Follow up to: Proving God Through Cosmology?
For the past couple of weeks, three people — Bryan White of the blog Sublime Bloviations, Joseph, and myself — have had quite an involved conversation in the comment fields of my essay “The Twelve Reasons I Don’t Believe in Supernatural Claims, Part I” (conversation started here) about my definition of naturalism, the metaphysical and physical implications of quantum mechanics, uncaused influences, and just general randomness on that definition.
As a general summary, Brian was arguing that the existence of uncaused influences and quantum randomness meant that events existed which do not require an underlying mechanism, meaning my notion of naturalism is wrong and/or incomplete. I am attempting to get to the bottom of this, mostly by arguing against — that there is insufficient reason to think my naturalism is in error. Joseph was probing both of us with questions to sort out more of what is going on.
Already, the essay there ballooned to 79 comments, definitely an unprecedented level for my site. Unfortunately, since I was away from my blog for a week, I had not yet written a response. I now notice that my response is very lengthy, hence I felt it was better suited as a full essay, rather than as a series of comments.
I also noticed that taking to an essay to respond to these comments allowed me to (1) re-examine the issues raised in greater depth than I otherwise would of, and (2) spin-off the comments that were getting increasingly less relevant to the topic of the original essay and more deserving of a topic of their own.
So I will now be responding to all the comments that need responding here, plus providing a lot of background information so that additional readers can get involved in the commentary and weigh in their own opinion. I will invite the topic to continue here from now-on, with a reminder that everyone who wants to get seriously involved is suggested to read all the previous and relevant commentary on the original essay.
Also, as a warning to all parties — involved, interested, or already bored — this essay is going to be long. As a second warning, this post will involve the analysis of physics that goes far beyond my professional expertise, or the expertise of any of the involved commenters. None of us have any credentials in physics, a field widely acknowledged as one you cannot understand simply by reading a few Wikipedia articles.
The Definition of Naturalism, Take Four
Me: I’m still interested in what you think a suitable definition of naturalism or supernaturalism would be.
Bryan White: I think the traditional definition (the one you’ll see in dictionaries and encyclopedias) is fine.
I don’t think that works upon further examination, though. Let’s use the one from Wikipedia: “Naturalism commonly refers to the philosophical viewpoint that the natural universe and its natural laws and forces (as opposed to supernatural ones) operate in the universe, and that nothing exists beyond the natural universe or, if it does, it does not affect the natural universe that we know.”
But this requires us to ask what is a “natural universe” — what, specifically are we excluding? what are supernatural laws and forces, as opposed to natural ones?
The supernatural seems like a combination of Platonic ideals + miracles + angels + souls + Gods. And all of these things involve that which cannot be reduced to atoms; instead being fundamentally conceptual and ontologically separate. I think it would be fair to describe my position as saying everything is fully reducible to atoms acting in lawful manners. This excludes the entire gamut I just mentioned… except you probably could construct reducible versions of the supernatural. (I would call those natural and view them as not excluded by naturalism, though presently paranormal and excluded by the lack of evidence in their favor.)
But there are two important qualifications I want to make:
The first is that I expect atoms and laws to be even further reduced. I don’t predict the destination, and just as I don’t think naturalism was overthrown when we learned about the electron; I don’t think that further reduction will mean I was wrong now. I believe this was Andrew Melnyk’s dilemma, which I mentioned in “The Metaphysics Dilemma”.
The second is what I view to be the supremacy of epistemological naturalism over metaphysical naturalism. Epistemological naturalism is the idea that “metaphysical naturalism is true because all other ideas proposed so far are incoherent.” I don’t foresee the responsibility of predicting where naturalism will end up as the responsibility of naturalists. We can just chalk that up to not having all the answers yet, and wait for answers from continuing work in physics.
What’s important to me is specifically why we’re excluding the supernatural, which is the basis for epistemological naturalism that I talked about in “The Metaphysics Dilemma”, and which I’ll talk about further down in this essay. Thus I see that starting with the standard dictionary definition and resolving the ambiguities, you actually arrive at the definition I use. You’ll probably see this as spinning my wheels a bit, but this becomes important later on in my response.
What About the Supernatural?
Bryan: And I don’t ordinarily find “supernatural” a useful term. In my discussions with atheists it seems to mean something like “things that don’t happen” or the like. It doesn’t make for productive discussions. So I take the approach of letting you define “naturalism” and then seeing if there are logical possibilities and/or observed phenomena for which we need a term other than “natural.”
I agree, and think that is a great approach. But it seems like you keep trying to say I’m not excluding enough with my worldview, which is why I wonder what you think I ought to be excluding in order to be consistent, and what makes you think I should be excluding that.
What About Harry Potter?
If you think about it, what people ordinarily describe as “magic” is perfectly natural according to your descriptions. The potions from Hogwarts are akin to chemical formulas and act in predictable (causal) ways when prepared properly. Does Harry Potter use supernatural arts? Or no?
The problem with this example is the distinction I keep trying to make by the actual event and the explanation given for the event. Observing say, the actions of a polyjuice potion, is clearly paranormal in the extreme — radically outside the currently known science as applied to potions.
But there are ways we could consider it accomplished “naturally”, say by a complete atom-by-atom rearrangement and replacement (similar to the responses Joseph gave about stick-to-snake things). Saying “Magic!” doesn’t help us at all to explain how the transformation takes place — and this is what I seek to rule out with epistemic naturalism. This is the whole “Making the Question Go Away” theme that I think makes epistemic naturalism so obviously correct to me.
So, if I were to observe a potion like this take place, would I assume it was “magic”? Well, I couldn’t even say so, because the word “magic” entails nothing I can evaluate — and I don’t even mean that with some sort of testable/untestable paradigm. It is a non-starter because it’s incoherent — it’s like asking me if what I saw was “fhwgwgd”. Well, tell me what “fhwgwgd” describes and then I’ll tell you if what I saw was “fhwgwgd”. I can’t know until I know what “fhwgwgd” means.
Harry Potter and Imagining Incoherent Things
A very similar idea is that we can actually imagine some logically impossible and completely incoherent events. Sure, you can never imagine a square circle, but imagine looking at a sheet of paper with six different numbers. Now, notice that every time you add up the numbers in one direction, they sum up to 47, and every time you add up the numbers in the other direction, they sum up to 49. You could never imagine any reason why this is so, but you can imagine the experience of seeing it. And you can imagine doing all sorts of things to make the chance of it being a really odd counting error less and less — getting other people, computers, etc. to analyze the sheet.
Now imagine that someone says the reason why the numbers sum differently depending on the direction you read them is because of “magic”. Does this explain what is going on, or just make everyone give up and stop questioning? The fact that you can say “Magic!” in response to any strange-at-the-time phenomena makes it seem exactly like the latter.
And Harry Potter is the same thing: something we can imagine as an event (it’s like our world with laws, except a certain law doesn’t apply) despite being completely unable to imagine the explanation (how does one break a natural law?). The only thing we can do is say “Magic!” My epistemic naturalism is the thesis that “Magic!” or “Supernaturalism!” or “Divine Will!” nearly always take the role of making the question go away, and actually add nothing to our understanding of what is going on.
The only route I’ve seen that intrigues me so far is uncaused events, which you mentioned, so I’m going to explore that in a little bit. But does this help for now?
Watch Out for the Category Errors!
Your answer wrt the thought experiment begs the question. Your mention of a divine will skips ahead to a different issue, leaving the thought experiment behind. Perhaps fhwgwgd is incoherent on account of your definition of naturalism. And that would further beg the question (defining the problem condition out of existence).
But what am I unduly assuming without proving? I thought I have repeatedly justified why I can’t tell you whether a certain event is naturalistic or not — the problem lies with the proposed explanation, not with the event itself.
Asking “is a stick-to-snake event naturalistic?” is like asking “what is the color of justice?”. It’s a category error from the epistemic naturalism point of view. Instead you have to ask “is a stick-to-snake event explained by saying God wanted it to be that way and did so with his innately omnipotent will naturalistic?” — and I would say no. I would also say no to uncaused events. And I would keep doing so to both until I understood where the mechanism was and what was being proposed.
So epistemic naturalism is the idea that all supernatural claims are incoherent. Now, this gives me something to seriously grapple with in terms of uncaused events: either demonstrate that the concept of uncaused events are incoherent, or find a place for the uncaused within naturalism in a way that makes sense and does not destroy the concept of physical law. This is truly a challenge, and I worry that I might not be able to do either. …And if I don’t do either, you win some sort of positional concession from me, though I don’t know what yet.
That Whole Thing About Randomness
It seems that if an uncaused event is possible then it is inexplicable in terms of causation (and does not meet the definition of “natural” under your definition of naturalism).
Yes, that seems definitionally true: Uncaused events cannot be explained with causation. My formulation of naturalism, and the naturalism I will defend as the only one that makes sense based on my understanding and the version most likely to be true given what I know, requires everything to have an underlying cause. Thus the existence of an uncaused event is the undermining of my naturalism.
Now I don’t think the only other possibility to naturalism is angels, and there are other naturalisms posited by other philosophers that do involve uncaused quantum events, but I don’t get how the uncaused events are supposed to work, nor do I know precisely what their definition of naturalism is. The demonstration of uncaused events would cause me to rethink a lot of things, dramatically. So I agree that this uncaused thing is a key thing to look at.
Joseph: Yes, you’re thinking like me now. So the result of the die is, apparently random, (perhaps if I used a German word for random, google says…zufällig, I would seem more philosophical), because of both some unknown data, and the complexity of the calculations involved.
Zufällig is an interesting and fun term, but I find it unnecessary — I would much prefer to go with the random-uncertain distinction:
- Something is random if it is truly, mathematically random in the ontological sense: it comes forth uncaused without regard to law.
- Something is uncertain if it is not fully predictable. A die roll is uncertain, yet probably not random — a die roll could also be considered evenly uncertain, since we cannot predict one outcome as more likely than the others. Things that are random are definitely also uncertain and perhaps evenly uncertain, but not necessarily the other way around.
- Something is fundamentally uncertain if it is uncertain and will always be so, even in principle. This is Heisenberg Uncertainty / observer effect territory, where introducing the measurement device will always affect the measurement, and there is no way we could fix this. A perfectly accurate account of the future is fundamentally uncertain, for reasons I outline in “Free Will That Makes Sense”.
- The first, advocated by Joseph, is that we simply cannot know, even in principle — it’s a fundamental mystery.
- The second, advocated by Bryan, is that the cause is supernatural — the result of angels and/or God.
- The third, opposed by both Joseph and Bryan, is that the cause does not exist — the universe came into existence uncaused.
- The fourth is a complete explanation of the underlying mechanism that allowed the universe to come into existence and the reason why conditions were in place for this phenomena to occur — notably absent because we do not actually have that science, at least at the moment.
The Uncaused Thought Experiment
Bryan: And by way of further explanation, you can have a “law” of randomness that states x will happen 80 percent of the time while ~x will happen the remaining percent of the time. What that provides the naturalist is a fig leaf covering the fact that he doesn’t know what causes ~x to happen vs. x. That type of law, in the final analysis, does not permit complete explanations for apparently random phenomena.
I agree, this is an unfair dodge. There would have to be an explanation for why x occurs instead of ~x, or there are still things left to explain. One cannot claim to have explained what one has not actually explained. But what might Bryan have in mind?…
Bryan: Imagine a pool table. It has a cue ball on it. It has an 8-ball on it. Imagine the cue stick drives the cue ball into the 8-ball in a series of identical trials at the precisely identical vector and force (from identical starting locations). Yet the 8 ball goes in the left pocket 80 times out of 100 trials and into the right pocket the other 20 times. Obviously this forces you to think outside the naturalistic paradigm. But given that these results are strictly logically possible (they are not logically contradictory), what do you make of it? Is the movement of the 8-ball uncaused?
So what I hear you asking is that if we had some ability to “back up the universe” and “play it again with the exact same starting scenario”, we would notice that the 8-ball goes in a different direction than before. Thus some of the final consideration of which way the ball goes is completely undetermined and entirely, irreducibly, fundamentally arbitrary — the direction the ball goes in this world is not dependent upon anything at all.
This is indeed something I can imagine, so it’s not “square circle” territory. But given that we definitively are not able to back up the universe and replay it with all the same starting conditions and record the results of multiple trials, even in principle, we’ll obviously never be able to preform this experiment.
So now a couple of questions come to mind:
(1) In principle, how do we tell if something has a random or uncaused outcome, instead of a fundamentally uncertain one?
(2) Is there anything in the world that we can know to be random and/or uncaused?
(3) What are the implications of randomness and uncaused effects on choosing a worldview?
I’m going to use the rest of the essay to explore these.
Random vs. Uncertain vs. Fundamentally Uncertain?
Bryan: Yes, non-existent in the sense of not following lawful behavior in the traditional naturalistic sense. True randomness is qualitatively different from every type of (traditional) naturalistic randomness. The latter is always predictable in principle (if you knew the starting conditions sufficiently well you know how the die roll comes out), while the former is unpredictable in principle based on starting conditions.
This actually is a key problem though, since there can be truly deterministic systems that are still fundamentally uncertain — still can never be predicted. It is not always the case that if you knew the starting conditions sufficiently well you could know how the outcome comes out, because sometimes knowledge of the prediction will change the outcome.
Thus something can still be unpredictable in principle based on the starting conditions and still not be random. I don’t think naturalism has any problem for being consistent with such scenarios. The problem is wondering whether we can distinguish between something that is random and something that is just fundamentally uncertain, and tell which is which.
Bryan: Computers can now generate (it is said) true random numbers based on radioactivity. http://www.random.org/randomness/
I think this site misrepresents what it means for something to be “random” or “deterministic”; conflating uncertainty with randomness. For instance, die rolls are indeed deterministic and not random as far as I can tell, even if they are uncertain based on current technology. Same goes with atmospheric noise — likely to be deterministic, despite being uncertain.
But the last source of randomness mentioned, atomic decay, is indeed a potential candidate for randomness. And we actually have a way of telling if atomic decay is random — see if we can rule out the existence of hidden, currently unknown, variables that would determine atomic decay and/or see if we can identify an observer effect in our measurements of atomic decay.
Is Quantum Mechanics Random?
Bryan: While no doubt there are some exceptions, it seems to be the holding of scientists that quantum particles represent true randomness.
When experiments in quantum mechanics were first underdone, it was found that certain parts of quantum mechanics functioned in a way that seemed completely unpredictable and completely undetermined by anything discovered by physics to date. Some notable luminaries did not like this indeterminacy (with good reason, since it is counter to all other parts of known science), such as Albert Einstein who reacted by saying “God does not play dice”.
These people adopted the hidden variable theory which states that our knowledge of quantum mechanics is incomplete, and that someday we will eventually discover the currently unknown factors that will allow for a fully predictable and determined quantum mechanics. They rested this resentment on the EPR Paradox.
The response is Bell’s Theorem, which showed that quantum mechanics could make certain predictions only if there were no hidden variables, and noted that these predictions were not yet demonstrated to be false, thus rendering the hidden variable theory unlikely. The “why” of this is complicated and beyond my ability to explain, though I hope to fix this soon.
Though a few remaining hold-outs assert that we need more and better Bell test experiments before we can ditch the hidden variable theory, it seems like Quantum Mechanics is random. Is there any hope?
Many Worlds to the Rescue?
Bryan: And you must have noted that scientists produced the “many worlds” interpretation specifically in order to avoid randomness.
Bryan is correct that the Many Worlds interpretation of Quantum mechanics (MWI) is indeed completely deterministic and not random in any way. Thus if MWI is true, we’ll have to look somewhere else to find randomness in the universe, and we currently have no other ideas of where to look. MWI thus saves naturalism from the shambles of the hidden variable theory.
This is a personal source of disagreement between us, because I see MWI as the most likely interpretation of Quantum Mechanics based on the current evidence and reasoning, whereas Bryan prefers, I think, the more popular and classic Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), which is as indeterministic and random as a theory can be.
But why favor MWI over CI? The reason is not actually as Bryan said, specifically to avoid randomness. In fact, the fact that we can avoid randomness is, while a big reason to favor MWI, not the only reason. Quite simply, CI assumes that while atomic decay goes into a superposition of simultaneous-decay-and-not-decay which is resolved to one of the two at random with observation, MWI assumes that the observation itself will also go into a superposition of observing-decay-and-not-observing-decay.
MWI thus does not have a special exception for observation that CI seems to have. And it’s important for this special exception to not be made, since doing so leads to what Eleizer Yudkowsky detracts as “the only non-linear, non-unitary, non-differentiable, non-local, non-CPT-symmetric, acausal, faster-than-light phenomenon in all of physics”.
That being said, I think that Bryan is being a touch misleading here — his comment makes it sound like MWI was formulated because physicists were too beholden to their naturalism to consider CI, or that the thought of randomness under their covers gives them nightmares. Instead, the ability to avoid randomness is a strong mark of parsimony — it is one strange fact of the universe we no longer need to postulate in order to make sense of things. This means that everyone’s favorite Ockham’s Razor gives the victory to MWI. (And given that the observational and mathematical predictions of both interpretations are the same, Ockham’s Razor plays a big role here.)
So what’s the bottom line of all of this? I’d say that the strong plausibility of the success of MWI and weak plausibility of the failure of Bell’s Theorem adds up to there being reasonable doubt over the existence of randomness. And if there’s no randomness, there’s nothing for naturalists to worry about.
The Buck That Stops in Too Many Places
Joseph: That is because a number, value, etc can be to all intents and purposes random, we cannot infer lack of any causation, and when a number of variables are unknown we have to be even more careful. I think the key difference between your view and mine, is I am saying these things are unknowable, unmeasurable, your view seems, please correct me, to be that this means they are non-existent.
Bryan: In the present case alluding to gods and angels simply makes clear that I do not equate the lack of a causally determined explanation with randomness (otherwise I could reasonably be accused of contradicting myself). “Explanation” to a philosophical naturalist, at least in my experience, means a naturalistic cause. So of course alluding to things the naturalist rejects do not add to the explanation. However, such explanations have potential advantages in terms of parsimony.
Bryan: The scientist concludes “uncaused” simply because he can’t come up with an explanation in terms of naturalism. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be caused by something non-naturalistic (and this is where the pool table analogy serves). There’s nothing in the science to disprove a non-natural explanation. All it does is make a natural explanation look exceedingly unlikely.
Here we have four views represented on how the universe can come to be:
Given these four views, what should we do? The fourth view can obviously be discarded because we do not have any information about any underlying mechanisms here, or even if they exist — we are in a state of uncertainty. But I see no reason why this uncertainty is fundamental, thus I would also reject the first view.
In fact, I would go even farther and reject all four views — the first three views are dangerous because while they can be applied to the universe, they work the same way as “magic” and could be applied anywhere else. Imagine that we were in a situation where we had no idea how lightning came to shock the ground, such as science a millennia ago.
Here, scientists and philosophers could just as easily say that lightning was a fundamental mystery, that lightning is supernatural, or that lightning strikes the ground uncaused. These are all-purpose non-explanations that can be implemented in any situation, and once one of the first three views is implemented, the fourth view is blocked from ever coming into existence, even if it does exist for lightning. The buck stops in too many places — the first three views can explain anything, and thus they really explain nothing
Thus there is a hurdle towards employing the three views — you have to find some way to justify why we can employ them as tactics here, and not as solutions to other problems or mysteries. Otherwise we get a brand new X of the Gaps, where “fundamental mystery”, “supernatural”, or “uncaused” is used to explain things like The Bloop.
But what do we do when we can’t apply any of the four views? Search for more data. We’re going to need more information from physics before we can determine how the universe came to be, or whether it is located within some larger multiverse structure, and whether this multiverse structure is infinitely old or not, etc.
Is there ever a time where we could apply one of the first three views? This is an open question for me — I can’t get over the hurdle outlined earlier. But there still is one potential solution to the origin of the universe that I have in mind…
The Lack of the Classical Origin
Me: (T)here was no “nothing” prior to the “something”, as this essay points out. The universe didn’t pop in, because that requires time where the universe wasn’t around, and there’s no such time.
Bryan: I think the reference to time was developed as a dodge (not developed by you, mind you–you’ve doubtless read it from others and decided it makes sense).
This is true. I did a double-back through my sources, and I think I found that this idea comes from Richard Carrier, though I don’t know where he got it from. I have not seen any other philosopher advocate for it. I don’t think it was developed as an intentional dodge and I do think it makes sense, but I’m open to criticism.
Bryan: Time isn’t the only way something can be prior to something else. Things can be logically prior regardless of time in the sense you’re using it. A cosmological model (such as what I say Krauss is saying), if it posits a universe arising from literally nothing then has nothing as a (logically) prior condition for any subsequent (resulting) condition regardless of any passage of time.
Right now, the perspective I’m chasing is not Krauss’s theory at all. And again, there is simply no period of nothing prior to the universe, there is simply the origin of space-time simultaneously in what would make sense on the B-Theory of time.
That nothing is logically prior is of no relevance — if there is no causal relationship between what is logically prior, there is no such rule that something can’t come from a logically prior nothing, just that something can’t come from a temporally prior nothing.
Though I must admit the whole concept of logically prior is not something I’m entirely familiar with, so I would love a non-cosmological example and further explanation of what this does to defeat my view.
Bryan: Mathematicians and physicists offer that more than one temporal dimension exists, moreover. Thus it isn’t clear that conditions such as those described by Krauss would be indescribable in terms of another temporal dimension. “Time” in a different sense, if you will. http://arxiv.org/abs/0812.3869
I agree these additional temporal dimensions can exist, but I don’t see what relevance they would have for the origin of the universe, given that the existence of these temporal dimensions also need to be accounted for.
So What Happens to Naturalism?
So what happens to naturalism?
I explained that I am defending the views that “everything reduces to atoms acting in a lawful manner” and “supernatural theories are incoherent”, and explained the relationship between the two. I then explained how this concept of epistemological naturalism can handle test-cases like Harry Potter, and why the event-versus-explanation distinction is so important.
I also looked at concepts of randomness and agreed that if they were demonstrated to exist, my naturalism would be false in any sense, and I would have to look for a different worldview that could incorporate it, though I think this would most likely lead me to a different concept of naturalism (perhaps “everything reduces to atoms, but those atoms only act lawfully most of the time”?).
But when we looked at randomness further, and after distinguishing it from the often confused fundamental uncertainty, we couldn’t demonstrate it to exist even where it is most likely to be found — in quantum phenomena — because of Bell’s Theorem and the Many-Worlds Interpretation.
I also offered a hurdle for appeals to randomness, the uncaused, the supernatural, and the fundamentally unknowable to clear before they can be accepted — one must answer what is different about this case that would prevent the non-explanation from being used in any other case to stop the need to find an explanation.
So I don’t find any reason to change my concept of naturalism at this current time, despite all the amazing discussion. And speaking of amazing discussion, it goes without saying that I thank you guys for the insightful commentary and supportive atmosphere necessary for the opportunities to explore these issues in detail.
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