Greetings from our fifteenth floor hotel room in Boston, where yesterday’s Hurricane Sandy maelstrom has relaxed to a dreary gray calm. The storm was a fierce illustration of the power of Nature — completely different from the power of Naturalism, which is what I spent the last few days discussing with some of the smartest people I know, at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop (as mentioned).
For me personally, the workshop was a terrific experience, digging into important and fascinating ideas with a collection of extremely smart people. Some minor disappointments right at the beginning, as Patricia Churchland, Lisa Randall, and Hilary Bok all had to cancel at the last minute due to (happily temporary) medical issues. But we plowed bravely forward, and we had about the right number of people to both represent a variety of specialties and yet keep the gathering intimate enough so that everyone was talking to everyone else. This was not a meeting devoting to cheerleading or rallying the troops; it was a careful, serious, academic discussion about the issues we struggle with among people who share the same basic worldview.
There have already been some write-ups of the proceedings by Massimo Pigliucci (one, two, three) and Jerry Coyne (one, two, three), so I thought I’d offer mine. But in writing it up I saw the brief impressionistic remarks I originally intended to offer grow into something more sprawling and hard to digest. So I’m splitting it up into a few posts: this one, plus I think three more.
That’s the charmingly grandiose title of a talk I gave at The Amazing Meeting this past July, now available online. I hope that the basic message comes through, although the YouTube comments indicate that the nitpicking has already begun in earnest. There’s a rather lot of material to squeeze into half an hour, so some parts are going to be sketchy.
There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.
The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.
Or at least, so you will hear me opine if you click on the link. Curious as to what people think.
I’m very excited about a workshop I’ll be at later this month: Moving Naturalism Forward. By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.
Once you accept that we live in a self-contained universe governed by impersonal laws of nature, the hard work has just begun, as we are faced with a daunting list of challenges. The naturalist worldview comes into conflict with our “folk” understanding of human life in multiple ways, and we need to figure out what can be salvaged and what has to go. We’ve identified these particular issues for discussion:
(Massimo Pigliucci has already started blogging about some of the questions we’ll be discussing.)
To hash all this out, we’re collecting a small, interdisciplinary group of people to share different perspectives and see whether we can’t agree on some central claims. We have an amazing collection of people Read More
Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel are well-known senior philosophers at Notre Dame and NYU, respectively. Plantinga, a Christian, is known for his contributions to philosophy of religion, while Nagel, an atheist, is known (nevertheless) for his resistance to purely materialist/naturalist/physicalist theories of the mind (e.g. in his famous article, “What is it like to be a bat?“).
Now Nagel has reviewed Plantinga’s most recent book in the NYRB, giving it a much more sympathetic reading than most naturalists would offer. (For what it’s worth, Plantinga is a supporter of Intelligent Design, and Nagel has often spoken of it approvingly, while not quite buying the whole sales pitch.) Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable dissection of the review.
I wanted to home in on just one particular aspect because it was instructive, at least for me. There is a long-standing claim that “faith” is a way of attaining knowledge that stands independently of other methods, such as “logic” or “empiricism.” I’ve never quite understood this — how do we decide what to have faith in, if not by the use of techniques such as logic and empiricism? Read More
Zach Weinersmith (of) put up a blog post about the subjective nature of morality, which I tweeted approvingly. But afterward I realized that, while our substantive views are pretty much in agreement, I sometimes use a very similar-sounding analogy as the one he invoked, but in the precisely opposite sense!
Zach’s analogy is the following: “objective” morality is to subjective morality as the rules of basketball are to the rules of Pankration, an ancient Greek free-for-all fighting competition. That is, in basketball, we have rules that are handed down from on high (the NBA or some other governing body), just as we do with objective morality (God or the nature of the universe or some such thing). In Pankration, while there are no formal rules, there are patterns that evolve due to the nature of the game; i.e., go for the fingers and other easily-damaged parts of the body. These kinds of rules are different, of course, but they do come into being over time.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but I like to use the basketball analogy to make a different point. I don’t believe in objective morality; the universe just is, and there’s nothing “out there” that judges human behaviors to be good or bad. These categories of good and bad are things we human beings invent. And in that sense, in my version of the analogy, the rules of morality are exactly like the rules of basketball! The difference is that I’m not analogizing the NBA to God or the universe, I’m analogizing the NBA to a collection of human beings that make up rules (which is a pretty exact analogy, really).
The point is this: the rules of basketball were not handed down by God, nor are they inherent in the structure of the universe. They were invented by James Naismith and others, and fine-tuned over time. We could invent different rules, and we wouldn’t be making a “mistake” in the sense we’re making a mistake if we think the universe was created 6,000 years ago. We’d just be choosing to play a different game.
The crucial part, however, is that the rules of basketball are not arbitrary, either. They are subjective in the sense that we can make them be whatever we want, but they are non-arbitrary in the sense that some rules “work better” than others. That’s pretty obvious when you hear basketball fans arguing about the proper distance for the three-point line, or the niceties of hand-checking or goaltending, or when a crossover dribble is ruled to be traveling. People don’t merely shrug their shoulders and say “eh, it doesn’t matter, the rules are whatever, as long as they are fairly enforced.” The rules do matter, even though the choice of what they are is ultimately in our hands.
That’s because we have a goal when we invent the rules of basketball: to create the most fair and entertaining game. The distance to the three-point line is very finely calibrated so that it’s far enough away to be a challenge for NBA-level talent, but close enough that it’s a valuable shot to take under the right circumstances. “Subjective” (or “invented”) doesn’t mean “arbitrary.”
Likewise for morality. The rules of morality are ultimately human constructs. But they’re not arbitrary constructs: we invent them to serve certain purposes. People are not blank slates; they have desires, preferences, aspirations. We mostly want to be nice to each other, be happy, live fairly, and other aspects of folk morality. The rules of morality we invent are attempts to systematize and extend these simple goals into a rigorous framework that can cover as many circumstances as possible in an unambiguous way.
And what if someone doesn’t agree with our folk morality or the systematization thereof? What if someone wants to bring some Calvinball to our pickup game? We do the same thing we’d do in basketball: we penalize them. We call a foul, or traveling, or just refuse to play with them. And we don’t need to invoke God or the laws of nature to do it. It’s true that we made up the rules, but they are no less enforceable for it.
I’ve traded off my reasons for not blogging much of late. Last week and before it was The Particle at the End of the Universe (in stores November 13!), but that’s now been handed in and I can kick back and catch up on my martini-drinking. Except that instead of doing that, I instantly hopped on a plane for Europe, where I’m now participating in a workshop on philosophy and cosmology. Not that you should feel sorry for me — the workshop is being held at the La Pietra conference center, a beautiful facility owned by NYU in Florence. I’m not sure why NYU owns a conference center in Florence; it could have been a targeted purchase, but it could easily have just been a gift. (Caltech for a while owned an abandoned gold mine. Universities get all sorts of crazy gifts.) But at least temporarily, martinis have been put aside for Chianti and limoncello.
And work, of course. This is my favorite kind of workshop: less than twenty people, gathered around a table, with no fixed agenda, talking about issues of mutual interest as they come up. This group has both scientists and philosophers, although probably more of the latter. So far each day has featured a scientist — Joel Primack, me, Brian Greene, Scott Aaronson — giving some very general remarks, while everyone else takes turns whacking them with (metaphorical) sticks. My own talk started at 11 a.m. and didn’t finish until 5:30 p.m., with breaks for lunch and coffee. So it’s exhausting both intellectually and physically, but very rewarding to have the chance to dig very deeply into difficult issues.
My talk was about — you guessed it — the arrow of time. Most people in the room are already familiar with the basic story that time’s arrow is (at least mostly) a consequence of the increase of entropy over time, and that our current universe has low entropy, but the entropy was even much lower in the past, and that last fact demands cosmological explanation. The central question concerned what would count as an “explanation.” Read More
3:am magazine (yes, that’s what it’s called) has a very good interview with Craig Callender, philosopher of physics at UC San Diego and a charter member of the small club of people who think professionally about the nature of time. The whole thing is worth reading, so naturally I am going to be completely unfair and nitpick about the one tiny part that mentions my name. The interviewer asks:
But there is nothing in the second law of thermodynamics to explain why the universe starts with low entropy. Now maybe its just a brute fact that there’s nothing to explain. But some physicists believe they need to explain it. So Sean Carroll develops an idea of a multiverse to explain the low entropy. You make this a parade case of the kind of ontological speculation that is too expensive. Having to posit such a huge untestable ontological commitment to explain something like low entropy at the big bang you just don’t think is worth it.
There is an interesting issue here, namely that Craig likes to make the case that the low entropy of the early universe might not need explaining — maybe it’s just a brute fact about the universe we have to learn to accept. I do try to always list this possibility as one that is very much on the table, but as a working scientist I think it’s extremely unlikely, and certainly it would be bad practice to act as if it were true. The low entropy of the early universe might be a clue to really important features of how Nature works, and to simply ignore it as “not requiring explanation” would be a terrible mistake, even if we ultimately decide that that’s the best answer we have.
But what I want to harp on is the idea of “ontological speculation that is just too expensive.” This is not, I think, a matter of taste — it’s just wrong. Read More
“Atheism” is a fine word, and I’m happy to describe myself as an atheist. God is an idea that has consequences, and those consequences don’t accord with the world we experience any better than countless other ideas we’ve given up on. But given a choice I would always describe myself first as a “naturalist” — someone who believes that there is only one realm of reality, the material world, which obeys natural laws, and that we human beings are part of it. “Atheism” is ultimately about rejecting a certain idea, while “naturalism” is about a positive acceptance of a comprehensive worldview. Naturalists have a lot more work to do than simply rejecting God; they bear the responsibility of understanding how to live a meaningful life in a universe without built-in purpose.
Which is why I devoted my opening statement at “The Great Debate” a few weeks ago to presenting the positive case for naturalism, rather than just arguing against the idea of God. And I tried to do so in terms that would be comprehensible to people who disagreed with me — at least that was the goal, you can judge for yourself whether I actually succeeded.
So here I’ve excerpted that opening ten-minute statement from the two-hour debate I had with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. I figure there must be people out there who might possibly be willing to watch a ten-minute video (or watch for one minute before changing the channel) but who wouldn’t even press “play” on the full version. This is the best I can do in ten minutes to sum up the progress in human understanding that has led us to reject the supernatural and accept that the natural world is all there is. And I did manage to work in Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.
I am curious as to how the pitch goes over (given the constraints of time and the medium), so constructive criticism is appreciated.
Some of you may have been following a tiny brouhaha (“kerfuffle” is so overused, don’t you think?) that has sprung up around the question of why the universe exists. You can’t say we think small around here.
First Lawrence Krauss came out with a new book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (based in part on a popular YouTube lecture), which addresses this question from the point of view of a modern cosmologist. Then David Albert, speaking as a modern philosopher of science, came out with quite a negative review of the book in the New York Times. And discussion has gone back and forth since then: here’s Jerry Coyne (mostly siding with Albert), the Rutgers Philosophy of Cosmology blog (with interesting voices in the comments), a long interview with Krauss in the Atlantic, comments by Massimo Pigliucci, and another response by Krauss on the Scientific American site.
I’ve been meaning to chime in, for personal as well as scientific reasons. I do work on the origin of the universe, after all, and both Lawrence and David are friends of the blog (and of me): Lawrence was our first guest-blogger, and David and I did Bloggingheads dialogues here and here.
This is going to be kind of long, so here’s the upshot. Very roughly, there are two different kinds of questions lurking around the issue of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” One question is, within some framework of physical laws that is flexible enough to allow for the possible existence of either “stuff” or “no stuff” (where “stuff” might include space and time itself), why does the actual manifestation of reality seem to feature all this stuff? The other is, why do we have this particular framework of physical law, or even something called “physical law” at all? Lawrence (again, roughly) addresses the first question, and David cares about the second, and both sides expend a lot of energy insisting that their question is the “right” one rather than just admitting they are different questions. Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment.