Reason is a tool of emotion

Thanks, SelfAwarePatterns, for posting this.
Why am I reblogging this? Because I agree with it. And why do I agree with it? Because I find it reasonable. And why do I find it reasonable? Because I agree with it. OK. Time to stop… The whole rationale comes down to “because I like it” (an emotional statement).

A lot of people believe these days that we need a reason to believe something. But I don’t understand the reason for such belief. For example, Steven Pinker in this video, tries to demonstrate how unreasonable was human sacrifice in ancient societies by providing possible reasons for such practices, which, he believes, are wrong reasons. But he cannot say that this behavior was “unreasonable” because he himself has just provided reasons for it. He believes human sacrifice was unreasonable, likely, because, human sacrifices cause negative emotions in people and not because human sacrifice lacked any reasons behind it.

One of the criteria for truth is coherence — lack of self-contradiction. A good way to check for coherence in logic and hypocrisy in morality is to apply the statement to itself. I find this Hume’s idea coherent. It does not lead to self-contradiction, unlike the belief that all beliefs need reason which contradicts itself. Hume’s thesis is also coherent with my fundamental belief that fundamental beliefs do not need reason or evidence.

And I like it because it’s a liberating thought. I can believe whatever I like to believe! (Within reasonable limits, of course).


Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
David Hume

Reason, logic, is a tool.  It is a means to an end.  It is never an end unto itself, never the goal.  It is the journey, not the destination.  When we use reason, we use it in pursuit of some goal.  That goal may be truth, it may be self aggrandizement, or it may be rationalizing an intuitively held opinion.

Our goals come from our instincts, our intuitions, our emotions, from the base programming that evolution has given us.  First you feel the motivation, then (maybe) you deploy reason in pursuit of the motivated goal.  Reason may have informed your instincts.  It might have played a role in the formation of the urge, but it didn’t itself create it.

Without instinct, you…

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Of Physical Laws and Fictional Characters

This is an awesome post. I had exactly the same thoughts, but this is put into words very well.

Although, this post is not about religion, but, of course, this has implication on “reality” of God. I believe, that it’s completely acceptable to think of Jesus as “fictional” and “real” at the same time.  Barack Obama is conceived in my mind from texts and images, much the same way Jesus is.  I have not touched or spoke to both of them personally.  So, I can regard both of them as fictional characters… or “real” characters for that matter.

But when you read about a fictional character, you read about something. There is something in your mind that causes you to feel and to think. Fictional characters can say things that change your perspective – they have an existence in your mind and can cause real consequences. Fictional characters can inspire people, shape expectations, fulfill our wishes, transport us to faraway places, and model behaviors. They tell can tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know, teach us how to cope, and make us feel grief and despair. Really feel them.

In the same way, I believe, it does not matter whether the Bible describes historic events or not. It still has powerful and real effect on life of humans.

Related links:

Negative Capability

Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason Negative capability – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Stumbled upon this quote from John Keats.  Interesting concept.  It describes the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of […]

My experience with atheism

Perhaps, to clarify my views on religion and atheism, it would be useful to describe my personal experience with them. When people do not know each other’s background, a lot of time can be wasted to explain and argue about things both sides already know and understand.

I've seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard.  I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin's ear looks somewhat weird here.  It's not in the right place.
I’ve seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard. I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin’s ear looks somewhat weird here. It’s not in the right place.

I grew up in Soviet Ukraine. If I was indoctrinated in any ideology, it was Marxism-Leninism. Every classroom in every school had a portrait of Lenin above the blackboard. Most children’s books were required to have an ideologically slanted story about Lenin, Communist Party or a hint about class struggle. As a child, I was extremely happy to be born in the Soviet Union – a country that builds “bright future” for the working people. I was terrified at the thought that the “evil” Western imperialists were escalating the nuclear arms race aiming to destroy my country which promoted friendship between nations and solidarity of the working people.

In elementary school, all children in my class were accepted in a youth “organization” called “Oktiabriata” (something like “children of October” – the word “Red October” often meant “the Great October Socialist Revolution” – the Bolshevik putsch of 1917). Children did not do much as members of this “organization”, there were no leadership or formal activities, but wearing a red star with the portrait of “young Lenin” imposed “duty” to behave properly lest you be found “unworthy” to wear the token.

In middle school, all children were accepted into the “Pioneer Organization”. The ceremony of “initiation” was solemn and pompous. It was held at the Lenin Museum – an institution present in any large city dedicated to the life of the leader of the world proletariat and to the history of the Communist Party. There were flags and solemn oaths pronounced in unison like the Creed or Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone was “accepted”. To be “excluded”, a child would need to do something really horrible. The word “pioneer” did not have the same meaning as in the America. It meant “the first” in terms of “example to others”. Pioneer organization was modeled after Boy Scouts. Pioneers wore red neckerchiefs meant to symbolize a piece of the Red Flag (red, of course, meant blood of the “freedom fighters”). Pioneer motto was “be prepared” – just like the one of the Boy Scouts. However, “be prepared” meant “to fight for the cause of the Communist Party”. On the upside, there were summer camps and the fun Boy Scout stuff.

A pin worn by "Oktiabriata" in Soviet elementary schools.  Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.
A pin worn by “Oktiabriata” in Soviet elementary schools. Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.
Pioneers member pin.  The motto says "Always prepared" -- the response to the "Be prepared!" cue.
Pioneers member pin. The motto says “Always prepared” — the response to the “Be prepared!” cue.

When I was 16, I became a member of the “Young Communist League” (Comsomol) – an organization for youth 16 – 28 years old. The organization was modeled after the Communist Party. It had Statute, formal structure, formal meetings, “elected” leadership. In colleges, Comsomol took charge of social life – organized activities, events, parties, performances, celebrations. Of course, all “under the watch” of the Party members who made sure that all of that was “ideologically appropriate”.

It was considered that only the most “worthy” could be accepted. And, indeed, the first students accepted to Comsomol were the “A” students, with exemplary record. It was considered a “special honor” and they had to take an exam on the knowledge of the Statute, the history, etc. However, the next year, everyone else was accepted as well, in a general meeting, by the dozen, “pioneer-style”. I had a friend who refused to join. Everyone looked down on him, criticized, and tried to “convert”. When asked, why, he said “Why should I? What’s the point?” “But, c’mon! Don’t you want to join ‘the front rows of the Soviet youth?” At that he scoffed which somewhat antagonized people. He was not a popular guy.

Comsomol member pin.
Comsomol member pin.
Comsomol membership card.  Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.
Comsomol membership card. Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.

Religion was openly discouraged and ridiculed. Clergy were caricatured as corrupt and stupid, collecting tithes and offerings for their own benefit. Religious superstitions were ridiculed. Religion had a stigma of being backwards, believing in nonsense, and “not belonging” to the “front rows of the Communism builders”. Marx’s “Religion is the opium for the people” was a very familiar buzz-phrase. This is why the New Atheist attitude painfully “rings the bell” and, in the minds of people who lived under such regimes, the association between New Atheism and Stalinism pops up immediately. On the other hand, my parents, my family, my friends, and I were all atheists – happy, enthusiastic, with reasonable ethics. So, I do not have the nonsensical stereotype that atheists are gloomy and immoral.

I did not witness any physical persecutions against believers (Stalin’s era ended long before I was born). Religion did exist, but was formally separated from the state. At my school, I recall one year when during Easter, most “worthy” Pioneers were “asked” by the school staff to take “vigils” near the churches to watch if any of the students attended the service and snitch to the school administration. Such students would then undergo some scolding. There are rumors that KGB controlled Russian Orthodox Church and used priests as informants. I guess, those who did not want to cooperate, have been eliminated. Many churches have been closed down, turned into concert halls (excellent acoustic), dance clubs, or vegetable warehouses (in rural areas) or simply destroyed.

In the Soviet Union, education was fairly good. It was free – up to the highest degrees. Students received a small allowance. “A” students received double. Science was funded well. Especially, military research projects (much like in the U.S.)  However, intellectuals were not “trusted” by the Party.  The role of “hegemon” was reserved to “proletariat”.  (I feel that I overuse the quotation marks, but there was so much bigotry that these words were not used according to their dictionary definitions.)  Still, Soviet science made huge advances.  As you may know, the Soviet Union developed a nuclear bomb almost simultaneously with the U.S. (there are rumors that it was not “independent” and there was much spying involved, but nevertheless). The hydrogen bomb is credited to Saharov. The first orbiting satellite “Sputnik” was launched by Russians, the first man in the orbit, Yuri Gagarin, was Russian, the first woman as well. But the U.S. did “beat” Russians sending the first man to the moon. Kudos. The space stuff was, mostly, a political show-off. Many Russian scientists emigrated to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  As for me, I earned a 5-year bachelor’s degree in physics, completed a graduate degree with major in solid state physics. Emigrated to the U.S., and earned M.S. in electrical engineering specializing in semiconductor device physics and semiconductor processing. Сurriculum at my alma mater in Ukraine was extensive. I took full courses of classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, optics, calculus, differential equations, analytical geometry, higher algebra, group theory, solid state physics, cosmology, astronomy, etc. I am writing this not to show off, but, again, to explain my background. Despite the high level of education and science in the Soviet Union, genetics was banned by Stalin as contradicting the principles of dialectic materialism.

As I may have shown, Soviet people have been deeply “indoctrinated” and had a lot of stereotypes and unjustified beliefs. There were lots of Soviet “myths”. Lenin was, virtually, sanctified. There was a long line always waiting to see his body in the tomb on the Red Square (I think, it’s still there). Soviet people believed in a lot of nonsense. Yet, note the level of education and science. It’s worth noting also that Newton was deeply religious, Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk, and Georges Lemaître who created the big bang theory was a Catholic priest. These facts make me believe that the claim of New Atheists that indoctrination with religion or other ideology stands in the way of scientific critical thinking and understanding science is simply untrue. Such statements seem to come from a huge confirmation bias.  One needs to deliberately ignore a lot of facts to make such statements.  I cannot call people who make them “critical independent thinkers”.

I will describe my experience with religion in a future post.

Line of people to Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
Line of people to Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
"Lenin at Subbotnik"  Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups.  This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log.  It's one of the "myths" told by communists to portray Lenin as a person "close to working people".  This art genre was called "socialist realism".
“Lenin at Subbotnik” Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups. This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log. It’s one of the “myths” told by communists to portray Lenin as a person “close to working people”. This art genre was called “socialist realism”.
The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo.  It's hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.
The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo. It’s hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.
A post-Soviet caricature of the "Lenin at subbotnik" theme.
A post-Soviet caricature of the “Lenin at subbotnik” theme.
Monuments to Lenin showing "the bright future".  Each city had one.
Monuments to Lenin showing “the bright future”. Each city had one.  The bottom-left was blown up recently in St. Petersburg.  I think this powerful blast from Lenin’s bottom is a good allegory for the Great October Socialist Revolution.

Some Soviet anti-religious propaganda posters

Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism.  As usual, religion "stands in the way of progress" -- familiar theme.
Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism. As usual, religion “stands in the way of progress” — familiar theme.
Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man.  Some sort of apocaliptic theme.  Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side.  "Blood washing away sin" comes to mind.
Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man. Some sort of apocaliptic theme. Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side. “Blood washing away sin” comes to mind.
"Religion is poison.  Save the children!"  The girl reaching for the school -- a sky-high building with an angel-like pioneer figure trumpeting the horn while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around.  Demonizing "class enemies" was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.
“Religion is poison. Save the children!” The girl reaching for the school — a sky-high building with a pioneer figure trumpeting the bugle looking like Angel Moroni while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around. Demonizing “class enemies” was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.
"The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the 'masters'".  The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying "tolerate".
“The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the ‘masters'”. The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying “tolerate”.
"Enemies of the five-year plan".  Another example of demonizing "class enemies".  This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.
“Enemies of the five-year plan”. Another example of demonizing “class enemies”. This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.
And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda.  Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the "International".  Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx.  Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-lice smiles with rotten teeth.  Propaganda can go both ways, you know.  This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.
And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda. Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the “International”. Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx. Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-like smiles with rotten teeth. Propaganda can go both ways, you know. This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.

I know, many would say “but this is not atheism. This is communism.” I would address this in some other post.

Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris

Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.

Meaning is exclusion

language can never point out anything specifically, only eliminate sets of possibilities (“possible worlds”  for the modern philosopher or logician) from our consideration. That is, language – and therefore logic – can only say what isn’t the case. And that no matter how many possibilities were excluded by language, i.e., how specific our language, an infinite number would still remain (a now well-known property of infinite sets.) If, for example, we say that a friend of ours has red hair, someone listening to us knows that our friend doesn’t have black or light blonde colored hair, but not what precise shade, of all the infinite shades of red that are possible, their hair is. Nor do they know from what we’ve said how tall, or heavy, or witty our friend is. The possibilities are still infinite.

via Logic Tutorial


Visit the link and play with those interactive diagrams.   It appears that to “say more” or “be more specific”, we need to exclude more possibilities.  If what we say does not exclude any possibilities, our language becomes meaningless. “A or not A”  does not exclude any possibilities.  It’s a meaningless tautology.  To create meaning, we need to draw lines between concepts.  We need to separate “A” from “not A”.  When we draw the line between “I” and “not I”, we become self-aware, conscious of who we are, our identity.

A few interesting associations come to mind.  Remember Genesis?


Sorry, wrong Genesis.  This one:


1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

I know, this does not sound like a factual account and science tells us that things may have appeared in a slightly different order.  It does not seem to make sense that earth appeared before light and light appeared before any source of it.  But what does make sense (at least, to myself) is that there is a lot of separation going on here.  And separation of “A” from “not A” creates meaning.  This is how the universe is conceived in our mind.  Separation of concepts is the beginning of self-consciousness (realizing what is “I” and “not I”) and understanding of the universe.

But how is all this related to the physical universe?  Let me note first that all these relations and separations between ideas and concepts exist only in our mind.  What seems related to me may not seem related to you.  My idea of the universe is  different from another person’s idea.  So, if you don’t see the connection, I would not argue, to be consistent with one of my fundamental beliefs.  But, if you are interested, read on.

Georges Lemaître (credit: Wikipedia)

In 1920’s, a Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître  suggested based on various observations that the universe is expanding  debunking the theory that religious people are backwards and don’t get science.  Tracing this expansion back in time, one can conclude that approximately 13.7 bln. years ago, the universe was quite small and seems to have a beginning.  How close can we get to this mysterious “0 seconds” in universal time?

Quantum mechanics tells us that space and time are not continuous.  They are discrete.  There is a smallest measurable length called Planck length

According to the generalized uncertainty principle (a concept from speculative models of quantum gravity), the Planck length is, in principle, within a factor of order unity, the shortest measurable length – and no improvement in measurement instruments could change that. — Wikipedia

There is also the smallest measurable time interval called Planck time

t_P \equiv \sqrt{\frac{\hbar G}{c^5}} ≈ 5.39106(32) × 10−44 s

Within the framework of the laws of physics as we understand them today, for times less than one Planck time apart, we can neither measure nor detect any change. — Wikipedia

It seems that within the first 10−44 s of existence of the universe, we cannot detect any changes any more. The time stops.  And when the universe was, perhaps, as small as 10−35 m, we cannot measure any distances either.   It appears that the universe did not start at “0 seconds”.  It started right after the first Planck time interval.

Graphical timeline of the Big Bang (credit: Wikipedia)

What was before Planck time?  The plot says that the Planck time is

the time before which science is unable to describe the universe.  At this point, the force of gravity separated from the electronuclear force.

In other words, before Planck time, there was a complete uncertainty.  We cannot say that time, space, and matter did not exist.  We cannot say that there was “nothing” or “vacuum” — a concept requiring space.  We cannot say if anything existed.  It was complete uncertainty.

Then there was the first “tick” of the quantum clock — the second Planck time in the history of the universe.  Why did it happen?  We cannot say, it happened according to the laws of physics.  The laws of physics appeared with the first tick.  All we can say is that, suddenly, we had all kinds of “separations”: gravity separated from electromagnetic force, “now” separated from “then”, “here” separated from “there”, “this” separated from “that”, light from darkness, etc.  Suddenly, there is meaning, there are laws of physics, there is structure, there is order.  “Creation of the universe” was not a transition from “nothing” to “everything”.  I believe, creation was a transition from uncertainty and chaos to certainty and structure.

“Meaning is exclusion” has another interesting implication: all-inclusive and all-exclusive concepts are meaningless.  “God created everything” is not a false statement.  It just does not have much meaning if we try to explain how something came into existence.  Omnipotence and omniscience have the same issue.  This may be a topic of a different discussion.

Philosophy is “useful” to science no more than mycology is “useful” to fungi

Second, after David’s review came out, Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that.

via A Universe from Nothing? : Cosmic Variance.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the relationship between science and philosophy. Some scientists refer to philosophers as “moronic” and believe that philosophers have no authority to define things for scientists.  Others go as far as to say that “philosophy is dead” (i.e. has been replaced by science).

I, personally, like Sean Carroll’s view on relationship between science and philosophy.  IMO, science cannot replace philosophy and science cannot replace religion much like one cannot use trousers instead of a jacket or a screwdriver to drive nails.  This, by the way, applies to relationship between science and religion.  Scientists who make claims about the existence of God, clearly, step out of their scientific shoes.

Edited 1/18/2014.  A quote from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

What’s wrong with this story? Well, for starters it’s internally incoherent. You can’t argue for science making philosophy obsolete without indulging in philosophical arguments. You’re going to need to argue, for example, for a clear criterion for distinguishing between scientific and non-scientific theories of the world. When pressed for an answer to the so-called demarcation problem, scientists almost automatically reach for the notion of “falsifiability” first proposed by Karl Popper. His profession? Philosophy. But whatever criterion you offer, its defense is going to implicate you in philosophy.

Here is another good analogy about relationship between science and philosophy which I read on this site:

Philosophers do conceptual tidying up, among other things, but scientists are the ones making all the sawdust in the workshop, and they need not be so tidy. And no cleaner should tell any professional (other than cleaners) how it ought to be done. Creationists who say, “evolution is not like what Popper said science should be, so it isn’t science” are like the janitor who says that teachers don’t keep their classrooms clean enough, so they aren’t teachers.

Related links:

Time to ditch falsifiability?


SelfAwarePatterns made me aware of this essay by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll who expressed opinion that some scientific theories can still be called scientific, even though they are claimed to be unfalsifiable:

Modern physics stretches into realms far removed from everyday experience, and sometimes the connection to experiment becomes tenuous at best. String theory and other approaches to quantum gravity involve phenomena that are likely to manifest themselves only at energies enormously higher than anything we have access to here on Earth. The cosmological multiverse and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posit other realms that are impossible for us to access directly. Some scientists, leaning on Popper, have suggested that these theories are non-scientific because they are not falsifiable.

The truth is the opposite. Whether or not we can observe them directly, the entities involved in these theories are either real or they are not. Refusing to contemplate their possible existence on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.

The falsifiability criterion gestures toward something true and important about science, but it is a blunt instrument in a situation that calls for subtlety and precision. It is better to emphasize two more central features of good scientific theories: they are definite, and they are empirical. By “definite” we simply mean that they say something clear and unambiguous about how reality functions. String theory says that, in certain regions of parameter space, ordinary particles behave as loops or segments of one-dimensional strings. The relevant parameter space might be inaccessible to us, but it is part of the theory that cannot be avoided. In the cosmological multiverse, regions unlike our own are unambiguously there, even if we can’t reach them. This is what distinguishes these theories from the approaches Popper was trying to classify as non-scientific. (Popper himself understood that theories should be falsifiable “in principle,” but that modifier is often forgotten in contemporary discussions.)


Carroll suggests to replace the requirement of falsifiability for a scientific theory with two requirements: being “definite” and being “empirical“.  IMO, it’s the same as falsifiability.  A few points:

  1. “Unfalsifiable with today’s technology” and “unfalsifiable in principle” are two different matters.  E.g., we may be able to observe some effect of the multiverse on our universe in the future.
  2. “Unfalsified” and “unfalsifiable” are different matters.  Just because a theory has not been proven false, does not mean that it cannot be proven false.
  3. “True” and “useful” are different matters.  Scientific models and theories are created to explain empirical data and make useful predictions.  If a theory does not do that, it can still be scientific, but it is rejected as useless (e.g. aether theories)  The concepts of electron or radio wave are not “true” or “false”.  The fact that we cannot “see” them does not seem to embarrass any scientist.  We imagine electrons to be particles and it helps to explain empirical data.  But electrons are not “particles” per se.  We imagine electrons to be waves and it helps to explain empirical data, but electrons are not exactly like the waves on the surface of an ocean, for example.   As long as these models and visualizations help explain empirical data, these models are empirical and falsifiable because if they fail to explain empirical data, they will be falsified.
  4. The question “can a theory be proven false?” is ambiguous.  It can mean two different things: (1) “Is the theory likely to be false?” or (2) “Can the theory be proven false, in principe?”  These questions are not to be confused.  E.g. Evolution appears to be falsifiable because, if we found human remains predating dinosaur fossils, evolution would be proven false, but it’s unlikely we ever will.  “The universe appeared from nothing” appears to be unfalsifiable theory because I cannot imagine what evidence of “nothing” might look like, even in theory.  I don’t even know what “nothing” is.  I don’t even know if I can say “nothing is” or “was“.

Regarding high energies, we don’t necessarily need to “have access” to them on Earth (e.g. build huge particle colliders).  We can observe phenomena happening at these high energies in the space.

Multiverse is just a concept or a model that is supposed to explain certain empirical data.  It’s completely possible to use this model to predict phenomena that we can observe.  If these predictions prove to be incorrect, we can say that we have falsified the multiverse as a useful scientific theory.  I think, the falsifiability principle still stands.  What do you think?

See also: “Evolution and Philosophy: Is Evolution Science?”

Update 1/21/2014: This video explains the different concepts of “multiverses” mentioning that there <em>can</em> be experimental evidence of them, in principle.  So, these hypotheses are not unfalsifiable.