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Not-So-Random Thoughts (II)

Atheism

Philip Kitcher reviews Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:

The evangelical scientism of “The Atheist’s Guide” rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.” Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.

The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens.

And David Albert gets rough with Lawrence M. Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing:

Look at how Richard Dawkins sums it up in his afterword: “Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Well, let’s see. There are lots of different sorts of conversations one might want to have about a claim like that: conversations, say, about what it is to explain something, and about what it is to be a law of nature, and about what it is to be a physical thing. But since the space I have is limited, let me put those niceties aside and try to be quick, and crude, and concrete.

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from?…

Never mind. Forget where the laws came from. Have a look instead at what they say. It happens that ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff….

The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.

The fundamental physical laws that Krauss is talking about in “A Universe From Nothing” — the laws of relativistic quantum field theories — are no exception to this. The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields. And the fundamental laws of this theory take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of those fields are physically possible and which aren’t, and rules connecting the arrangements of those fields at later times to their arrangements at earlier times, and so on — and they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story….

[Krauss] has an argument — or thinks he does — that the laws of relativistic quantum field theories entail that vacuum states are unstable. And that, in a nutshell, is the account he proposes of why there should be something rather than nothing.

But that’s just not right. Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff…. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

None of this is news to me. This is from my post, “The Atheism of the Gaps“:

The gaps in scientific knowledge do not prove the existence of God, but they surely are not proof against God. To assert that there is no God because X, Y, and Z are known about the universe says nothing about the creation of the universe or the source of the “laws” that seem to govern much of its behavior.

(See also the many posts linked at the bottom of “The Atheism of the Gaps.”)

Caplan’s Perverse Rationalism

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have little use for the psuedo-libertarian blatherings of Bryan Caplan, one of the bloggers at EconLog. (See also this and this.) Caplan, in a recent post, tries to distinguish between “pseudo output” and “real output”:

1. Some “output” is actually destructive.  At minimum, the national “defense” of the bad countries you think justifies the national defense of all the other countries.

2. Some “output” is wasted.  At minimum, the marginal health spending that fails to improve health.

3. Some “output” doesn’t really do what consumers think it does.  At minimum, astrology.

Note: None of these flaws have any definitional libertarian component.  Even if there’s no good reason for tax-supported roads, existing government roads really are quite useful.  Still, coercive support is often a credible symptom of pseudo-output: If the product is really so great, why won’t people spend their own money on it?

Once you start passing output through these filters, the world seems full of pseudo-output.  Lots of military, health, and education spending don’t pass muster.  Neither does a lot of finance.  Or legal services. In fact, it’s arguably easier to name the main categories of “output” that aren’t fake.  Goods with clear physical properties quickly come to mind:

  • Food.  People may be mistaken about food’s nutritional properties.  But they’re not mistaken about its basic life-preserving and hunger-assuaging power – or how much they enjoy the process of eating it.
  • Structures.  People may overlook a structure’s invisible dangers, like radon.  But they’re not mistaken about its comfort-enhancing power – or how aesthetically pleasing it is.
  • Transportation.  People may neglect a transport’s emissions.  But they’re not mistaken about how quickly and comfortably it gets them from point A to point B.

Lest this seem horribly unsubjectivist, another big category of bona fide output is:

  • Entertainment.  People may be misled by entertainment that falsely purports to be factual.  But they’re not mistaken about how entertained they are.

Caplan is on to something when he says that “coerc[ed] support is often a credible symptom of pseudo-output,” but he gives away the game when he allows entertainment but dismisses astrology. In other words, if Caplan isn’t “entertained” (i.e., made to feel good) by something, it’s of no value to anyone. He is a pacifist, so he dismisses the value of defense. He (rightly) concludes that the subsidization of health care means that a lot of money is spent (at the margin) to little effect, but the real problem is not health care — it is subsidization.

Once again, I find Caplan to be a muddled thinker. Perhaps, like his colleague Robin Hanson, he is merely being provocative for the pleasure of it. Neither muddle-headedness nor provocation-for-its-own-sake is an admirable trait.

The Sociopaths Who Govern Us

I prefer “psychopath” to “sociopath,” but the words are interchangeable; thus:

(Psychiatry) a person afflicted with a personality disorder characterized by a tendency to commit antisocial and sometimes violent acts and a failure to feel guilt for such acts Also called sociopath

In “Utilitarianism and Psychopathy,” I observe that the psychopathy of law-makers is revealed “in their raw urge to control the lives of others.” I am not alone in that view.

Steve McCann writes:

This past Sunday, the Washington Post ran a lengthy front-page article on Obama’s machinations during the debt ceiling debate last summer.  Rush Limbaugh spent a considerable amount of his on-air time Monday discussing one of the highlights of the piece: Barack Obama deliberately lied to the American people concerning the intransigence of the Republicans in the House of Representatives.  The fact that a pillar of the sycophantic mainstream media would publish a story claiming that their hero lied is amazing….

What I say about Barack Obama I do not do lightly, but I say it anyway because I fear greatly for this country and can — not only from personal experience, but also in my dealing with others — recognize those failings in a person whose only interests are himself and his inbred radical ideology, which as its lynchpin desires to transform the country into a far more intrusive state by any means possible….

… Obama is extremely adept at exploiting the celebrity culture that has overwhelmed this society, as well as the erosion of the education system that has created a generation or more of citizens unaware of their history, culture, and the historical ethical standards based on Judeo-Christian teaching….

The reality is that to Barack Obama lying, aka “spin,” is normal behavior. There is not a speech or an off-the cuff comment since he entered the national stage that does not contain some falsehood or obfuscation. A speech on energy made last week and repeated on March 22 is reflective of this mindset. He is now attempting to portray himself as being in favor of drilling in order to increase oil production and approving pipeline construction, which stands in stark contrast to his stated and long-term position on energy and reiterated as recently as three weeks ago. This is a transparent and obvious ploy to once again fool the American people by essentially lying to them….

[T]here has been five years of outright lies and narcissism that have been largely ignored by the media, including some in the conservative press and political class who are loath to call Mr. Obama what he is, in the bluntest of terms, a liar and a fraud. That he relies on his skin color to intimidate, either outright or by insinuation, those who oppose his radical agenda only adds to his audacity. It is apparent that he has gotten away with his character flaws his entire life, aided and abetted by the sycophants around him; thus, he is who he is and cannot change.

Obama: Sociopath-in-Chief.

Poetic Justice

Newspaper Ad Revenues Fall to 60-Yr. Low in 2011

“Nuff said.