September 15, 2003


Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died (Tom Wolfe)

The unspoken and largely unconscious premise of the wrangling over neuroscience's strategic high ground is: We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal. And the issue this time around, at the end of the twentieth century, is not the evolution of the species, which can seem a remote business, but the nature of our own precious inner selves.

The elders of the field, such as Wilson, are well aware of all this and are cautious, or cautious compared to the new generation. Wilson still holds out the possibility--I think he doubts it, but he still holds out the possibility--that at some point in evolutionary history, culture began to influence the development of the human brain in ways that cannot be explained by strict Darwinian theory. But the new generation of neuroscientists are not cautious for a second. In private conversations, the bull sessions, as it were, that create the mental atmosphere of any hot new science--and I love talking to these people--they express an uncompromising determinism.

They start with the most famous statement in all of modern philosophy, Descartes's "Cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am," which they regard as the essence of "dualism," the old-fashioned notion that the mind is something distinct from its mechanism, the brain and the body. (I will get to the second most famous statement in a moment.) This is also known as the "ghost in the machine" fallacy, the quaint belief that there is a ghostly "self" somewhere inside the brain that interprets and directs its operations. Neuroscientists involved in three-dimensional electroencephalography will tell you that there is not even any one place in the brain where consciousness or self-consciousness ( Cogito ergo sum ) is located. This is merely an illusion created by a medley of neurological systems acting in concert. The young generation takes this yet one step further. Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system--and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth--what makes you think you have free will? Where is it going to come from? What "ghost," what "mind," what "self," what "soul," what anything that will not be immediately grabbed by those scornful quotation marks, is going to bubble up your brain stem to give it to you? I have heard neuroscientists theorize that, given computers of sufficient power and sophistication, it would be possible to predict the course of any human being's life moment by moment, including the fact that the poor devil was about to shake his head over the very idea. I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth.

Since the late 1970s, in the Age of Wilson, college students have been heading into neuroscience in job lots. The Society for Neuroscience was founded in 1970 with 1,100 members. Today, one generation later, its membership exceeds 26,000. The Society's latest convention, in San Diego, drew 23,052 souls, making it one of the biggest professional conventions in the country. In the venerable field of academic philosophy, young faculty members are jumping ship in embarrassing numbers and shifting into neuroscience. They are heading for the laboratories. Why wrestle with Kant's God, Freedom, and Immortality when it is only a matter of time before neuroscience, probably through brain imaging, reveals the actual physical mechanism that sends these mental constructs, these illusions, synapsing up into the Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the brain?

Which brings us to the second most famous statement in all of modern philosophy: Nietzsche's "God is dead." The year was 1882. (The book was Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [ The Gay Science ].) Nietzsche said this was not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a "tremendous event," the greatest event of modern history. The news was that educated people no longer believed in God, as a result of the rise of rationalism and scientific thought, including Darwinism, over the preceding 250 years. But before you atheists run up your flags of triumph, he said, think of the implications. "The story I have to tell," wrote Nietzsche, "is the history of the next two centuries." He predicted (in Ecce Homo ) that the twentieth century would be a century of "wars such as have never happened on earth," wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: "If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly"--he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations --"are hurled into the people for another generation...then nobody should be surprised when...brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers...will appear in the arena of the future."

Nietzsche's view of guilt, incidentally, is also that of neuro-scientists a century later. They regard guilt as one of those tendencies imprinted in the brain at birth. In some people the genetic work is not complete, and they engage in criminal behavior without a twinge of remorse--thereby intriguing criminologists, who then want to create Violence Initiatives and hold conferences on the subject.

Nietzsche said that mankind would limp on through the twentieth century "on the mere pittance" of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the twenty-first, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of "the total eclipse of all values" (in The Will to Power ). This would also be a frantic period of "revaluation," in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old. But you will fail, he warned, because you cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says "Thou shalt" or "Thou shalt not."

Why should we bother ourselves with a dire prediction that seems so far-fetched as "the total eclipse of all values"? Because of man's track record, I should think. After all, in Europe, in the peaceful decade of the 1880s, it must have seemed even more far-fetched to predict the world wars of the twentieth century and the barbaric brotherhoods of Nazism and Communism. Ecce vates! Ecce vates! Behold the prophet! How much more proof can one demand of a man's powers of prediction?

A hundred years ago those who worried about the death of God could console one another with the fact that they still had their own bright selves and their own inviolable souls for moral ballast and the marvels of modern science to chart the way. But what if, as seems likely, the greatest marvel of modern science turns out to be brain imaging? And what if, ten years from now, brain imaging has proved, beyond any doubt, that not only Edward O. Wilson but also the young generation are, in fact, correct?

The elders, such as Wilson himself and Daniel C. Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life , and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker , insist that there is nothing to fear from the truth, from the ultimate extension of Darwin's dangerous idea. They present elegant arguments as to why neuroscience should in no way diminish the richness of life, the magic of art, or the righteousness of political causes, including, if one need edit, political correctness at Harvard or Tufts, where Dennett is Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, or Oxford, where Dawkins is something called Professor of Public Understanding of Science. (Dennett and Dawkins, every bit as much as Wilson, are earnestly, feverishly, politically correct.) Despite their best efforts, however, neuroscience is not rippling out into the public on waves of scholarly reassurance. But rippling out it is, rapidly. The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: The fix is in! We're all hardwired! That, and: Don't blame me! I'm wired wrong! [...]

If I were a college student today, I don't think I could resist going into neuroscience. Here we have the two most fascinating riddles of the twenty-first century: the riddle of the human mind and the riddle of what happens to the human mind when it comes to know itself absolutely. In any case, we live in an age in which it is impossible and pointless to avert your eyes from the truth.

Ironically, said Nietzsche, this unflinching eye for truth, this zest for skepticism, is the legacy of Christianity (for complicated reasons that needn't detain us here). Then he added one final and perhaps ultimate piece of irony in a fragmentary passage in a notebook shortly before he lost his mind (to the late-nineteenth-century's great venereal scourge, syphilis). He predicted that eventually modern science would turn its juggernaut of skepticism upon itself, question the validity of its own foundations, tear them apart, and self-destruct. I thought about that in the summer of 1994 when a group of mathematicians and computer scientists held a conference at the Santa Fe Institute on "Limits to Scientific Knowledge." The consensus was that since the human mind is, after all, an entirely physical apparatus, a form of computer, the product of a particular genetic history, it is finite in its capabilities. Being finite, hardwired, it will probably never have the power to comprehend human existence in any complete way. It would be as if a group of dogs were to call a conference to try to understand The Dog. They could try as hard as they wanted, but they wouldn't get very far. Dogs can communicate only about forty notions, all of them primitive, and they can't record anything. The project would be doomed from the start. The human brain is far superior to the dog's, but it is limited nonetheless. So any hope of human beings arriving at some final, complete, self-enclosed theory of human existence is doomed, too.

This, science's Ultimate Skepticism, has been spreading ever since then. Over the past two years even Darwinism, a sacred tenet among American scientists for the past seventy years, has been beset by...doubts. Scientists--not religiosi--notably the mathematician David Berlinski ("The Deniable Darwin," Commentary , June 1996) and the biochemist Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box , 1996), have begun attacking Darwinism as a mere theory, not a scientific discovery, a theory woefully unsupported by fossil evidence and featuring, at the core of its logic, sheer mush. (Dennett and Dawkins, for whom Darwin is the Only Begotten, the Messiah, are already screaming. They're beside themselves, utterly apoplectic. Wilson, the giant, keeping his cool, has remained above the battle.) By 1990 the physicist Petr Beckmann of the University of Colorado had already begun going after Einstein. He greatly admired Einstein for his famous equation of matter and energy, E=mc2 , but called his theory of relativity mostly absurd and grotesquely untestable. Beckmann died in 1993. His Fool Killer's cudgel has been taken up by Howard Hayden of the University of Connecticut, who has many admirers among the upcoming generation of Ultimately Skeptical young physicists. The scorn the new breed heaps upon quantum mechanics ("has no real-world applications"..."depends entirely on fairies sprinkling goofball equations in your eyes"), Unified Field Theory ("Nobel worm bait"), and the Big Bang Theory ("creationism for nerds") has become withering. If only Nietzsche were alive! He would have relished every minute of it!

Recently I happened to be talking to a prominent California geologist, and she told me: "When I first went into geology, we all thought that in science you create a solid layer of findings, through experiment and careful investigation, and then you add a second layer, like a second layer of bricks, all very carefully, and so on. Occasionally some adventurous scientist stacks the bricks up in towers, and these towers turn out to be insubstantial and they get torn down, and you proceed again with the careful layers. But we now realize that the very first layers aren't even resting on solid ground. They are balanced on bubbles, on concepts that are full of air, and those bubbles are being burst today, one after the other."

I suddenly had a picture of the entire astonishing edifice collapsing and modern man plunging headlong back into the primordial ooze. He's floundering, sloshing about, gulping for air, frantically treading ooze, when he feels something huge and smooth swim beneath him and boost him up, like some almighty dolphin. He can't see it, but he's much impressed. He names it God.

There is, of course, a skepticism beyond this, which Descartes was trying to get around: since even my belief that I think may be an illusion, I may not be. But when we reach these final points of skepticism, we have to begin over again with some expression of faith, don't we? There may be neuroscientists and sociobiologists who will say, purely for effect, that we can't know that we exist, but none live their lives as if they don't know. We all make an expression of faith every day when we get up and brush our teeth and we move forward from there, on the back of the almighty dolphin.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2003 10:23 PM

What was Nietzsche's line: "Men will nothingness rather than nothing?" Not so, it appears.

This is far beyond my meager capabilites to comprehend - but it seems to me that whichever one chooses - materialism or deism, nothingness or nothing - it comes down to faith. Our intellect only carries us so far; at a certain point we have to make our choice, choose a path. Or as some appear to do, keep searching.


Posted by: SteveMG at September 16, 2003 12:10 AM

Obviously, these young neuroscientists need to have Harry and Jeff explain the non-determinative nature of evolution and materialism to them. (/sarcasm)

Posted by: carl at September 16, 2003 8:13 AM

This is the usual postmodernist malarky, which alas may be infecting physics as it moves away from experimentation.

Quantum physics has no applications? That's plain and simple nonsense. Special relativity, at least, is straightforward to test and passes, although I grant it's absurd. The big bang may be creationism, but if it fits the evidence is that any reason to scorn it?

And anybody who thinks computers will model a person's life has, well, about the grasp of mathematics I expect from a biologist (though there is an occasional exception). (Math geek mutters.)

I really see this as folks trying to strap a political agenda onto the carriage of scientific progress. The neuroscientists may hit some breakthroughs, though, and that is a little scary; I am hopeful but would be hard-pressed to prove that knowing what they find out will be consistant with a decent society.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 16, 2003 11:05 AM


Watch your "tongue" or we'll change the Virtual Earl program to erase those "thoughts".

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 11:23 AM

OJ -

Better be careful with that. It's awfully hard to change 'just one little thing' in a large program, especially if you didn't write it. Try to tweak one tiny thing and next thing you know I'll be spewing Outlook viruses or agreeing with Phillip S.

I knew I should have taken the red pill...

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 16, 2003 11:46 AM

Who says I didn't write it?

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 11:50 AM

Mike says it all pretty well.

Carl, perhaps, fails to understand the fundamental problems with determinism.

Up through roughly (exact dates fail me here) 100 years ago, scientific determinism was all the rage. The theory being that all one needed to do to determine the future was correctly measure all the facets of the present, much as one might do orbital mechanics.

Difficult, assuredly, but not impossible.

Unfortunately, it is impossible. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle proves that it is impossible to know both an object's position and velocity with infinite precision, and that the more precisely one measures one quantity, the less precise the other becomes.

And the smaller the object, the greater the uncertainty of any measurement.

Which is where quantum mechanics comes in.

At the molecular level, quantum mechanics and uncertainty are not ignorable. That isn't particularly archane knowledge, which is why I was surprised to read the assertion that one could--in theory--play out one's life on a computer.

Which means, Carl, evolution cannot be deterministic because it is literally impossible to have enough information to rewind the tape and have it play the same way a second time. Never mind being able to determine where evolution is headed.

Also, so far as I know, materialism and determinism have nothing to do with each other.

Fascinating article, BTW.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 16, 2003 11:52 AM


The implications of uncertainty are far more radical than that. If a particle can be either here or there (or infinite otherwheres) depending on our attempt to measure it, then nothing actually exists until we try. Man's observation imposes reality.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 12:00 PM

A couple other thoughts:

OJ's last sentence, "We all make an expression of faith every day ..." is absolutely spot on.

Materialists and religionists who presume to believe they possess absolute truth are absolutely wrong. I suspect that particular fault is rather more prevalent on the side of religionists--one only needs to channel-surf the ranks of televangelists to find faith posed as incontrovertible fact.

The article also mentions free-will, and that some might believe it somewhat overrated. "Nature via Nurture" (Thomas Ridley(?)) has some interesting points of view in that respect. Among other things, the book asserts that one's degree of religiosity is inborn.

Speaking from personal experience, I have utterly no choice over my atheism.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 16, 2003 12:15 PM


I don't think you are quite right on your last comment--although I must admit insufficient knowledge to be an authority.

I believe the uncertainty principle has to do with the ability to simultaneously and infinitely precisely measure both velocity and position, not that those quantities don't exist independent of measurement (a la Zeno's paradox regarding falling trees and people available to hear them--the resulting atmospheric pressure waves exist regardless of there being ears around to interpret them as sound).

Keeping in mind that it is impossible to measure anything smaller than the wavelength of the photons one is using for the measurement, then it is impossible to conduct a measurement in zero time, which means that any measurement of position is going to have some vector mixed in with it, and vice versa.

So, I conclude hoping not to have done excessive violence to a complex subject I don't completely understand (odds getting lower by the word), the uncertainty principle doesn't mean particles can have any state, only that our knowledge of that state is fundamentally limited.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 16, 2003 1:54 PM

Darwinism went through an early, hopeful reductionist phase, but the evidence was against it, so it was dropped.

The strong AI school, which does not come from darwinism but from applied math, is regarded as a blind alley by most darwinists, not only Wilson.

The Turing hypothesis may be invalid for sufficiently complex systems but is certainly invalid for the human system.

The confidence that some (not all) neurologists have that they can describe everything is so far undemonstrated.

Orrin likes to zero in on the fringe practitioners. More typical is the remark of a leading neurologist at Caltech who was talking to some public school teachers a while back: "I'm still trying to figure out how rats work."

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 2:39 PM

Jeff -

I think OJ isn't just referring to the uncertainty principle, but more generally to quantum observer paradoxes (eg Schroedinger's cat). And from what little I know he's right; the math and experiments work, but the implications are flat-out loony if stated in plain english.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 16, 2003 2:43 PM


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a limit upon human knowledge, not the physical world. You seem to be arguing that because humans are incapable of gathering all the necessary information to determine the future that means the universe non-deterministic, and that is a non sequitur.

Posted by: carl at September 16, 2003 4:59 PM


But it has implications for the physical world, suggesting that individual particles are in different places at the same time, effectively calling into question whether anything "exists" until it is measured/observed. It would appear, in fact, that the Universe's purpose is to be observed by us.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 5:03 PM


I agree, but then again I am not a materialist. I believe I have mentioned once or twice that I am an absolute idealist. I do not believe that atoms, protons, photons, quarks, leptons, or any of the other various quanta have an absolute existence apart from ourselves. They are merely free creations of the human mind to explain observed phenomena.

On the other hand, materialism posits that these things do in fact have a seperate independent existence, and that all phenomena are the result of matter in motion. If this is correct then all these quanta do indeed have an absolute precise location and momentum, but our instruments of observation are insufficient to determine them; thus, the indeterminancy resides not in the objective physical reality, but rather in our subjective interpretation of that reality.

Posted by: carl at September 16, 2003 5:50 PM

Physics suggests otherwise:

"Schroedinger devised the cat experiment to illustrate just how radically the quantum realm differs from the macroscopic, everyday world that we inhabit. He himself had shown that a particle such as an electron exists in a number of possible states, the probability of each of which is incorporated into an equation known as the wave function. In the case of an atom of radioactive material, for example, the atom has a certain probability of decaying over a given period of time.

Based on our "classical" intuition, we would assume that there are only two possibilities: either the atom has decayed, or it has not. According to quantum physics, however, the atom inhabits both states simultaneously. It is only when an observer actually tries to determine the state of the atom by measuring it that the wave function "collapses," and the atom assumes just one of its possible states: decayed or undecayed."

Posted by: at September 16, 2003 6:24 PM

Nevertheless, unstable atoms do decay, whether we observe them or not.

But, so far as we can tell, and our error bars on this are very, very small, the decay of any particular atom is absolutely random. Yet the rate of decay is very steady.

It so happens that which atom decays can influence evolution, and that would introduce instability and unpredictability, if nothing else did.

It is conceivable, but since Heisenberg, indemonstrable, that unstable atomic decays are not inherent but caused by something else. That might bring determinism back in, but there is no evidence that that's how they work.

All this talk about causes is so much hooey. As a materialist, I deal with material. If there's something more fundamental beyond that, so what?

Maybe there is, but there's no difference to the system if there isn't.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 6:40 PM

Yes, but belief in material is itself a form of faith.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 6:42 PM

The assumption behind Schroedinger's cat is that the wave function describes reality. It does not. The wave "packet" describes our knowledge of reality, not reality itself. The "waves" are mental constructs that propagate in conceptual space.

Posted by: carl at September 16, 2003 6:54 PM

Carl has a good point about my non-sequitor. I would have been on firmer ground had I said determinism is dead because it is impossible for us to know any given state of the universe well enough mechanistically know any future state.

Which is an entirely different matter from being able to say whether the universe itself is mechanistic.

It isn't so much that our instruments aren't sufficiently precise, as that the only way to measure things is with photons, with the accuracy of the measurement varying inversely with wavelength. Which is also the same way photon energy varies. So the smaller the object/greater the precision, the more effect the measuring photon's energy will have on what one is trying to measure.

As for OJ's assertion that all this amounts to the Universe's purpose for existence is to be observed by us...people used to think we saw things because of what issued from our eyes, too.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 16, 2003 9:07 PM


Humbling, isn't it? That the more we know the more we realize that our anscestors were just as close to the truth?

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 9:13 PM

Orrin, if you think observations are valueless, try walking over a cliff and call me in the morning.

It does not matter what value you want to give observations, they validate themselves, which is somethign than imaginings cannot do.

And it does not matter whether there is something realer than real behind the observations. The observations and the deductions are good whichever the answer is. In other words, the question has no meaning.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 16, 2003 9:27 PM

A Treatise of Human Nature Book 1: Of the Understanding.

SECT. VII. Conclusion of this Book.

But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 16, 2003 9:28 PM


I agree completely. We all have faith that we exist even though it is entirely unsuupported by reason.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 9:58 PM


Bingo! And from that point forward all we've had is faith.

Posted by: oj at September 16, 2003 10:00 PM


IMO, you're slicing your philosophical hairs mighty fine if you're trying to preserve a distinction between

a) completely random events

b) events which are theoretically deterministic, but about which it is impossible to determine enough information to predict.

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 17, 2003 12:06 AM


I agree. Believing that one could model somebody's entire life in advance is rubbish, no matter how much computing power is brought to bear, up to the level of Deity iron.

If one examines identical twin studies, it quickly becomes clear that free will, or a reasonable facsimile, exists to at least a small degree.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 17, 2003 7:40 AM


Is there a difference?

In the absolute grand scheme of things, there might be. But from our observational viewpoint, the assertion that there is a difference is indistinguishable from its exact opposite. Therefore, the question is unanswerable.

Much like OJ's assertion, "... effectively calling into question whether anything "exists" until it is measured/observed. It would appear, in fact, that the Universe's purpose is to be observed by us." It is impossible for us to know whether things exist absent our observation, or don't until our observation (reminds me of being a kid and trying to figure out if the refrigerator light actually went out when the door closed).

His premise has no validity, since the opposite condition fits the facts just as well. Therefore, the conclusion has no validity. That doesn't make it wrong, just observationally indistinguishable from its opposite.

And no, I don't think our ancestors were just as close to the truth. A notion of the universe consisting of one place in the center of a small sphere doesn't strike me as particularly close to a truth I would want to defend.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 17, 2003 7:56 AM


Which proves the point. It is your contention that reason is superior to faith. Yet you concede that reason can reveal no solid information, only things that you have faith in.

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2003 8:01 AM


When you are playing with quanta, photons are the instruments of observation.


Even if atomic decay is a purely random event, the effects of that random event are deterministic in a material reality. Either the particle decays or it does not. If it does it emits radiation that then interacts with other particles in a determinitive way.

If all reality consists of little hard particles (matter) colliding with other little hard particles to make things happen (phenomena) then reality has to be mechanistic and determinitive.

If you posit a sub-stratum that exists beneath the quantum realm that consists of operators A,B,C,..., that corespond to quantum effects a,b,c..., and then assume that the sub-stratum also has composite operators AB,BC,AC..., that can either be a or b, but never both, you can bypass (as it were) determinism. The problem with that is that there is already a theoretical sub-stratum that supports the observable world called "matter". Now in order to explain matter you are reduced to creating another sub-stratum beneath the material sub-stratum. This can go on ad infinitum.

At some point you have to stop and declare that "this is all we can know." Of course when you get to that point you are in the same position as the Deist when someone asks "who created God?"


" you're slicing your philosophical hairs mighty fine "

Razor thin ;)

Posted by: carl at September 17, 2003 8:43 AM

Carl, you're saying the atomic decay is not random, which is not supported by observation.

Randomness is a difficult concept. We can predict, within pretty close limits, when the next decay will occur, but not where. The where (that is, the vector of the particle) is what counts for evolution.

(By the way, I did a little calculation about uncertainty and was surprised to discover that the uncertainty in the relative positions of Earth and Moon is about one foot in one million miles, about twice the uncertainty in the best quantum mechanical observations. Much is made, rightly, of Heisenberg, but it is, as Einstein said, relative.)

Orrin says reason does not prove existence. True, if reason is all you use.

Reason applied to observation, however, works very well, and if what it reveals is not existence, then who cares? Close enough for gummint work.

Reason applied to thought -- Thomism -- not only cannot demonstate anything, historically it has resulted in statements about the observable world that are always wrong, once the world is observed.

It is notable that every single statement about the physical world made by the Christian theologians was wrong once put to the test.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 17, 2003 3:24 PM

"It is your contention that reason is superior to faith. Yet you concede that reason can reveal no solid information, only things that you have faith in."

No. I haven't contended one is superior to the other--that is your conclusion. My contention is that it is impossible to distinguish the truth value between varying faith-based conclusions, unless, ironically, one uses material means.

Christianity and Hinduism can't both be right at the same time, and there is no way to distinguish which, if either, is.

It is possible to distinguish between competing material explanations, and between competing faith-based and material explanations.

Last time I checked, we don't sacrifice virgins to some Supreme Being as a bribe to get a good harvest.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 17, 2003 3:40 PM


Please. You put a great deal of time and effort into what you write. Please read it:

"It is impossible for us to know whether things exist absent our observation, or don't until our observation
(reminds me of being a kid and trying to figure out if the refrigerator light actually went out when the door closed).

His premise has no validity, since the opposite condition fits the facts just as well. Therefore, the conclusion has no validity. That doesn't make it wrong, just observationally indistinguishable from its opposite."

When a thing and its opposite are both potentially true, we must admit we're beyond our capacity to know, as we are when we try to determine whether we or anything else exist. All you've got left is faith in one answer or the other.

Posted by: OJ at September 17, 2003 3:47 PM

Orrin, if a thing and its opposite are potentially true, and there is no evidence to decide between them, then indeed there is no reason to choose one over the other, or even to choose at all.

But if a thing and its opposite are subject to checks, then it is not possible to hold either equally. That the theme of the "discord" section in Franklin's "Sensitivity and Discord."

We have no evidence one way or the other whether Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes. We have evidence whether, say, people live in China.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 17, 2003 5:54 PM


We have no evidence that you or I exist, so we obviously have no evidence that China exists. You may just be a thought in someone else's head.

Posted by: OJ at September 17, 2003 7:41 PM


I'm confused. I still don't see where I said one was superior to the other. Rather, I made what seems a fairly uncontroversial assertion that if it is impossible to distinguish between two opposing theories, than drawing conclusions based on one or the other is just as pointless as the question.

It is a unique kind of faith that forms a conclusion in the utter absence of any evidence one way or the other. That seems to be your kind of faith: determine based on no evidence that the universe doesn't exist unless we are looking, then from that conclude we are the reason for the universe's existence.

The other kind of faith yields this answer: Nothing to see here, move along.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 17, 2003 9:20 PM

"No. I haven't contended one is superior to the other--that is your conclusion. My contention is that it is impossible to distinguish the truth value between varying faith-based conclusions, unless, ironically, one uses material means."

Material means obviously can't be used to judge faith if they are a mere product of faith. Faith and materialism are not rivals, rather set and subset.

Posted by: oj at September 17, 2003 9:54 PM


If you are referring to the historical and scientific statements made in the past by churchmen to support man's supremacy (the stuff prior to Copernicus), your claim is factually correct. But if you are extending your claim to cover every statement made by theologians today, then you have strayed. Science may disprove (often quite easily) bad theology, but sound orthodox theology is quite a different matter.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 17, 2003 11:54 PM

Material means can be used to judge faith's material results.

You do that when judging the value of Islam v. Christianity, for instance. And you do that when discriminating good theology from bad theology.

So, in those cases, material means can be the rival of faith. And in every case where non-material faith contradicts material faith, they are rivals.

On a different subject. You contend, it seems, that the whole point of the universe is to be observed by us--it doesn't exist until we observe it, thereby making us the point of the universe.

It wasn't until the late-19th/early-20th century until we were aware of galaxies beyond our own. Which means, according to you, they didn't exist until we saw them. Yet, somehow, they managed to send their light on its way millions of light years before they existed.

There are three ways out of this dilemma:

1. Things exist whether we observe them or not, meaning this reason for making us the point of the universe is invalid.
2. Other beings elsewhere are also making observations, making us not the point of the universe.
3. There's no proof they exist. Which sounds a lot like more than a river in Egypt.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 18, 2003 8:22 AM


No, you use faith to judge faith and material. It means nothing in material terms to say that Unitarianism is superior to Shinto. That's just a value judgment.

And, what I said was, the science in whicvh you believe holds that nothing exists until we observe it (collapse its wave function or whatever). This happens to square perfectly with the notion that Man is the object of the Universe, but it is of course bunk, as most science is when driven to its logical conclusions.

However, point 2 is correct: God observes,m thereby making reality real.

ans 3 is right also: we have no way to prove via reason that anything exists including ourselves--all is faith.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 8:34 AM


Last sentence should say "Sounds a lot like a river in Eguyp."

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 18, 2003 10:52 AM

And then from mathematics we have Godel's theorum, which more-or-less says that any system of rational beliefs necessarily has either self-contradictions or unanswerable questions...

Posted by: Mike Earl at September 18, 2003 10:53 AM

Neither exists

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 10:54 AM

All of which leads to just one conclusion: reason isn't reasonable in and of itself--ya' gotta have faith.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 11:01 AM

"God observes, thereby making reality real."

That is a perfect example of a conclusion from ignorance, on top of assuming as true what which remains to be proven.


Godel's Incompleteness Theorem actually states that for any set of theorems, it is possible to construct syntactically correct statements, the truth value of which is impossible to prove within that set of theorems. This is not restricted to just systems of rational beliefs.

An example from English would be: This statement is false.

Since this is true of language, then anything expressed in language is subject to the Incompleteness Theorem.

QED: don't draw any conclusion from this regarding the validity or lack thereof of belief systems.

I'm not at all sure that science agrees with your assumption that science says nothing exists until we observe it is at all true. At the surpassingly strange quantum mechanical level that might be true (I don't have the expertise to pass judgment on that), but at scales larger than that, so far as I know, that notion is false.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 18, 2003 2:51 PM


Much hilarity ensued at your statement that at the most fundamental quantum mechanical level nothing exists until we observe it, but that farther up the rickety structure we can know things to exist.

It reminds me of the story in Beckman's book, The History of Pi (?) of a guy who's loife's mission was to work pi out as far as he could. Over the course of his lifetime he took it to whatever, say 30,000, decimal places. All well and good, except that there was a mistake early on making everything that followed junk. You can't build the certainty your rationality requires on a foundation of uncertainty. Your own science is your enemy.

But I agree with you that the Universe existed even when we weren't observing it. Your scioence requires an observer prior to us. Your science demonstrates the lack of other organic observers. We're left with whjoever created the universe. I call that Creator God.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 3:17 PM

Orrin, even if we are just a thought in somebody else's head, that is a kind of existence. You preach love. That, too, is a thought in somebody's head. I don't deny it exists, though I do suspect that when the head loses its material existence, the thought disappears, too. You and I differ there.

Jim, I doubt whether science can ever "disprove" theology. I said that every statement about the physical world that was based on theological reasoning was incorrect.

Today, theologians are in a box. They have to square observation with views they inherited from long ago. They find it difficult sometimes.

Their inability to come up with anything valid about the observable world on their own calls into question their reliability about any statements they make about the unobservable world.

They could be right, but how will we ever know?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 18, 2003 4:05 PM


You miss the point: we won't ever know anything. we just make choices about what to have faith in.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 6:23 PM

I know better than to walk off a cliff.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 18, 2003 8:24 PM


I share your faith that you and the cliff exist. No purely rational person could do the same.

Posted by: oj at September 18, 2003 8:28 PM


You said:

Much hilarity ensued at your statement that at the most fundamental quantum mechanical level nothing exists until we observe it, but that farther up the rickety structure we can know things to exist

I said:

I'm not at all sure that science agrees with your assumption that science says nothing exists until we observe it is at all true. At the surpassingly strange quantum mechanical level that might be true (I don't have the expertise to pass judgment on that), but at scales larger than that, so far as I know, that notion is false.

I counted four qualifiers in my statement--you might have taken them into account.

It is also obvious that at least some quantum mechanical effects rapidly become infinitesimally close to zero as size increases. You might also have taken that into account.

Oh, and one other thing to potentially take into account. About a year ago, someone demonstrated the first quantum mechanical computer. It didn't do much, but it did produce an observable result.

Purely rational people go with the odds. That's reason enough to forego walking off cliffs.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at September 19, 2003 3:50 PM

I already said that, Orrin, though I used Aquinas as an example of someone who pretended to be.

But on the continuum between highly rational and just barely rational, I know where I want to be.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 19, 2003 5:26 PM