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Free Will?: An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book
Free Will?: An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book
by Jonathan M.S. Pearce
Edition: Paperback
Price: $15.00
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem, September 15, 2012
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Free Will - an investigation into whether I was always going to write this book, by Jonathan Pearce, was a thoroughly enjoyable intellectual amble. Pearce is not a professional or academic philosopher, and he does most of his philosophizing at the local pub with a group of likeminded "tippling philosophers", and brings this style to the book. He is also well read as to what academic philosophers are thinking. This combination, a well informed writer, who writes in a conversational "pub" style without academic jargon, makes for a particularly accessible and non-dogmatic read.

While the book is organized into sections and chapters, their content repeats somewhat, and subjects and themes cross between chapters and sections freely. I did not find the book to have any linear or cumulative structure to it, though it seemed to break down into three main portions. The first portion of the book introduces the reader to the problem - that Free Will seems to be incompatible with either causation or randomness, and pretty much everything seems to be either caused or random, so there is no obvious method that Free Will could work. Pearce introduces the Libertarian, Compatabilist, and Determinist POVs as ways to resolve this conflict, and expresses his views that Libertarianism is incoherent, Compatabilism is just sugar-coated Determinism, and that he is a happy Determinist. He also introduces his theme of second-guessing the judicial system, in particular its retributive and judgmental aspects.

The middle portion of the book elaborates on these three POVs. While it does not add much to understanding of Libertarianism or Compatabilism, this portions discussion on Determinism was particularly interesting. Here, Pearce recounts psychological, neurological, upbringing, genetic, and philosophical studies on the strength of influences on our behavior. These studies provide very interesting insights into humanity, and Pearce does a good job compiling info from a variety of sources. The scope and magnitude of the influences he recounts he considers to be strong evidence for determinism, and he repeats this claim several times in the conclusion.

This claim is the major reasoning shortfall I found in the work. Pearce himself admits that almost nobody holds by pure Libertarianism. Libertarians hold by influences and predilections, and acts of will to overcome these influences. His examples all show INFLUENCE. They only refute pure Libertarianism, not influenced Libertarianism. Therefore, since they are not critical test cases between Determinism and Influenced Libertarianism, they are not evidence for Determinism.

The last section of the book focused primarily on religions, and how they deal with Free Will and Determinism. He points out that a God who knows the future, and who is outside of time, is incompatible with Free Will. This is fairly explicitly accepted in Islam, but most Christian theologians have come up with sugar-coated Compatabilist techniques to argue that we sort of have free will, even though everything is already determined. He takes many tangents here to critique the limited freedom involved in stringent religious codes, with repeated interventions by God, etc. He wanders even further afield with moral critiques of Old Testament laws, and the actions of Yahweh. The point seems to be that most people who reject determinism do so because of the religious necessity of Free Will, and he is trying to refute those claims by showing the simultaneous religious necessity for determinism, and if that fails, demonstrate that religious views are flawed for other reasons. These logic and moral critiques are for the most part valid. However, the attacks on religion in this portion of the book fit only tangentially into the purpose of the book, and look like something he should have mostly excised, and turned into a separate book critiquing religions.

One hole he failed to plug is that some theologians have taken a route out of his determinist minefield, by holding that God is INSIDE time, and experiences change. He mostly brushes over this point, but does launch a side attack to try to refute it, by attacking time. He asserts time is like a dimension (and calims this is how most physicists think of it today), and therefore physics is already holding that the future already exists (is determined). However, as the multidimensional String Theory and M-theory universes have X dimensions AND TIME (no more than one time field), not X dimensions ONE OR MORE OF WHICH ARE TIME (time and dimension fields are fundamentally the same) - it is clear that time really isn't a dimension. While it may be possible that most physicists hold this opinion, its failure in practice trumps his citation of expert support.

A final theme he returns to with greatest focus in the last portion is criminal justice. He holds that the "determining" influences on all our lives are full moral exculpation for whatever one may have done wrong (or right). Which leads him to an argument our criminal justice system should be integrated into a social system which should be preventative (starting with infancy, and the proper conditions/influences/training etc one needs to be a well balanced good citizen), and once one commits a crime, society's sole goal should be rehabilitation - as a moral necessity. He considers uneven wealth distribution (not just inheritance, but also income based on productivity) to be morally wrong, the result of luck in a random lottery for genes and upbringing.

This rationalization of his political agenda through an argument for determinism is the second major reasoning weakness I found in the book. Determinism does not justify his utopian scientific socialist nanny statism. Most people find the loss of free will removes any value to life of the universe; hence there is no remaining "moral" reference left to justify any kind of reform of society, or even of the criminal justice system. The consistent historical consequence of societal belief in determinism is to reinforce whatever social system is in place in that society. Pearce seems to be passionate to convince people of the reality of determinism, in the expectation that it will lead them to embrace his utopian vision. That his enthusiasm for convincing the rest of us we are deluded about Free Will would almost certainly lead to the opposite effect than he intends is an interesting twist to the issue of who, exactly is deluded here.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 17, 2012 4:35 PM PDT


The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A swing and a miss, September 1, 2012
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Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, is motivated by a major concern. Western secular societies depend on a shared social worldview, which fundamentalists of both Muslim and Christian persuasions attack based on claimed moral certainties. Unless secularism can present an alternate moral vision, then the fundamentalists will reshape secular societies in their sometimes horrific visions. But most secular thinking today holds by moral relativism, which provides NO counterargument to the fundamentalists.
Harris does an excellent job presenting the need for such an alternate moral worldview. He cites horror after horror: murders and attempted murders of filmmakers, writers, and newspapermen by fundamentalists for the sin of practicing freedom of speech. A family starving its 18 month old to death for the sin of not saying amen at meals. The millennial -long Catholic culture of putting children in the hands of sexually frustrated priests - and the millennia-long coverup for the expected results. Etc, etc, etc.
And he also cites the weak response of multiculturism to such horrors. Womens' rights advocates who excuse the hajib, and panelists at morality conferences who cannot bring themselves to condemn female genital mutilation or honor killings (they are "culturally contextualized ...").

But while he makes a strong case for WHY he thinks his book is needed, his effort at actually providing a coherent secular worldview to counter these religiously advocated moral horrors falls flat.What he offers is an argument that:
* All value in the universe comes from conscious beings
* All we should care about are outcomes
* Therefore a consequentialist evaluation of the welfare of conscious beings is the only morality that makes any sense
However, he does not even state his argument as clearly as this, and the only support he provides for this view is a rhetorical question: "what other alternatives could there be?". Meanwhile, he limits all his moral reasoning to humans, and he seems unaware throughout the book that most other animals are almost certainly conscious, therefore his argument is for a full animal rights utilitarianism, a la Peter Singer.
He is also apparently completely unaware of the shelves of moral philosophers who have answered his rhetorical question, with "lots of alternatives". Naming a few:
* Rights based morality (which emphasizes autonomy and empowerment as more important than consequences/outcome)
* Darwinian (also consequentialist, but long term welfare of species, and life as a whole matter far more than individual welfare and transitory experiences)
* Attitudinal (the content of consciousness matters far more than short term experiences of the bodies carrying the consciousness - these vary widely on content, between Virtues ethics [emphasize Love, Honor, or Good Intentions, etc] to a fairly amoral Nietchzian Force of Will)
And there have been many others. Harris has a PhD in philosophy. He has just written a book prescribing a particular consequentialist/utilitarian moral POV. Is it possible that he really is unaware that there are other moral and ethical POVs that philosophers have prescribed? That he is unawre that asserting that the welfare of conscious entities is absolute would make him an absolute animal welfarist? How did he get his degree? This is ignorance of his subject so profound as to constitute philosophical malpractice.
Harris blunders on, failing to make his case in an epic fashion. He declares morality to be a science - under the mistaken view that every field of knowledge MUST be a science. He declared morality to be a subset of the field of neurology - he never explains why. He declares that morality should be left up to self-declared experts in the field to evaluate. He clearly includes himself in this "expert" category despite his near criminal level of ignorance of moral thinking. He cites other mind/neurology thinkers, most prominently Daniel Dennett and Paul and Patricia Churchland as fellow experts. Both Dennett and the Churchlands consider consciousness to be an illusion. Since Harris thinks consciousness is the sole justification and subject for morality - then his named experts by his terms consider the field he names them expert in, to not even exist!
This book fails to meet its goals in every way. Harris fails to provide a rationale for a secular counter morality. His "reasoning" is weak or nonexistent, and his ignorance of his subject is stunning. His criticism of religious moralities is entirely dependent on moral indignation, and merely reflects his cultural bias. This book was needed - secular societies need defence - but Harris falls flat in providing one.


Free Will
Free Will
by Sam Harris
Edition: Paperback
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27 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Sophomoric Travesty, August 5, 2012
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This review is from: Free Will (Paperback)
Free will is a problematic concept -- difficult to spell out, and in conflict with our assumption of causation of everything in the world. Causation itself is not well defined either, but we at least have a better understanding of the term. I have always been interested in how to reconcile Free Will with the physical world, and I was excited that a clear thinking modern philosopher had something new to dsay on the subject. But Sam Harris, in Free Will, has produced an extremely disappointing piece of sophomoric reasoning.
His thesis, summarized, is that:
* human action can be either caused or random, and neither allows for free will
* therefore our perception of our free will is delusional
* supporting evidence for this is that neuroscientists see evidence of our actions seconds before we decide we will act
* therefore we reach decisions independently of our "will".
Every bit of this argument is problematic, and a thinker of Harris's depth should have punctured it, not EXPOUNDED it.
Taking his points from the top, the first bullet of his thesis is a false dichotomy. That he repeats this fallacy over a dozen times in this short work just lead me to shake my head over his blindness. Human THINKING is geared toward categorizing things as either deterministic or random, but our predilection for these two categories does not make them exclusive options for the world. In actuality, macro level objects are rarely modelable as deterministic - influence applied over a background randomness is how almost everything we deal with behaves. And subatomic particles likewise break this paradigm, behaving like a probability distribution within a waveform. While neither of these models are really any more compatible with free will than the two of his false dichotomy, their obvious refutation of his fallacy indicate that self reflection did not trouble Harris's mind in the contemplation of his own reasoning here.
For the second bullet, our perception of our own free will has developed over an extended evolutionary process, and the default position of evolutionary reasoning is that evolutionarily refined beliefs and behaviors provide real benefits. FALSE perceptions of the world very very rarely provide benefits, and supporting such a claim requires strong and convincing evidence for how false beliefs in this case would of necessity be evolutionarily beneficial. He provides no such argument beyond his false dichotomy. Basically, we have a conflict between two mental frameworks that humans have evolved - our tendency to assign everything to the caused/random pidgeonholes, vs. the belief in free will. While it is possible that BOTH are delusions, we know that caused/random pidgeonholes are NOT reflected in the real world, so if one must reject just one, then one should reject the refuted false dichotomy, and declare the belief in such pidgeonholes to be the delusion. This makes Harris deluded, not those whose beliefs he seeks to challenge.
For the third point, yes, Harris cites valid test data which demonstrates it takes seconds to organize our nervous system to perform actions. But Harris makes a major error in the next step of his reasoning. He assumes consciousness and the mind is unitary, and that evidence we prepared for one action means that we were not simultaneously preparing for multiple actions we did NOT take. That he asserts this, while also citing the researchers and mind theorists who have refuted his assumption, is bizarre. He repeatedly quotes Daniel Dennett, and even cites personal conversations with Dennett, yet Dennett's Multiple Drafts model fully explains how one could make conscious decisions between options seconds after the brain started organizing around several of them. He also cites Libet's work, and Libet conducted tests showing that people prepared mentally for an action they then chose NOT to execute! That Harris could be unaware that multiple mind thinkers have refuted the unity of consciousness, Libet's work, or the central feature of Dennett's thinking is almost inconceivable, for a major philosopher writing on the mind.
The fourth point of his thesis, that we decided beforehand, and in fact everything is decided beforehand, he repeats dozens of times in the work. If one assumes determinism, as he does, then free will is impossible. Asserting a conclusion that is embedded in one's starting assumptions is classic circular reasoning. To repeat this fallacy dozens of times in one short work is a travesty.
So, four points, two of which are fallacies, one of which neglects evolutionary principles, and the third of which neglects the last half century of mind research. This short work was worse than disappointing.
Comment Comments (353) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 1, 2013 12:44 PM PDT


The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena
The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena
by Dean I. Radin
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tour de Force, July 8, 2012
Dean Radin, in The Conscious Universe, engages in a masterful Tour de Force - spelling out beyond doubt that definitive demonstration of psi phenomenon in one subject after another of parapsychology studies, over nearly a century, and notes the startling convergence of the experimental results of parapsychology with those of subatomic physics. He wrote this book to address the startling ignorance of the state of parapsychology research among journalists and his fellow scientists. He does this with clear writing and reasoning, providing the fact based evidence to make his points. As he spells out in detail, psi has completed the "prove it" phase of investigation in a field, and is nearly through the "characterize apparently weak effects" phase, and is poised to enter the "find significant practical applications" phase.
Dr. Radin was a successful physics researcher before he chose to explore parapsychology, and he has been one of the significant contributors who have brought parapsychology to its current successful stage. While he is a noted experimentalist, his greatest contribution has been refining the methodology of meta analysis and bringing it to bear on the subject of parapsychology. He provides an outstanding primer on meta analysis and the need for it. In the fields of medicine, sociology, and psychology, where testing requires human subjects, testing is expensive, and tests cannot isolate variables. The result is a high noise level in experiments, and nearly unworkable population sizes in studies to establish effects definitively. While individual studies may show statistical significance, most phenomenon in these fields need to have multiple studies to be combined to quantify the magnitude of an effect.
He describes how meta analysis is done, where different studies with different protocols and different output measures are "normalized" to a common measure, and weaknesses in study protocol are characterized by a "quality" checklist. He notes that a meta analysis should include all studies - one that omits some studies due to "poor" study quality opens the meta analysis to compiler bias. He deals with differential study quality by analyzing the relationship between study quality and magnitude of effect - if there is one, then the effect may be an artifact of study quality - if there is none, then it is not. A meta analysis should also include tests for a single lab or a single experimenter being solely responsible for an effect, and if either of these are the case, then the effect should also be questioned.
He notes that the ~3% reduction in heart attack rates for aspirin was only demonstrated by meta analysis, and that of the 25 individual studies, only 5 showed statistically significant benefits to aspirin as a stand alone study. Therefore the use of meta analysis in medicine and the other fields of science, and the standards he applies to his parapsychology studies, ARE standard and accepted science principles.
He then applies these same meta analysis methodologies and standards to parapsychology fields. In each area he shows no effect from study quality, or single experimenter or single lab effects. Here are the results compared to the aspirin standard:
* Aspirin: 25 studies, 3% effect above chance
* Dream telepathy: 25 studies, 13% above chance
* Ganzfeld in 1985: 25 studies, 16% above chance
* Ganzfeld in 1997: 50 studies, 14% above chance
* Card Guessing: 142 studies, 1.25% above chance
* Remove viewing: 4 labs, 14% above chance
* Dice tossing: 148 experiments, 1.2% above chance
* Influence random number generator: 339 studies, 1.0% above chance
* Influence human skin conductance: 17 studies, 3% above chance
* Feeling of being stared at: (study number unclear in book), 13% above chance
Every one of these 8 different parapsychology phenomena has, in meta analysis per accepted scientific methodology, been demonstrated to exist with confidence beyond a million to one.
Dr Radin notes that parapsychologists have known this evidence demonstrates the reality of psi phenomenon for decades, and therefore all the current research in the field concentrates not on "proving" it but on characterizing it. Among the peculiar effects that parapsychology researchers have demonstrated is that the effect is independent of distances, and that effects can preceed the cause. And both of these startling observations have also been convincingly demonstrated in meta analysis.
In the latter sections of the book, Dr Radin then attempts to show a correlation between these peculiarities of psi and the peculiarities of particle physics. He focuses on Quantum entanglement (which couples the quantum state of two very distant objects in ways we do not yet understand, but appears to also involve instantaneous interaction at a distance), the logical possibility in physics of a negative time vector as well as a positive one (all physics models allow time to run backwards or forwards - we just arbitrarily use only the forward running versions), and the centrality of consciousness in some physics models. He assumes all these peculiarities are tied together by consciousness, and speculates that consciousness is a quantum-driven phenomenon, and that psi and its peculiarities are a byproduct of the quantum origin of consciousness.
I personally had a problem with Dr Radin's model of consciousness in this section. Consciousness is generally taken as involving intention, awareness, focus, a stream of consciousness, and states of reduced consciousness (daydreaming, sleep, etc). His definition, that consciousness is an order injection into systems, I found unrecognizable as actually being consciousness. Which made his reasoning in this section much less compelling.
Dr Radin's philosophical commitment to property dualism (consciousness is an aspect of matter, separate from and irreducible to the physical aspect of matter, but it is NOT spirit) is apparent throughout the book. He repeatedly condemns both materialist reductionism and spiritual dualism. His rejection of spiritual dualism appears to be based on the bizarre notion that spiritual dualism requires spirit and matter to be non-interactive! His metaphysical blinders tragically prevent him from exploring the likely spiritual-interaction source of psi phenomenon. But despite this weakness this is an excellent and educational work, and I intend to search out any other popular works Dr. Radin has written.


The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
by Lee Smolin
Edition: Paperback
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential wake up call, July 10, 2011
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I read this book right after reading Leaonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape, and the dialog between the two works was a very interesting education.

Susskind spelled out the rationale for the Multiverse and a Cosmic Landscape of universes with different Cosmological Constants as a worldview, with the CC valudes determined by the varying properties of the possible String Theoreis that can hold in each universe. This vision, which provides the only complete materialist metaphysics since the overturning of Newtonian physics over a century ago, has captivated most theoretical physicists, but it is a vision which has become increasingly divorced from science, as Smolin points out.

The major assumptions of this String Theory Multiverse are:

1-8 There are 8 additional dimensions to space.
9 The properties of everything are dependent on features of these 11 dimensions,
10 The features include whether a dimension unrolls
11 Also the shape of the dimension (number of holes)
12 Also number of twists
13 Also the flux value (integer) in each hole
14 Also number of 1-D branes (termination surfaces for strings)
15 Also number of 2-D branes
16 Also number of 3-D branes
17 Also number of 4-D branes
18 Also number of 5-D branes (I don't think any go higher than 5 now, not sure)
19 Whether any branes are negative (mentioned but not explained by Susskind)
20 Shape of the branes
21 Twist properties of the branes
22 Number of singularities (different from black holes)
23 TBD other mathematical structures
24 Specific string properties which create the elementary particles and fundamental forces (not sure if these are set by all of the above or not)
25 All of the above define the vacuum energy, and thus the cosmological constant (CC)
26 A high CC creates an inflating universe
27 Inflating universes can create mass and energy out of nothing, but it is all in balance, since gravitational energy is negative and exactly balances all the positive energy.
28 Fluxuations in the vacuum energy create transitions to lower CC regions within the inflating space
29 The "friction" transitioning from a higher to lower CC is released in the form of an elementary particle plasma (read hot Big Bang)
30 There is a texture to the Landscape of vacuum energy states, and new bubbles of a CC will transition down the slope of this landscape until they reach a local minima, or valley.
31 Only lower CC states can appear, not higher (not sure why)
32 There is a continuing cascade to a zero CC level (string theory models can easily create negative CC, so not sure why things stop at zero, negative CC would be lower energy than zero, so I think the model should not stop. This is a problem for the Landscape, because if high negative CCs are the innate end point of the Landscape, all the universes will eventually just puff out)
33 Lot and lots of local minima exist (close to infinite, I think it depend on when you give up speculation on new arbitrary structures in the String Theory model)
34 All these local minima are actually reachable from the particular high CC local minima of the Eternal Inflation field. (this assumption is one where the non-science accusation may be valid. Most of the minima will be vary far in properties from the starting condition, and the probability of a quantum fluxuation or tunneling effect reaching a distant state rather than the closest alternate state is vanishingly small. But by postulating an infinite multiverse of Eternal Inflation, it would not matter if one state had 200 orders of magnitude greater probability of being reached - all possible states will be populated with infinite numbers of bubble universes.)
35 Anthropic Principle - life is rare and will only arise in an exotic very, very, few local minima which can support complex chemistry, and have long term stability. That is why our universe is exotic and unusually stable.
36 Our universe had a CC that started in a nearly flat-bottomed trough that lead to our steep-sided valley

Just the major assumption level, this speculation/hypothesis is quite a doozy.

There are a number of predictions made by these theories. The confirmed ones include:

* Flatness of the universe
* Homogeneity of the universe
* Size of galactic and galactic cluster mass concentrations

The unconfirmed ones include:
* At the very largest mass structure level, we will see the effect of a higher CC as the universe settled into the bottom of the trough
* A string theory model corresponds to our universe
* A series of string theory models correspond to the trough leading to our current valley
* Our universe has an edge with different properties, since it is continually transitioning high CC space around us into our low CC space (and we may be able to see a property variation, depending on how close we are to that edge. Note this is my own conclusion, not Susskind's)
* Portions of our universe may or have already spontaneously dropped to a lower CC level. These regions would grow within our universe, and be observable.
* Gravitons have zero mass, and behave like closed loop strings rather than strings with ends.

There are also two predictions which Susskind admits which currently are falsified:
* Our CC is calculable and small based on string theory (the math sums up to infinity - in order to get a finite CC they throw out all numbers larger than a certain arbitrary value)
* All the particles for which no rotational inertia has been observed to date (electrons, neutrinos, photons), actually have rotational inertia according to string theory

Lee Smolin adds to the refuations that Susskind is wiling to concede. The first is that before String Theory, there were about a dozen attempts to unify quantum gravity and general relativity -- all of them were mathematically consistent, but every one made predictions that were tested and falsified. Susskind is advocating that Physics be judged by mathematical consistency rather than experiment, but if we had not tested previously, we would now be using one of those falsified theories rather than String Theory.

The second of Smolin's additonal refuations is that the hidden dimensions of String Theory are unstable. Quantum fluxuations cause them to spontaneously collapse, or inflate to infinity like our three conventional dimensions. The ONLY way String Theory can lock them down so they are stable AND hidden is if they have a more complex shape than just being rolled into a tube. String Theory has a prediction -- hidden dimensions will unroll -- that is disproven by observation. What Susskind did not describe was the special case for these extra dimensions, which is the only way they could be stable, is that each must have at least two holes in it, and that each hole must have one or several charged Branes wrapped around the surface (basically a pretzel shape is the least complex stable shape). Only then will they stay stable and hidden. This is a bizarre kluge to the theory that makes it effectively absurd.

The third additional refutaiton is that String Theory for most of its history predicted a negative or zero cosmological constant. Theorists worked with the zero CC versions until a small positive CC was discovered. Then they found a way to further kluge the theory. That is what the negative branes were invented for. Branes are an imagined surface or shape (can be from 1 to 5 D) that the ends of strings must stay connected to. They were first imagined in 2-D as membranes, then expanded into more Ds, and called D-branes, or just Branes. A negative brane was never explained by Susskind, and I suspect it is just a mathematical artifact to somehow bring the vacuum energy to a positive value. The addition of them to String theory is another patch to deal with a contrary observation.

Smolin points out that good theories are usually quickly confirmed by observations, and they suggest all sorts of new and surprising things which then advance physics in other areas. The theories that have been discarded in physics are the ones which try to be kluged up with special cases to deal with one embarrassing observation after another. This looks to me to be the case with String Theory. Smolin started his book with 5 big questions that faced physics 30 years ago, when String Theory first became the dominant idea in theoretical physics, and that NONE of these have been solved in the last 30 years. He thinks it is due to physics departing from testability, and embracing a theory which is infinitely klugable and non-falsifiable -- and as a result the experimentalists have been starved of viable theories to test to advance our understanding of these issues.

Smolin is a good and clear a writer, and he makes a convincing case against string theory and Susskind. The abandonment of the principle of experimental confirmability at the core of science has been a disaster for physics. Reading the two together, Smolin blows Susskind out of the water -- String Theory is a dead end.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 11, 2012 2:40 PM PST


The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design
The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design
by Leonard Susskind
Edition: Hardcover
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bold speculation, but refuted as science, July 10, 2011
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This is an excellent book, by a clear writer, who has big ideas, and expresses them well. I recommend reading this book, then reading a critic of String theory, Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics.

Leonard Susskind is the original inventor of String Theory over 25 years ago, and has now merged its latest permutations with Inflationary cosmology to produce a theory of everything. Susskind throughout the book talks about how he spends much of his time trying to figure out how to explain esoteric ideas in physics to laymen. I have an undergraduate degree in physics, and have read perhaps a dozen books on cosmology, and was able to follow this book fairly well. I am a "layman" compared to Susskind, but have a much stronger astrophysics background than most "laymen", so take warning. Understanding this book is not as easy as falling off a log.

His starting point is that Fine Tuning is a legitimate argument - that our universe is fine tuned to create life to a bizarre degree. I will not present his rationale for Fine Tuning. He for many years rejected the Fine Tuning claims, but became convinced himself when the Cosmological Constant was shown to be very small but positive. Since the possible range of the CC is huge, and anything but zero or very close to zero values will lead to very short-lived universes, or ones with no matter concentrations, many physicists assumed that the CC was somehow forced to be zero, by unknown physics laws. That it is not was startling to astrophysicists, and for Susskind this was the last straw to support a Fine Tuning argument.

There are two ways we know of to get Fine Tuning, design or evolutionary selection. Selection requires multiple random options to select between, and because he rejects Design, this is where Susskind goes. He proposes the Anthropic Principle, in which virtually infinite universes are created, and only the very, very, very few which are habitable are ever observed by sentient life.

To take you through his reasoning requires a peculiar journey through speculative physics. Inflation is what happens when the vacuum fluctuations of virtual particles in empty space sum up to a positive value. This positive term ends up producing a repulsion force against anything which has mass, meanwhile the virtual particles themselves DO have a mass, and the repulsion exceeds their gravitational attraction - which causes space to grow. The Cosmological Constant is the bulk term which describes the speed at which growth occurs. Since this new space is also filled with the same virtual particle field, mass is basically being created from nothing. The current Big Bang model is based on an initial high value of the CC, and then a drop down to our current very, very, very small but positive CC.

String theory has an explanation for the CC, as well as for everything else. String theory started with an attempt to describe the behavior of quarks and other similar elementary particles. Some behave like elastic strings with masses at each end, and others like three strings linked like a Y, each with a mass at the end. This part of the theory is very solid. It was then extended to all the rest of physics. When one tries to explain the behavior of all the other elementary particles and forces using a similar model, a model CAN describe approximately our suite of particles and forces, but it requires 11 dimensions plus time (8 of these dimensions are rolled up rather than extended, which is why our universe looks 3-dimentionsla rather than 11-dimensional). Currently none of the models produced quite work out, so String Theorists have kept coming up with variations on the equations which can add features which might let them actually match our universe. As a minimum, they add things like shape, twist, flux, branes (string localizers) of various dimensions, shape for the branes, and singularities to the equations for each dimension. This produces a near infinite number of possible "String Theories", and a near infinite number of variables to dial to fit our world. Within the theory, the CC, fundamental forces, and elementary particles all could be different with a different set of dimensions, shapes, fluxes, branes, etc.

One way to bring order to this is that not all possible combinations are stable. Basically, if there is an adjacent state which has a lower energy level (translates to a lower CC), frictional effects will lead a possible universe to drop to the lower state. What this means is that only local energy minima (valleys in a rough surface) are stable, and any universe that exists for any length of time must be in one of these en43ergy minima valleys.

Susskind adopts the Eternal Inflation hypothesis of Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, and assumes that there is some initial stable high CC state. Quantum effects cause fluctuations in these String Theory properties, and if they lead to a lower energy state than the locally stable one, this fluxuation acts as a crystal seed for the spreading transition of the high CC region to the lower one. BUT, since the high CC region is inflating faster than the new lower one, the transition to the new lower one is slower than the growth of the old higher CC space, and the high CC universe never goes away, it just has infinite bubbles of lower CC inside it. Each of these likewise can spontaneously create new lower CC regions within them, each of which will continue creating infinite space a well.

This view of the world - a inflating field of extremely high energy and high CC, with an infinite number of mini universes inside it that have bubbled out, is what Susskind calls his Cosmic Landscape. He proposes that our universe is one of these bubbles. To match the history of our universe, our bubble would have had to initially form near a trough leading to our valley, because inflation was initially high for a while (moving down a fairly level trough), then quickly dropped to our current rate.

String Theory, and this Infinite Multiverse have been criticized as non-scientific. A recently published critical book on string theory is titled Not Even Wrong which is the ultimate dismissal in science. A claim which is untestable in principle is worse than wrong, it is not science, and useless. Susskind is defensive about this, and challenges what the definition of science is. He asserts that science is whatever scientists are doing - and in his world scientists engage in extensive speculative mathematics, with virtually no possibility of experimental tests. When people try to redefine science because what they are doing does not fit the definition is generally considered a fairly definitive failing, and was cited in the Intelligent Design court case as definitive proof that Intelligent Design is not science. It is not good news for Susskind that he is sharing the tactics of the ID movement.

Scientific ideas to go through three steps: speculation, hypothesis, and theory. I don't think String Theory has quite mastered the hypothesis category yet, and the Landscape and Multiverse are still only speculations. A very legitimate critique is that the concepts just bring in too many free variables. Each one is another assumption, and anyone who has ever tried to fit a curve to data knows that once your free variables equal or exceed your data, then you have ZERO confidence in the predictive ability of the curve-fit.

[Unfortunately only physical scientists and engineers ever fit anything other than straight lines to data. If anyone is interested, try putting three points not in a line on a piece of paper. A straight line will at best approximate them. But one can hit all the points with a wavy curve of almost any shape. But since a curve which comes in and goes off the top of the paper, and hits all the points fits the data as well as one that comes in off the bottom or either edge, there is no confidence in the predictive power of these curves. With the straight line, you have some confidence, and it is related to the number of data points minus the constants used to create the curve (2 for a line), divided by the number of data points. So the near infinite variables of string theory vs. only 100 or so fundamental constants and properties of our universe that the theory deals with gives zero confidence in the predictive power of that theory.]

For my own interest, I have tried to spell out the major assumptions of Susskind in his Landscape fusion of String Theory and Inflation.

1-8 There are 8 additional dimensions to space.
9 The properties of everything are dependent on features of these 11 dimensions,
10 The features include whether a dimension unrolls
11 Also the shape of the dimension (number of holes)
12 Also number of twists
13 Also the flux value (integer) in each hole
14 Also number of 1-D branes (termination surfaces for strings)
15 Also number of 2-D branes
16 Also number of 3-D branes
17 Also number of 4-D branes
18 Also number of 5-D branes (I don't think any go higher than 5 now, not sure)
19 Whether any branes are negative (mentioned but not explained by Susskind)
20 Shape of the branes
21 Twist properties of the branes
22 Number of singularities (different from black holes)
23 TBD other mathematical structures
24 Specific string properties which create the elementary particles and fundamental forces (not sure if these are set by all of the above or not)
25 All of the above define the vacuum energy, and thus the cosmological constant (CC)
26 A high CC creates an inflating universe
27 Inflating universes can create mass and energy out of nothing, but it is all in balance, since gravitational energy is negative and exactly balances all the positive energy.
28 Fluxuations in the vacuum energy create transitions to lower CC regions within the inflating space
29 The "friction" transitioning from a higher to lower CC is released in the form of an elementary particle plasma (read hot Big Bang)
30 There is a texture to the Landscape of vacuum energy states, and new bubbles of a CC will transition down the slope of this landscape until they reach a local minima, or valley.
31 Only lower CC states can appear, not higher (not sure why)
32 There is a continuing cascade to a zero CC level (string theory models can easily create negative CC, so not sure why things stop at zero, negative CC would be lower energy than zero, so I think the model should not stop. This is a problem for the Landscape, because if high negative CCs are the innate end point of the Landscape, all the universes will eventually just puff out)
33 Lot and lots of local minima exist (close to infinite, I think it depend on when you give up speculation on new arbitrary structures in the String Theory model)
34 All these local minima are actually reachable from the particular high CC local minima of the Eternal Inflation field. (this assumption is one where the non-science accusation may be valid. Most of the minima will be vary far in properties from the starting condition, and the probability of a quantum fluxuation or tunneling effect reaching a distant state rather than the closest alternate state is vanishingly small. But by postulating an infinite multiverse of Eternal Inflation, it would not matter if one state had 200 orders of magnitude greater probability of being reached - all possible states will be populated with infinite numbers of bubble universes.)
35 Anthropic Principle - life is rare and will only arise in an exotic very, very, few local minima which can support complex chemistry, and have long term stability. That is why our universe is exotic and unusually stable.
36 Our universe had a CC that started in a nearly flat-bottomed trough that lead to our steep-sided valley

As you can see, at just the major assumption level, this speculation/hypothesis is quite a doozy.

It is science however, and there are a number of predictions made by these theories. The confirmed ones include:

* Flatness of the universe
* Homogeneity of the universe
* Size of galactic and galactic cluster mass concentrations

The unconfirmed ones include:
* At the very largest mass structure level, we will see the effect of a higher CC as the universe settled into the bottom of the trough
* A string theory model corresponds to our universe
* A series of string theory models correspond to the trough leading to our current valley
* Our universe has an edge with different properties, since it is continually transitioning high CC space around us into our low CC space (and we may be able to see a property variation, depending on how close we are to that edge. Note this is my own conclusion, not Susskind's)
* Portions of our universe may or have already spontaneously dropped to a lower CC level. These regions would grow within our universe, and be observable.
* Gravitons have zero mass, and behave like closed loop strings rather than strings with ends.

There are also two predictions which currently are falsified:
* Our CC is calculable and small based on string theory (the math sums up to infinity - in order to get a finite CC they throw out all numbers larger than a certain arbitrary value)
* All the particles for which no rotational inertia has been observed to date (electrons, neutrinos, photons), actually have rotational inertia

Since the confirmations to date all are just part of the Big Bang with Inflation model, and really have nothing to do with either Eternal Inflation, String Theory, or the Landscape, all of these ideas are currently unsupported by any observations. Having two contradicting observations is also a problem - but a common one for hypotheses as they work out their bugs.

I consider this hypothesis, however, to be the most coherent and complete materialist hypothesis I have ever seen for the formation of the universe. But please note what it includes:

* by my count 36 major assumptions - most of which are not confirmable in any way
* Another substrate to the universe other than the material, which is more fundamental, and from which the material emerged.
* Assumptions with infinite properties
* No explanation for where the original high CC Eternal Inflating space came from

Compare these features with the critiques of religious theories of the origin of the universe. The ill-defined infinite properties of God are criticized, as is the inability to explain God's origin, the complexity of assuming another substrate to the universe, and lots and lots of unconfirmable assumptions.

I really liked Susskind's book. He is a clear writer, and both a clear thinker and a very big thinker. I suspect Susskind has gone wrong early in String Theory, and strings are not really applicable to electrons, neutrinos, and photons, based on their not having rotational inertia. The reason he thinks they must be strings is that otherwise the interactions between these particles and the string-based particles run into a summing-to-infinity problem. Since he is just ignoring a similar problem in calculating the CC, I didn't see why one was a convincing argument to him that that everything was strings, and the other summing to infinity problem is dismissible. Once this summing problem is readdressed, and an answer to it found, I suspect a simpler partial string and partial particle theory will replace String Theory, and I don't know if this Landscape concept would survive.

Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, provides a useful set of objections to counter Susskind's optimism over his Landscape theory. Smolin points out three important facts that Susskind left out. The first is that before String Theory, there were about a dozen attempts to unify quantum gravity and general relativity -- all of them were mathematically consistent, but every one made predictions that were tested and falsified. Susskind is advocating that Physics be judged by mathematical consistency rather than experiment, but if we had not tested previosly, we would now be using one of those falsified theories rather than String Theory.
The second point is that the hidden dimensions of String Theory are unstable. Quantum fluxuations cause them to spontaneously collapse, or inflate to infinity like our three conventional dimensions. The ONLY way String Theory can lock them down so they are stable AND hidden is if they have a more complex shape than just being rolled into a tube. String Theory has a prediction -- hidden dimensions will unroll -- that is disproven by observation. What Susskind did not describe was the special case for these extra dimensions, which is the only way they could be stable, is that each must have at least two holes in it, and that each hole must have one or several charged Branes wrapped around the surface (basically a pretzel shape is the least complex stable shape). Only then will they stay stable and hidden. This is a bizarre kluge to the theory that makes it effectively absurd.
The third point is that String Theory for most of its history predicted a negative or zero cosmological constant. Theorists worked with the zero CC versions until a small positive CC was discovered. Then they found a way to further kluge the theory. That is what the negative branes were invented for. Branes are an imagined surface or shape (can be from 1 to 5 D) that the ends of strings must stay connected to. They were first imagined in 2-D as membranes, then expanded into more Ds, and called D-branes, or just Branes. A negative brane was never explained by Susskind, and I suspect it is just a mathematical artifact to somehow bring the vacuum energy to a positive value. The addition of them to String theory is another patch to deal with a contrary observation.
Smolin points out that good theories are usually quickly confirmed by observations, and they suggest all sorts of new and surprising things which then advance physics in other areas. The theories that have been discarded in physics are the ones which try to be kluged up with special cases to deal with one embarrassing observation after another. This looks to me to be the case with String Theory. Smolin started his book with 5 big questions that faced physics 30 years ago, when String Theory first became the dominant idea in theoretical physics, and that NONE of these have been solved in the last 30 years. He thinks it is due to physics departing from testability, and embracing a theory which is infinitely klugable and non-falsifiable -- and as a result the experimentalists have been starved of viable theories to test to advance our understanding of these issues.
Smolin is as good and clear a writer as Susskind, and he has a better case, since he does not try to hide embarrassing facts, nor attack the principle of experimental confirmability at the core of science. Reading the two together, Smolin blows Susskind out of the water -- String Theory is a dead end. Despite this judgement, I still reccommend the book as very enjoyable and thought provoking.
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Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe
Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe
by Victor J. Stenger
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strongly written, and worth reading even if you disagree, July 20, 2009
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This is a review of Victor Stenger's "Has Science Found God?" Stenger is a retired physicist who has written numerous books in the debunker tradition against religion and parapsychological phenomenon. I have also reviewed Stenger's "God The Failed Hypothesis," which is more recent than this volume.

Reading these two books was interesting. In many ways I felt like I was reading the same book over again, but there is actually maybe only a fifth or less of each book which is repeated in the other. Mostly, the same themes are approached with somewhat different arguments.

The purpose Stenger had in writing "Has Science Found God" was to rebut a series of books written in the late 90s which claimed that physics was now showing God as more plausible than not. The book is therefore somewhat scatter-shot in its organization. It takes each of these claims, notes who claimed them, and attempts to rebut each of them. He had a more focused goal in "God the Failed Hypothesis", which was to refute the consequences of the Abrahamic God hypothesis, and therefore a tighter organization. The earlier book, "Has Science Found God", is still the far better of the two, since he only rarely commits the burden of proof fallacy which is central to most of his arguments in the later book. Most of his arguments are strong, and I found this book an interesting foil for consideration.

Stenger strongly disagrees with those who consider Science and Theology totally separate subjects. He notes that hypotheses about entities which interact with the world will in principle have observable and testable consequences in the world, and therefore are subject to scientific inquiry. He therefore concedes the principle of the books he is rebutting - that it is possible in principle that physics could reveal the presence of the spiritual.

His first target is Creationists, and the ID movement. The chapters rebutting these movements are pretty standard stuff, since these movements have no valid basis in science, and they really consist of no more than a series of attacks on evolution.

He did devote a separate chapter to ID theorist William Dembski, and Dembski's statistical methods for determining design. I found this chapter interesting, in that Stenger agrees with Dembski that entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics could be validly recast in terms of information content. My own understanding of information theory is incomplete, but I had always considered this claim by ID advocates to be just an argument from analogy, not a valid assertion. Despite conceding this point, Stenger shows that Dembski does not follow the valid IT definitions, therefore Demski's claim that the increased information content in life could not arise naturally is falsified, because the information loss formt he sun more than balances it out. As with entropy, localized regions can experience increases in information content so long as the system as a whole is neutral or decreases in information content.

After dealing with Creationists and ID, he moves on to more valid claims of evidence for God. He discusses in detail the concept of the creation of the universe, and whether it violates causation, the conservation laws, or the laws of thermodynamics. His assertion is that if it had, the violations would provide evidence for God interfering in the universe, but since it does not, the lack of necessity for God makes Him implausible. Among his assertions are that our universe could have formed as a quantum fluxuation in a background Void, so no creator or cause was necessary. Also that the negative energy of gravity and the expansion rate perfectly balance the positive energy of matter and the vacuum energy field so the appearance of all of matter and space was a zero-energy event, satisfying the conservation laws. And that our being in an expanding universe results in a continuous decrease in average entropy, even though total entropy keeps increasing, which is why our universe has been able to get more complex over time without violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics. This chapter provides some interesting arguments, but it has some flaws.

First, space is tied to mass in General Relativity, so postulating an empty Void pre-existing the universe contradicts that theory. In his later book, Stenger seems to have realized this, and changes to asserting Eternal Inflation, and an infinite set of universes, from one of which ours was spawned through "quantum tunneling" (and bizarrely claims this is a simpler assertion than that there is only one universe). While causation is not a verified assumption, it is a core assumption of science, and his proposal to abandon it is one he really does not accept himself since he continues to try to provide explanations of where the universe came from, so his first point is pretty well repudiated even by himself.

As for the entire Universe existing vs. nothing at all being equivalent per conservation laws - I think it is pretty obvious that he has left something out. Billions of galaxies may be in energy balance vs. their gravitational attraction, but there is MORE to billions than to one, or to just a single star system, and to declare all these equivalent is to miss the conservation of some important term.

The entropy discussion is very interesting - that an expanding universe creates the potential for evolving complexity. This point appears to actually support the Fine Tuning advocates, since it represents another constraint on a possible universe for life to evolve in.

Stenger discusses the Fine Tuning argument in much more detail in his second book, including his claim that stars and chemistry are possible in a fairly wide range of four constants he evaluated. I did not consider his rebuttal to be effective, since he failed to address more than a fraction of the fine-tuned aspects of the universe. He does point out correctly in this book that the universe is NOT fine-tuned for physical matter, or for planets to be a significant fraction of physical matter, so seems implausible to have been designed for physical planet-dwellers.

Stenger has a similar chapter on prayer, and its failure to show health benefits in controlled studies, as in the later book. Also, he has a similar chapter to the one in the later book on psionics, where he emphasizes the lack of a coherent theory, and the history of difficulty replicating statistically significant results. In a likewise similar chapter on Bible verses, he notes its failures to achieve its clearly stated predictions, and the obvious falsity of some of its assertions about the natural world. In each chapter the evidence he cites is different between books, but the points are virtually identical. The one most notable difference is that he discusses "The Bible Code" in more detail here, and spells out the flaws in its methodology.

Stenger expresses some respect for one group of scientific theologians, who include Nancy Murphy, former physicist John Polkinghorne, the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, and physicist Paul Davies. All agree to evolution, do not try to assert "guided evolution". They agree that humanity could easily not have existed, but try to find ways for God or consciousness to interact with the universe through quantum effects, or taking advantage of the inherent instability of chaos theory. Stenger tries to rebut the chaos theory assertion by stating falsely that chaotic systems are repeatable and deterministic (by noting that their computer models are both - but this is an argument by analogy which fails because the things which make the models repeatable include knowing precise starting conditions, and its deterministic nature is due to the limited and characterized effects modeled - neither condition is applicable to chaotic systems in the universe). He also points out very validly that the God or Ideal of these theorists is incompatible with the classic Abrahamic view of God.

Stenger's concluding chapter includes a very useful reference list of the sorts of observations which have a bearing on the issue of spiritual dualism vs. materialism. he considers religious advocates to ahve failed to produce any of them, but I consider him to be wrong, for most. I will repeat it here, with my own summary of why I think the evidence for spiritual dualism is fairly strong.

* Observations that cannot be explained except by supernatural creation of the universe.

Here Stenger is implicitly asserting the Burden of Proof fallacy, by insisting on CANNOT BE EXPLAINED OTHERWISE instead of BETTER EXPLAINED BY SPIRITUAL DUALISM. In other parts of this book he correctly references Parsimony instead. A two-aspect spiritual-physical universe is both simpler, and more testable than his Infinite Inflation infinite universes, and wins on Parsimony on both the simplicity and testability/usefulness forks of Occam's razor.

*Events induced by prayer or other supernatural intervention.

The Catholic Church has done a good job documenting several miracles at Lourdes, and the vision in Portugal, which could qualify here.

* Extrasensory perception or the ability of the human mind to move matter in ways that cannot be explained by any known physical means.

Both Remote Viewing and the GAnsfeld experiments have produced statistically significant and repeatable results, and have withstood decades of criticism by skeptics who simply refuse to accept the data. See Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics, and Damien Broderick's Outside the Gates of Science for further information on this subject.

* Examples in which faith healing or other forms of spiritual therapies cure the ill.

The placebo effect is explicitly a spiritual therapy. It IS "faith healing". The history of Shamanism worldwide is pretty substantial evidence for the effectiveness of spiritual healing, unless one denies that evolutionary selection processes act on human behavior.

* Mystical or religious experiences during which verifiable information was obtained that could not possibly be in the mystics brain circuits all along.

The book "The Siren Call of Hungry Ghosts" by Joe Fisher, contains close but ultimately flawed information cited by his channeled spirits. Since he rejected these spirits based on the flaws, the closeness is a credible report, and verifies channeleing as a means of getting information not accessible to oneself.

* Quotations from sacred scripture that contain facts that the people who wrote them could not have known.

I have not seen any such valid claims.

The examples I provided above show how the application of the scientific approach Stenger advocates actually DOES lead to verification of spiritual dualism. The very first of these points, in which Stenger engages in a logical fallacy, shows the level of rationalization that the debunkers engage in in order to reach their certitude. Stanger is a member of CSICOP, and a contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and both the organization and the magazine have been demonstrated to engage in data fraud and lies to advance their skeptical views. Stenger's Burden of Proof fallacy is actually a lesser failing among his fellow professional skeptics.

Overall, this was an interesting and fairly strong book advocating atheist materialism over spiritual dualism, but I think I have disposed of Stenger's arguments here.
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The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World
The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World
by Paul Davies
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well reasoned, but fails at the end, July 7, 2009
I like how physicists think in trying to address the borders of science, philosophy, and religion, since they are comfortable working with both theoretical and practical issues. Davies is a theoretical physicist, who also engages in popular science writing.

Long ago I read Davies' The Cosmic Blueprint, and this book is in many ways an extension of that one. Blueprint argued that the universe contained some kind of Law of Organized Complexity, by which organized structures emerge from disordered states. Davies used three examples -- early in the Big Bang the hot soup of particles was not distinguishable between the particle types and forces, but as it cooled the current particle/force set emerged. Then these apparently simple laws lead to the complex stellar system, galaxy, galactic cluster, and supercluster structures. Then later to the complex structures of life. He asserts that none of these outcomes is predictable from the initial conditions, and to arrive at them we need this Law of Organized Complexity. Along the way he also assumes that universe is Fine Tuned -- in that the properties of the universe seem to be improbable and he asserted they are particularly conducive to organized complexity. I found the earlier book interesting but unconvincing -- he did not demonstrate that any additional law was needed to arrive at the complexity, and I don't consider stars/galaxies/etc to be particularly organized, so a law which acted only very early and very late in the history of the universe seemed pretty erratic as an explanation.

In Mind of God Davies continues to assume both a Law of Organized Complexity, and Fine Tuning of the universe. In this book, he does a better job supporting his assumptions by seriously comparing them to alternatives, and he steps back to Fine Tuning to compare alternatives to that too.

The central question Davies addresses is whether the universe can create itself, or requires a creator. He notes that whether the universe had an origin in time or not, its EXISTENCE still needs an explanation -- WHY is it here at all instead of nothing, or something else. With this point, he effectively dismisses the attempts to evade acknowledging God by postulating an infinite universe, or a closed cycle (Guth's Inflationary Universe, and Hawking's Time-Space Continuum, respectively). He also questions whether it is plausible to postulate an unending ever-more-fundamental set of laws of physics which could keep us busy investigating forever. With these points, he basically insists that any scientist who accepts the basic motivation of science (try to find out why things are) OUGHT to investigate these issues of metaphysics, and never be satisfied with "well the universe is just an unexplained fact."

Davies then deals with the concept of Necessity. He does not consider it nonsensical, but there are some pretty significant constraints on any Necessary Being or Entity. For one thing, it could not POSSIBLY have been otherwise. Therefore, there can be nothing contingent about such a thing. If such a thing changes with time, then it clearly could have been otherwise, and is therefore not possibly Necessary. It is clear to him that the universe itself is not Necessary -- since it has many obviously contingent features to it (changing with time, there are exactly THREE symmetry sets of elementary particles (proton, electron, photon, neutrino -- and two sets of heavier unstable particles with the same properties) which seems a very arbitrary and non-intuitive number, and the universe has a very large and specific baryon number (protons and neutrons in the universe) which could clearly have been slightly different. There is a problem extracting any contingent item from anything necessary. To create something contingent, the Necessary thing could have possibly done otherwise, which would make the Necessary thing contingent too, leading to a self-contradiciton ...which makes both God and any natural Necessary event a contradictory concept as a source for the universe.

Davies then tries to find a way out of this "why" problem. He notes that it is feasible that a necessary entity COULD create a universe which contains probabilistic laws, and that therefore some fundamental aspects of the universe could be necessary, and all the contingency is created by these (necessary) laws of probability. Davies suggests that this sort of non-deterministic fundamental structure may be essential to allow organized complexity to emerge. This argument basically assumes that only a being (a God) could be complex enough to create this kind of universe.

There are several problems with this "way out" that Davies proposes, and Davies self-critique and exploration of alternatives basically fails at this point, so he does not even discuss any of these obvious problems. First, he needs to show that the structure of a fixed background and a probabilistic generation of specific features of the universe is the Best and Only possible kind of universe his Necessary God could create -- but Davies does not even attempt to do this -- other than his Organized Complexity speculation. Second, he never discusses the details of what is specified by these probabilistic laws -- he mostly seems to be thinking of the probability laws which we have discovered related to elementary particles. But his own examples of contingency in the universe (baryon number, number of particle symmetry sets, ability to change over time, etc) are MUCH more fundamental than just where a photon actually exists within its wave function -- so he has to assert that these fundamental things are probabilistic too. BUT, the tuning of these fundamental aspects of the universe are why he thinks that the universe is Fine Tuned, and if they are Necessarily probabilistic, they cannot be Fine Tuned! Davies does not address this essential contradiction in his basic assumptions. I was disappointed that what to this point had been a well-reasoned argument basically fizzed at the end.

Davies did have a good discussion of the alternative to Fine Tuning -- which is a Multiverse -- with the Anthropic Principle selecting for life -- which can only exist in the very small subset of the multiverse which is compatible with it. Davies admits that some theories of physics posit multiverses to deal with the probabilistic nature of fundamental particle behavior. This does not deal with the variation of the fundamental properties with which Fine Tuning deals, so the partially supported version of multiverses would need extending to these fundamental laws too. Davies challenges that this model does not address the universality of the laws of physics. He notes that in a multiverse spectrum there is no reason that a law must be constant within a particular universe -- chaos should also be part of the multiverse. But since life needs only local stability, we could exist in a locally stable region in a chaotic universe -- and from a probabilistic perspective, that is what we should see based on the anthropic principle. He suggests that his concept of a created fixed structure in which laws are determined probabilistically would better explain the universe's apparent fine tuning. I disagree on this point, but he does make a good critique of the Anthropic principle.

A weakness of the book is that Davies digresses into a lot of dead ends. These include the non-closed nature of mathematics (and of any logical system), speculations about whether intelligence is hostable within a computer program (he does not say), whether the universe is computable (no, Pi is not, and there are more complex disproofs involving event horizons), and a discussion of the behavior of the patterns in the early computer simulation called "Life", in which squares change from black to white and back according to simple laws. Some of these digressions are very extensive, and I was left wondering why they were included. The "Life" example also contradicts one of Davies assertions about the Fine Tuning of the universe, in which he says that complex, stable, and self-reproducing structures require very specialized conditions to even be possible. But they are created basically accidentally in this remarkably simple and non-specialized "Life" simulation!

So in the end this fellow-spirit to me (physicist who takes metaphysics seriously, and tries to derive an understanding of God) basically fails, in demonstrating Fine Tuning, a Law of Organized Complexity, or a concept of God that provides a coherent explanation of the universe. Along the way, Davies DOES contribute significantly to the debate -- puncturing problems with a Necessary Universe, with a Necessary God creating a contingent universe, and with the Anthropic/multiverse counterargument to Fine Tuning.

Unfortunately, at the end of this discussion at any rate, I do not see a useful path left standing for looking for an ultimate "why". If Necessity cannot create contingency, then we are basically left with infinite regress, and no possibility of answering the final "why".
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The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain
The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain
by Paul M. Churchland
Edition: Paperback
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent expression of ultimately false views, July 7, 2009
Paul and Patricia Churchland are the leading advocates of the ¡§it really isn¡¦t anything¡¨ branch of materialist views of consciousness. They assert that one need only investigate how the sensing, processing, and reactions are generated by our brains, and this provides a full description of consciousness. They do not use the label, but they are behaviorists.

While I consider this approach very wrongheaded, Paul Churchland¡¦s detailed presentation of this idea is an insightful work of a keen intellect, and I learned a great deal from him about brain function.

What he discusses are the characteristics of neural networks. Neural networks are distributed analog processing nets, where multiple layers of inputs, secondary, tertiary, and quadrenary nodes are linked, and the interaction strengths of these linkages are adjusted in order to perform a task. Such networks have been shown to be quicker and more accurate than algorithmic programs in doing things like facial recognition, linguistic grammar checking, and most of the other discrimination functions we do. They are also tolerant to incomplete input data, and fault tolerant to loss of some nodes and connections. Since this is how the brain is actually wired, he considers the strengths of these networks to be of tremendous relevance to brain studies ¡V much more relevant than the behavior of linear computers with CPUs.

Basic neural nets have no time-functional behavior, but he points out that if the processed states form middle and upper tiers are fed back into the net as part of the input data, then such nets become capable of periodic state behavior, such as the pattern of activation of muscles in a walking or running leg. Such cyclic behavior can be continued without new inputs, and will be changed by new inputs ¡V much like animal/human behavior. Since neural activation regions when running DO follow a cyclic pattern, and animal/human brains HAVE a huge number of such back-looping neuron connections, he also considers this significant relative to our brain function.

The alternative to materialism, spiritual dualism, he rejects out of hand with cursory dismissiveness, despite admitting that the vast majority of educated people in the world hold by it. The real target of his book is what he calls ¡§folk psychology¡¨. This is the belief that we are:
{ Self-conscious
{ Hold beliefs
{ Have emotions
{ Have the power of reason
He considers all of these assumptions to be fundamentally false, and wants to replace them with descriptions of neural net characteristics as a new ¡§folk psychology¡¨.

He proposes a list of what he considers consciousness to consist of, and then claims that recursive neural nets, combined with some other observed aspects of bran wiring, fully explain this list.:
1. Short term memory
2. Independent of Sensory Input
3. Steerable Attention
4. Alternative interpretations of ambiguous data
5. Disappears in deep sleep
6. Reappears in dreaming
7. Senses integrated in single unified experience

He claims:
1. Short-term memory is typical of feed-forward recursive neural nets
2. Recursive nets run without sensory inputs
3. Networks discriminate, and the feed-back nature of this discrimination can lead to focused attention
4. The ¡§fill-in¡¨ capability of these nets deals with ambiguous data
5. Specific types of neural activity disappear in sleep
6. And reappear in degraded form in dreaming
7. One part of the brain, the interlaminar nucleus, is linked to all the sensory regions both ways, and its feedback data is common to all so must include all sensory modes in integrated form.

I consider his explanation complete for 3 of 7 features (1, 2, 4), only partial for 3 (steerability is a feature of these nets, the source of the actual steering is not so obvious, and how steerability creates ¡§attention¡¨ is unexplained), only correlating for 5 and 6, and wrong on 7 since the links he describes have low bandwidth and seem to be a timing correlator for the brain. So his ¡§explanation¡¨ is not complete even for his own limited list of consciousness features.

Other writers have described other features they consider even more crucial in understanding consciousness. A partial list is:
8. Stream of consciousness
9. Perception being absolutely immediate, vs the weak immediacy of hypotheses and memory
10. Willful initiation of activities
11. Experience of ideas
12. Hypothesis ability (idea, create mental model of world, test in mental model)

Churchland¡¦s left these other essential features of consciousness off his list of what needs to be explained BECAUSE HIS MODEL CANNOT EXPLAIN THEM. Each is much better explained by the alternate materialist hypotheses of Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphries, or Karl Popper. Since he dislikes each of their views, he chooses to try to mislead his readers about the nature of the problem in order to make his own views appear more palatable.

In addition to his unsuccessful effort to explain consciousness away, his model is further subject to an explicit falsification. It is this: he asserts that consciousness IS just the feedback behavior of recursive neural net loops in our brains. But since we have millions of such recursive loops, and 99+% of their activity is totally UNCONSCIOUS to us, it should be immediately obvious to any brain researcher that this claim "consciousness IS JUST recursive neural net functionsing)is absolutely false. That Churchland makes this assertion a central feature of his views shows an almost bizarre lack of self-reflection. That this is a common flaw with all Identity Theory based materialist models is no excuse for Churchland.


The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment
The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment
by Kate Distin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $27.17
42 used & new from $5.31

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clarifies an interesting idea, July 7, 2009
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Richard Dawkins first proposed the concept of memes, units of culture which replicate within human minds, some 30 years ago in his book The Selfish Gene. In that book, he showed how both individual-centric and gene-centric explanations of evolutionary processes make sense, and some aspects of evolution are only explainable from the selfish gene's point of view. He speculated that culture could be similarly described evolutionarily, and that two narratives, one of individuals, and one of culture units (memes) would similarly be necessary to explain cultural evolution. Various authors, including Dawkins, have had only limited success in elaborating on this concept over the years. But The Selfish Meme, by Kate Distin, finally does this idea justice.

Distin does a good job laying out the fundamentals of the meme hypothesis. She locates memes within a concept of consciousness as a representational process, and identifies memes with representational systems indicative of actual physical objects, actions, or relationships.

She expands a little on this theme, by distinguishing memes from representations - she instead limits them to Meta-representations, in what I consider a misguided effort to exclude animals from being able to host memes.

She further expands on the representation theme in a discussion of memes and language, noting that representational systems like music notation and language are memes themselves, and these meta-meta-representational systems host all our meta-representations.

She shows how memes can and do satisfy the basic conditions for evolutionary processes: stability, variation, replication, and competition/selection.

She notes that a significant difference between memes and genes is that genes build replicating machines around themselves (individuals) while memes in contrast follow a virus-like strategy of parasitizing somebody else's replicating machine (the minds created by human genes).

She addresses and shoots down several of the peculiar misuses which have characterized efforts to expand the meme hypothesis. Dawkins himself is the chief misuse, as he has used the concept as a vehicle to attack religion, labeling religion as a memetic virus. As Distin points out, ALL memes are virus-like, and science and logic and atheism all have the same features that Dawkins slanders religion as having.

As second major misuse is in the concept of consciousness, where an influential movement (Dennett, Blackmore, and others) asserts that our minds themselves are nothing but memes (self-deluding us to think that minds actually exist). Distin points out several logic flaws in the Dennett/Blackmore model:

* What gets parasitized? If minds could not exist without memes, there is nothing to have been parasitized by the first meme.
* Who is deluded? If minds do not exist without memes, there is no self-deception needed. Self-deception assumes there is an I to be deluded prior to the deception. But the existence of this I is what is also being denied.
* This model denies the possibility of an ego or consciousness directing selection between memes. Distin provides a detailed description of the engineering design process, showing how both conscious decisions, and memetic constraints, can simultaneously drive the process.
* Additionally she points out illogicalities in both Blackmore's definition of memes and replication (excludes obvious memes, and reproduction methods they use), and both Blackmore and Dennett's definitional error in identifying memes as equaling the content (they consider wagon wheels and birds to be copies of wagon-wheel and bird memes, when a wagon-wheel meme is instead a CONCEPT of supporting a cart with a spoked roller mounted on a axle, etc, and a bird meme is the CONCEPT of categorizing winged/feathered animals together - neither concept is present in the actual objects).

While presenting the most complete and useful expansion of the meme-hypothesis I have encountered, she does not successfully address one of the major difficulties of the hypothesis: how to distinguish what a meme is. She asserts that, say, violin playing, and reading music, are both memes, and that the presence/absence of these memes is definitively determinable within individuals.

This is good as far as it goes, but part of the problem is that both violin playing and music reading are subdividable. One can, for instance, have not learned how to read all music notations. This suggests that reading music is a meme-complex, which she has misidentified as a single unitary meme. While it may be possible to identify individual steps of music reading, the breakdown of violin playing is not particulate. One's fingering, and bow skills, are generally improveable over an analog continuum. While one can approximate these skills by arbitrarily declaring a certain skill level of a particular violin technique to be mastery of that technique, and any skill below that as not having mastery, this arbitrary categorizing does not capture the reality of the continuum of skills across a range of sub-techniques within violin playing.

I consider the meme-hypothesis to be a powerful and insightful reference-frame for understanding culture, and the competition of ideas within and between cultures. Distin's book is a very useful sanity-check to rein in the misuses, and add to the utility of this idea. Although her failure to solve the definitional problem of what is and is not a meme is a major obstacle to memetics becoming anything like a formal discipline.

But I strongly recommend this book as an important step in fleshing out this interesting hypothesis.


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