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December 25th, 2007


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10:47 pm - On Platonism, Atheism, and Natural Law
Here's a bit of philosophising inspired by eyebeams fascinating post on atheism, Platonism, and the (largely) unspoken beliefs of the people (such as Richard Dawkins, who are part of the organized atheist/Bright movement. Malcolm wrote this piece in response an equally good NYT article about science, religion, and atheism. [[1]]

In his post, eyebeams reminded me of one of my objections to the is that it came about (or at least first started gaining notice) in the 90s, where it was not a response to excesses of religious zealotry as much as it was to perceived postmodernist "attacks" on science and that ever treacherous idea objectivity.

As both pieces I've linked to mention, Platonism, and more specifically a belief that the "laws of the universe" are fixed, unchanged, and ultimately transcend the universe lies at the heart of most this belief. Obviously, not all atheists believe this, but Dawkins and many of the other highly vocals atheists very clearly do.

By examining and unpacking this idea, I have found several areas where I not only disagree with this belief-set, but find it both unlikely and unpleasant. First off, I definitely consider myself a postmodernist. In addition to firmly believing that literary deconstruction is a valid and fascinating form of critique and that careful readers can find far more in a work than the author consciously put into it, I also see great usefulness in applying these same techniques to analyzing culture, society, and politics, where it can also yield all manner of fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) insights about what a culture truly values, despises, or ignores. Moreover, I also see it as having some use in science, at least insofar as it points out that while there may be an objective universe out there somewhere, we have no proof of this fact, and our discoveries and theories are shaped as much by the structures of our brains and our beliefs as by any potential objective truth or natural laws.

This idea is (from my PoV at least) transparently obvious when studying any social science, where the very idea of rigid or unchangeable laws is a ludicrous (if also disturbingly popular) idea. The controversy over this idea can be most easily seen in the continuing debate between social scientists, who largely favor the idea that there are no firm or stable laws of human behavior, and evolutionary psychologists who seek to find (or more commonly, to make up) fixed and rigid answers (supposedly) encoded in our genetics. It's completely unsurprising to me that some of the most vocal members of the Bright movement are devotees of evo-psych, like Richard Dawkins. Such people clearly either dislike or cannot accept the idea that our behavior is not only vastly flexible, it is ultimately indeterminate, instead they want to circumscribe the range of human behavior within a finite set of fixed and eternal genetic laws – essentially this is behavioral Platonism.

I would also go further and maintain that postmodernism even has a place in physics, in large part because so much of what is found on the quantum level is determined by what the researcher is looking for. In physics, people (like Richard Dawkins) who hold what can perhaps best be described as the Platonic atheism worldview are almost always strong proponents of Einstein's view that the universe is ultimately determinate and that quantum indeterminacy is an illusion masking a deeper order. Of course (and very thankfully from my PoV) this idea is purely a statement of belief, backed by nothing more than the desire of such people for a rigidly defined worldview that ultimately states that time is an illusion and that the final conditions of the universe could be (theoretically at least) exactly determined by its initial conditions. Although I can't yet describe exactly why I see a similarity, I strongly feel that there is some sort of connection between this worldview and the faux rationalism and mechanistic capitalism of hard-core libertarians. I think some of the similarity has to do with a belief in inherent and ultimately transcendent rules (at least in the sense that the rules are in some fashion more important and more real that they system they describe), in addition to the fact that the type of discomfort I feel about both ideas also feels quite similar.

Not unexpectedly, and as I discuss in considerably more detail in this post (where I also mention that indeterminacy is one of my core spiritual values), I find the determinate worldview put forward by Platonic atheism not only unlikely, but also both impressively dull and lifeless and also utterly abhorrent. For me, the idea that indeterminacy is illusory and that we live in a determinate (and this fully predetermined) universe is the only thing that could possibly make existence completely meaningless (on a purely personal level, and for me, existence has absolutely no meaning beyond the purely personal level).

I find it fascinating how much philosophical basic of Platonic atheism relies upon a set of ideas very similar to some of (IMHO at least) the worst Christian theology - Calvinism, with its rigid rules and its predestination. I much prefer a world where indeterminacy is an inherent factor of existence and that only possible predictions are ultimately statistical in nature. To me, that's a living, vibrant, and wondrous universe, and given that the universe I see around me certainly seems to be living, vibrant, and wondrous, I strongly suspect that indeterminacy plays a significant role in the universe.

In any case, it's worth noting that I have great sympathy with non-Platonic atheists. In part, this is because I see spirituality as having absolutely no place in the laws, governments, or the decisions of public officials in an locality that has even the smallest amount of spiritual diversity, and likely even in places that don't. In addition, some of my own beliefs come close. I have on more than one occasion spoken to deities, but I'm no more inclined to obey a command by a deity than any other command by someone more powerful than myself (which is to say, I will do so only if it obviously benefits me, and if it seems detrimental or meaningless, I'll do my best to ignore it completely in ways that avoid the authority punishing me. Also, I'm essentially no more and less inclined to follow advice from a deity than I am from any other knowledgeable but biased source (which is to say, any reasonably worthwhile source). Also, while I accept that deities exist (having from my PoV, excellent subjective evidence that they do), I also firmly believe that they had nothing to do with creating or maintaining the universe, and while they are larger and more powerful beings than we are , they are as much as part of the universe as anything and everything else.

It is perhaps also worth pointing out that deconstructing the emotional reasons for my views (and ultimately, all human beliefs are driven by emotion) is that I find an indeterminate universe to be very comforting. I refuse to live by any determinate set of personal rules. For me any moral or ethical code is by definition highly situation dependent. Also, I'm definitely the sort of person who enjoys finding exceptions and loopholes in just about everything and I depend upon my luck with a deep and abiding faith, and so I find the idea that the universe is not fixed or predictable to be exceptionally comforting, because it means in part (to me at least) that problems and obstacles can vanish as swiftly as inexplicably as they appear.

I've included the text of the NYT article below. Also, for reference, here's a link to a fascinating article by physicist Anton Zeilinger In the beginning was the bit, he's one of the physicists mentioned in the article below who hold distinctly non-platonic views and both this article and other's I've read by him seem both fascinating and (to me at least) quite reasonable.

[[1]] Here's the text of the excellent NYT article:
Laws of Nature, Source Unknown

By DENNIS OVERBYE
Published: December 18, 2007

“Gravity,” goes the slogan on posters and bumper stickers. “It isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.”

And what a law. Unlike, say, traffic or drug laws, you don’t have a choice about obeying gravity or any of the other laws of physics. Jump and you will come back down. Faith or good intentions have nothing to do with it.

Existence didn’t have to be that way, as Einstein reminded us when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Against all the odds, we can send e-mail to Sri Lanka, thread spacecraft through the rings of Saturn, take a pill to chase the inky tendrils of depression, bake a turkey or a soufflé and bury a jump shot from the corner.

Yes, it’s a lawful universe. But what kind of laws are these, anyway, that might be inscribed on a T-shirt but apparently not on any stone tablet that we have ever been able to find?

Are they merely fancy bookkeeping, a way of organizing facts about the world? Do they govern nature or just describe it? And does it matter that we don’t know and that most scientists don’t seem to know or care where they come from?

Apparently it does matter, judging from the reaction to a recent article by Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and author of popular science books, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.

Dr. Davies asserted in the article that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function. His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on Edge.org and letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.

David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, told me in an e-mail message, “I have more confidence in the methods of science, based on the amazing record of science and its ability over the centuries to answer unanswerable questions, than I do in the methods of faith (what are they?).”

Reached by e-mail, Dr. Davies acknowledged that his mailbox was “overflowing with vitriol,” but said he had been misunderstood. What he had wanted to challenge, he said, was not the existence of laws, but the conventional thinking about their source.

There is in fact a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which “came” first — the laws or the universe?

If the laws of physics are to have any sticking power at all, to be real laws, one could argue, they have to be good anywhere and at any time, including the Big Bang, the putative Creation. Which gives them a kind of transcendent status outside of space and time.

On the other hand, many thinkers — all the way back to Augustine — suspect that space and time, being attributes of this existence, came into being along with the universe — in the Big Bang, in modern vernacular. So why not the laws themselves?

Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. “Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,” he said in his e-mail message.

But the idea of rationality in the cosmos has long existed without monotheism. As far back as the fifth century B.C. the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras and his followers proclaimed that nature was numbers. Plato envisioned a higher realm of ideal forms, of perfect chairs, circles or galaxies, of which the phenomena of the sensible world were just flawed reflections. Plato set a transcendent tone that has been popular, especially with mathematicians and theoretical physicists, ever since.

Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate from the University of Texas, Austin, described himself in an e-mail message as “pretty Platonist,” saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as “the rocks in the field.” The laws seem to persist, he wrote, “whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.”

The ultimate Platonist these days is Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In talks and papers recently he has speculated that mathematics does not describe the universe — it is the universe.

Dr. Tegmark maintains that we are part of a mathematical structure, albeit one gorgeously more complicated than a hexagon, a multiplication table or even the multidimensional symmetries that describe modern particle physics. Other mathematical structures, he predicts, exist as their own universes in a sort of cosmic Pythagorean democracy, although not all of them would necessarily prove to be as rich as our own.

“Everything in our world is purely mathematical — including you,” he wrote in New Scientist.

This would explain why math works so well in describing the cosmos. It also suggests an answer to the question that Stephen Hawking, the English cosmologist, asked in his book, “A Brief History of Time”: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Mathematics itself is on fire.

Not every physicist pledges allegiance to Plato. Pressed, these scientists will describe the laws more pragmatically as a kind of shorthand for nature’s regularity. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: “A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.”

Plato and the whole idea of an independent reality, moreover, took a shot to the mouth in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics. According to that weird theory, which, among other things, explains why our computers turn on every morning, there is an irreducible randomness at the microscopic heart of reality that leaves an elementary particle, an electron, say, in a sort of fog of being everywhere or anywhere, or being a wave or a particle, until some measurement fixes it in place.

In that case, according to the standard interpretation of the subject, physics is not about the world at all, but about only the outcomes of experiments, of our clumsy interactions with that world. But 75 years later, those are still fighting words. Einstein grumbled about God not playing dice.

Steven Weinstein, a philosopher of science at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, termed the phrase “law of nature” as “a kind of honorific” bestowed on principles that seem suitably general, useful and deep. How general and deep the laws really are, he said, is partly up to nature and partly up to us, since we are the ones who have to use them.

But perhaps, as Dr. Davies complains, Plato is really dead and there are no timeless laws or truths. A handful of poet-physicists harkening for more contingent nonabsolutist laws not engraved in stone have tried to come up with prescriptions for what John Wheeler, a physicist from Princeton and the University of Texas in Austin, called “law without law.”

As one example, Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has invented a theory in which the laws of nature change with time. It envisions universes nested like Russian dolls inside black holes, which are spawned with slightly different characteristics each time around. But his theory lacks a meta law that would prescribe how and why the laws change from generation to generation.

Holger Bech Nielsen, a Danish physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and one of the early pioneers of string theory, has for a long time pursued a project he calls Random Dynamics, which tries to show how the laws of physics could evolve naturally from a more general notion he calls “world machinery.”

On his Web site, Random Dynamics, he writes, “The ambition of Random Dynamics is to ‘derive’ all the known physical laws as an almost unavoidable consequence of a random fundamental ‘world machinery.’”

Dr. Wheeler has suggested that the laws of nature could emerge “higgledy-piggledy” from primordial chaos, perhaps as a result of quantum uncertainty. It’s a notion known as “it from bit.” Following that logic, some physicists have suggested we should be looking not so much for the ultimate law as for the ultimate program.

Anton Zeilinger, a physicist and quantum trickster at the University of Vienna, and a fan of Dr. Wheeler’s idea, has speculated that reality is ultimately composed of information. He said recently that he suspected the universe was fundamentally unpredictable.

I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored. It’s a prescription for novelty, and what more could you ask for if you want to hatch a fecund universe?

But too much fecundity can be a problem. Einstein hoped that the universe was unique: given a few deep principles, there would be only one consistent theory. So far Einstein’s dream has not been fulfilled. Cosmologists and physicists have recently found themselves confronted by the idea of the multiverse, with zillions of universes, each with different laws, occupying a vast realm known in the trade as the landscape.

In this case there is meta law — one law or equation, perhaps printable on a T-shirt — to rule them all. This prospective lord of the laws would be string theory, the alleged theory of everything, which apparently has 10500 solutions. Call it Einstein’s nightmare.

But it is soon for any Einsteinian to throw in his or her hand. Since cosmologists don’t know how the universe came into being, or even have a convincing theory, they have no way of addressing the conundrum of where the laws of nature come from or whether those laws are unique and inevitable or flaky as a leaf in the wind.

These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.
Maybe both alternatives — Plato’s eternal stone tablet and Dr. Wheeler’s higgledy-piggledy process — will somehow turn out to be true. The dichotomy between forever and emergent might turn out to be as false eventually as the dichotomy between waves and particles as a description of light. Who knows?

The law of no law, of course, is still a law.

When I was young and still had all my brain cells I was a bridge fan, and one hand I once read about in the newspaper bridge column has stuck with me as a good metaphor for the plight of the scientist, or of the citizen cosmologist. The winning bidder had overbid his hand. When the dummy cards were laid, he realized that his only chance of making his contract was if his opponents’ cards were distributed just so.

He could have played defensively, to minimize his losses. Instead he played as if the cards were where they had to be. And he won.

We don’t know, and might never know, if science has overbid its hand. When in doubt, confronted with the complexities of the world, scientists have no choice but to play their cards as if they can win, as if the universe is indeed comprehensible. That is what they have been doing for more than 2,000 years, and they are still winning.

Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(20 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:December 26th, 2007 09:04 am (UTC)

To speak harshly...

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...most of that seemed pretty sloppy to me.
The leaders of the "New Atheism" are indicted as Platonists, but no evidence beyond bald assertion is given. The NYT article does not mention Dawkins or Dennett or the others. eyebeams asserts the leaders are about transcendental body of law, whereas the leaders themselves might well say they're about evidence, or the lack thereof for supernatural claims.

"The trouble with this is that it doesn't necessarily follow that these systems be humane in our commonsense understanding of the term." I'm not sure what humane systems means here, but yes, it certainly doesn't follow that physics be friendly to human feelings or understanding. What of it? Shall we invoke Einstein's "God does not play dice", or Lovecraft's "the horror, the horror"?

"the Brights started as a reaction to liberals" -- every account I saw said they started in a (misguided, IMO) attempt to give an umbrella term for atheist agnostic skeptic freethinker whatnot. Also, they started in 2003 -- two years after Bush, and 9/11, and of course after years of Creationism.

Then we go from "New Atheists are Platonist" (unsupported), "Platonism is totalitarian" (well, Plato kind of was, but calling a quest for universal physical laws totalitarian is rather dodgy) to Nazis, so New Atheism picks up Nazi guilt by association at two removes. With intimations of eugenics, although *everyone* was into eugenics at the time, especially leftists, who saw it as a tool of human improvement. If anyone was against it, it was probably conservatives who didn't hold with evolution or mucking with sex.

"religious explanations for scientific phenomena" and "scientific explanations of religious phenomena" are cast as being equivalently misguided; why? -- I'd note that if there is something totalizing about Dennett's _Breaking the Spell_, it is a spirit of total inquiry. The basic message of the book, shared by Dawkins, was that religion should be studied like any other class of social phenomena, and its claims questioned and challenged in public debate just like any other claims.

***

As for your own post, accusing evolutionists of believing in *eternal* genetic laws seems rather off. I refer again to Wilson's imagined termitic speech, extolling the eternal verities of cannibalism, nocturnalism, and extreme self-sacrifice to the mound.

Quantum... yes, the answer one gets can be conditional on the question asked, or more precisely if you measure one variable, it's complementary variable gets less determinate. But the entire baffling nature of quantum and relativity is a strong argument for objective laws -- as my Technocrat pointed out in a Mage game, only objective reality of some sort can explain why we can be so *surprised*. No one would make up relativity, quantum, or the accelerating universe unless they had to, to explain the evidence.

I await evidence that Dawkins and Dennett are Einsteinians who think quantum is a masking illusion. I recall no statements on the subject, and would expect Dawkins at least to defer to the physicists. And both are big fans of natural selection, which depends on random mutations for its raw material. And then you link these people, who are basically left/liberal, to your bugaboo about libertarians.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:December 26th, 2007 09:14 am (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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It's not the same order of sloppiness, and I should sleep, but I'd disagree with your take on determinism vs. randomness and free will. I'd challenge you to even define free will, and I'd assert (for now) that any reasonable definition is far more compatible with determinism. Doing things for reasons trumps doing things at random, for no reason. Unexpectedness and surprise is preservable even in a totally determined system, by virtue of being within the system. We can't predict what we'll do next, or what the system will do next, and if God told us what His simulations predicted we would do, we could then react to that change and do something else. Bringing predictions into the system changes the system; cf. Turing and Goedel, who's Halting and Incompleteness results worked in pure arithmetic and logic, no randomness need apply. As my Technocrat told the Changeling and Mage characters who whined about lack of a free will, even computer programs can manage it.

And is anything about this "Platonic" atheism distinguishable from Democritus's "nothing exists save atoms and the void"? Then there's Epicurus's gloss of "free swerve" of the atoms -- which latter was motivated not by evidence (*cough*) or even internal logic, but a (I'd say confused) desire to make room for free will?

To jump back a bit -- if there's no basic human nature, then can there be any inherent human rights? Would it not be possible and acceptable to condition people into cheerfully accepting injustice, rather than fixing it? The idea that culture is totally malleable has been as totalitarian as anything else in the past century.
[User Picture]
From:eclective
Date:December 26th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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I agree (or at least I think I agree - I just oke up and I can't guarantee I'm actually reading things clearly here. But I do wholeheartedly agree with your statement that "doing things for reasons trumps doing things at random", every time; and furthermore I'd argue that I don't think it's possible for a human being to be completely random, or for any entity to consciously attempt randomness. Any attempt to "be random" will involve invoking one's assumptions about what kind of things constitute randomness, or more likely sufficient deviation from the norm (which is what people seem to mean when they say they want to be random, and really isn't randomness at all; it's an attempt to correct a perceived imbalance), and those assumptions will be based on a long chain of events that has come to shape who you are today. To be wholly random, you would have to let a computer program (and even they are only pseudorandom) or a dice roll (same here, I believe) decide every action you took; and that wouldn't be a particularly fulfilling life. Fluidity and flexible morality is not in opposition to the idea of a "system"; it, like everything else, requires some sort of a system, some sort of an order, to make any sense.

The problem, I think, with the whole "determinism v. randomness" thing - not a tack that Heron seems to be taking, but one I've seen a lot of people take - is the idea that the universe is either a fixed, rigid entity wherein our fates have been planned out from the beginning of time, or it is ultimately unstructured, chaotic, formless and completely mouldable. I think a quick glance at human nature, as a microcosmic representation of a greater fractal, suggests that it is neither; humans are not entirely predictable, but they are not entirely unpredictable either. We can make free choices, but there are also certain things we're a lot more likely to do just by habit, evolution and collective norms. While one can certainly consciously go against these influences at any time, very few people are constantly struggling to act in opposition to them, and I think to do so is counterproductive; they're there for a reason. That doesn't mean we are trapped by our destiny. We can freely break individual rules. But as far as we go in general, we tend to have a structure and a pattern to our lives, and said structure and pattern tends to be, at the base level, a fairly universal thing.

Personally, I think Heron's initial statement about finding an indeterminate universe comforting is non-sequitured by everything that comes afterwards. Wanting to make your own decisions, make moral judgments based on context, and assume that problems can go away as quickly as they manifest does not require a universe that's entirely unstructured and without guidance. "Order and chaos" isn't a binary choice, it's a sliding scale, and "balance", in my opinion, requires some of each.

I also kind of have a personal disagreement with the idea of not giving deities any particular respect (and in my mind, listening to their instruction and accepting that they likely know more than we do about a matter, and that we're lucky to have such guidance at all, is respect for what we are), but that's just down to my view of the universe - which essentially says that the metaphysical is ultimately benevolent and wants to help us, and that a view of existence that argues that there are large spiritual bullies preying on us, wanting to push us around, or who are as clueless as we are about things is a very limited human one that essentially tries to reduce the transcendent to something no greater than we can guess it, which I think is flawed. But this is all YMMV.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:December 26th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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Yeah, in classical physics dice rolls would be pseudorandom. Quantum seems to give real randomness -- the evolution of a wave function is deterministic, but the eigenstate you'll find by measuring a mixed state will be random.

As I tried to indicate, even if the world is completely deterministic and "planned", those of us inside the world can't know what the plan is. Even someone outside a random computer program can't know what it'll do short of actually simulating the program (which is obviated if you then give the program your predictions), and someone in the system can't emulate the whole system.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:December 26th, 2007 11:25 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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I fully recognize that free will and indeterminacy need have little (or nothing) to do with one another. I'd prefer to live in a world with both, but honestly if I had to choose, I'd pick indeterminacy. It's something that I very much prefer, regardless of its relationship to free will. Not that my (or anyone else's) opinions matter all that much for anything beyond what people look for and how they look for it.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:December 26th, 2007 09:44 am (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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Further thought: on the one hand I found Plato unreadable so haven't read him directly; for another I infer "Platonist" has some standard meaning of its own, like "Darwinist" among Creationists, regardless of source. Still, I can't help noting possible confusions: blind senseless materialism goes back to Democritus, as I said, and I think Plato hated him, as a denier of gods and metaphysics. (Goes back in the West; there's also the similar Carvaka tradition in India.) Reality of number seems Pythagorean as much as anyone. Plato went in for Ideal categories Existing Somewhere -- which Dawkins and Dennett are very much against, I forget which one pointed out that Darwin absolutely shreds Platonic ideas of species -- but at the same time I'd think that the whole shadows on a cave wall thing is as compatible with postmodernism as not.

Me, I'm probably a pragmatist.
[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:December 26th, 2007 09:52 am (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

(Link)
That's mistaking eternal for transcendental/ideal again.
[User Picture]
From:eyebeams
Date:December 26th, 2007 09:51 am (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

(Link)
The leaders of the "New Atheism" are indicted as Platonists, but no evidence beyond bald assertion is given. The NYT article does not mention Dawkins or Dennett or the others. eyebeams asserts the leaders are about transcendental body of law, whereas the leaders themselves might well say they're about evidence, or the lack thereof for supernatural claims.

You should become more familiar with key Brights, then. My post was written with the assumption that readers ought to be familiar with the work of key new atheist thinkers and how that movement took shape.

In fact, the new atheism is pretty straightforwardly heir to Brockman's Third Culture initiative which was a baldly stated attack on liberal academia.

In fact, Dennett has supported Platonist positions before. He is a Platonist about mathematics and flirts with the idea of moral Platonism, too. You can find the reference by going to The Brights' forum ans looking up - amazingly -- "Platonism."

In fact, Dawkins mentioned on Edge.org that he hopes humanity can deliver a coherent set of laws to the aliens it will eventually meet. The fact that this was accepted without raised eyebrows is something in of itself, but the fact is that Dawkins has shaown himself to be reflexively Platonist on many, many occasions.

Sam Harris believes in funky psychic powers. While not topical, is certainly noteworthy as an example of how readily the community accepts things it never would if couched in different terminology.

And in fact, there really are links between the Platonic heritage, science and very awful things, just like there are links between everything and awful things. One of the weaknesses -- the dangerous naivite -- of Bright chatter is that, to make it vernacular, they think their shit doesn't stink as bad. It does. It can be used to throw innocents into a meatgrinder as easily as anything else. You are not any worse, but you're not special and you will still fuck things of for stupid reasons. Is that clear?

See, this is kind of the point: Cheerleaders should actually look this stuff up for themselves instead of engaging in dull, quasi-Randroid A is A objections.

Anyway, the fact is that Platonism -- even the reflexive kind that comes from talking about a body of law that is transcendental -- is not rational. It's a form of faith. Modern Platonism is the remnant of a theistic belief system in history (it comes to use via monasteries) and intellectual habit, so claiming to be an atheist while believing in trascendental structures of being is not only ironic, but refeats the fallacies of theists. Incidentally, "transcendental" and "eternal" are not synonyms.

Nevertheless I should emphasize this has little to do with the practice of science, as science doesn't require the belief in transcendental structures. Science requires accurate models that fit evidence. It doesn't matter whether people believe they exist outside the object of study or not. But the most vocal Brights do, and it's silly.
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:December 27th, 2007 12:20 am (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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I tried searching there for Platonism, didn't easily find anything on Dennett. I've heard of Harris's psychic stuff from atheists criticizing him for it. I don't see why hope for a coherent set of laws is eyebrow-worthy, really. I don't know much about Brockman -- though his 1991 essay doesn't mention liberals at all, though it criticizes the scientifically ignorant among literary types -- but of course "New Atheism" was a Wired label; the actual ideas aren't all that new, I can say from having read Dawkins and Dennett.
[User Picture]
From:xuenay
Date:December 27th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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Can you provide a link to the Dawkins' quote about a coherent set of laws? I'd like to have a context. If he's talking about morals, it does sound bizarre, but there are certain game-theoretic considerations about co-opearting and such which apply generally to all actors. (Of course, they're useless for a wide variety of other moral questions.) On the other hand, if he's talking about laws such as the laws of physics, then I find nothing wrong with the notion.

Which brings to mind... I find you making a connection between moral Platonism and mathematical Platonism strange, to say the least - I see no reason to talk of both as being included under one term, with people either being Platonists or not being Platonists. You can be a moral Platonist without being a mathematical one, and vice versa. Likewise, while being a moral Platonist isn't necessarily very rational (unlike one is talking about such game-theoretic considerations as mentioned, or something similar), I don't see it irrational to be a mathematical Platonist - it's just as valid a hypothesis as the opposite, at the moment.

The main point of your criticism of the Brights seems to be, if I read you correctly, "being atheists doesn't make them immune to doing bad things". Am I right in that? If so, while it's certainly very true, it seems to me so obvious as to not need saying...
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From:andrewducker
Date:December 26th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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Oh thank goodness.

I was about to try and summon the energy to rebut the nonsense, and was terribly relieved to discover I'd been beaten to it.
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From:heron61
Date:December 26th, 2007 11:52 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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Does eyebeams's response above change your opinion? I reading through my post and some of the responses, I see that I failed to sufficiently prove (or in some cases unpack) some of my points. Thankfully eyebeams did an excellent job of doing so in the response immediately above yours.
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From:andrewducker
Date:January 5th, 2008 07:39 pm (UTC)

Re: To speak harshly...

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The thing is, I think you can interpret things in different ways - "a coherent set of laws" strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing to strive for. Coherent merely means non-contradictory, and having a set of laws that explain as much of the universe as we can, and contradict each other sounds perfectly plausible to me (if difficult to achieve).

Mathematical platonism, again, perfectly reasonable. _Moral_ platonism, clearly is wrong. But many people have strange ideas about morals.
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From:pompe
Date:December 26th, 2007 12:12 pm (UTC)
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See, I have a certain sympathy for the predestination aspect of Calvinism, scarily enough. I don't care much for religious thought, but some of the hard-core variants have aspects which in their harshness gives me some sort of grudging respect.

But I also think that's because I am philosophically a rather determinist atheist. Not that I think it is possible from a practical sense of view to make anything useful out of such a structure of the universe (and that's why I resent practical determinist thought, because I think it is folly to assume we are capable of handling and collecting the necessary information), but I'm rather critical of the more fast-and-loose interpretations of quantum uncertainty and chaotic theory.

However, my point here is that I don't understand the problem considering how we relate to the world. When I stand on a mountainside, looking out over glittering lakes and green forests, or when I hold a - to me - beautiful woman, or when I listen to Thelonius Monk on the stereo, I don't feel like I'm missing something. I don't go around and think "Well, this is all a result of ultimately determined processes" or that "Maybe I'm predestined to sprain my ankle today".

If anything, I feel sorry for people who need Gods, spirits and quantum uncertainty to be able to fully enjoy the wonder of the world for what it is. To me, it is already fantastic and vibrant enough, I don't need artifical flavoring to my grapefruit juice.
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From:xuenay
Date:December 26th, 2007 03:53 pm (UTC)
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I read the NYTimes article, and didn't really see what the fuss was about. What's the practical difference between the universe being all math, and, say, randomly emerging from primodial chaos if they both amount to the same laws of physics? I've never heard anybody claim that in order to be an atheist you have to believe in a particular theory about the origin of the laws of physics, so I fail to see how these differences make atheism faith-based.

As for your own post: how do you define "no firm or stable laws of human behavior"? I'm sure you don't mean this entirely literally (after all, if there were no stable laws of human behavior, then your criticism of evolutionary psychology would apply just as equally to psychology or sociology in general, as they're entirely dedicated to discovering laws of human behavior).

I'd also note that I have a tendency to side with the "there is no true randomness" crowd, but I'm not going to touch libertarianism with a ten-feet pole. ;) On a sort of unrelated note, while I personally find non-random explanations of the world to be more believable, I fervently wish that the many-worlds interpretation, the only one I know of that would guarantee non-randomness, would be false. After all, if many-worlds holds, then every moment worlds are created where extremely unlikely random phenomena ends up influencing the macro level and, say, to people killing the people they love the most without afterwards having a clue of why they did it. It would mean that all my transhumanist hopes of eventually eliminating all non-voluntary suffering would ultimately be unachievable, for an infinite amount of immensly low-probability nightmare worlds would constantly be branching off the universe where the goal of eliminating all suffering had been achieved.

On the other hand, if an explanation could be found where the world was deterministic without needing to spawn infinte amounts of hell worlds, then I would find this a good thing for all such transhumanist projects, for it would make it easier to create a world where no suffering existed - at some point in the future, we could achieve a certainty of having completed this goal, without any fear of unpredictable random effects undoing all the years of work and reintroducing suffering into the world. (This view of mine applies both to quantum mechanics and the possibility of prediction in general.)

In the end, though, I'm not sure how Platonism is an obvious "article of faith" among many atheists (I can't comment on the Brights movement in particular, not being familiar with them), or even what exactly is meant by them being Platonistic - if it mainly concerns their beliefs about the origin of the laws of physics and the way quantum mechanics works, those are ultimately rather fringe concerns which shouldn't affect 99,9% of their behavior otherwise.
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From:heron61
Date:December 26th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)
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As for your own post: how do you define "no firm or stable laws of human behavior"? I'm sure you don't mean this entirely literally (after all, if there were no stable laws of human behavior, then your criticism of evolutionary psychology would apply just as equally to psychology or sociology in general, as they're entirely dedicated to discovering laws of human behavior).

I was perhaps a bit unclear - what I meant was that I do not believe in genetic determinism of human behavior - more specifically, I do not believe that it's possible to determine someone's preferences (both sexual and otherwise), behavioral traits, or emotional reactions can be largely or completely predicted by looking at their genetics. I believe that there are general laws of human behavior, but that it's impossible (except on a statistical level) to predict the behavior or preferences of a particular individual. If genetic determinism is true (especially on the level that Dawkins and others like him discuss) then such predictions are definitely possible.

In the end, though, I'm not sure how Platonism is an obvious "article of faith" among many atheists (I can't comment on the Brights movement in particular, not being familiar with them), or even what exactly is meant by them being Platonistic - if it mainly concerns their beliefs about the origin of the laws of physics and the way quantum mechanics works, those are ultimately rather fringe concerns which shouldn't affect 99,9% of their behavior otherwise.

For more explanation of this, see eyebeams's above response (made at 1:51 AM).
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From:xuenay
Date:December 27th, 2007 12:05 pm (UTC)
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Ah. I do have to note, though, that it's a mischaracterization of evolutionary psychology to say that it claims such extreme genetic determinism as you're suggesting it does - while I don't know what Dawkins had said about it, the most popular form, evpsych as advanced by Cosmides & Tooby & company, certainly doesn't. In fact, Adapting Minds, a criticism of evpsych, spends a whole chapter criticising evpsych for first claiming that there exists a universal human nature and then making so many concessions for different environmental influences that in the end it hardly says anything about any sort of universal human nature.
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From:heronheart
Date:December 26th, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)

Market Fundamentalism

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Although I can't yet describe exactly why I see a similarity, I strongly feel that there is some sort of connection between this worldview and the faux rationalism and mechanistic capitalism of hard-core libertarians.

I might be able to suggest the link. Libertarians, or perhaps more narrowly "Market Fundamentalists" believe that the "Free Market" reflects a basic "law" of human psychology if not a a fundamental aspect of God's design for the universe. Any attempt to modify, control, or limit the Free Market is at best, useless and at worst, a perversion of the "Natural Order" which will negatively impact all other members of the economic community. This is why some Market Fundamentalists view an act of altruism with the same horror and disgust with which Social Conservatives view acts of homosexuality.

The CBC had a wonderful series called "Markets and Society" that delved into the history of Capitalism and the rise of Market Fundamentalism.
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From:rjgrady
Date:December 26th, 2007 04:21 pm (UTC)
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I would also go further and maintain that postmodernism even has a place in physics, in large part because so much of what is found on the quantum level is determined by what the researcher is looking for.

I'm not even sure that debate is the one worth having first. In my mind, whether or not there is an intelligible physics "out there," it is an easily understood fact that the science of physics is a synthetic language, which may describe physical properties with more or less exactness. Unless we can develop a language with a larger set of possibilities than all the physical properties that exist, do not exist, or could exist, the science of physics will always be a social phenomenon. The requirements of language make such a language impossible.

Hence, to use the language of Plato, while there may be a form of physics, we must content ourselves with an idea of physics intuited from its image.

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From:sara_super_id
Date:December 26th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC)
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Great essay, John.

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