Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/09

14

New Mysterian Plants Marker

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Goodness, Heather, you do stir ‘em up, don’t you? Look at that comment thread!

Perhaps it all hinges on belief in the Afterlife. If you can swallow that, the rest of the God business goes down pretty easily.

Thinking about those two planes makes it clear that so far as the natural world is concerned — the one we live our lives in — even if there is a God, there might as well not be. Presumably believers in the plane that crashed were praying just as hard as believers in the other one. They might as well have done mental arithmetic.

All the responses from believers boil down to saying: “No, it didn’t do them much good in this world. But this world is not the whole of reality. There’s more; and in that more, your naturalistic standards don’t capture much of the truth.”

I’m not unsympathetic to that.  The instinct to believe in another place is very strong and very human — I feel it in myself, sometimes with great force. Trouble is, there is no evidence for the other place but that instinct; and the instinct itself is susceptible to naturalistic explanations (see Atran, Boyer, & the rest of Mr. Hume’s reading list).

Once all that’s sunk in, the only reason to think there’s another place is biological humility: acknowledging the fact that all our concepts, all we know, is contained in a crinkly one-eighth-inch-thick rind wrapped over a 40-ounce lump of meat. As Prof. Joad said: “The human brain is a food-seeking mechanism, with no more access to Ultimate Reality than a pig’s snout.”

That is the Mysterian position. Epistemologically, though, it is an entirely negative stance. It agrees with the believer’s position that the natural world accessible to our senses is not likely the whole story; but unlike the believer’s position, it makes no claims to have revealed knowledge about the other place. We’ve looked at those claims — any educated person is familiar with them — and found them unconvincing, in fact usually preposterous, and rooted in human weaknesses we’re aware of in ourselves, mostly tendencies to wishful or magical thinking.

The Mysterian has a number of options. He could, for example, take up Pascal’s Wager without logical inconsistency. I think most of us, though, are temperamentally more inclined to just shrug and turn away. Naturalism has boundless pleasures for anyone with an inquiring mind and a sense of wonder (i.e. around five percent of the U.S. population). We’re content to marvel at the truths that science uncovers, hope to understand more this year than we did last year, and — those of us not actively involved in the uncovering — cheer on the uncoverers … perhaps even writing books about them, if we can find a publisher willing to take us on. 

The natural world’s enough to keep my mind fully engaged; and I find I can live decently, honorably, and contentedly without any dependence on stories about improbable historical events — miraculous impregnations and the like. My actual individual personality, which issues from my brain, of course will not survive when that organ ceases functioning; and if there is some other state of being post mortem, a thing I wouldn’t rule out, I have seen no convincing description of it.  I don’t even see how there could be a description.  What is it you are apprehending, when ordinary cognition has ceased?  And since “language is the dress of thought,” how could there be a description of a reality beyond thought?

Just putting down a marker.

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64 comments

  • kurt9 · February 16, 2009 at 10:24 am

    There is another theory, Extended Heim Theory, that is very similar to Loop Quantum Cosmology.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heim_theory

    If correct, there is the possibility of FTL space travel. This would certainly allows us to go to “other places”.

  • Daniel Dare · February 16, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    There’s an important distinction kurt9, between LQC and Heim Theory.

    LQC is not a new theory. It is a new mathematical technique for combining two long-established theories. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. It’s part of a long effort, going back more than half a century, to combine these two theories.

    Heim is a quite separate theory, and would require quite separate confirmation, before it could be accepted.

    FTL space travel would be an exceedingly radical step that would challenge large areas of currently-understood physics.
    It would also require a lot of proof.

  • Daniel Dare · February 16, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    On second thoughts I should say:
    LQC is not such a new theory, it is more a new mathematical technique….

    I suppose it is technically a new theory, but the step is much less radical. No one feels such a deep need to justify it. Because it is following a well-worn path.

  • kurt9 · February 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Heim is also a mathematical technique for unifying GR with QM. It is actually a quantized version of GR. Certainly, Heim theory requires confirmation in order to be accepted, but this is the case for any scientific theory. LQC is a radical theory, in terms of acceptability, with regards to the string theory crowd. The thing that both Heim and LQC theories have in their favor is that they are testable using current technology. String and M-brane theory are not.

    Certainly FTL would require considerable proof. However, it does not necessarily violate GR. There are actually two concepts of FTL that are potentially compatible with GR. One is the Heim theory FTL. The other is transversable wormholes, which are an outgrowth of GR itself.

  • Daniel Dare · February 16, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Perhaps I’m just not familiar enough with Heim.

    The problem with the wormholes is that you can use them to create loops in time, with all the obvious paradoxes that leads to. It’s the same with the Alcubierre warp drive, I believe.

    All of these solutions I regard as non-standard, because of the time paradoxes and because they require strange forms of (negative) mass-energy to keep them open or make them work. Even though they are technically as you say, outgrowths of GR.

    Generally I would consider myself to be pretty skeptical of all of them. I’d need a fair bit of convincing. I am not a FTL believer at this stage.

  • kurt9 · February 16, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    Back to the discussion of the original article, I think there is confusion here. There is a difference between saying that we do not know a particular thing today and never being able to know a particular thing ever. Never say never.

    There is a knowledge frontier at any given time. Anything inside it is the stuff we understand. The stuff outside it is what we don’t understand at this time. The term “supernatural” simply refers to anything that lies outside the knowledge frontier. The knowledge frontier continues to move out as our technology increases and we learn new things. Thus, phenomenon that was considered supernatural in the past can have a perfectly rational explanation for today.

    For example, lightning was considered a supernatural phenomenon 300 years ago. Then Ben Franklin flew his kite with the key at the bottom of the rope during a thunderstorm. By nearly getting himself electrocuted by a thunderbolt, he learned that lightning is nothing more than an electrical arc discharge. Likewise, stuff we consider “supernatural” today will most certainly have legitimate explanations, say, 400 years from now.

  • Tobias · February 16, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    GOTCHAYE: “You haven’t explained your idea of truth in terms of more basic ideas.”

    But my definition of truth relies on two basic ideas: affirmation (which implies a knower) and being (which implies the thing known). If you’re asking me to argue for them, I can but they’re not things that can be proven by induction; it’s a matter of realizing that it is impossible to contradict them without inevitably contradicting oneself. Truth must be, because it cannot not be. If you say, “Well, I don’t see what “is” is,” you’ve let the cat out of the bag by using the word “is” yourself. It’s only by virtue of knowing that is-ness has a positive substance all its own that you can question its existence at all. In short, is-ness or being is axiomatic because we simply cannot think without it.

    Five points, though, for indirectly referencing Clinton’s violence to the human language when he questioned what the word meant, too.

    “How do we distinguish ‘the affirmation of what is’ from ‘the affirmation of what is not’?”

    First, by pointing out that the latter, by virtue of the negation “not,” is a negation of the former. X is clearly distinguishable from not-X.

    “In short, what is?”

    But in asking “what” is, you’re asking for a particular manifestation of being, and particulars are less “basic” than fundamentals and principles. The principle of being is more “basic” than any manifestation of it. That’s why it’s an axiom.

    “And what does it mean for something to be (’is’ being the third person singular form of ‘to be’)? I don’t see what your definition of truth meaningfully applies to.”

    It means that it cannot be logically negated, whether by means of other axioms, deductions, inductions, and so forth. Please note that I said “logically negated.” If I point at an apple and say, “That apple exists,” and then obliterate it with a sledgehammer, I have not committed a *logical* contradiction, only a physical one. Similarly, if I say that unicorns are four-hoofed creatures with a single horn, that is a logical statement, not an argument for the existence of unicorns. The logical definition of unicorns exist, subject as much as any other logic to validity (the definition is valid) and therefore capable of being applied in logical ways. Giving the definition is NOT, however, an argument that unicorns exist as empirical creatures.

    DANIEL DARE: “Physics is not compounded of matter. It is spacetime and quantum fields, which may well be geometric in origin themselves if string theory and its derivatives are true. You should check the literature.”

    I disagree re physics being only spacetime and quantum fields, but regardless it’s still a red herring. The geometry you’re mentioning would actually (in my view) be even more affirmed as a predecessor to everything, in Lisi’s E8 model than in string theory (sorry, I side with Lisi on this one), but regardless in both cases geometry is posited not as an origin but as a predecessor. I.e., the origin of the geometry in question is still being begged. Predecessor preceded by predecessor preceded by predecessor does not an origin make. We’re talking about physics, which looks for a physical (or physical derivative) origin. But all physical things (as opposed to, say, logical formulations) are effects as well as causes, so what caused the “new” or latest physical or cosomological origin is still being implied.

    “The spacetime does not end at the big bang singularity, as in classical GR, but extends in to a pre-big bang branch joined with the post big-bang branch through a quantum gravitational bridge.”

    Thanks a lot for these references. Very interesting indeed. However, the paper you cite doesn’t provide an origon; only a predecessor. Singh is not claiming to have found the ultimate origin of all known cosmology; he’s merely showing how a method can be applied that gets us around the ultimate divergence of energy density and spacetime curvature that adheres in GR when applied to the big bang. As an *independent* quantization of GR – thus getting around the shortcomings of GR as applied to the early “moments” of the big bang – the quantization methods of LQC merely give us a working model to link cosmology through to this “pre-big bang branch.” The fact that this happens through a LQC quantum bridge, and even given its nature to the “branch,” doesn’t provide an origin, merely a predecessor. It still begs the origin of the pre-big bang branch. And so on. The article you cite is another way of admitting an infinite regression – which, again, begs the question of ultimate origins. Which is not at all to say that it’s not interesting on its own plane of knowledge – again, thank you very much for sending the link.

    CALEDONIAN: “Empiricism is a method, not an explanation. It generates explanations.”

    Semantic quibble. And you totally missed my point. As I said, when it’s used as a limited means (or method) to find limited explanations, it sometimes works fine. When empiricists use it as an explain-all (and they are the only ones who do), then it starts generating logical self-contradictions.

    “That’s not what you’re arguing against. What you’re actually arguing against is the idea that people don’t have to take you seriously because your beliefs are incompatible with even rudimentary rational thought, and so you try to tear down rationality as a standard.”

    Rudimentary rational thought? I am arguing that truth cannot be subject to context, that it is a fundamental necessity that even those who claim to disbelieve in it nonetheless believe in, and you conclude that I’m attacking rationality? Perhaps you’re thinking of when someone said earlier in the discussion: ““The human brain is a food-seeking mechanism, with no more access to Ultimate Reality than a pig’s snout.” Yes, precisely. But what do these Mysterians think they’re expressing their opinions with? Their actions of speech come from the brain. So do their actions of writing.” Whoever said that apparently believes that his own thoughts are somehow mysteriously not subject to biochemistry, but that other people’s are, especially those with whom he disagrees. Be done with the double standard and admit that truth is objective.

  • Gotchaye · February 16, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    “It means that it cannot be logically negated, whether by means of other axioms, deductions, inductions, and so forth. Please note that I said “logically negated.” If I point at an apple and say, “That apple exists,” and then obliterate it with a sledgehammer, I have not committed a *logical* contradiction, only a physical one. Similarly, if I say that unicorns are four-hoofed creatures with a single horn, that is a logical statement, not an argument for the existence of unicorns. The logical definition of unicorns exist, subject as much as any other logic to validity (the definition is valid) and therefore capable of being applied in logical ways. Giving the definition is NOT, however, an argument that unicorns exist as empirical creatures. ”

    I think that this comes closer to being a definition of truth, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I’m taking you here as saying that the truth is that which cannot be logically negated. I’ll agree with you that this is some of what truth is, but I don’t see how this buys you much more than logical truths, possibly math, and possibly something like the cogito and related thoughts (“I am appeared to green-ly”, etc) – that’s exactly why we think of (some of) these things as ‘logical truths’. To say that that’s all that we can know is a defensible position, but it’s a tad too skeptical for me.

    To take your own example, I don’t see how we can say that “there are no unicorns” is true, because it’s not a logical truth. Part of why this is so is that ‘existence’ is hidden in that ‘are’, and you still haven’t really unpacked that (except insofar as ‘existence’ is equivalent to ‘truth’). We mean something when we say that dogs are more real than unicorns, and, though it sounds awkward, the meaning of something like “dogs are truer than unicorns” is clear. The logical possibility that I’m just a brain in a vat, am dreaming, or am constantly fooled by a demon is sufficient to let me negate the vast majority of the things you’d like to claim as true without fear of necessary logical contradiction.

  • Gotchaye · February 16, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    To be as clear as possible, when you say:

    “But my definition of truth relies on two basic ideas: affirmation (which implies a knower) and being (which implies the thing known). If you’re asking me to argue for them, I can but they’re not things that can be proven by induction; it’s a matter of realizing that it is impossible to contradict them without inevitably contradicting oneself. Truth must be, because it cannot not be. If you say, “Well, I don’t see what “is” is,” you’ve let the cat out of the bag by using the word “is” yourself. It’s only by virtue of knowing that is-ness has a positive substance all its own that you can question its existence at all. In short, is-ness or being is axiomatic because we simply cannot think without it.”

    I think you’re slipping between definitions of ‘is’. I was using it (without apostrophes) in my sentences to communicate that I was looking for an identity, which I’ll grant is something that we have a basic idea of. But there’s a difference between the use of ‘is’ in the sentence “a unicorn is a horse with a horn” and in the sentence “a unicorn is”. The first is an identity that only refers to a relationship among two ideas, whereas the second is making a claim about ‘existence’, which we still haven’t nailed down here. I certainly agree that we couldn’t think (or, more accurately, that we just don’t think) without a notion of identity, but I believe that ‘existence’ is a complex notion that we develop as an aid to thinking and not something that we have basic access to – we could think without a notion of an ‘outside world’. We could have perceptions and process them without even a notion of self-existence (which, regardless, seems like a different thing than the regular usage of ‘existence’ anyway).

  • Daniel Dare · February 17, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Tobias,
    which, again, begs the question of ultimate origins

    I don’t have a problem with an eternal cosmos. In the end I expect it will turn out to be something that is either eternal or timeless. I don’t presume to know what that will be. We’ll find out when we get there.

    I don’t believe one can deduce it by philosophy alone. I am an empiricist. And it doesn’t bother me in the least that we don’t know the answer today.

  • Daniel Dare · February 17, 2009 at 12:47 am

    And FWIW,

    I don’t “believe” in Lisi’s E8 or string theory, because I think it’s not physics without experiments or observations.

    I have no objections to either one being developed as branches of applied mathematics that may one day have applications in physics.

  • Caledonian · February 17, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    “Semantic quibble.”

    How revealing, that you consider an objection to the improper use of language to be ‘quibbling’.

  • kurt9 · February 17, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I had a thought. If human brains are limited in their capacity to understand the universe, is it not likely that post-humans with vastly increased cognitive abilities over present-day human brains will be more able to understand the universe around us? This suggests that “mysterianism” is simply an argument in favor of transhumanism.

  • Daniel Dare · February 17, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    kurt9 I think that is a great argument.

    Logically, I could imagine that a human might not be able to fully understand a human brain. But a transhuman might be able to.

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