Wednesday, September 8, 2010

American Moment or Airhead Moment?

SOSClinton"We are advancing America's interests and making progress on some of our most pressing challenges,"  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her September 8th speech to the Council on Foreign Relations.

She failed to site any specifics to bolster her proclamation, which was a wise decision by her speechwriters, namely because there is nothing tangible to substantiate the claim.  

The Secretary added, "Today we can say with confidence that this model of American leadership works, and that it offers our best hope in a dangerous world."

 Just another nebulous edict supported by air. What “model of American leadership” is the Secretary speaking about? Democracy? An overbearing executive branch? Obama’s brain trust? A black man in the White House? What?

While the Secretary of State boldly proclaims, “We will seize this new moment of opportunity this new American Moment.”

I think Madam Secretary should take a moment and do a reality check…
  1. The haphazard and half-hearted “withdrawal” from Iraq has left many questioning the President’s judgment. Although claiming that combat operations for the US are over, there remains 50,000 (evidently “non-combat”) troops in Iraq.
  2. The aimless war in Afghanistan drags on with no foreseeable end or even concrete objectives in sight.
  3. While the American people demonstrated their willingness to go to war over fictitious weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the administration has overtly failed when it comes to real weapons of mass destruction right next door in Iran.
  4. The administration foreign policy has had no discernable impact on the really scary North Korean program to develop nuclear weapons.
  5. The endless stand-off in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains deadlocked.
In true Obama Administration style, she speaks a substantial amount with no substance of which to speak.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Me vs. Hawking


Hawking_articleStephen Hawking says universe not created by God

In his new book, Stephen Hawking reiterates that there is no big gap in the scientific account of the big bang. The laws of physics can explain, he says, how a universe of space, time and matter could emerge spontaneously, without the need for God. And most cosmologists agree: we don't need a god-of-the-gaps to make the big bang go bang. It can happen as part of a natural process. A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?

Adam Gabbatt The Guardian, Thursday 2 September 2010

First, allow me to say that I have nothing but respect for Doctor Hawking, the man who today fulfills the office once occupied by Sir Isaac Newton among other intellectual giants. His intellect has been a subject of wonder to me since I first read his A Brief History of Time, (Bantam Press) in 1988 and moreover when I began to understand what I had read roughly a decade later. In this spirit of respect I must regretfully and humbly disagree with this preeminent genius and arguably the smartest man on the planet. To Doctor Hawkins I offer my apology and the following polemic.

What specific, distinguishable empirical prediction deriving from his hypothesis will be disconfirmed if Dr. Hawking is wrong? That is, if Dr. Hawking's assertion is that God isn't necessary for the existence of the universe, how could that hypothesis be falsified empirically?

If it can't be---if, in other words, every observation deriving from Dr. Hawking's hypothesis is also consistent with the contrary hypothesis that God is in fact necessary for the universe's existence, is it not the case that Dr. Hawking's hypothesis fails to meet the criteria for being a genuinely scientific one?

Are the laws of physics made of matter/energy? If not, how can they affect matter/energy?

Where did the universe-generating laws come from?

It strikes me that Dr. Hawking is trading on his reputation as a scientist to make a non-scientific claim.

Another thing I'd say is that he uses the term 'laws of physics' without seeming to be familiar with the large amount of revision that such terms have undergone in both the history of and contemporary debates in the philosophy of science. For a taste see this short paper by Nancy Cartwright [PDF format] to the contentious debate regarding the concept of laws of nature.

Whatever else God is, God isn't a physically observable entity. The concept of God is the concept of an infinite mind.

The infinity of divine mind ensures that we cannot observe it as if it were a physical object. But in fact, God shares the property of being physically unobservable with all minds.

I find it ironic that some scientists are driven to posit an infinity of unobservables so as to avoid positing one unobservable infinite. I mean, if you're committed to verificationism, what's the point of positing a vast number of entities which we cannot observe nor have any causal interactions with? But the point I'd make is that there is no way string physics or any other physics can avoid positing an unobservable, infinite reality of some sort. Let me explain why.

Let's suppose that string physics, or some other development in physics, becomes scientifically established, and is shown to entail a Multiverse. Immediately we'd want to know, if we're curious about it, why there is any such thing as this physics, and why there is any such thing as a Multiverse. Well, there are two ways to go at this point.
One way is to say that the ultimate physics governing the universe will turn out to be in some way logically necessary, and that this necessity follows from the mathematics exhibiting it. But how would this ultimate theory establish the validity of mathematical reason itself…the very mathematical reason that underlies and is used to establish the ultimate theory of physical reality? After all, the construction of the theory would be presupposing the validity of the mathematical reasoning involved, and it would be suggesting that mathematical reason is valid not only for this universe, but for the multiverse as a whole. So where mathematical reason itself comes from is one issue.

A second issue is: why would this universally valid Mathematical Reason be such as to instantiate anything in physical reality, not least ourselves, who can appreciate and grasp and understand it? Or to put it another way, why is there something (even just this multiverse-generating mathematics), rather than nothing at all? Hawking famously asked why the equations would go to the bother of making anything like a universe, and one could ask the same thing about the string (or whatever) equations that make a Multiverse. Why, in other words, would the equations be self-instantiating in physical reality? Maybe you'd need another equation for that.... which at some point in this regress just has to be there eternally, instantiating the other equations, etc.

But then one would seem to be left with the choice of either theism, or a form of mathematical Platonism, and in either case, one would be positing a non-physical unobservable something as being responsible for both the multiverse and our reasoning about it. Moreover, mathematics itself is an infinite (abstract) structure. And it's physically invisible. (Cf. God)

The trouble with Platonism as an account of reason is that if the Platonic entity itself is suitably to be grasped by mind, then it's deeply puzzling why it should not be essentially and intimately connected with mind (or intellect, or consciousness) in the first place, and in fact actually just be the content of a mind, or intellect, or consciousness. We never encounter Platonic entities as freestanding objects---they are always encountered as contents of minds. But this suggests an infinite mental content, such as mathematics is, would need an infinite mind, or intellect, or consciousness to comprehend it, and be the content of.

There is perhaps a way around this problem, though. And that is to invoke once again the principle of natural selection. This is the second option (the aforementioned Platonism being the first.) The second option would go like this: We get this universe because it is naturally selected for us within a multiverse. And we get the multiverse described by the equations of string theory (or whatever the final theory is) because it is naturally selected within a multiverse of multiverses. And we get the multiverse of multiverses because it is naturally selected by a multiverse of multiverses of multiverses.... And so on, ad infinitum.  But either way, you have to end up positing a physically unobservable infinite. Either, Mathematical Reason (Platonistically conceived). Or, an infinity of universes/multiverses.

But the point of going this route was to avoid having to posit a physically unobservable infinite (God). But it seems to me that point turns out to be self-defeating.

A coda to this result is that there is a good argument for thinking that order must be primitive at some level and cannot all be the result of natural selection. Here it is in a nutshell:

1. For natural selection to work at all, it must work upon some domain.

2. To identify any domain whatsoever in the first place, science must find order of some kind pertaining to that domain.

3. Hence, every domain upon which natural selection is to operate must already be ordered in some way.

4. Hence, natural selection cannot be the sole explanation of order in nature, unless one posits an infinite unobservable or an infinity of unobservables, which defeats the purpose of relying on natural selection in the first place, which was to explain phenomena without positing anything infinite and/or unobservable.

Some order, at some level of scientific analysis, must be primitive. It can't all be generated by natural selection. Or else, one must posit an infinity of some kind, which by definition must be physically unobservable by finite scientists.

Now a word about Ockham’s Razor.

The Ockham’s Razor principle says, 'Don't multiply entities beyond necessity.' Ok, to explain the perceived order of the universe, the proponents of a multiverse posit trillions upon trillions of additional entities---additional universes, or additional universe-regions (beyond the limits of what we observe). Theists, posit one additional entity. So prima facie theism is more ontologically economical.

Notice that both sides see the positing of something beyond what we observe as being necessary to explain the order inherent in what we do observe. Theists hold that because that order is intrinsically intelligible to mathematical reason, and because mathematical reason is essentially an attribute of rational mind, inference to an ultimately mind-like reality is more probable than either a materialist or Platonist alternative. But notice that all three worldviews posit something invisible and infinite to explain order:

1) God
2) A Platonic Mathematical Realm (which must contain at least as infinite a number of abstract entities as mathematics itself)
3) A Realm of Universes or Universe-Regions with no fixed or determinable upper limit on their number

As between these three alternatives, Ockham's Razor either cannot by itself decide since there are serious countability issues with all three, or else favors theism. (Aquinas has technical reasons to do with God not belonging to a genus or species and with God's existence being identical with God's essence, for not regarding God as a being and therefore not being strictly speaking a countable type of reality.)

My argument in this respect in purely defensive rather than positive; that is, my argument has been not to rely on Ockham's Razor, but simply to reject the claim that it favors the non-theistic alternatives. Because it does not! In other words, if you're going to appeal to Ockham, there's no reason to think that theism does badly in that regard. On the contrary. But my argument actually doesn't rely on it, it simply says all three worldviews are either on a par, Ockham-wise, or, if anything, theism is better, Ockham-wise.

Theism also does a better job in my view because it's better suited to account for consciousness, rationality, morality, aesthetics, and religious experience. A materialist multiverse can't account for any of that if materialism in the philosophy of mind is false. I am persuaded that it is false for reasons advanced by the likes of Saul Kripke and David Chalmers . And I prefer theism to Platonism since there's no good Platonist theory of causation, whereas we know that there are causally active minds.

So theism, as an a deductive inference , that is, an inference to a transcendent Mind as being the best explanation for cosmic order (as well the existence of consciousness, reason, morality, aesthetic value, religious experience and spirituality, etc.), strikes me as at least as, indeed more plausible than either a mysterious realm of impersonal mathematical laws and equations, or the apotheosis of meaningless, purposeless ontological extravagance represented by the Multiverse.

But notice in any case that all three notions…God, the Platonic Realm, and the Multiverse—are notions of an unobservable infinite.

" For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity is God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through."