Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Grand Design, or Why I Hate Reading Books About Science

When you set out to write a popular science book, as Stephen Hawking had presumably done in the recent "The Grand Design" (coauthored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow), you generally should discuss... well... science.

When you've already made the statement "philosophy is dead" in the first two paragraphs of the book, you're not doing yourself any favors.

When on the first page you introduce the ancient Greek/early Church version of science as "the traditional conception of the universe," I'm bound to start losing my patience.

When you spend the next 80 pages bashing Aristotle for not knowing the scientific method (it hadn't been invented yet) and Newton for being a deist (a lot of science wouldn't have been done had the scientists themselves not believed in a God who set the laws of the universe in motion that we might even be able to measure them), dismissing myths and fables as feeble, uncivilized attempts at pseudo-scientific explanation (everyone knows fairytales are meant to teach, not to explain), and extolling the idea that "free will" is only a result of our inability to do the complicated calculations necessary* (sorry, guys, but scientific determinism went out the window with quantum mechanics), then you're lucky I have enough tenacity to finish reading.

This is, I'm afraid, the bane of modern science. Scientists don't talk about science anymore. Hundreds of people would pack lecture halls to listen to Feynman talk about QED, but now we brush him off with a mention of that crazy "Dick" Feynman and his psychadelic Feynman-diagram covered VW bus. We instead choose, like Dawkins and the rest, to use the grand name of Science to bludgeon honest philosophic inquiry. The point of science, the beating heart of science, is not to ridicule people into agreeing with atheism! The point of science is to discover truth, and they're mainly "local" truths, and they're often only empirical parameterizations of that truth. But we don't like to talk about science, apparently. We'd rather talk about why God can't be an old white guy in a robe.
With every new "science" book I read, I find we drift farther and farther away from what we should be doing: talking about science. I want people to know how fascinating science can be, how interesting, how wonderful, how beautiful. I want to show them how we can work things out, how sometimes nature seems simple and elegant and sometimes filthy and complicated, how we can use science not only to increase our knowledge but to better our lives. I want to make scientists. But the "ivory tower" zeitgeist seems to want to make minions to science instead.
The authors finally did get around to talking about science (in their case, M-theory and the idea of an infinite number of "histories" for the universe), and when they did, it was engaging, interesting, and fun to read. But they lost it all again in the last chapter, revisiting their earlier derisions, neglecting all else. The "grand design" will be found in M-theory, they state. "Spontaneous creation" is why the universe exists, and why we don't need a god to get it started for us. But how is their "spontaneous creation" any different, in the end, from a religious "spontaneous creation"? "Because it had to" and "Because God did it" are really the same thing.

"It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.... [I]t also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations.... Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior, we adopt what is called an effective theory.... In the case of people... we use the effective theory that people have free will."
Quantum mechanics indicates that while we can predict the most probable outcome of any given set of initial conditions, we can't know exactly which outcome will happen. The authors even discuss this point later in the text. So even if we could do all of the trillions of calculations necessary to "predict" someone's behavior, we still couldn't know it exactly - we could only know the probabilities that they would do one thing over another. And that's not the same as determinism. So their argument that free will is an illusion... is an illusion.


  1. Ouch, Kelly- That hurts!

    All well-placed barbs, I am sure. I don't know the book. But let me defend the basic point about free will. You are completely right that Laplacean determinism is out the window. We can't calculate it all, and even without QM, biology and much else is uncalculable. All agreed.

    But at the same time, the free will argument is not whether the future can be calculated out. That is just a placemarker or heuristic for the real point, which is whether there is an "I" homunculus that stands aside from physical causation (calculable or not) and can shout "Stop!" out of some moral, soul-ist, mysteriously supernatural, etc. impulse.

    That is what is missing- no evidence for that, despite our built-in sense of free will, independence, and sovereignty. It is really the same question of whether we have souls, whether they are eternal, etc. and all the rest.


    Over on Eric's blog, Dianelos makes a great deal of hay out of QM, saying that it provides the space through which the hand of god can do whatever it likes, unnoticed by us, since it all seems random. I generally reply that in that case, what we observe as random wouldn't in actuality be random. You may be able to give us some illumination on that point, since I am of the persuasion that the randomness of QM is pretty well characterized and bars the kinds of theories that he suggests.

    With appreciation..

  2. Hi Burk, and thanks (as always) for the feedback!
    It seems, as often happens, that we're not so deep in disagreement: I'm not arguing that QM provides an outlet for the "hand of god" (unless non-determinism itself is god, I suppose...), or that we can claim the "I" of our psyche exists within the limited space of the uncertainty principle. But the authors never make that clarification, instead "defining" free will only through an example: you don't really have free will because, if I had all of the information about your current state and could do the calculations, I could know exactly that you're going to punch me. This simply isn't the case. In the end, we human beings are just convoluted images of Schroedinger's cat-in-the-box. Will you punch me or will you not punch me? I may be able to work out (via quantum mechanics) that you're 97% likely to hit me, but somewhere in your brain is a neuron that might fire or might not fire, and so I can't know for certain. For all our seeming order, we're really little ready-made packets of chaos.
    I don't necessarily disagree with the authors referring to free will as an effective theory - because yes, it's true, in a way. Psychology and sociology are "soft sciences" precisely because they're completely statistical in nature (like thermodynamics, there's an underlying physical theory, but what we deal with at the normal scale is only a convenient approximation). What I disagree with is, again, that they refer to this scientific determinism as though it's real.
    As for the evidence for or against the existence of the "I," of souls, etc, it's a bit of a stretch to be arguing for or against that in a book that's supposedly about multiple-universes and the Standard Model?

    You're right, though (at least semantically) - invoking a "determined" God in the random nature of QM necessarily negates the randomness. But perhaps God is the randomness? Perhaps our eternal souls are just our constituent subatomic particles, which come from forever and go to forever? What a nerdy religion that is.

  3. I love the post and love the discussion!

    I have not read the book, but yes, I find similar problems when discussing the whole clusterf___ of free will (whatever that is) vs. determinism (the idea that there is only one inevitable path.......) In fact, i have found that most people arguing for determinism are changing the definition from "only one possible outcome" to "physically caused". One person I have talked with insists he believes in determinism, yet says that if we rewound evolution, it might happen differently.

    My problem is with the mental image of the universe as mechanistic. A machine is something we make that acts completely predictably ( at least in theory) . I think the image of the universe as an organism is more interesting. ( I realize that ultimately machines and organisms are the same stuff, but which image we use does create a different attitude I think) As the cosmologist Brian Swimme would say perhaps - the universe is finding its way as it goes along.

    Yet many say it's bad to anthropomorphize the universe, but they simultaneously claim that we are not free agents in any meaningful sense - so can "anthropomorphizing" even be a meaningful concept here? If we are the products of the universe, then we reflect the type of universe we live in. As Alan Watts would say, "an apple tree apples, the universe peoples". So I try to pursue a more all-encompassing line of thought rather than the accidentally implied dualism of the mechanistically determined crowd, who state that humans are the same stuff as everything else, yet too different from the rest of the universe to consider it truly holistically. They reject perceived anthropomorphism while arguing that there is no real anthropomorphism.

    As far as God goes, I am no atheist, but I kind of agree with Burk that an outside 3rd party doesn't make too much sense to me, unless we are part of God, who exists (at least partially) in a self-willed state alternating between forgetfulness and remembrance. Perhaps God is finding His way too.

  4. If we are the products of the universe, then we reflect the type of universe we live in. Steven, I love this sentiment! How obvious, and yet how overlooked.
    Your statement about God brought to mind a "philosophy of religion" textbook I once read. Why can God not be a part of everything there is, just as we are? The beauty of a sunset, the metamophosis from caterpillar to butterfly, the uncertainty of quantum mechanics - why cannot God exist there? Without getting too far off-track, critics argue that God must be "outside" of the universe, then proceed to "prove" that nothing exists outside the universe. But can't God exist inside the universe? God isn't the physical laws or the material world, but the ground upon which those things rest... it's very esoteric, I realize, and hard to describe. To get back to the main point, couldn't free will thus be described as the innate ability of the universe to come into contact with its basis?
    Perhaps - following the authors' own development of the Feynman sum-over-histories model of the universe - "free will" is manifested in the probability that any path can be taken (literally any path)? One or two paths may be the most probable (and they are the paths that, classically, lead us to a deterministic picture of the universe), but all paths are possible (quantum mechanically speaking, there is a finite, but non-zero, probability of every possible outcome). Could this "non-zero" component be what free will really is?

  5. Fascinating thoughts. Your comment about Feynman's interpretation of QM reminds me of a friend of mine. He is a die hard Multiple Words QM guy, and he's super smart. He is also pretty atheistic, although he claims agnosticism is his favored term. But what's really funny is that while arguing with Christians that the physical resurrection of Christ probably didn't happen (or at least that it is irresponsible to be dogmatic about that claim), he smiles and says to me often, "of course, according to the MWI of QM, there is a universe where Jesus did rise from the's just super unlikely that it is this one!"

    I love it.

    If one is prone to consider theology, like I am, I favor a panentheistic interpretation of God right now. God is the ground of all this, like you mentioned, BUT all this is included within God too. This is the only satisfying theodicy I can think of when contemplating the meaning of existence, suffering, etc.

    Thanks again for a great post. Steven

  6. Steven, I'd love to meet this friend of yours... he sounds hilarious. One of those weird little things about QM that I love so much is the idea that everything is possible (it's just highly improbable). So if I really wanted to tunnel through the wall instead of using the door, there's some very (very very very very very...) slim chance that I could.

  7. In April 2011's issue of Physics World (published by IoP), a book review by John W. Moffat reads similarly to my thoughts. Moffat concludes, "With The Grand Design, Hawking has again, as in his inaugural Lucasian Professor speech, made excessive claims for the future of physics, which as before remain to be substantiated."

  8. Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also?

    How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing? Or, how did they come to know that anything at all could come out of nothing? Were they present at that moment when the universe was being born? As that was not the case at all, therefore they did not get that idea being present at the creation event. Rather they got this idea being present here on this very earth. They have created a vacuum artificially, and then they have observed that virtual particles (electron-positron pairs) are still appearing spontaneously out of that vacuum and then disappearing again. From that observation they have first speculated, and then ultimately theorized, that an entire universe could also come out of nothing. But here their entire logic is flawed. These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition. Maybe they have downright rejected the Christian world-view, but they cannot say that they are all ignorant of that world-view. According to that world-view God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. So as per Christian belief-system, and not only as per Christian belief-system, but as per other belief-systems also, God is everywhere. So when these scientists are saying that the void is a real void, God is already dead and non-existent for them. But these scientists know very well that non-existence of God will not be finally established until and unless it is shown that the origin of the universe can also be explained without invoking God. Creation event is the ultimate event where God will have to be made redundant, and if that can be done successfully then that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist. So how have they accomplished that job, the job of making God redundant in case of creation event? These were the steps:
    1) God is non-existent, and so, the void is a real void. Without the pre-supposition that God does not exist, it cannot be concluded that the void is a real void.
    2) As virtual particles can come out of the void, so also the entire universe. Our universe has actually originated from the void due to a quantum fluctuation in it.
    3) This shows that God was not necessary to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going, as because there was no creation event.
    4) This further shows that God does not exist.
    So here what is to be proved has been proved based on the assumption that it has already been proved. Philosophy is already dead for these scientists. Is it that logic is also dead for them?

  9. Uchitrakar, I agree, often the logic used in these kinds of arguments is circular. Scientists can get so entrenched in their own little world that they forget what's outside of it... just as is true for anyone who specializes.


Think carefully before you post. I reserve the right to moderate any comments posted to my blog.