What Can We Know About The World Without Looking At It?

By Sean Carroll | August 11, 2011 8:54 am

One last thought on all this God/cosmology stuff before moving on.

The crucial moment of our panel discussion occurred when John Haught said that he couldn’t imagine a universe without God. (Without God, the universe couldn’t exist.) It would have been more crucial if I had followed up a bit more, but I didn’t because I suck (and because time was precious).

Believing that something must be true about the world because you can’t imagine otherwise is, five hundred years into the Age of Science, not a recommended strategy for acquiring reliable knowledge. It goes back to the classic conflict of rationalism vs. empiricism. “Rationalism” sounds good — who doesn’t want to be rational? But the idea behind it is that we can reach true conclusions about the world by reason alone. We don’t ever have to leave the comfort of our living room; we can just sit around, sharing some single-malt Scotch and fine cigars, thinking really hard about the universe, and thereby achieve some real understanding. Empiricism, on the other hand, says that we should try to imagine all possible ways the world could be, and then actually go out and look at it to decide which way it really is. Rationalism is traditionally associated with Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, while empiricism is associated with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume — but of course these categories never quite fit perfectly well.

The lure of rationalism is powerful, and it shows up all over the place. Leibniz proclaimed various ways the world must work, such as the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Lee Smolin uses Leibnizian arguments against string theory. Many people, such as Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne, feel strongly that the world cannot simply be; there must be a reason for its existence. Paul Davies believes that the laws of physics cannot simply be, and require an explanation. William Lane Craig believes that infinity cannot be realized in Nature. Einstein felt that God did not play dice with the universe. At a less lofty level, people see bad things happen and feel the urge to blame someone.

But the intellectual history of the past five centuries has spoken loud and clear: the dream of rationalism is a false one. The right way to attain knowledge about the universe is ultimately empirical: we formulate all the hypotheses we can, and test them against data. (Making decisions about which hypotheses best explain the data is of course a knotty problem, but that’s for another time.) Broad a priori principles are certainly useful; they can help guide us in the task of formulating and testing hypotheses. But that’s all they do — if we get lazy and start thinking that they grant us true knowledge of the world, we’ve gone off the rails.

A common manifestation of the rationalist temptation is an insistence that a certain state of affairs cannot merely exist; it must be explained, we must find a reason for it. The truth is that, if things are a certain way, there might be a reason for it, but there might not be. Both are hypotheses that should be examined. I personally have a strong feeling that the low entropy of the early universe is an unusual situation that probably has a deeper explanation — it’s a clue pointing towards something we don’t understand about the universe. But I’m careful to distinguish that I don’t know this to be true. It’s perfectly conceivable that the universe simply is that way, and there is no deeper explanation. Ultimately the decision will be made by constructing comprehensive theories and comparing them to data, not by scientists stamping their feet and insisting that a better explanation must be found.

An inquisitive five-year-old might bombard you with an endless series of “Why?” questions. Sometimes you encounter an older version of this five-year-old; someone who, when you say “I have finally formulated a successful unification of all the laws of physics!” will insist on asking “But why is it that way?” If you say “it just is,” they will say “that’s not good enough.” That’s the point at which you are allowed to turn the tables. Just start asking, “Well why isn’t it good enough? Why do I need a deeper level of explanation for how the world is?” Not that it will actually change their attitude, but it can be personally satisfying.

Favorite targets for people insisting on deeper explanations include the existence of the universe itself (as Haught was indicating) and the particular laws of physics we observe (as Davies argues). The proper scientific attitude is to say: well, there may be a deeper explanation, or there may not. Before we go out and actually look at, the universe could very well be many things. It could be a single point. It could be a line or a plane. It could be non-existent. The universe could be a fiber bundle over a Riemannian manifold, an n-dimensional cellular automaton, a trajectory in Hilbert space obeying Schroedinger’s equation, a holographic projection of a conformal field theory, the dream of a disturbed demon, a layered collection of natural and supernatural dimensions, someone’s elaborate computer simulation, or any of a million other things. It could be unique or multiple, meaningful or intrinsically purposeless. It could be brought into existence by something outside itself, or it could be sustained by a distinct being, or it could simply be. If you personally find some of these alternatives unsatisfying, that is a matter for you and your therapist to work out; reality doesn’t care. The way we will find out the truth is not to insist that it must be one way or another; it’s to understand the likely consequences of each possibility, and line them up with what we actually observe.

You can see why a rationalist line of reasoning would be attractive to the theistically inclined. If you have God intervening in the world, you can judge it by science and it’s not a very good theory. If on the other hand God is completely separate from the universe, what’s the point? But if God is a necessary being, certainly existing but not necessarily poking into the operation of the world, you can have your theological cake without it being stolen by scientific party-crashers, if I may mix a metaphor. The problem is, there are no necessary beings. There is only what exists, and we should be open to all the possibilities.

None of this is to say that there is no room for logic or reason in understanding how the world could possibly work. “2+2=4″ is a true statement in any possible world, once we specify the definitions of “2” and “+” and “=” and “4.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a true statement about anything that actually happens in the world. The universe might very well have been something where there weren’t two collections of two things to add together, nor sufficient computing power to perform the arithmetical operation. Once we accept some hypotheses about the world (through comparing their predictions to reality), we are allowed to use reason to draw inferences from those hypotheses. (That’s kind of what I do for a living.) But step one in that process is to be open to which sets of hypotheses are actually relevant to the real world.

The temptation of rationalism can be a hard one to resist. We human beings are not blank slates; not only do we come equipped with informal heuristics for making sense of the world we see, but we have strong desires about how the world should operate. Intellectual honesty demands that we put those desires aside, and accept the world for what it actually is, whatever that may turn out to be.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion, Top Posts
  • http://www.astronomyoutreach.org Michael Overacker

    Sean, thanks for this insight. I often have to deal with various points of view in my astronomy outreach. The outreach I do crosses all social-economic groups and the religious spectrum. In about 1 in 3 outreach events, I encounter a group who wants to debate these issues. The insight here helps me straighten out my own thoughts with ways I might use to address their questions. It was enlightening. I appreciate your insights and your ability to put it into words that I can understand.

    Michael

  • http://www.questional.com Questional

    Thanks for this, Sean. This topic came up a lot in the office after a recent article which mentioned religion- the debate spilled over across all our social networks. I found myself holding my tongue because I didn’t quite have the words to express exactly what this blog touches upon!

    Teacher: “This is how we observe it happening.”
    Student: “Why does it happen?”
    Teacher: “Whatever the ‘why’ is it doesn’t change what we observe about ‘how’.”
    – Mike @ Questional

  • Hugh Campbell

    Sean, doesn’t it really just get down to belief. God cannot be proven or disproven, it is strickly a matter of belief. As Bertrand Russell said “If God does not exist man would have to invent him”. Man wants psychologically to believe in something to explain that which man does not understand. And people want to believe that life on Earth is not the end. It is a need. Not rational but needed.

    Hugh

  • Jim

    It’s worth noting that the term “rationalism” as used above is much different than what it typically signifies today, as modern rationalism is strongly empiricist.

  • http://www.annarborscienceskeptic.com Chris Lindsay

    I really enjoyed reading this, thanks.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Jim– the word “rationalism” appears nowhere on the Less Wrong post you linked to. Don’t confuse “rationality” and “rationalism,” they are completely different things!

  • Owlmirror

    God cannot be proven or disproven, it is strickly a matter of belief.

    Belief in what, though? An invisible person with magical superpowers that very conveniently never demonstrates magical superpowers or personhood?

    As Bertrand Russell said “If God does not exist man would have to invent him”

    Voltaire, you mean: Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.

    Man wants psychologically to believe in something to explain that which man does not understand.

    The entire point of the post was to argue that the only thing that actually works at explaining anything is the scientific method, and coming to a conclusion — believing in something — without evidence, is useless.

    And people want to believe that life on Earth is not the end. It is a need. Not rational but needed.

    This (and Voltaire) notwithstanding — while religion may be common, it is not universal.

  • Kaleberg

    There are obviously necessary beings. We are. We are our own evidence, and any theory has to include us.

  • Lord

    I would call this a straw argument if there weren’t so much validity to it. Most do think at these simple levels. For those capable of deeper thinking, no search for knowledge can be free from both empiricism or rational thought and the mistake is to believe it must be one or the other. Rationality must not be a substitute for empiricism, nor can empiricism be free from it. Why must always remain a question for empiricists and reason must never be the answer for rationalists. Knowledge has no end, nor reason a bound.

  • Owlmirror

    There are obviously necessary beings. We are.

    You’re not understanding “necessary” in the sense used by philosophers. The argument is that all beings are contingent — that is, there are prior factors which lead to them existing. You do exist, but you might not, if those prior factors did not align to lead to you existing.

    The theololgical argument goes, the chain of contingent factors cannot continue infinitely (note: this is what they say; I don’t think anyone has shown it to be necessarily true), so there must be something that has no contingent priors; this something is necessary for everything that follows from it. All factors are ultimately contingent upon it, while it is not contingent upon anything else.

    OK, got all that? So, this necessary whatever-it-is — this is called “God”, by theololgians.

    Now, anyone with a brain would ask, “Wait. Why are we calling this necessary whatever-it-is ‘God'”? And the real answer is, Thomas Aquinas wanted to rationally defend belief in God, and in doing so, failed to notice that he was arguing irrationally.

    There might be some ultimately necessary whatever-it-is, upon which everything that exists is contingent upon — I don’t claim certainty on the matter. But there’s no reason to call it “God” unless you’re a theololgian who wants to play word games in defense of theistic belief.

  • KWK

    Sean,

    When you say “there are no necessary beings”, I’m curious how you know this–have you gone out and looked at the universe in order to determine this, or are you applying rationalistic thought processes to reach that conclusion?

    Now it seems to me, given your focus on empiricism, that you’re talking about *epistemic* necessity, in which case you’re absolutely right–even Haught should have been able to wrap his mind around the idea, “What if I didn’t have any knowledge relating to the existence of God? How would I explain the universe?” But I still have the feeling that Haught had in mind ontological necessity, and that is (as I said in the other comment thread) where you two were probably talking past each other.

    More apropos of this post, though, a conclusion of ontological necessity can be reached at least in part *by observing external circumstances* and seeing that there are things to observe, and observers to do the observing. And if we see that every individual thing that we observe has an (external) cause, then it is reasonably (though perhaps not absolutely) certain that the collection of all things we observe similarly has an (external) cause. To borrow your phrasing, not only is 2+2=4 true in any possible universe, but we are also actually observing *in our universe* two collections of two things that can be added together. So to claim that belief a la Haught is based on rationalism without any empirical checks placed upon it is not quite right.

    But then again, what’s particularly tricky in the case of ontological necessity is that “the observable universe” taken as a whole provides but one data point, which makes broader extrapolation rather ill-advised, as a general rule. Still, I’d be interested to know if you think the epistemology/ontology distinction impacts your argument at all.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I just don’t think the notion of “ontological necessity” is in any way useful. I can imagine many different worlds, with completely non-overlapping sets of characteristics. I see no difference between someone claiming that a concept is “ontologically necessary” and someone admitting that they can’t imagine a world without that concept. The correct prescription is to work to improve one’s powers of imagination.

  • Lee Smolin

    Dear Sean,

    Just to clarify, I used the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) in the paper you cite and others to argue that any successful unification of physics must be background independent. This is not “against string theory” as many experts would agree that any precise, non-perturbative formulation of string theory must be background independent. The lack of such a formulation is a persistent weakness of string theory, but it may be one that can be overcome. I have certainly put a lot of effort into trying.

    In fact, most approaches to quantum gravity are as background independent as general relativity. It means that classical spacetime must emerge, and recently there is a lot of progress with showing that this happens, in spin foam models and causal dynamical triangulations. It is also the background independence of loop quantum cosmology that yields clean results on the elimination of cosmological singularities.

    Of course, in science experiment tops general principles. Philosophy can be at best an heuristic guide. But still, historically the PSR has been an excellent heuristic guide to the construction of theories that did pass experimental tests. The best example is general relativity. Another is statistical mechanics. It forced people to make sense of the atomic hypothesis, when pure empiricists were arguing atoms didn’t exist and matter was just what it was. This led to the 20th century explosion of knowledge.

    I think there is a good case to be made that the PRS remains a good guide now. For one thing, it tends to concentrate our work on theories that are closed, explanatorily, which means they are more likely to lead to falsifiable predictions. This was the point of my cosmological natural selection scenario. It also explicitly excludes the troubled, paradox prone, cosmological scenarios with an infinite number of copies of every thing, person and event in the universe, as these massively violate the principle of the identity of the indiscernible. The latter is a consequence of the PSR. Seeing how much intellectual gymnastics is going into wresting with, but so far not resolving, the measure problem in the multiverse of eternal inflation, one can appreciate what good advice the PRS is.

    There is much more to say about this, it is central to my current writing projects and I look forward to discussing with you sometime soon.

    Best wishes,

    Lee

  • http://www.stuartadrianbrown.net/blog/ Stuart Brown

    Although I agree that overall empiricism trumps rationalism, I think it is a mistake to present the two as dichotomous opposites. Of course, at its worst, rationalism completely ignores empiricism: as has regrettably happens in far too often in my field (linguistics) where the Chomskian approach is to rationally deduce how human language ‘must’ work, and then declare actual data ‘epiphenomological’ and simply ignore or deny contradictory observational findings. (It could be added that in his politic writings, too, Chomsky exhibits a tendency to favour his theory-driven narratives over actual, inconvenient events. In this sense the conspiracy theorist and the religious believer overlap somewhat!).
    However, conversely, observation unmodified by reason can lead to science being reduced to a merely cataloguing activity. Psychology, long cowed by the embarrassment of Freud, has to certain extent reduced itself in this manner.
    I should add that, initially, Chomsky was extremely beneficial to linguistics, shaking it out of exactly this type of butterfly-collecting approach and presenting it with some meaty underlying questions to tackle. However, the answers he posited to these questions were constructed purely from rationalism, and fail to correspond well with actual observation leading a whole chunk of the discipline, who refuse to drop this paradigm, into a parallel world where the topic of investigation is not human speech as observed but idealized utterances drawn circuitously from their theories.
    A rationalist spark, therefore, the idea that ‘this may be the case because…’ is necessary to move beyond purely correlational results to hypotheses concerning causation, and the consequent novel testable predictions. The error I think is in not recognizing that when data and theory collide, it is the theory that must give way.
    If this all sounds a bit Popperian, well, that’s ‘cos it is. Unashamedly so! Whether he actually did this or not, Popper’s anecdote about starting a lecture course by instructing his students to take out their papers and pencils, and then commanding “Observe!” illustrates all this nicely: the students (apparently) immediately asked “observe what” and “how”, etc., giving Popper a nice little parable about how even the simple act of observation is actually theory-laden.

  • SLP

    Maybe I’m missing something but how is this different than when 500 years ago the village priest was telling his parishioners to stop asking why; that’s just the way God made it? Somebody better be stamping their feet and demanding a better explaination or be making apologies to lots of dead people because we’ll know no more of the core reason than they did. At least their reasons gave some sort of comfort to people.

  • Phil

    Thanks for indicating that believers in God need therapists. ;)

  • Gene

    Without a healthy dose of rationalism all of our scientific observations become a collection of coincidences.

  • Phil

    So, Sean, do you think that the universe can come from literally nothing? If so, why? IF there is nothing, there are no laws of physics. So how do you make a universe?

  • Phil

    You need a being that transcends space and time in order to create space and time from a state that did not have space and time. That is, if there is no multiverse, and our space and time had a beginning, then you need a being that transcends space and time to create our universe because the laws of physics do not somehow exist outside space and time, so our universe couldn’t have been caused by a “quantum fluctuation”. Nor have you answered my question, “Why something rather than nothing if the energy content of nothing is still 0?” Hawking’s explanation is not an explanation at all.

  • Phil

    So, did the narrator make the argument that the universe came into being from nothing? Or was the point that one cannot talk about a cause because time itself came into being with the Big Bang, so there was no “before” in which a cause occurred?
    Unfortunately, the show didn’t make it clear that we really know nothing about the laws of physics at that tiny scale (quantum gravity). Hence, the statement that the universe could have come into being without violating any of the KNOWN laws of physics is incorrect since we don’t know what those laws are at that tiny scale.
    Sure, one can say that the total energy of the universe is 0, so a universe can pop into existence without needing any energy or violating energy conservation. But if the universe, for example, came from “nothing”, then why did the universe come into being at all? The total energy of “nothing” is 0 as well. Thus, why isn’t there still nothing? And one cannot make the argument that the universe could have popped into existence from nothing as a result of quantum mechanics, because there IS no quantum mechanics if there is nothing. And even if, somehow, the universe could have come into being from nothing, why THESE laws and constants, and not others?
    So I’m surprised that, to my knowledge, the show didn’t mention the multiverse idea which could resolve these questions by saying there may exist a “universe-generating” mechanism that can make a universe from a pre-existing universe. If a multiverse had always existed “for all eternity”, that could completely do away with the need for a “first cause”. One could just say that the multiverse had always existed with the set of laws that it does, laws which also include some sort of universe-generating mechanism. But that still doesn’t address the question, “Why those laws and not others?” Unfortunately, our knowledge of the laws of physics is still incomplete, so we cannot say for sure whether such a mechanism exists, nor whether other universes exist.
    All they referred to was the notion of virtual particles randomly coming into existence from the vacuum of space-time, but this is just an analogy. The vacuum of space-time is not nothing. It is part of the universe.
    So concluding that these ideas render a creator unnecessary is, in my opinion, misleading and incorrect.
    If the universe came from nothing, then on what grounds can we say that the universe arose from a random quantum fluctuation? If there’s nothing, literally nothing, then the idea “quantum fluctuation” makes no sense — it doesn’t even exist, it’s not possible. If you have nothing, you stay with nothing.
    Does there exist a being which transcends space and time? No? Why not? Can you use science to answer the question?

  • http://www.stuartadrianbrown.net/blog/ Stuart Brown

    @ Gene (#17): Nicely put, and rather less wordily than my attempt.

  • JimV

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. I know, because I tried to in a comment to the previous post of this subject, and didn’t. Well put.

    @ Phil: “You need a being that transcends space and time …” No, some of us really don’t. More to the point, you don’t get to decide this on behalf of the universe. That was sort of the point of this whole post. That’s even if your “being” had any explanatory power at all, which it doesn’t. (Hint: exactly how does your being accomplish what you claim it does. If it’s just “magic” with no explanation, I could as easily assume the universe itself is “magic”, couldn’t I?)

  • http://www.groupsrv.com/science/about193612,html Anthony A. Aiya-Oba

    Balance is divine.-Aiya-Oba (philosopher)

  • Mike

    Sean,

    I’m with those who think you’ve posited a false dichotomy.

    Of course, real progress isn’t made simply by never leaving the comfort of our living room; just sitting around, sharing some single-malt Scotch and fine cigars (not that this sounds so bad ;) ), thinking really hard about the universe.

    Conversely, empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses. These both are extremes and neither is correct.

    However, you go on to say that empiricism says that we should try to imagine all possible ways the world should be, and then actually go out and look at it to decide which way it really is. I agree with this but don’t think it’s empiricism, at least in the traditional sense.

    In fact, when you say that we should try to imagine all possible ways the world should be and then go out and see if it’s right, what you are saying is that we begin by conjecture, and then we criticize and test the conjecture in the world, trying always to arrive a more correct explanation. That’s the scientific method.

    Conjecture looks a lot like rationalism, but its more than that, because it’s always based on prior conjectures that have been tested and criticized in the world. And criticizing and testing the conjecture in the world looks a lot like empiricism, but it’s more than that, because its based on our then current best explanations.

    Neither label does the scientific method justice.

  • Phil

    JimV

    “Hint: exactly how does your being accomplish what you claim it does. If it’s just “magic” with no explanation, I could as easily assume the universe itself is “magic”, couldn’t I?”

    But can the universe create itself from nothing? No. The only thing we know about the universe is that it is governed by a set of laws and principles. If you don’t have a universe, you don’t have these laws or principles. So if you don’t have a universe, nor laws and principles, then how does one explain the origin of the universe from nothing? Laws of physics don’t somehow exist, just as Plato’s forms exist somewhere. The laws are what we come up with to describe the universe and predict its behavior. They don’t exist outside the universe, nor do they have any kind of power to create one.

    I don’t know how this being (God) accomplishes it. All I know is that, unless there is a multiverse that had always existed, the laws of physics can’t tell us how our universe was “born” if, indeed, it had a beginning.

  • Gene

    @Stuart # 17, I see we were on the same track, minus the endorsement of Popper.

    @Lee #16, How is the principle of the identity of the indescernible even a valid heuristic principle?
    Is it not in blatant contradiction with all we understand about particle physics? It seems to me that we can find tremendous duplication in nature, and I don’t see why this couldn’t extend to universes themselves.

  • Will

    “The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is wholly impossible … is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles.” – Bradley

  • Craig

    Sadly the philosophical meaning of the word Rationalism is not the same as the popular meaning. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/rationalism?view=uk

  • Samuel Prime

    Didn’t Einstein arrive at his two theories of relativity by an approach similar to rationalism? He hardly had much experimental basis for making the postulates he made in these theories. (The tests came some years later.) I think beauty and simplicity were among the driving forces in his rationalism. Of course, you could argue that none of it would have been of much value had later experiments disproven his work. But nevertheless, a rationalism approach to nature seems to have worked for Einstein (at least twice). (I think also for Dirac when he derived his relativistic equation for the electron by his heuristic guess at taking the square root of the Klein Gordon equation.) That is why I don’t chuck rationalism out the window completely, though I agree that one ought to be careful with it (just as we are careful with experiment).

    We want to be as careful with experiment just as well, since they can be misleading (and their interpretation not too clear). The example comes to mind of Murray Gell-Mann who said that seven experiments supposedly proving his theory wrong were themselves shown to be wrong!

    As a mathematician, I think many/most things do have explanations or causes. But when
    it comes to most of mathematics, I have to stop at the fundamental axioms of set theory (Zermelo-Fraenkel, along with the Axiom of Choice and the Continuum Hypothesis). It would lead me into too much speculation to inquire as to the reason for them or a cause for them. I have no scientific or logical proof for why we settled on those axioms – they just seemed a natural choice reached by us humans (and on which physics and the sciences depend).

  • AJKamper

    @Phil:

    Why do you need a “being” that transcends space and time? Why not something else that transcends space and time?

    I honestly think this is a sort of argument from ignorance–or a weird form of anthropomorphism (or theomorphism?). That is, since we can’t really imagine what it takes to transcend space and time so that we have physical rules, we assume that it requires a being, because (like Haught) nothing else makes sense. In other words, because we are ignorant, the answer must be God.

    That doesn’t make sense to me. I can hypothesize, in response, a physical analogue to Anselm’s ontological argument: a set of laws so perfect that they must exist. It sounds crazy, but it’s no crazier than assuming some sort of being that somehow did it, and perhaps less so, since there are fewer attributes to explain.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Though I think Feyerabend’s anarchism was more than a tad extreme, every individual has their own way of thinking about things, and muddles about in their own way when not beset by arguments against their hypotheses. I think we all kind of converge on a fairly orthodox “method” of science, but getting to that point can involve as many tricks as there are people. Philosophizing in some way may be one of them.

    But, nature being the final arbiter and all, when all is said and done, we need the utmost discipline. No observation, no science. No controls, no science. No reproducibility, no science. It’s inescapable.

  • Phil

    AJKamper,

    “Why do you need a “being” that transcends space and time? Why not something else that transcends space and time?”

    OK, whatever. You need something that transcends space and time. But it seems to me that if you create something (a universe) from nothing, it would have to involve intention. Also, this universe that is created is governed by laws of physics with certain values of constants that seem “just right” for life. So, these considerations make me think that this something that transcends space and time is some kind of supernatural “intelligence” that transcends space and time and that this being had intention when it created the universe from nothing.

    ” I can hypothesize, in response, a physical analogue to Anselm’s ontological argument: a set of laws so perfect that they must exist. It sounds crazy, but it’s no crazier than assuming some sort of being that somehow did it, and perhaps less so, since there are fewer attributes to explain.”

    Tell that to the string theorists. ;)

    Anyway, you cannot get anything from nothing and if science somehow is consistent with the idea that our universe was born from nothing, then there must be something transcending space and time that created our universe. That is, if your fundamental theory does not allow for the existence of other universes and if your fundamental theory doesn’t allow for an initial state of our universe that had always existed “before” the (classical) Big Bang singularity, then how do you explain the origin of the universe?

    So, since we know nothing about what the fundamental theory of physics is (the theory that will, presumably, allow us to progress through the issue of the origin of our universe as much as science can allow us), it is misleading and incorrect for Hawking to say that the known laws of physics render a creator unnecessary.

    How do you know quantum mechanics (or whatever) can exist without a universe there? What does “quantum mechanics” govern? General Relativity governs the curvature of spacetime and how objects move through spacetime? What does GR govern without a universe? What does quantum mechanics govern without a universe? The equations and principles of GR do not transcend spacetime because it is a theory of spacetime. Likewise, quantum mechanics does not transcend space and time because QM governs the behavior of subatomic particles, which can only reside in space and time.

  • Cosmonut

    @Phil:

    Thanks for raising a point which scientists keep hand-waving away – it is logically impossible to explain the origin of the universe using the laws of nature. Because, if there is no universe, there are no laws of nature either. End of story.

    Cosmologists keep trying to sneak in a means to have the laws of nature “always exist” in some sense, because otherwise there’s no hook to hang their theoretical coats.

    So, for instance, in the early days, Fred Hoyle’s Steady State theory was very popular because it implied that the universe always existed.

    The discovery of cosmic background radiation put an end to that.

    Then everyone started rooting for the so-called oscillating universe, where a previous version of the universe collapses and all the collapsing particles somehow shoot past each other and explode out in a new big bang and so on forever.

    Stephen Hawking’s singularity theorems stuck a nail in that as well.

    So, now the big hope is that quantizing gravity will somehow sort things out and allow the precious laws of nature to survive.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens if we succeed in quantizing gravity and the new theory also predicts a breakdown of the laws at the beginning of the universe. :)

  • Phil

    @ Cosmonut,

    Well, I think it will take some time for such a theory to be finalized. The LHC is only capable of probing physics at energies of 14 TeV. The Planck scale is at 10^19 GeV (or something like that). That’s a huge range over which we will have to study particle physics in order for us to know what the fundamental theory is because, it seems, the consensus is that one cannot quantize pure GR and forget about other particles/interactions. We need to be really clever to be able to reliably probe the Planck scale. Until then, we won’t be able to definitively say anything about what must have been going on at the Big Bang singularity or what had caused it.

  • Cosmonut

    @Phil:

    Yes, the unified theory is nowhere in sight, despite Hawking’s confident prediction that we’d have it in the “next 20 years”. This prediction was made in 1980 ! (Honestly, I wonder why anybody takes SWH seriously any more.)

    My speculation is that if we do find a theory, by 2050 say, and it predicts a singularity at the origin of the universe, scientists will just insist that the theory can’t be complete and a “scientific explanation” of the universe’s origin is waiting in the wings.

  • Phil

    Well, I have heard that string theory has the potential to resolve classical singularities, so who knows. I don’t know much about string theory but many well-respected people say it’s very promising. But we still don’t know what string theory is, nor what M-theory is supposed to be or whether it is “the fundamental theory”. But whatever the fundamental theory is, it does not have the ability to make a universe (and physics tells us that universes are made up of spacetime and particles which interact with each other and with spacetime) out of nothing.

    Anyway, it will be interesting when we are finally able to conduct experiments at the Planck scale (if we ever learn how to do it) and see if we see any kind of evidence of having made new universes. I’m not sure what the experimental signatures of that will be (How do we obtain casual contact with other universes after we make them?). But if the theory you have allows you to predict what happens at the Planck scale and whatever energies you have the technology to reach beyond that scale, and allows you to derive all the physics that has ever been done before that at all lower energy scales, AND you can somehow show that your theory is mathematically unique and that, in your experiments, you should have made new universes, then that gives clear evidence that a multiverse exists and that our universe was made in the same way (with or without the participation of alien life forms :) ).

    But like I said, we just don’t know.

  • Cosmonut

    But whatever the fundamental theory is, it does not have the ability to make a universe (and physics tells us that universes are made up of spacetime and particles which interact with each other and with spacetime) out of nothing.
    ——————————————–

    Totally agree.

    From the literature I get the sense that scientists are hoping that M-theory or whatever will describe some kind of meta-universe which always existed. So, then *our* universe will have arisen from some Planck scale phenomenon in that metaverse.

    But yes, we are nowhere near that kind of a theory yet, so Hawking’s claims are vacuous.

  • Cosmonut

    Sometimes you encounter an older version of this five-year-old; someone who, when you say “I have finally formulated a successful unification of all the laws of physics!” will insist on asking “But why is it that way?” If you say “it just is,” they will say “that’s not good enough.” That’s the point at which you are allowed to turn the tables. Just start asking, “Well why isn’t it good enough? Why do I need a deeper level of explanation for how the world is?” Not that it will actually change their attitude, but it can be personally satisfying.
    —————————————-

    That’s a particularly idiotic argument.

    I can imagine a 17th century Sean “turning the tables” with:
    “What do you mean why do apples fall ? That’s just the way things are. Get over it.”

    Fortunately, we had Newton instead.

    The history of science is replete with examples of “brute facts” that turned out to have deeper explanations (conservation of energy comes to mind.)

    The honest answer to “Why that unified theory ?” is not “That’s a stupid question” or “It must be God”.
    Its simply – “That’s a deep mystery. Nobody knows.”

  • God

    Sean, this is God.

    I just read your blog post, and it’s made me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry! Just look at what I did to everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as everyone on Earth other than Noah and his family during the great flood. And don’t forget all of the other trillions of people I’ve had to smite throughout your species’ millions of years of evolut-erm, I mean the several thousands of years since your creation (by me… God). So as I was saying… the fact that you choose not to believe in me and thank me personally every day makes me angry. Nevermind the fact that I didn’t embed even the slightest bit of reliable evidence of my existence into the structure of your universe, and that the only way I expected you to learn about me was through the constantly rewritten and handed-down, self-contradictory, factually erroneous, multi-thousand year old mythology of ancient civilizations. That should have been enough for you! Also, you are expected to overlook the fact that there are several other such mythological teachings coming from other ancient civilizations. Those other teachings are wrong! If you pick one of them by mistake or happen to be born into a religion where they are prevalent you are going to be punished for eternity by burning endlessly in agonizing infernos of torture. After all, I am a God of Love.

  • Jimbo

    RightOn, Sean: Empiricism rules over Rationalism. Just this year:

    1. SUSY excluded out to a Tev, & probably dead – LHC.
    2. Large extra dims & micro-black holes excluded up to 7 Tev – LHC.
    3. Lorentz invariance violation pushed out to 10^ – 49 m – INTEGRAL
    4. Dark matter WIMPS excluded by the most sensitive test – XENON100
    5. Multiverse evidenced via Bubble collision excluded – WMAP7

    Repeatedly we find our most cherished cutting edge ideas cannot stand up to empirical tests,
    & altho not rigorously falsified, wither & fade in the vacuum of observation. We can only hold our breath & hope Higgsy does not meet the same fate.

  • Tom S

    When John Haught said that he couldn’t imagine a universe without God, he may not have meant that he was lacking in imagination, or that he could not mentally wrap his head around some universe that did not include God.
    An equally likely meaning to the statement might be “I do not WANT to imagine a universe without God”. The idea of a universe without God would be repugnant, meaningless and somehow almost banal to him.
    If he did mean this, then his position is even less supportable than your kinder interpretation.

  • Philip

    I think what you’ve writen about the “Why?” question is excellent. Oftentimes when I hear an appologist, like William Lane Craig speak, they start of by saying things like, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, claiming that it’s one of life’s great questions. It’s obvious that they really don’t care about the question, because as you said, you can say that about every single explanation of the question. I think it’s importaint to point out that saying “god created the universe” is open to the same line of enquiry; “Why does god exist, rather than not?”. The dodge here is to say perhaps that god is eternal and so she doesn’t need an explanation, or she’s a nessesary being. I think neither of these are actually very satisfying.

  • Lee Smolin

    Gene,

    By the Fermi exclusion principle every fermion is in a unique quantum state. That is compatible with the principle of the identity of the indiscernible (PII). Bosons are another story, of course. So for sure QED has lots of states that are not compatible with PII.

    But QED is not the final theory, so maybe the PII can offer a heuristic guide to making it better. Here is one way it might. As Steve Weinstein points out in a recent preprint, QED has to be supplemented by a boundary condition to eliminate spurious states and solutions that don’t occur in nature. The boundary condition is that there be no free incoming states of radiation in the universe. All photons we observe seem to reliably come from sources. Otherwise we could not trust our vision or our telescopes to give us information about how matter is distributed in the universe.

    Why should this boundary condition be imposed? It is highly time asymmetric, which is weird in a universe governed by almost perfectly time symmetric laws.

    So also inspired by the PII, we can ask another question about bosonic fields, which is the following: define the sky of an event to be the two sphere of directions from there. and call the pattern of radiation incoming from its past light cone, on that sky, the view of that event. Two events will be the same if it is impossible to distinguish their views. In a relational world (ie one compatible with the PSR) you have no label for events but what is measured there, so the view of every distinct event must be distinct.

    The next question is, do we live in a universe in which it happens to be the case that any two events can be distinguished by the patterns of radiation arriving to that event? I think there is a good case to be made that we do. This is because rather than living in a universe filled with a free gas in thermal equilibrium, we live in a universe that is highly structured on a wide range of length scales. This is due to a combination of the special initial conditions, the finely tuned laws, and the fact that gravitationally bound systems do not evolve to unique, featureless equilibria.

    Thinking about the universe in a way that makes its inhomogeneities and asymmetries essential for the description leads to some interesting places. This is for me an example of how the PSR serves as a heuristic guide to the questions we ask.

  • Richard O’Connell

    USELESS MEDITATION

    Because we are crass
    utilitarians all
    we accept & cherish
    Crusoe’s daybook of accounts

    But what of Friday’s
    inscrutable
    dark cry
    at the core of creation
    the fury & speech
    of unknowable forms
    like those lachrymose rock
    faces on Easter Island
    staring at Alpha Centuri

    We fish plant & write
    in our palm thatched hut
    hoping the universe
    is what we construct

  • Phil Osopher

    What Sean just did is extremely useful to clarify his worldview to blog readers, in the sense that scientists view the world and its “ultimate” truths mostly accoding to their own (conscious or unconscious) philosophy of mathematics (platonism, constructivism, intuitionism, empiricism,…). So, Sean has just admitted being a “mathematical empiricist”. This is of course a very respectable position, but its main problem is that mathematics is unavoidably, at some point, about infinities: that’s what Hilbert called “Cantor’s paradise”, from which no empiricist will ever expel any mathematician. So, how does the rich and fruitful mathematics of the infinite develop under an empiricist account?

  • psmith

    Oh dear, Sean, have you forgotten your post about free will?

    There you quite happily invoked causal compatibilism to explain away the disconnect between causal determinism and free will.

    Now, what if anything, is causal compatibilism but rationalism, pure and simple? Some philosophers snidely dismiss it as word jugglery. I certainly can’t see any empirical basis for that argument.

    You want to defend free will from the implications of causal determinism so you invoke rationalism.
    You want to defend atheism from the metaphysical implications of the laws of nature so you invoke empiricism.

    You can’t be a rationalist when it suits you and then an empiricist when the arguments get tricky. This is either a careless inconsistency or intellectual dishonesty.

  • http://broadspeculations.com/ Jim Cross

    I’m with Mike and others about this being a false dichotomy.

    Strict empiricism isn’t possible because we, the observers, are a part of what we are observing. And strict rationalism isn’t possible either because the brain/mind it uses has evolved as part of the world and doesn’t exist independent of it.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise that mathematics models the world so well since mathematics is product of the brain/mind that the world created.

    Science in practice actually seems to swing between the two poles. It makes conjectures and looks for evidence. It finds evidence and makes conjectures.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Why this article? If there was something interesting going on in the author’s area of physics, then there would be little time to devote to this article.

  • Pingback: The Temptation of Rationalism | Tangled Up in Blue Guy()

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Leave aside the mention of “Creator” in the sentence below. Even so, it is a sentence that cannot be arrived at by the observation of nature.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    If it were left to scientists, the millionth metasurvey of the billion double blind tests of whether men are created equal would be going on. Scientists would find no Rights in nature. Happiness is so vague as not to be a scientific concept – it gets replaced by “endorphin rush in the brain” or something. Liberty would be equally elusive. Life as in survival would be found by science, but whether it is the life of the rioter in London or of a celebrated artist in New York, science would only be able to say things like the hormones related to stress in populations of the two are different with some statistical significance.

    Despite brave declarations like The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights, the concept of Rights is far from universal. Rights do not exist in nature, nor in every human culture. The mechanism of Rights seems to be effective as a principle in the organization of human society, that is the best that can be said objectively. That it might work is an act of faith, not really based on what can be called scientific evidence.

  • Ray

    Arun says:

    >Leave aside the mention of “Creator” in the sentence below. Even so, it is a sentence that cannot be arrived at by the observation of nature.

    >“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Well, the usual standard in experimental psychology for what a subject holds to be self evident is self reporting, so as stated, this sentence can be arrived at by science. But, on a more serious note, it does not benefit me in the least whether I have rights, unless these rights are enforced. Whether the existence of rights is a scientific matter or not (I contend that once you decide what a “right” is, their existence is indeed self-evident, but this is really just semantics) it is definitely an empirical matter whether governments enforce various rights. Strip away the poetic language, and the polemic against divine right kingship, and all Jefferson was really saying is that he and the other signers were refusing to live under a government that did not enforce the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men. This may not be as poetic as the original statement, but it is every bit as forceful.

    Jefferson may have defined these rights into existence, while giving credit to an imagined God, but those who guaranteed that those rights were useful (i.e. enforced) were the continental army, the army of the union, and the rest of what became the US government — a collection of men, and eventually women who were committed to granting the rights promised by the Declaration and explicitly stated in the US constitution (especially amendments 1-10, 13,14,15, and 19.)

  • Aarthy

    Asking ‘why’ isn’t the problem. Answering ‘God’ when you don’t necessarily have a clue, is.

  • Brathmore

    Sean,

    I almost laughed out loud reading your post.

    I’m all for empiricism. But your newfound respect for empiricism seems to contradict much of the string theory hype that you and others promote. How do you reconcile empiricism while promoting things without empirical support (string theory/multiverse theories etc.) ??

  • Dan

    What can we know about the world without looking at it?

    What can we understand about what we see without rationalizing it?

    The statements “God does not exist” and “There are no such things as a soul or spirit” are not based on scientific empiricism, but rather on a priori assumptions, which, by the way, is rationalization. They cannot be inferred by lack of scientific evidence. They obviate the suggestion that the existence of God and science are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Science is not the search for ultimate truth, but rather the correspondence of theory to result. We should be able to use rationalism and empiricism, along with our intuition and personal experience, to decide for ourselves the ultimate truth of such statements.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    Great post!

    In my corner of the world (quantum computing theory), the battle between empiricism and rationalism rears its head in debates about the Extended Church-Turing Thesis (ECT): the idea that any physical system can be simulated with only polynomial overhead by a deterministic Turing machine. A surprising number of computer scientists (and even some physicists) have taken the view that, if some phenomenon predicted by current physical theory (like let’s say, oh, a scalable quantum computer) appears to be a counterexample to the ECT, then so much the worse for the phenomenon, since we can know on a priori grounds that the ECT must be true! For years I’ve argued with these people to no avail—pointing out that, even if quantum mechanics turned out to be false, that still wouldn’t logically imply that whatever theory replaced it would satisfy the ECT.

    Even so, like (I suppose) almost all mathematicians, I definitely have a soft spot in my heart (or should it be brain?) for rationalism. In particular, I find it entirely plausible that, if we were smart enough, we could figure out almost everything worth knowing while sitting around in our living rooms drinking single-malt Scotch. (Cf. Wheeler’s vision that if and when we discover the ultimate theory of physics, we’ll exclaim, “but how could things have been otherwise?!”) However, I also think that we’re not smart enough—hence the need for observation and experiment.

  • AJKamper

    @Phil:

    Here is where I think we part ways:

    But it seems to me that if you create something (a universe) from nothing, it would have to involve intention. Also, this universe that is created is governed by laws of physics with certain values of constants that seem “just right” for life. So, these considerations make me think that this something that transcends space and time is some kind of supernatural “intelligence” that transcends space and time and that this being had intention when it created the universe from nothing.

    I’d suggest that this is a failure in YOU, not a requirement of creation ex nihilo. You assume that intention is necessary based on your own failure to conceive of any other answer. I’m content with saying, “There’s clearly something about causality we don’t get,” without stuffing a transcendent intelligence in that particular gap.

    I do agree that there is something that transcends our notions of space and time, but I believe that’s a limit on our conceptual ability more than anything else. It’s related to the existence of paradox: say, Zeno’s paradoxes. Similarly, we can always get into a “What made those?” regress, no matter what the nature of this transcendence is. We can always ask, “Well, what caused that?” The fact that we eventually come to a point that we can’t answer doesn’t necessitate a God (much less one created in our own image, who has intent and intelligence and does things); it just means that we are fundamentally ignorant about some important aspects of existence. For now.

  • Pentcho Valev

    Samuel Prime wrote: “Didn’t Einstein arrive at his two theories of relativity by an approach similar to rationalism? He hardly had much experimental basis for making the postulates he made in these theories.”

    The “rational” consequences of his 1905 false light postulate:

    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Relativity/SR/barn_pole.html
    “These are the props. You own a barn, 40m long, with automatic doors at either end, that can be opened and closed simultaneously by a switch. You also have a pole, 80m long, which of course won’t fit in the barn. Now someone takes the pole and tries to run (at nearly the speed of light) through the barn with the pole horizontal. Special Relativity (SR) says that a moving object is contracted in the direction of motion: this is called the Lorentz Contraction. So, if the pole is set in motion lengthwise, then it will contract in the reference frame of a stationary observer…..So, as the pole passes through the barn, there is an instant when it is completely within the barn. At that instant, you close both doors simultaneously, with your switch. Of course, you open them again pretty quickly, but at least momentarily you had the contracted pole shut up in your barn. The runner emerges from the far door unscathed…..If the doors are kept shut the rod will obviously smash into the barn door at one end. If the door withstands this the leading end of the rod will come to rest in the frame of reference of the stationary observer. There can be no such thing as a rigid rod in relativity so the trailing end will not stop immediately and the rod will be compressed beyond the amount it was Lorentz contracted. If it does not explode under the strain and it is sufficiently elastic it will come to rest and start to spring back to its natural shape but since it is too big for the barn the other end is now going to crash into the back door and the rod will be trapped IN A COMPRESSED STATE inside the barn.”

    http://www.quebecscience.qc.ca/Revolutions
    Stéphane Durand: “Pour mieux comprendre le phénomène de ralentissement du temps, il est préférable d’aborder un autre phénomène tout aussi paradoxal: la contraction des longueurs. Car la vitesse affecte non seulement l’écoulement du temps, mais aussi la longueur des objets. Ainsi, une fusée en mouvement apparaît plus courte que lorsqu’elle est au repos. Là aussi, plus la vitesse est grande, plus la contraction est importante. Et, comme pour le temps, les effets ne deviennent considérables qu’à des vitesses proches de celle de la lumière. Dans la vie de tous les jours, cette contraction est imperceptible. Cependant, si une fusée de 100 m passait devant nous à une vitesse proche de celle de la lumière, elle pourrait sembler ne mesurer que 50 m, ou même moins. Bien sûr, la question qui vient tout de suite à l’esprit est: «Cette contraction n’est-elle qu’une illusion?» Il semble tout à fait incroyable que le simple mouvement puisse comprimer un objet aussi rigide qu’une fusée. Et pourtant, la contraction est réelle… mais SANS COMPRESSION physique de l’objet! Ainsi, une fusée de 100 m passant à toute vitesse dans un tunnel de 60 m pourrait être entièrement contenue dans ce tunnel pendant une fraction de seconde, durant laquelle il serait possible de fermer des portes aux deux bouts! La fusée est donc réellement plus courte. Pourtant, il n’y a PAS DE COMPRESSION matérielle ou physique de l’engin.”

    http://www.parabola.unsw.edu.au/vol35_no1/vol35_no1_2.pdf
    Parabola Volume 35, Issue 1 (1999)
    LENGTH AND RELATIVITY by John Steele
    “The Pole in the Barn Paradox. Now we know about length contraction, we can invent some amusing uses of it. Suppose you want to fit a 20m pole into a 10m barn. If the pole were moving fast enough, then length contraction means it would be short enough. (…) Now comes the paradox. According to your friend who is going to slam the barn doors shut just as the end of the pole goes in, the pole is 10m long, and therefore it fits. However as far as you are concerned, the pole is still 20m long but the barn is now only 5m long: length contraction must work both ways by the first postulate. How can you fit this 20m pole into a 5m barn? This paradox is apparently due to Wolfgang Rindler of the University of Texas at Dallas. Of course the key to this is relativity of simultaneity. Your friend sees the front end of the pole hit the back wall of the barn at the same time as the doors are closed, but you (and the pole) do not see things this way. You are standing still and see a 5m long barn coming towards you at some shockingly high speed. When the back of the barn hits the front of the pole (and takes the front of the pole with it), the back end of the pole must still be at rest. It cannot ‘know’ about the crash at the front, because the shock wave travelling along the pole telling it about the crash travels at some finite speed. The front of the barn has only 15m to go to get to the back of the pole, but the shock wave has to travel the whole length of the pole, namely 20m. The speed of the barn is such that even if this shock wave travelled at the speed of light, it would not get to the back of the pole before the front of the barn did. Hence in both frames of reference, the pole fits inside the barn (and will presumably shatter when the doors are closed).”

    http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/Hbase/Relativ/bugrivet.html
    “The bug-rivet paradox is a variation on the twin paradox and is similar to the pole-barn paradox…..The end of the rivet hits the bottom of the hole before the head of the rivet hits the wall. So it looks like the bug is squashed…..All this is nonsense from the bug’s point of view. The rivet head hits the wall when the rivet end is just 0.35 cm down in the hole! The rivet doesn’t get close to the bug….The paradox is not resolved.”

    Pentcho Valev
    pvalev@yahoo.com

  • Phil

    @ AJKamper,

    “I’d suggest that this is a failure in YOU, not a requirement of creation ex nihilo.”

    I thought I’d be treading in dangerous territory by mentioning intention. :)
    Ok, let me ask you something. What are your requirements of creation ex nihilo?

  • AJKamper

    @Phil:

    I don’t think I have any requirements. I’m willing to take the evidence as it comes and see what results. I do think our notions of causality are fundamentally incomplete, and would not be surprised if they remain that way. QM hints at this, of course, but I think our failure is much broader. At any rate, they are sufficiently incomplete that we can’t assume any of the characteristics of whatever it is that transcends time and space based on our notion of causality; without additional evidence, we certainly have no reason to believe in a willed intelligence.

    As such, I’m definitely not of the “There is no God” crowd, but rather the “I have no need of that hypothesis” crowd.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    @Stuart Brown #14:

    [A]t its worst, rationalism completely ignores empiricism: as has regrettably happens in far too often in my field (linguistics) where the Chomskian approach is to rationally deduce how human language ‘must’ work, and then declare actual data ‘epiphenomological’ and simply ignore or deny contradictory observational findings. (It could be added that in his politic writings, too, Chomsky exhibits a tendency to favour his theory-driven narratives over actual, inconvenient events…)

    That’s a useful insight! In his political writings, Chomsky’s signature technique is to invent facts and then declare them “uncontroversial” (one of his favorite words). I’d often wondered: how could someone so intelligent consider that sort of anti-empirical bullying okay? If your account is correct, then it suggests a possible explanation: he considers it okay because, when he tried the same thing in linguistics, a large fraction of the field went right along with it.

  • Steve Turrentine

    @Scott #60:

    Good point, Scott. I stopped paying attention to Chomsky’s political writings in the 80s when he started denying the Cambodian holocaust, so you could say that he invented the “fact” that the holocaust never occurred! (g)

  • Haelfix

    I sympathize with rationalism, but there are certain things that are simply not knowable a priori.

    If we hadn’t done the experiments, there is simply no way a smart theorist in 1880 would have been able to deduce quantum mechanics from classical mechanics. It would have been a illogical and an unjustified extraneous leap. Not only was there no experiment that justified it, there was no obvious physical principle or reason why you would want to add the extra baggage.

    Likewise, there is no way anyone could have guessed that the standard model of particle physics was based on the rather arbitrary su(3) * su(2) * u(1) effective Yang Mills theory.

    Now, there are certain things that a smart enough theorist could have and should have deduced earlier in physics. For instance, the concept of decoherence could have been discovered in the 1920s, ditto for Bell’s theorem.

  • gnome

    In practice, the rationalists and empiricists weren’t all that far apart. All the great rationalists had great reverence for empirical approaches to knowledge and all the great empiricists recognized the necessity of some first principles. On the other hand it’s common to find in introductory Philosophy courses rationalism being highly contrasted with/played off empiricism seemingly as a type of teaching technique to illustrate the differences so perhaps Sean is just trying to make a general point in that same way.

  • Neil

    If comes down to “that is the way it is” versus “god is the explanation”, I give up. What is wrong with simply “we don’t know (yet)”?

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    I’ll echo the cry of “false dichotomy” but add that there are way more variables at work here than just empiricism and rationalism. Something that Haught started going towards without saying explicitly was a relational model of God. It’s an oft ignored model in debates of this sort because it is troublingly non-empirical (kind of, which I’ll elaborate on later) and non-rational, yet it is so painfully obvious because A) it’s how human beings actually engage their world most of the time and B) it’s exactly how the Judeo-Christian tradition has consistently described the nature of God. Basically, it’s the model that God may not be rationally “necessary” or empirically “measurable,” but is nevertheless determined to exist experientially in the same way that one would experience a relationship with another person, creature, or even nature as a whole.

    I use the analogy of a romantic relationship not merely because I think it’s the most apt, but also because I think it’s the same category of experience. Empirically, one could measure certain things about a romantic relationship: a hormonal imbalance, certain behavioral changes, a set of social customs, etc. Yet every single one of us knows that this is, at best, an insufficient description for the interior experience of a romantic relationship. What the empiricism is doing is describing physical effects of something that has a proverbial life of its own. It goes so far, but we are also well aware that testimonials of the interior experience are more adequate descriptions (i.e.: poetry). Furthermore that a purely empirical approach will actually prove problematic as a basis for the healthy negotiation of a relationship, if not outright pathological. Yet relationships are messy situations that don’t measure up to rational ideals either. They’re an entirely different class of experience, and one which governs most of our interactions throughout life. AS IT SHOULD BE.

    Judeo-Christianity’s emphasis on a personal being active in the universe but only discernable through a personal relationship (participant observation!) is, hook, line and sinker a description of this relational model. Because this is a model I find convincing, it makes the emphasis on rational “necessity” and empirical “evidence” look as outdated as the theological “God of the Gaps” model that those are basically arguing. Using a multidisciplinary approach (which theology, by necessity, must be) I can see God active in history through natural laws. A critical split I make with a lot of critics is that I don’t assume that evidence of temporal lobe activity or whatever disproves God any more than hormonal soups disprove love. If anything, I interpret it to verify the existence of a Deity, insofar as I think those centres of mystical activity are actually reacting to an outside stimulus.

    Anyways, I disgress. Given what I said, I don’t think they’re entirely exclusive categories either (one of the things that has convinced me on Christianity specifically is the historic figure of Jesus, and things like the connection to temporal lobe activity helped convince me on religion in general). However, I think by leaving out other categories of experience that we use as much, if not moreso, than rationalism and empiricism, we’re not really engaging the questions at their full depth. And yeah, I do take the rhetorical question “why can’t we just be satisifed with what we can know through science and not ask ‘why’ questions?” to be, for all intents and purposes, a mode of thought control. “Go so far but no further, you’re not allowed because I don’t approve.”

  • proaonuiq

    Science and religion: the proposition that science and religion are independent and live in different territories is just unbearable. They are radically related. Science denies what religion asserts: the later asserts that a supernatural level exists that explains the natural, while the former denies the existence of a supernatural level (which therefore can not explain anything of the natural). Voltaire dictum is just rethoric. Only ignorant men need to create a God. To laugh at our ancestors for beeing religious is as insulting to them as is to be religious today. To summarize, either you embrace religious beliefs package, either you embrace scientific package: a religious scientist is as incoherent as a religious person that uses scientific results (for instance in health) which are in contradiction with its religious dogmas.

    Rationalism versus empiricism: rationalism (as we understand it today) is just about contradiction: no matter how accurately your theory explains the data (empirism), if it is logically inconsistent, incoherent, if it bears logical contradictions, it is wrong. In our days empirist and rationalist positions are not antagonists but complementary (as others commenters has already pointed). Empirist methodology alone would be impractical (we need the rationalist shortcuts) and intelectually unsatisfactory and rationalism alone is not sufficient: firstly, there are many coherent theories that does not fit the data and secondly, what is worst, there are many incompatible coherent theories that fit current data. To tell appart the right ones we need the “isomorphism” empirical test: not only to proove that the theory explain all known empirical data, but that the theory does not include predictions that does not appear empirically (theoretical hallucinations).

    The situation of physics today is that we have two broad theories that explains most empirical data accuratelly but which are inconsistent both considered alone and combined. Most if not all of the proposed QG theories does not pass the isomorphic empirical test (some are clearly a hallucinatory theories). And what is worst none of them ask the legitimate (from an atheist point of view) fundamental question: why this physic and not other conceivable physics ? A definite theory does answer this question

  • jig

    We need both rationalism and empiricism. With “pure reason” alone, the best we can come up with is pure math. But observations are also inherently theory-laden. We need a theoretical model to tell us what to observe, how to observe it, and how to interpret it. Raw experimental data needs to be organized into a coherent theoretical framework, often in ways which aren’t straightforward right away. That’s why science needs both theorists and experimentalists.

  • Hro

    We can never talk about or think about things as they actually are, only things as they seem to be. It’s logically possible that the universe doesn’t exist, or that we don’t exist, or that God doesn’t exist. It’s even possible to describe properties of nonexistent entities. So, the question to ask is, do we really exist? We seem to exist, and that might be the best we can say.

  • Ray

    @62 Haelfix
    “If we hadn’t done the experiments, there is simply no way a smart theorist in 1880 would have been able to deduce quantum mechanics from classical mechanics. It would have been a illogical and an unjustified extraneous leap.”

    In retrospect, quantum mechanics is pretty heavily supported even if you only consider experimental data collected prior to 1840:

    1800-1805 Dalton is led by empirical investigation and already known gas laws to formulated atomic theory
    1824 Carnot publishes Carnot’s theorem, which is equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics
    1826 Ampere’s law is discovered
    1831 Faraday’s law is discovered

    From here the sufficiently clever theorist can figure out that Maxwell’s correction is needed, formulate the second law in terms of entropy, figure out the entropy of the electromagnetic field and the entropy of a gas of atoms, and discover that all the heat should end up in the electromagnetic field at any finite temperature. Big problem — aka the ultraviolet catastrophe

    Anyway, if that’s enough clues:
    1835 Charles Wheatstone discovers spectral lines

  • Ray

    As an afterthought. I think the theoretical hangup that delayed quantum mechanics by 60+ years (aside from the fact that theory is hard) was the tendency to regard chemistry and physics as non-overlapping magesteria.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Assuming that everything you want to know is a logical consequence of axioms you already possess, it may still be the case that you need experience to arrive at important conclusions. The number of derivable implications blows us so fast as the number of initial proposition increases that there may simply not be enough time or computing power to find what you’re looking for by deductive means.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    This Abstruse Goose cartoon is extremely relevant to the debate between rationalism and empiricism.

  • Seth

    There’s no experimental test from the inside to distinguish between a non-existent universe and an existing universe. For all I know, you can be philosophical zombies in a nonexistent zombie universe. What exactly is existence anyway? Only direct experience can make the difference, but that’s not something which can be detected experimentally. Is there a difference between logical existence and actual existence, whatever the latter really means?

  • psmith

    #72, that is delightful. It has to be a variant of preconceptual science, I will name it reconceptual science.

  • Mental Projection

    @71
    Excellent.
    we are moving along the same track
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_completeness#Overview

    what is even more interesting in the case of sean is that his mastery of linguistics is still primitive, replacing the word god with some other string of logic doesn’t really resolve the issue.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_problem_for_groups

  • Dactyl

    Sometimes you encounter an older version of this five-year-old; someone who, when you say “I have finally formulated a successful unification of all the laws of physics!” will insist on asking “But why is it that way?” If you say “it just is,” they will say “that’s not good enough.” That’s the point at which you are allowed to turn the tables.

    I do not understand this. In order to answer a ‘why’-question by, ‘it’s just is’, one must have ruled out all the other possible answers, because unlike any of the other (possibly valid) answers, this answer is independent of any ‘why’-question being asked, in the sense, that this is a possible answer to any ‘why’-question. This seems to me pretty much similar in attitude, as saying, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘God knows’ of ‘Because of God’ etc.

  • Mental Projection

    @76
    Very good.
    If the answer maps to the element of the same value, then the issue is not about truth but about human power. Although I fully support legitimate debates about the existence of god, it became clear very long ago that the whole new atheist movement was about nothing more than power over societal values. The intellectual dishonesty is absolutely perverse since those who perpetrate it are as equally in denial as the religious zealots.

  • JMW

    Hm. Empiricism vs. Rationalism. This is why Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock, not Mycroft.

  • Samuel Prime

    The question entitling this thread is: “What Can We Know About The World Without Looking At It?”

    If we are not looking at ‘the world’, what then would the ‘it’ be that is being referred to that we are not looking at? (Without looking at what!?) It’s like the world is being assumed and not assumed in the question. Is our answer possible without the biases and experiences that we gained from the world? I don’t think so (unless there is a proof somewhere that there is a unique world).

    Can we know what a 7-sphere looks like without looking at it? Can we know what differentiable manifold structure it has without looking at it? Certainly not, since John Milnor proved that it has 28 differentiable structures — all different.

  • gnome

    In a way these sticky epistemology issues (and if you delve further, even greater and some say, insoluble problems) are kind of side-stepped by science, and that is one of the reasons we see actual progress in science – progress that has real relevance to our lives. Scientists aren’t bogged down by the kind of concerns that hold back the philosophers from knowledge. Anyhow, it appears that a priori axioms are necessary whichever way you look at it, otherwise you can’t even get off the ground.

  • psmith

    #76. Dactyl, you say
    “In order to answer a ‘why’-question by, ‘it’s just is’, one must have ruled out all the other possible answers”

    That is a most powerful answer, thanks.

  • Mental Projection

    @81
    Make sure you read in context of #71
    “The number of derivable implications blows us so fast as the number of initial proposition increases that there may simply not be enough time or computing power to find what you’re looking for by deductive means.”

    IOW there are statements that can be made that can never be verified within a finite time, and in some cases can never be verified. So the end point of any deductive process is the same. A nice shoulder shrug.

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Samuel Prime wrote: “Didn’t Einstein arrive at his two theories of relativity by an approach similar to rationalism? He hardly had much experimental basis for making the postulates he made in these theories.”

    The special relativity postulates came from Lorentz and Poincare, and they got them from Michelson-Morley. So no, relativity was not invented by rationalism.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Putting aside the philosophical question of what can or cannot be known about the universe by mere thinking, there is a historical question of the relative contributions of experiment and observation on the one hand and calculation and reasoning on the other. In physics, at least, the verdict seems to incline to the rationalist side since most of the crucial episodes of scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th Centuries revolved around conceptual innovations—people had been watching objects fall for a very long time before Galileo after all—and a great many of the decisive experiments were thought experiments. A similar story can be told about more recent developments such as relativity and quantum mechanics. The modern history of science can be defined by the rejection of positivist accounts of how things get figured out, not data up, but theory down. Nobody doubts you eventually have to get out of bed and interact with the world, and sciences such as biology or geology that have a heavy descriptive component obviously more empirical, but there is a pretty good historical case for the primacy of reason.

  • Otis Graf

    Sean seems to advocate for a way of thinking that is more primitive than either rationalism or empiricism. “It’s perfectly conceivable that the universe simply is that way, and there is no deeper explanation.”

    He advocates for the existence of “brute facts,” things that exist for no reason! And he gets to define which facts are brute.

    That does not seem to be very “scientific,” but it is useful to him because it is the only way he can completely eliminate God.

  • Brian Too

    We need empiricism because data is the cornerstone, the very bedrock of our knowledge.

    We need rationalism in order to create a context and structure for all that data. Rationalism allows us to make forecasts for instance. That is the magic and danger of rationalism–knowledge without the dirty work of gathering data.

    Rationalism should never be unhitched from the bridle of empiricism because it is easy, all too easy, to make errors of logic.

  • Samuel Prime

    Roger (#83), have a look at chapter 4 of Ronald Clark’s biography of Einstein. Also read Einstein’s 1905 “Electrodynamics” paper to see that he does not cite actual experimental basis for his work at the time of writing — although all that came later. That doesn’t mean Einstein never cared for experiments, but that he did start his work in intuitive ‘rationalist’ imaginative ways (which he was excellent at).

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Yes, Einstein’s 1905 SR paper does not cite any other papers, whether theory or experiment. There were experimental tests of relativity that had been published, but Einstein ignored them. He was just giving an exposition of the Lorentz-Poincare theory, without explaining where the theory came from. But each actual advance to the theory was accompanied with citations to the experimental evidence.

  • http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.com Noah

    Attention string theorists: Please read this blog post.

    That is all.

    :)

  • Mental Projection
  • Rafael

    I think there is a huge mistake with the modern science communicators who are debating about religion, philosophy and its relation to science. I’ve seen arguments that connect the rationalism with God. Of course God is free to be logical. But in fact, if he is free, it is also free to be illogical. Most of the jokes made ​​by Chesterton on modern thought consists precisely in this way of thinking. He would say something like “I do not care Dragons look like animals existed, I marvel over the hippo looks like an animal that does not exist..” Both Dragon and the Hippo are not a necessity. And the same goes for everything in the cosmos. The number Pi may be required by the rules but the world is not. If the world were necessary there would be no room for God.

  • Samuel Prime

    Roger, I hope that you’re not into conspiracy theories since there is nothing I can do about it. However, if you are not, then see chapter 6 of Abraham Pais’ “Subtle is the Lord” which details the research around these issues. Einstein’s approach was quite different from Lorentz and Poincare, the latter assumed the ether while Einstein did not — or else Lorentz and Poincare would have received the prize. Lorentz in his papers in fact acknowledges Einstein’s work.

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Lorentz compared his relativity to Einstein’s by saying, “the chief difference being that Einstein simply postulates what we have deduced”. Lorentz gave more credit to Poincare.

    Pais makes the argument that Poincare never understood special relativity. But all the scholars acknowledge that Poincare got all of the formulas correct, and did it without any help from Einstein. And it was Poincare who explicitly denied the aether, while Lorentz’s position was similar to Einstein’s.

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  • melior

    “…he couldn’t imagine a universe without God.”

    The argument from incredulity is a logical fallacy that essentially relies on a lack of imagination in the audience.
    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Argument_from_incredulity

  • Samuel Prime

    Number 93, that quote of Lorentz doesn’t say Einstein copied his work from him or from Poincare. In fact he gives credit to Einstein for getting the physics right:

    “The chief cause of my failure was my clinging to the idea that the variable t only can be considered as the true time and that my local time t’ must be regarded as no more than an auxiliary mathematical quantity. In Einstein’s theory, on the contrary, t’ plays the same part as t; if we want to describe phenomena in terms of x’, y’, z’, t’ we must work with these variables exactly as we could do with x, y, z, t.”

    p. 321 of his book “The Theory of Electrons”. Notice he’s giving Einstein credit for the correct physical understanding of the variables and transformation, not Poincare (who assumed the ether).

    Further, Lorentz made the following comment regarding Einstein’s relativity:

    “I considered my time transformation only as a heuristic working hypothesis. So the theory of relativity is really solely Einstein’s work. And there can be no doubt that he would have conceived it even if the work of all his predecessors in the theory of this field had not been done at all. His work is in this respect independent of the previous theories.”

    Lorentz, H.A. (1928), “Conference on the Michelson-Morley Experiment”, The Astrophysical Journal 68: 345-351

    Finally, your comment about Poincare denying the ether is plainly false. Look up Poincare’s 1905 paper “On the Dynamics of the Electron” in which he assumes the ether. He may have had some equations right — except E = mc^2 — but Poincare did not have the correct physical understanding of them — not to dismiss his genius as a mathematician, of course.

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Poincare wrote in 1902, “Whether the ether exists or not matters little … some day, no doubt, the ether will be thrown aside as useless.” His 1905 theory does not depend on the aether at all. He only mentions the aether when discussing the work of others. Poincare had all the equations correct, including E = mc^2.

    Lorentz generously credited Einstein. It is true that Einstein’s papers included explanations of some points omitted by Lorentz. Einstein’s work can be considered independent of previous theories if you assume that Einstein would have conceived the work of all his predecessors. That is right. But it does not change the facts that those theories were conceived before Einstein, that Einstein only postulated what his predecessors proved, that this was the opinion of Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski, and everyone else at the time, and that Lorentz credited Poincare over Einstein.

  • Samuel Prime

    Even after 1905, when Poincare published his book Science and Method (1908) — English version 1914 — Poincare was still speculating various scenarios with the ether hypothesis, unsure whether it is useful or not. Three years earlier, Einstein already reached that conclusion. Poincare was clearly far behind and did not have the correct understanding of special relativity. A good example where you can have equations and know how to do the algebra, but not understand what you’re doing.

    Therefore, Poincare’s ether speculations are in stark contrast from Einstein’s 1905 paper where he just abandons it without waffling.

    –Roger: “His 1905 theory does not depend on the aether at all. He only mentions the aether when discussing the work of others.”

    See pp. 131 and 152 of Poincare’s electron paper (1905) where he is dealing with the ether and specifically mentions the energy as being “mainly located in the ether parts nearest the electron.” Clearly, he is using the notion of ether by this time (1905), when Einstein abandoned it. Even in his 1908 book, Poincare was still toying with the ether hypothesis.

    –“Poincare had all the equations correct, including E = mc^2.”

    Physics is not merely about equations, but understanding their physical significance. The equivalence between mass and energy by means of this equation was not understood until Einstein, which is why he is credited for it.

    –“But it does not change the facts that those theories were conceived before Einstein, that Einstein only postulated what his predecessors proved”

    That’s like saying Euclid only postulated what the geometers before him proved. It is pretty clear by now that you have something against Einstein and are reinterpreting the history of relativity for a private agenda. That charge, by the way, can be levelled if one felt like it, against nearly any physicist today doing original work.

    –“that this was the opinion of Lorentz, Einstein, Minkowski, and everyone else at the time, and that Lorentz credited Poincare over Einstein.”

    Idle speculation. Lorentz already said that “the theory of relativity is really solely Einstein’s work.” That’s the point. Learn to accept it. Otherwise it is your issue not that of the physics community.

    I’ve many other things to do, so I won’t be bothering to look at your response since it’s clear you do not wish to approach this issue objectively. Your interpretation of Lorentz being “generous” to Einstein proves my point since you did not prefer to say that Lorentz was being generous toward Poincare instead. You have an agenda, and I think I exposed it, but I won’t waste more time on someone’s conspiracy theory.

  • http://www.darkbuzz.com Roger

    Samuel, you have it backwards about the aether. Poincare proved that his theory did not depend on the aether, and he never said it did. But Einstein, from about 1918 to the end of his life, always maintained that special relativity does not require abandoning the aether.

    I gave you the quote where Lorentz said that Einstein postulated what was previously proved. It is not speculation. Lorentz proved something called the theorem of the corresponding states, and Einstein just assumed it as a postulate.

    The theory of relativity was certainly not solely Einstein’s work. That is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of every historian who has written about the matter.

    Poincare understood the physical significance of special relativity much better than Einstein. Poincare was able to address the previous work, and say who was right and who was wrong. Einstein was not able to do that.

    I did not say that Lorentz was generous to Poincare because sometimes Lorentz failed to credit Poincare.

    I am not claiming any conspiracy theory. Just read the Lorentz, Poincare, and Einstein papers. All of the original and brilliant ideas are in the Lorentz and Poincare papers.

    You claim to be a mathematician, and you claim that Einstein’s contribution was mathematical rationalism, and yet you cannot find an idea or formula that was original to Einstein.

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  • Rosmary LYNDALL WEMM

    Wonderful article. Thank you.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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