Whether the individual scientists (or posters here or anyone for that matter) believes in a God is their personal preference.

    In other words: An electron’s existence has enough scientific evidence backing it to be called objective. God’s existence is purely subjective.

    Where people get into trouble is when they try to take their personal belief in God and impose it on people who have differing beliefs.

  70. J

    But in the objective reality of the Universe, such relativism may fall apart. Physical laws have an objective reality; we may interpret them, but they continue to do what they do whether our interpretation is correct or not.

    Ok, Ayn Rand.

    First you start talking about Liberty and then you start talking about Objectivism.

    Soon, you’ll be heading off to Galt’s Gulch.

  71. Chip

    That’s a great essay Phil! Its always refreshing to read something that embraces thinking. What I find interesting about the whole shebang is that the Universe is what it is and does what it does and eventually the Earth forms and from it life evolves and we and many other lifeforms come along, and among us is a Mozart or a Stravinsky and they manipulate sounds that to us have meaning and communicates with us – but we’re all still “the Earth looking at itself” as Sagan put it. So there is this tiny place and perhaps others elsewhere in the Universe where matter looks at itself and forms ideas. And none of this is depended on a bearded God on a thrown laying down arbitrary laws.

  72. T_U_T

    Is a description in terms of individual cells or quantum wavefunctions less real?

    A squirrel described in terms of its individual cells or wavefunction or whatever is still a squirrel.

    How do you determine if they “met”?

    for the purpose of this example let’s say they meet if they see each other.
    I still see no problems with it. Maybe the view from nowhere is accessible to us after all ;)

  73. Renée

    @ kuh

    And people who go on and on trying to define reality or Truth, solely through logic, semantics, or their own philosophical ramblings, are confusing mental masturbation with profundity.

    So I guess that means science is “mental masturbation too” seeing as how its defining reality and truth via logic and reasoning. Was that what you were trying to get at?

    As for philosophy being dead, as a philosopher I highly object to this, and not because of any bias. Science is the product of epistemology, which is very much philosophy. Science is not a self contained system that tells all, its based entirely on analytic philosophy.

    Anyways, as for truth, wtf is that? Everyone here seems to throw that word around without giving any thought to the fact that there are dozens of theories of truth out there. If you want to go along the lines of correspondence theory then you have to accept that truth can’t exist outside of human perception because its precisely that perception that allows one to correspond things together.

    Sure, the thing that binds stuff together exists independent of humans but our understanding of it, even if it is accurate, is a functional derivative of our perception of it.

    If we lived in the Matrix, our understanding of “reality” would simply be our understanding of the physics engine that the machines are running. Our entire understanding of truth would be depended on simply what we could perceive.

    Now I ‘m not saying that’s how it is, I’m just trying to illustrate the point of how absurd things get when people try to talk about truth and perception as if they are things that somehow exists independent of us.

  74. T_U_T

    Science is the product of epistemology, which is very much philosophy. Science is not a self contained system that tells all, its based entirely on analytic philosophy.

    science does not need no your stinkin’ epistemology not analytic zoophilia ;) . It has got information theory, statistics, probability theory, logic, and mathematics in general. Besides that, and an inference system , like the one embedded within our brain, it does not need anything else to work.

  75. Todd

    It’s a slow news day when the first troll in a response thread is actually the guy who wrote the editorial.

  76. Renée

    Last time I checked logic was part of philosophy ;)

    Inference is also straight out of Epistemology :P

  77. T_U_T

    renee, this was most probably very long ago. (formal)logic is part of mathematics for centuries now, as are various inference systems.

  78. Renée

    Greeks invented logic as part of their philosophical regiment, sure its changed a lot but all of my logic classes throughout my undergrad and graduate work all said PHIL … and not MATH…

    And centuries ago what we call scientists now were called natural philosophers. Show your elders some respect!

    Anyways I’m just joking, a little. It’s actually quite annoying to be told your field of work is useless by a bunch of people that are essentially doing philosophy anyways . Not all philosophy is about a bunch of wacky professors talking about nonsense. Take Cognitive Science for example. That’s a very hot emerging field of science that relies, in part, on the use of philosophy.

    I’m not here to make it seem like one is better than the other, or more capable of doing its job. I just give credit where credit is due.

  79. T_U_T

    yes, glorious history is all that remains in philosophy. Almost anything else has been outsourced to various other fields that split apart. So people may be doing what a few centuries ago would count as philosophy, and may even now be taught in philosophy classes, but for all practical purposes it is a part of an other discipline now. With cognitive sciences slowly turning into science proper, there will be literally nothing left in philosophy.

  80. Pieter Kok

    T_U_T, I’m sorry to say it, but you’re a Philistine. Nobody is asking you to be interested in philosophy, or even value it very much. But your grand sweeping statements display ignorance and an unwillingness to learn.

  81. Scott

    Phil,
    I can feel your pain. I once tried to have a meaningful give and take with a theist friend which degenerated into him claiming that I couldn’t even prove that I existed or that maybe EXISTENCE didn’t exist. Whatever. Sometimes you just can’t go down that road.

    Check out my blog: http://ondoggodno.blogspot.com/

    Scott

  82. Jess Tauber

    I’m not sure that there isn’t informational content in natural phenomena below the genetic level.

    Linguists have known for a long time that languages have formal means for creating messages- not only the content of the messages but also others to help others interpret them and also forms that help administer the messages and steer conversations.

    Well, we know similar things go on in the genetic code- start and stop codons mixed right in with the ‘content’ codons that control the identity of the amino acids put into polypeptides. In addition, less well known is that though from the ‘identity’ perspective the code is ‘degenerate’ in that different (though related) code the same amino acid, the codons can be differentially recognized by regulatory mechanisms on the one hand, and also have different chemical and physical properties in the DNA or RNA, and are also part of the administrative part of the system.

    Recently I made great improvements in my tetrahedral model of the periodic ‘table’ (system) of elements- a close-packed sphere assembly that correctly and symmetrically maps all the s,p,d, and f orbitals. It also is able to take into account secondary periodicity, and it looks as if it can capture so called knight’s move, diagonal, and n/n+10 relations. Maybe also Aufbau anomalies. Some of these latter associations create interesting deviations from the expectations one might have from quantum equations.

    Yet if other systems are instructive here, then these alterations are important for the ability to combine atoms into molecules. That is, diagrammatical purity at a lower hierarchical level is sacrificed to help organize a higher one where things are put together in ways that DO something. This is what happened in the genetic code, and what has happened in the origin and evolution of human languages.

    I’m not saying things aren’t lawful- just complex. For example, the periodic law gets its marching orders from Pascal’s triangle- the magic numbers are twice the result of the tetrahedral numbers minus tetrahedral numbers from two rows back. The nuclear magic numbers are twice the result of the tetrahedral numbers minus the triangular numbers from two rows back. Interesting stuff. As you probably know Pascal’s triangle also contains the binomials, the Fibonacci numbers, and much more.

    My question now is whether the triangle also holds answers to informational vs. content aspects of material reality. How far down does it go? Some of the number sequences look like they might code the subatomic particle rest mass ratios.

  83. Hao

    @ 59. Gary – thanks, that’s what I get for shunning these newfangled social networking tools. (maybe it’s because I’m still suck with a candy-bar Nokia) :)

  84. Phil: you spend too much time feeding harmless trolls.

  85. timmy

    Astrology ????? I bet my mass standing 2 feet from an astrologer has more influence than Jupiter.

  86. mike burkhart

    Let me give give some advice let science give the how of things and leave the why to religon science is hear to give the facts not to to give the meaning of the universe if people (like me) want meaning then join a religon. I do agree astrology is bunk but try telling that to hollywood

  87. So #35, Luis Dias was a troll. He provided no explanation, just noise. Then again, #73, Tim Bennett, maybe having a post like this from time to time is a good way to lure trolls out from under their bridges…
    I just don’t like stepping in troll dung.

  88. Tim Bennett Says:
    “Phil: you spend too much time feeding harmless trolls.”

    But they’re so cute…

    Phil Plait Says:
    “I have enough real questions to keep me busy for a thousand lifetimes. I don’t feel the need to look for ones that aren’t there.”

    That’s cool… Can I use that?

    I always thought that the purpose of philosophy… REAL philosophy was to get you to think about fundamental truths in a different way, so you ask different questions and understand other people better, thereby increasing knowledge and wisdom in yourself if not other people.

    Comedians do it all the time. The best jokes depend on truth, or at least the audience believing either that it is true or that it could be true…. except knock-knock jokes… I haven’t quite figured them out yet.

    Anyway, my point is that it is okay to say “Life isn’t just about the way the universe works” It’s NOT okay to say “If you figure out how the universe works, you’re taking something away from my life” I hear the “mystery of life” argument all the time, like we NEED mystery in our lives for our lives to be rich and full of meaning. BULL SH*T. First of all, we’ll never run out of mystery. As Dara O’Briain says “Science knows it doesn’t know everything. Otherwise it would stop” Secondly, I have never understood why people say that if you know how something works, it takes something away. If that’s true, it gives you back so much more. I thought magic tricks were cool when I didn’t know how they were done. Now that I know, I think it is phenomenal how these guys are able to do what they do without anyone catching on. I wasn’t admiring the mystery. I was admiring the skill. I used to ooh and ahh when I saw airshows because they were beautiful. Then I learned how to fly and figured out what these guys go through to do what they do and now I love it even more.

    People who crave mystery, not to unlock it but to admire it from a distance without even trying to touch it boggle my mind. If understanding makes something less interesting to you, then you were never very interested to begin with. You were just interested because you didn’t know something and it was a chew toy for your brain. There will always be chew toys for your brain. Find another. They don’t cost anything in money or effort. There will ALWAYS be things you don’t know. There’s no need to protect any particular one from the “damage” caused by understanding.

  89. Renée

    @T_U_T

    yes, glorious history is all that remains in philosophy. Almost anything else has been outsourced to various other fields that split apart.

    I’m sorry but philosophy was here first, there is no room for revisionist language. I don’t care what field you are in, if you have a question that in anyway reflects on the nature of knowledge and truth then that’s an epistemological question, not a scientific one.

    You can’t take all of the things that science considers relevant, redesign what science means and leave philosophy with all of the left over “junk.” It just doesn’t work like that.

    So people may be doing what a few centuries ago would count as philosophy, and may even now be taught in philosophy classes, but for all practical purposes it is a part of an other discipline now. With cognitive sciences slowly turning into science proper, there will be literally nothing left in philosophy.

    I’m just shy of my Ph.D in Philosophy, I’ve specialized in both the Analytic school and Cognitive Science and I can assure you there is still plenty of room for philosophy in that. In fact I feel that I’m far more qualified than you as to how relevant philosophy is.

    Furthermore what would you consider ethics to be? I guess that must be a science to you because there is “literally” nothing left. Or do we have all of the answers for ethics already?

    Your arrogance astounds me.

  90. @ Renée:

    Please consult dictionary. Look up word, “solely.”

    Thank you.

  91. Shrajke

    Ugh. This is why I don’t like talking philosophy with scientists. Or science with philosophers. It’s like explaining general relativity to an English major.

  92. Renée

    Hmm, ok fine.

    Perhaps you should look up the idiom “splitting hairs.”

  93. @ Renée:

    As a philosopher, you should recognize the importance of words and their meanings. Adding the word “solely” to my sentence created a very specific meaning, one that is quite different from that which would have existed without the word. That is not “splitting hairs.” Unless someone calling you out for saying black is white is also “splitting hairs,” in which case, I suggest you and I live in separate realities.

  94. Renée

    I just had issues with it because science isn’t much more than the application of logic. Concepts like falsifiability and the scientific method are both derived from logic.

    That and as a philosopher I frequently deal with things that solely use what you describe and I would hardly call it mental masturbation.

    Anyways….dead horse has been beaten.

  95. @ Renée:

    I just had issues with it because science isn’t much more than the application of logic.

    That confirms it. You and I do live in different realities.

    Please, Renée, broaden your horizons a bit and take a few more science courses. There is a whole lot more to it than “the application of logic.”

    Is est non vestri loquor utrum necne a equus est mortuus.

  96. Michael Woodhams

    While I don’t believe in free will, I choose to act as if I had it.

  97. Renée

    I have taken plenty of science courses. OK, what does science contain?

    Inductive/deductive reasoning (logic)
    Falsifiability theories (logic)
    Mathematics (Set Theory a.k.a logic)
    Empiricism (not logic in itself)

    The fundamental groundwork of science is essentially the logical categorization of empirical knowledge. Logic makes the whole thing work. Without logic there is no inductive/deductive reasoning.

    Whatever, I’m not going to get into a semantical argument because that would just be “mental masturbation.”

    I’ll give it to you that I’ve been more casual than late in the way that I’m framing my arguments but I don’t really care. I should have just said, “be more polite please.”

    Anyways, topic is over. The horse is a mass of blood and flesh now.

    To be perfectly honest I’m really moody right now. I don’t like the callous attitude many people have towards philosophy on here. What I am doing is not a waste of time.

  98. Gary Ansorge

    72. Hao
    I know a number of twits and they’re just irritating.

    I forgot to mention another possibility,,, a tweeter could also be a canary,,,or a small, high frequency, electronic speaker.

    I think I’ll stop now.

    Peace,

    Gary 7

  99. themos

    “A squirrel described in terms of its individual cells or wavefunction or whatever is still a squirrel.”

    I think this is wanting one’s cake and eating it. Let’s have some QM description of the world but let’s keep our category of squirrels as well, unaffected by what the QM description says.

    I am more and more inclined to think that science tells us nothing about the world and everything about the state of our knowledge of the world.

  100. Jacqueline

    Posted by Renee:

    “To be perfectly honest I’m really moody right now. I don’t like the callous attitude many people have towards philosophy on here. What I am doing is not a waste of time.”

    I had a run in with a philosopher that tried to tell me that philosophy plus science was better than just science.
    I answered “Philosophy is all about thinking up possible models for the universe/existence/whatever that has been observed. Science is about observation, thinking about models that explain your observation, and testing them. In comparison philosophy is merely idle daydreaming.

  101. Cosmonut

    > It just does things according to the laws of physics.
    You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us.
    ————————————

    If you say that something which “just does things according to the laws of physics” cannot have a purpose, then neither can humans. There’s no way around that, since we too, are just following the laws of physics. Its not that we’re being offered a choice of outcomes by the laws of physics, which we can then purposefully choose from.

    I’d say the main issue is, that for something to have a purpose or meaning, it must be part of some larger context.

    If the Universe is “all that is, or was, or ever will be”, then, almost by definition, it CAN’T have a purpose.
    If it was created by some kind of Supreme Being or whatever, then it may have a purpose, but then said Being can’t have a purpose.

    I guess maybe meaningless is a misleading word in this context, as it carries some association with futility/uselessness etc.
    Maybe saying that the Universe is “beyond meaning” conveys the sense of this better.

  102. Robert

    This reminds me a bit about an article I read once claiming there are three ways people think about / understand the world around you.
    1) From physical principles.
    2) From design.
    3) From intelligent meaning.
    If you see a rock tumbling down a hill, you can understand this due to gravity. You can try to use physical principles to try and understand how to use your VCR player, however this requires the blueprints of the player and an advanced knowledge of electronics. Its easier to realize that the VCR player was designed to play videos, and that pressing the ‘play’ button will most likely have the desired effect. If you see a hungry lion charging at you, you could try to analyse the nerve impulses leading to the muscles in the lion’s legs, you could try to figure out that evolution ‘designed’ a lion to seek food when hungry, or you could just think that the lion has a mind of its own which sees you and is thinking ‘ah, LUNCHTIME!!!’ The last will probably most quickly lead you to the conclusion it might be a good idea to climb a tree.
    The claim was that we evolved to see design or intelligent meaning in things which may or may not really have this, because this helps us make some decisions quicker in life threatening situations. The drawback is that apparently its evolutionary built-in to us that we talk (scream, curse) at our computers when we don’t understand them.

    If people don’t understand the physics of gravity very well, it might be easier for them to just think that “gravity was designed to make things fall”, or “gravity wants to make things fall.”

  103. Yeebok Shu'in

    @98 Renee – Sorry, you left out :
    Observation
    Experiments
    Proof
    Repeatability
    Objectivity

    ..And I am sure, quite a few others.

    That’s all of your numerous posts that I find worth responding to, the rest just sounds as wrong as Phil’s tweet near the start on gravity.

  104. SusPhence

    “You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, …… There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us.”

    I’ve heard how much Phil likes anecdotes, so I’ll relay this short story I heard many years ago, I forget the source, but it goes something like this.
    Adult twin brothers were separately interviewed by a psychologist. The psychologist asked one twin “Why are you an alcoholic?” He responded “My father was an alcoholic. With a father like mine, who wouldn’t be?” He asked the other twin “Why are you not an alcoholic?” He responded “My father was an alcoholic. With a father like mine, who would be?”

  105. mike burkhart

    I know this is not the subject of this but since it mentions astrology I have a new fact that Phill should use in his next debate with an astrologer : Ask them :how many constellations are in the zodiac ? if they say 12 say worng answer point out the sun,moon,and planets apper in 15 constellations in addion to:pisces,aries,taurus,gemini,cancer,leo,virgo,libra,scorpius,sagittarius,capricornus,aquarius there are cetus,orion and ophuchus yet astrologers ingnore these three maybe because it dosent fit into there system of haveing a constellation for each of the 12 months this a major flaw in astrology

  106. Arnold Martin

    The theory of gravitation from Newton to Einstein is no more real than any other human product and it is just that, a human product. This is not to say that it does not precisely describe fundamental phenomena present in the universe at large but it is certainly not “real,” or “objective.” It is a series of intensely reasoned hypotheses, tested through extensive experimentation and observation. However, each of these hypotheses and observations exist based on our singular point of view in the universe and as that viewpoint changes so does our way of knowing.

    What we know changes how we know.

    Newton’s theory of universal gravitation worked well enough to describe the phenomena he was dealing with, and works well enough today that we can still use his mathematics to navigate interplanetary space craft. Einstein, on the other hand, had to invent an entirely new theory of gravitation that included curved space-time in order to more accurately describe phenomenon he was dealing with. Thanks to Newton and many great scientists after him the universe in which Einstein was working was completely different than Newton’s and in doing his work Einstein created a new universe for us to work in.

    Certainly I am not suggesting that the fundamental phenomena – i.e. mutual attraction between bodies in space – changed or are not “real,” but human perception certainly changed with each of their innovations and I surmise it will change again and again and each time it does we will be living in a new universe, almost completely irreconcilable with the old one because the explanations – i.e. Laws of Physics – of yesterday will no longer suffice to explain what today’s can explain.

    The point to all of this is that our laws of physics are malleable because they must be to accommodate new information, new phenomena, and new paradigms. Therefore they are, in fact, subjective based on the theories of old, the observations of today, and our constant accumulation of new information. Before any dogma wielding scientists out there jump down my digital spout, know this: this is not anti-science, it is the fact of science. This is what makes science able to explain the universe around us. When we incorrectly argue that the laws of physics are objective we miss the point that they are entirely subjective and that is why they change and that is what makes them great.

    Post-modernism and science should be only the best of friends. If we begin to treat the laws of science as “real” and absolutely “objective” we run the risk of becoming dogmatic and unable to change how we view the universe which will, in the long rung, stifle scientific inquiry. god is objective, god is singular and all knowing, god is wrong. This was Aguste Comte’s mistake in formulating his notion of Positivism, he wanted to discover the laws of sociology so we could live by them as we must live by the law of say gravity. His was an unbending and total, objective, view of how science works and, fortunately, has been widely discredited. Ironically, his laws of sociology were too, subjective because they were based in the turmoil of middle 19th century French society which he desperately wanted to apply order to once more.

    I think what sets many post-modern thinkers into a tizzy is when the work of someone like E. O. Wilson which brilliantly explained the biologically based behavior of ants is adapted to to the complexity of human creativity and the Barash’s publish “Madame Bovary’s Ovaries,” which is some of the worst literary criticism and theory ever written. Art (with a big A because we’re talking literature, music, visual art, architecture and every other product of humanity that is not directly related to individual survival) has its own malleable, relative, and changing theories now thanks to post-modernism. In a way, post-modern theory has done for art and literature what science does for observable phenomenon in the universe and on earth, we’ve finally caught up. It has done away with dogmatic meta-narrative in favor of a more relative and changing approach to human creativity and society.

    It is up to scientists to continue to subjectively expand the breadths of science and it is up to the humanists to expand our understanding of human products, which as I said before, includes the laws of science. Certainly there will be some overlap, some artists and writers of the latter part of the 20th century used psychoactive chemicals and scientists can tell us how they change the way an individual perceives the world – an explanation of their products if you will. But by-in-large I think science and post-modern theory can live happily together each explaining their respective phenomenon and neither more real, objective, or absolute than the other. With that said, my head hurts, and I’m going to my studio to make Art.

  107. 86. timmy Says:
    October 1st, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Astrology ????? I bet my mass standing 2 feet from an astrologer has more influence than Jupiter.

    Timmy, I assume by “bet”, that I would be accurate in responding, “At least that is something we can measure.”

    But, I am not that stupid. Aren’t there vast numbers of arguments which circumvent simpleminded calculations?

    “The force diminishes with the square of the distance.”?

    Aw, B.S. There’s no theory used to distinguish what an object is, whether an orange or a galaxy ( much less to state how humans are always “putting” and yet “having” OBJECTS, IOW with the properties, possessions or attributes granted to materials, people and inanimate objects).

    Love exists, and I’ll tear heaven and earth apart,…or is that hate? Anyway, if I want to do Astrology, I am fond of ominous future events casting their shadow here using the apparition of a comet to give us an omen we may use for planning auspicious occasions much better since I can throw in no less than five words in two lines not counting “future events”, words designed to clash with scientific words.

    I speak of the fact you and the “Astrologer” are only standing side-by-side because the earth is pulling both of you, and while you may outpull Earth, you could not be outpulling AGAINST the earth, not to mention that astrology doesn’t use what pulls on astrologers. It uses what pulls on planets, speaking purely gravitationally.

    Bent further by this rank dismissal (in the event that paranormal powers are able to effect justice against prejudicial attacks and you got a severe bruising coming on that account—I mean, not knowing is innocence. Conveniently “forgetting” is the order of the day; the fog of war, and I have a belly full of that. It is not innocent. You are both thinking & writing, and 2-3 clicks away from obtaining the information right here somewhere online, see?), we have yes, we don’t know what dark matter may hold galaxies together, …

    I looked again at UCSD Physics and the man I want (I’m glad I remembered it’s a man) is ARTHUR M. WOLFE. Now, yes, you can study whole careers and never be required to hit dark matter and still claim “galaxy formation” on your resume (but notice how I feel that is unbelievable); I went there. They’re pedantic. They say, “Any questions?” and you want to say, “Yeah. Why does it take a college degree to do your job?” For next time, that’s ASTROPHYSICS. Oh, and CASS, the CENTER for ASTROPHYSICS. Fine, fine.

    Don’t tel fibs, and please leave the future events to unfold rightly and not destroy civilization and say that no one can see the future coming. If it is a war, Jack, you can. Timmy, rather. An asteroid, no.

    In summary, you and the astrologer together are not massive enough to affect the Earth, while it is you, it is Jupiter, and Jupiter can it, and mass is only our gravity and not sufficient to explain how galaxies hold together. Saying everything’s made of atoms is pretty irrelevant. Let’s not start saying everything’s made of people.

    Thanks to Phil Plait for letting my comments see the light of day.

  108. @106 mike burkhrat:

    I’m not going to fix that this time.

    Re: “next debate with an astrologer”. I thought astrologers gave us the calendar, without which we would not be very agrarian-reformed.

    I’m a reformed Catholic, in an orthodox church. yeah, sounds unbelievable, i know. It’s true.

    but, in short, what you are doing (beating on astrologers), is like very pernicious if not actually obsequious youth (appealing to the great unseen moderator) and astrologers probably have umpteen paintings, statues and buildings as monuments (I like the conical hat with the stars), tell you what. I’ll PROVE that that “mortarboard” they wear to graduate is steeped in superstition. wait—

    thank you for waiting. It blew up. We have both etiology and etymology, but while the mortarboard of graduation represents the board holding mortar to use to set bricks of a master workman, rather than investigate the tassle, let’s go to the ceremony, “baccalaureate”

    In modern U.S. usage, the word usually is short for baccalaureate-sermon (1864), a religious farewell address to the graduating class. …

    Okay, that is religious, so in order not to offend religion we call that supernatural, even spiritual, even serene, even reflective, even thoughtful, at which point that is certainly harmless, and to take a break from killing, I believe a general is allowed his reverie. we don’t want to call that superstitious.

    I think it is entomology, but in all actuality the phenomenon you are displaying is that of, The Planet of the Apes, given, like I said, we wouldn’t be where we are without astrologers.

    yeah, I think you are an insect on a rat, even though we needed the rat or we couldn’t see what to point at. And, you are infected with the ubiquitous bubonic plague. Bite, little flea.

  109. TheBlackCat

    @ steve billinghurst: Be careful, I think you are violating Phil’s “don’t be a jerk” rule, but your posts are so muddled and incomprehensible I am not entirely sure.

  110. #106 rob,

    take evolution and intelligent design to the same receptacle
    2. put ‘kluge’ and a law stating anything complex which works came out of something simple which worked FOREMOST
    acknowledge the brain is complex

    relaize instead of

    that apparently its evolutionary built-in to us that we talk

    enough to prove it’s you

    no, dude. it is alive and does have any opportunity to be built-in in the slightest. Its a work-around. The brain is basically no good since all the subsystems ahve things cabled through, cabling through other parts, and yes, groans and lashes out in paranoia at the slightest straining to comprehend

    “apparantly” is one iof those Internet-specific rants of the incredibly hackneyed and useless form of time-killing, mind-bending and overwhelmingly offensive death-rattle of a threat from a safe distance

    Steve Billinghurst is listening to “Thus Spake Zarathustra”,….

    Perhaps a subscription to Discover magazine would put you on the same page, to the point of discussing the issues of the day.

    ESP’s real. It’s always been real. The thing is, it doesn’t serve as capital. It’s a little watery. the CIA is working on death-powered mind rays. see the next issue of Discover.

  111. I left out the word “not”. The brain does NOT have the ability to be built-in, because, at that time it is all done. The genes, however, have different ages, but are reproduced at once. as such, and knowing “designs” are issued at one and the same time, the word “design” does not fit brains, and “built-in” fits only “designed”. I rush right through what I’m saying

    you got this ahead of me:

    #

    ouldn’t see what to point at. And, you are infected with the ubiquitous bubonic plague. Bite, little flea.
    # 110. TheBlackCat Says:
    October 2nd, 2009 at 11:13 am

    @ steve billinghurst: Be careful, I think you are violating Phil’s “don’t be a jerk” rule, but your posts are so muddled and incomprehensible I am not entirely sure.

    nevertheless, you used exactly the “Internet rag” method of dismemberment we are all so familiar with. don’t just claim something’s incomprehensible. Incomprehensible is found together with demoralizing in AA, where if you drink a little bit, you are bound to drink a lot (get stoned), and wake up depressed.

    Oh, and I am so sure that “Don’t be a jerk” is not muddled. No, a) I’m going to be a jerk, b) I am sorry you feel I am being a jerk.

    I’m giving the contrary argument, to a post on the paranormal. You are welcome to take over and do that now. I could argue either side of anything if that were the assignment, or do you all need reassurance and validification so badly? Little scientists security fragile now?

    this is being a jerk.

  112. benjdm

    “You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us.”

    What in the world? What is this ‘us’ that is being commanded by the laws of physics? A soul separate from the particles of my physical self that are (apparently only sometimes) acting according to the laws of physics?

  113. Cat,

    Very number one, way, way above, in abstraction, is the title, to wit: “I Object!”

    Since Phil and I were both hearing (and the Internet is what used to be called, “Real Time”) the same piece of argumentation, as follows:

    The mainstream media is at least not always being negative. The Internet is full of people who do nothing but complain.

    Phil and I hit on objection, the simple courtroom device, in order to substitute for the word, “complaint”. We are still complaining, see?

    And we got way afield as far as I am concerned, from what I first said. Take note: The mainstream media will bury us in feel-good messaging while America burns. Phil is really a decent sort, I was pleased as punch to discover, by the simple act of allowing me to grace the comments section of this blog. You are the only one to introduce the suggestion that I be banned. But, you are of a type, or, what we call “typical”, to me and the rest of the pirates aboard ship.

  114. Guess I was just wasting my time studying the philosophy and history of science then. Too bad. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Good luck overcoming results-corrupting bias and consequent-affirming assumptions without it.

    For the record, and for the exact same reasons, religious people who dismiss philosophy are just as wrong and just as dangerous.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a philosopher and certainly not a theologian. But dismissing philosophy is as unprofessional as dismissing analytic geometry.

    figleaf

  115. Renée

    @ Yeebok Shu’in

    Renee – Sorry, you left out :
    Observation
    Experiments
    Proof
    Repeatability
    Objectivity

    ..And I am sure, quite a few others.

    I mentioned Empiricism and within the context of natural science. Perhaps you should look up the definition of Scientific Empiricism or in another term methodological empiricism before telling me what I left out.

    That’s all of your numerous posts that I find worth responding to, the rest just sounds as wrong as Phil’s tweet near the start on gravity.

    Well coming from a person who listed things that are all part of empiricism, which I mentioned, makes me not inclined to believe anything you have to say.

    @figleaf

    THANK YOU!

  116. #107
    @Arnold Martin.

    http://www.mayanmajix.com/art1699.html

    “Sir Francis Crick used LSD to see the structure of DNA”

    What you did was to signify the acceptance of the scientists’ role as aside from the LSD consumption, presumably leaving that to artists and other bums, and that’s a bad thing. Do you expect us to believe that scientists did not invent LSD et al? And, why is it always an “accidental discovery”? Why’s it always a “laboratory curiosity”? Could it be that you would like to leave the notion with us that scientific minds are too sharp and unmuddled as to lace their eyeballs with their own creations?

    It matters because the elite eventually must use violence to enforce the harebrained, cowardly and hypocritical implications of researches.

    Notice purely aside from the uncontrovertible facts the leading argument that the structure of DNA is the sole comprehensible Nobel Prize. I am sorry, but even the dumb and stupid can see that one. When you are ready for me to name a year for you to explain the chemistry prize for that year, come on back.

    When the science is that obvious, you can even do it on drugs.

    Now, here’s what you say ( and your paragraphs are stone immaculate):

    It is up to scientists to continue to subjectively expand the breadths of science and it is up to the humanists to expand our understanding of human products, which as I said before, includes the laws of science. Certainly there will be some overlap, some artists and writers of the latter part of the 20th century used psychoactive chemicals and scientists can tell us how they change the way an individual perceives the world – an explanation of their products if you will.

    I agree, and let me add IF YOU WILL SWALLOW THIS LINE OF PROPAGANDA

    Think there might be some slight overlap, do you?

    Would you rather be laughed out of town by a simple scientific demonstration or you need me to paint a picture?

    Sir Francis Crick was a user, and I am an addict and former user, and I sat at the same table with Crick, to do with Russell Doolittle’s class on the origin of life. I also met Leslie Orgel, and these people are not easy to confront or approach during life, brother. I just grab the easy ones you’ve all heard of, but I wish for you to know all of them who were users, especially the ones from today. Otherwise, I am saying why die at sixty or seventy and you didn’t use? That Carl Sagan was a user.

    You can tell from the way they cut their hair and how long they live if they used substances. Their sexual orientation we must allow, but not scientific performance enhancement the end-product of drug use.

    It certainly is not like you say it is, and it is certainly wrong down the line somehow.

  117. llewelly

    You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey whatever laws of physics command us.

    What do you mean by “free will”?

    There is a great deal of evidence that all human behavior is purely the result of neurochemistry. It is extremely unlikely that new physics will be required to explain human behavior.

    The laws of physics are not binary; …

    What do you mean by “not binary”? A trivial mathematical transformation will produce a binary representation of any number a human brain could conceive of exactly. Numbers that brains cannot conceive exactly – such as pi or e – can be enumerated by a binary code and referred to symbolically. There is every reason to believe the state of a neuron can be represented in bits. (However it seems likely an exact representation would require an awful lot of bits.)

    … they don’t say to us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers of choices that lie before us.

    Human brains are finite in size and resources. There is no reason to believe a human brain can select from an uncountable number of choices.

  118. @ llewelly:

    Human brains are finite in size and resources. There is no reason to believe a human brain can select from an uncountable number of choices.

    It may be a product of my finite brainpower, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the total number of possible neural connections in the brain would be greater than the sum total of all elementary particles in the universe.

    So finite, but…whew!!! :)

  119. Gary Ansorge

    There may be an infinite number of theories that one could concoct to describe reality. Most of those
    are wrong. It would take an infinite number of tests to “prove” any theory absolutely true but it only takes one test to prove it wrong.

    Which approach is the most viable?

    I don’t have an infinite amount of time or resources to prove something is true.

    GAry 7

  120. i hope i’m not too late to jump on the bandwagon, but i think i found the perfect forum for my scribblings from friday – it’s an attempt to answer a number of questions raised by this post.

    on realities; the base of the omnipotent: an argument for the differentiation and validity of universal (or objective) reality and personal (or subjective) reality.

  121. llewelly

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that the total number of possible neural connections in the brain would be greater than the sum total of all elementary particles in the universe.

    I’d be interested in a citation for that.

  122. I think the obvious response to “gravity isn’t objective” is to gently push the speaker onto their fat behind, so that they can experience gravity giving them a swift kick up the arse.

    A few object lessons like that may eventually earn you a thump in the ear, but they sure have a heck of a time explaining away their sore behind, and even more so their response to it.

  123. @ llewelly:

    As I noted above, I can’t recall where I read it. A quick search led to the name Gerald Edelman, a Nobel winning physiologist. However I’m not sure if he originated the number or how it came to be calculated. I would take it with a grain or two of salt.

  124. RCHughes

    A follower on Twitter said:

    Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.

    I think this is completely wrong.

    I don’t believe a statement of only 140 characters (or 97 in this case) can be “completely” anything. Granted I’m only an engineer and not as educated in knee-jerk response theory as some of my scientific colleagues seem to be (at least on the intrawebic blogodyne,) but my natural response to seemingly bizarre, but out-of-context utterances by persons I have no reason to suspect of irrationality is never “Wow, what a moron,” (though I’m sure my life would be much easier if it were.)

    When confonted with a statement that sounds bizarre, my first inclination is to try to ask what I’m missing (emphasis on the “I”) and the more bizarre the statement, the more certain this response. Is there missing context? Is the speaker using their words in the same way I’m using them? Do they mean to say what it sounds like they’re saying ? That’s not to say I won’t end up concluding they’re a nitwit/lunatic/charlatan/all of the above, but it’s seldom if ever my starting place. (and sometimes I end up learning something.)

    It’s disappointing and frustrating to see this self-serving form of skepticism repeatedly practiced and promoted by supposedly scientifically educated bloggers and commenters. Skepticism of others is easy, but skepticism about one’s own dear theories and insights is likely to be far more useful.

    Now perhaps there was more to this conversation or his relationship to this Tweeter than Phil lets on and he stands here falsely accused, but none of the bandwagon here know that.

    So,
    Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s hardly objective. And we can’t possible know it’s [sic] meaning.?
    Universal Ur-Truth or PoMo garbage? I have no idea, but I do know that the most effective form of skepticism begins at home.

    @Renée:
    Save your refutations and definitions. The best argument that the world in general and scientists in particular need philosophy is to be found right here on this page.

  125. Stephen Wells

    Asking for the meaning of life is like asking for the speed of car. Relative to what?

  126. Dave

    Well, I’m late, but just to add a few points:

    (1) The # of possible neural connections is almost certainly not uncountably infinite. There are different sizes of infinity, and the # of neural connections would be at most countably infinite.

    (2) @#43 Brett: You say “Umm. No. Gravity exists. It’s effect is absolute and measurable.”

    Be careful here. There was a time, not too long ago, when folks would have said the same about epicycles or ether. (The whole problem with ether was that its effect was not absolute and measurable, you say? Sure, but people also thought its effect was measurable. Specifically, they saw the wave nature of light, and they “knew” that any wave must be waving in something. That something was ether. They weren’t raving lunatics; their belief was informed by measurement. They were simply mistaken, as later experiments showed.

    I’m not sure I’d want to be the one stamping my foot for posterity, insisting that gravity is real. Clearly, there’s something that we mean by the word “gravity” that is consistent with many observations we have made. (Same was true of epicycles and ether.) But is that something ultimately “real”, at the end of the day? Is centrifugal force real? From one perspective, sure. From another perspective, it’s simply a fictitious force that is the sensible result of an observer who’s obeying Newton’s first law being forced to deviate from his/her uniform path. A very similar thing is true of gravity.

    3. @107 Arnold — I almost entirely agree.

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