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RS54 - The 'isms' Episode

Release date: February 12, 2012

In this episode Massimo and Julia ask, "Is the fundamental nature of the world knowable by science alone?", looking at the issue through the lenses of a series of related philosophical positions: determinism, reductionism, physicalism, and naturalism. All of those "isms" take a stance on the question of whether there are objectively "correct" ways to interpret scientific facts -- like physical laws, or causality -- and if so, how do we decide what the correct interpretation is? Along the way, Massimo and Julia debate the nature of emergent properties, whether math is discovered or invented, and whether it's even logically possible for "supernatural" things to exist.

Julia's pick: "The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin"
Massimo's pick: "Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards: Philosophical Essays on Darwin's Theory "


Reader Comments (26)

So everything is made from quarks, huh? I'm very disappointed to learn that two of my favorite podcasters are lepton and gauge boson denialists.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMagnus

Re Julia's pick and her delight at thwarting her genes: Maybe what appears to be a conflict between genes' and individuals' goals is part of a higher-order selection for qualities which attempt to get around the pond scum paradox, or as it is more commonly known, the tragedy of the commons. IE all organisms (with the hopefully eventual exception of humanity) reproduce willy nilly until they deplete or contaminate their available resources, then die off once that happens. That die off part has gotta be contra the best interests of the genes involved, so it makes sense that mechanisms (like birth control) would evolve to get around that problem. Maybe the Catholic Church's obsession with maintaining the link between sex and reproduction (as so brilliantly satirized in the Monty Python "Every Sperm Is Sacred" skit) evolved at a time when humanity was very far from facing the consequences of the pond scum paradox and now skepticism and atheism is evolving to try to damp down that imperative in the interests of longer term survival of all life on earth.

Of course, this all makes sense only in terms of the statistics of many life bearing planets. It remains to be seen whether ours will be one of the lucky ones which will develop the mechanisms required for life to survive long enough to face the ultimate challenges of rearranging our planet's orbit to keep it in the Sun's habitable zone when it runs out of hydrogen and has to switch to burning heavier elements. So far, it doesn't look good, but then neither did it look very good for us during the Black Death years and even less so during the time when our species was down to < 1000 reproducing individuals.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterullrich fischer

Re the Matrix hypothesis: According to an article in NewScientist a while back, we do have some evidence of a sort for the hypothesis that our universe is a simulation in a computer of a being living in a higher order universe. The idea was that we now have things like Worlds of Warcraft and Second Life, which are precursors to more and more accurate simulations of worlds and we are on the cusp of developing self-aware software agents. Since once we get there, there will be potentially many thousands, possibly millions of such simulations, by the principle that we aren't in a special place in the history of the Universe of Universes, it seems reasonable that there are many more simulated universes than real universes, so we are most likely in a simulated one. As for the idea that we are being simulated by the mind of god, the capriciousness of this hypothetical god's apparent "actions" in our world points more to the inclinations of the kind of nasty teenager who enjoys frying ants with a magnifying glass than to those of the benevolent, all powerful, all loving god hypothesized by various religions.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterullrich fischer

I see two different ideas being conflated: (1) the universe is determined but we can't make predictions; (2) the universe is not determined.

For me the question of determinism is simply: If we "copy & paste" our universe, precisely duplicating the state of every particle and field, will the second universe unfold in precisely the same way? This does not hinge the ability to predict.

I heard Massimo say that Newtonian physics is not always determined. I can only imagine he means a chaotic system. In this case we know the equations but we can't come up with a closed-form solution. This does not mean that the system is not determined! It only means we are unable to predict. A computer can do the prediction, but because the initial conditions are sensitive, the computer becomes less and less accurate as time elapses.

Regarding emergent properties, the same principle applies. Take the hydrogen atom. The PDE can be solved, from which we can predict the spectral lines. After hydrogen, we can't find the solutions explicitly; it's a mathematical impossibility. This does not mean that the solutions are not determined! In some cases we can find them by numerical methods.

Also, an unsolvable equation is quite different from a formally undecidable proposition (Massimo mentioned Godel).

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJL

A very interesting and sometimes odd podcast indeed. It triggered several questions with me.

I tend to side with Julia when she suggested that causality is part of the human description of reality rather than part of reality itself. Didn't Hume with the problem of induction show that we essentially have no evidence that causality is a basic feature of reality? So Hume is questioning causality, isn't he? Come to think of it, this would mean that causality itself could be regarded a supernatural aspect of our description of reality, since then naturalism itself seems to rest on principles beyond the "natural" as in "can be accesed empirically". Well goodbye to naturalism in that case. Ah, how I love these contradictions. The more you think about these things the less you seem to know. Well, I'll be fair, the less - I - seem to know. Don't know about you.

The end of the part on isms I found very odd. Massimo seems to embark on a supernaturalistic argument himself, the simulation hypothesis. He argues that the transcendental programmer of reality would not in any way be bound by the patterns of his own reality. There would be a clear cut between the reality of "the super programmer in the sky" and our "simulated" reality and no real laws of nature would exist. It seems an argument from transcendental entities to me. And I wonder how we ever got off track that far.

Let me end with this week's prize question for theists: who programmed your god? To make it easier I'll restrict it to the first degree, but anyone can see that there really is no reason why reality is nothing but an infinitely layered programming business.

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFujaro

Best episode yet!

In the simulation scenario the laws of nature are artefacts of the algorithms used by the programmer, and as Massimo said they could be changed (perhaps), but from our point of view they would still be baked into the universe that we experience. I think this sheds light on the distinction between the laws being "out there" versus being just a useful description - in a simulation the laws really are out there. If you compared the simulated universe to a "real" universe that behaved identically, and as such was indistinguishable, how could you say that the laws in the "real" universe were not also "out there"? Which really just reduces the problem to being whether or not our universe could be simulated in principle, so maybe it doesn't get us very far after all.

The question that really bakes my noodle is whether the programmer could choose to make mathematics or logic different in different simulations. I'm a mathematical Platonist, I think that mathematical objects are too ubiquitous and consistent to be simply a result of our scribblings. But could there be a universe where, say, Gödel's theorems don't hold? Or Euler's formula is an inequality?

Please, oh please do an episode on the simulation hypothesis!

The other comment I would make is that causality is a macro-scale feature, and depends on the arrow of time, which in turn seems to be related to entropy. So if causality is just a useful descriptive term then so is entropy, but entropy is empirically measurable. What does that mean?

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Hooper

Is it meaningful to try prove reductionism using empirical research? Maybe we eventually will arrive to fully reductionistic account of phenomena at all levels. But it also can be that we just can describe those phenomena from bottommost level but reality still will work at several levels with separate causes. I think that we can in principle reach just "effective reductionism" but not prove it ontologically by any facts.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrej

A very good discussion of emergent properties (from the standpoint of a physicist) would be A Different Universe by Robert B. Laughlin.

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric Moore

Regarding the brief mention of free will - is it relevant that the universe may or may not be deterministic with regards to free will? We can observe that human behavior is dependent upon cause and effect relationships, and that choice is merely a product of discerning the most viable course of action in regards to a preset goal. It seems to me like there is a disconnect between the two subjects.

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Most frustrating episode yet, not in a good way.

Massimo, you were really off your game this episode. Julia should have pushed back harder against you at the start, rather than wait until the middle. First, water is an extremely bad example of an emergent property. From sub-atomic forces in the atoms (physics) to molecular forces (chemistry), it is just two different levels of explanation. A snowflake is a better example. I like the computer Game of Life myself.

Every mention of epistemological vs. ontological was mental masturbation in my book. Julia teased you near the end of the episode talking about physicalism/naturalism by bringing up the two worlds with the same "stuff" are the same - rebutting your previous statements. Flew right over your head. I am completely with Julia's practical viewpoint, especially her use of concepts and definitions to stay clear of pointless distinctions.

Finally, I think the statement "natural selection usually works quite nicely" or close to that said at the very end of the discussion, is indefensible. From a biology professor it is ridiculous. Please explain what you meant by it.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Erickson

To add to JL, Massimo's bringing up Godel's Incompleteness Theorems was completely spurious. The subject was reality, not a model of reality. Incompleteness applies to designed systems (models).

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Erickson

I’ve been considering Hume on induction and think that’s relevant to your podcast.

Thought experiment: As we proceed in speech or writing, we must usually assume our brain and that of the listener will be as regularly functioning while thinking or writing the end of the sentence as it was at the start. Is there no choice but to be inductive towards states of mind and being at the finish of an utterance not yet complete? I think not, therefore I am right. Oops.

Therefore because all communication assumes induction as regards its process, so no content can be properly deduced; they are inseparable.

Therefore no worthwhile distinction can be made by humans, between inductive thought, and other types.

Maybe it would be just as correct and even simpler to state that all thought is inductive inasmuch as we constantly think to the future, which as we all know has no absolutes.

I think it a complete waste to expend a lot of time questioning the regularity of the natural laws for the reason stated. It hardly matters if induction is justified inductively, there cannot be any alternative. We, who exist in time and space, are locked in with no way out.

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Moriarty

Well that's a new one, the Argument From ADD!

I think it's probably true that we think in inductive mode most of the time, and that makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. But I disagree that this implies that there is no worthwhile distinction between inductive and deductive logic, simply because I can do deductive logic on my own, in my head, so your lost-in-translation argument doesn't apply. Unless you are saying that even my own brain processes can't be relied on to be functioning correctly at the end of a chain of reasoning, but if we take that to it's logical conclusion then...wait, what was I saying?

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Hooper

Yes that's it. Because your neurons do their basic stuff according to laws of physics and chemistry. We have no choice but to rely on those laws operating regularly, or admit the possibility of descending into unspecified irrationality.
It isn't anything to worry about unless you're a professional philosopher. Life goes on.

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Moriarty

OK, but you're really just restating the problem of induction in terms of brain states, and saying that the induction problem then implies that you can't rely on deduction either.

So what do you say about results from deduction, like mathematical results, where the proofs have been studied, and verified, by literally millions of people over decades or even centuries? Do you think that sin(π/2) might one day not equal 1? And if so how might that manifest itself in the universe?

February 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Hooper

In terms of mental/brain states, it may be useful to mention it was once common to think dualistically, but now less so. Thinking pragmatically, I ignore my own inductive state, and take reality as being as real as it gets for humans. I don’t worry about human misperception, because of many examples of such faults being exposed and corrected. Can I rely on deduction? I think so, but my thoughts are essentially inductive! I don’t think (inductively!) there is any escape from that. You could call it the general theoretical case of incompleteness if you will. Only a being existing outside time, and therefore not needing to consider any future time, could break that bind, and I don’t consider the human race has a worthy candidate for that category.

And we could debate at length whether mathematical truth is discovered or invented, but AFAIK there exists no agreement on that question. No, I cannot conceive of any answer to the value of π other than the conventional. It seems true however there is no purpose in going on for all time adding decimal places to the value, or to put it another way, absolute truth is absolutely of no value here. That was good, picking sin(π/2) ! The statement “we must always be making assumptions” does not contradict itself even as it makes its own assumption, whereas its converses can contradict.

In conclusion Hume’s problem is not mine. I don’t think it even was his really.

And there were many other interesting things in the podcast, one of the best ever IMHO. I am still listening, and ruminating, and will be for a while yet. If they both spoke at a more normal pace, not even that would stop thoughts cascading!

I would like to make a separate comment regarding determinism: We are precluded from knowing the extent of the precision of the laws of nature (or are they really laws?). I am unsure whether that’s a practical or theoretical matter. Therefore to precisely calculate the future far enough ahead (to obtain the position of all those billiard balls) depends on that precision, which is presently indeterminate, and presently undeterminable, and probably permanently undeterminable, and therefore probably determinism is false. But I am still listening and thinking!

February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Moriarty

Thanks for the great episode, Massimo and Julia. You covered a lot of interesting ground.

February 27, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbattycoati

Massimo’s argument that emergent properties create a universe that is not causal or deterministic seems to be a god of the gaps argument. Just because we do not have a quantum level explanation for water or any other compound for that matter, does not mean that one does not exist. Quantum theory is at best incomplete at this time, it does predict things that are demonstrably true and ultimately useful (without it I could not be typing on this computer) but, the theory does not account for everything in nature. That is why billions have been spent of experiments like CIRN and the LHC. To say that because we do not have a model sufficient enough to describe water on a quantum level those properties are separate from the laws of nature is magical thinking at best. The absence of understanding is cause for more inquiry not heuristic shortcuts to a indemonstrable conclusion.

June 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThadius Loar

Determinism would require calculations of particle parameters to a mindboggling degree of precision. Nothing next or near that precision has been or ever will be demonstrated by human measurement and calculation. We can determine π to an enormous number of decimal places, but physical constants? Eight or nine is pushing it for most at a rough guess. That makes iterations in deterministic calculations practically unreliable and meaningless IMO. Thus determinism, whatever about its theoretical possibility of existence, cannot exist in the world of practical measurements of small particles. We are nowhere near answering whether physical constants have in reality the same numerical/mathematical precision as e, π etc. That precision would be required to determine in advance whether or not the "flap of the butterfly's wing" set some momentous event in train somewhere sometime else. Determinism cannot be shown to be true until these unanswerable questions get answered first. The odds are hugely stacked against that question ever being answered, and it will remain the province of speculative thought insufficiently informed by physical reality and our ability to measure same. Thus free will is a practical and probably theoretical reality.

June 28, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjohn moriarty

How accurately humans can measure things has no bearing on whether things are actually deterministic. It's possible for free will to not exist even though we are incapable of predicting how some individual agent may behave. And even in a classically deterministic universe there are still cases where there is non-determinism, such as in singularities in General Relativity.

In any case, even if the universe isn't deterministic it's still problematic to determine where free will comes from and in what sense there is an autonomous "you" that drives thoughts and actions independent of the chemical and electrical workings of your brain.

The only hope I have left stems from the fact that there are true statements in formal systems such as arithmetic that cannot be proved algorithmically and yet we are capable of seeing that they are true "by inspection". What the hell is going on there?

June 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Hooper

At risk of repetition, actual determinism exists would require an inherently super high precision in the operation of nature which IMHO we cannot ever ascertain, due to our inability to make the necessary physical measurements and calculations. Our ability to make such calculations is separate from nature's inherent precision. Put another way if we could "rewind" and then replay the universe, determinism requires we would get exactly the same futures in both cases. If one accepts that, it may or may not have a bearing on whether free will exists. If you were to ask advertisers ans other skilled manipulators of crowds that question, they might say that their influence on human behaviour is so high that free will is unlikely. I don't think that applies to people aware that manipulation is going on - one reason I hardly ever buy brands, and only grudgingly obey speed limits.

June 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjohn moriarty

If the universe is completely deterministic "it may or may not have a bearing on whether free will exists"? Using your analogy of rewinding and playing forward, that would mean that every action by every person was completely determined from the start. How do you think that free will could exist in such a universe? There is zero wriggle room for any autonomous choice.

As for advertising, I don't see how that has any bearing. Having free will does not mean being impervious to any external influences, and, conversely, reacting to external influences doesn't require free will.

June 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Hooper

Craig: I would agree there is no wiggle room in such a case of completely determined physical law. If the outcome were different, we could say that either the rewind was imperfect, or the replay was incapable of the necessary precision to guarantee an exact repeat. My skepticism concerns the precision of natural laws, I don't think we can determine that precision well enough to be sufficiently sure of determinism. Free will may not exist, but its impossible to be certain. That's why I incline to some possibility of free will, except that people are very often so strongly influenced in their choices, to the extent that in such cases it practically does not exist. I can resist anything but temptation is how Oscar Wilde put it.

July 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjohn moriarty

Love the podcast.

Not that it's a competition but Julia smoked the professor in this episode. Julia was right regarding the Universe and the laws of physics regarding the "two" Universes. It comes down to differing ways of describing the same thing. The laws of nature do cause what happens and the laws of nature are useful descriptions that predict what happens/help us understand. I see no difference between laws of nature that cause what happens and the laws of nature are descriptions of what happen. They are just different descriptions. I'm not sure this particular issue is really a debate. To say they are really two different universes is just humans confusing the the same thing and making it more complex than it really is. She should of took a harder more confident line on this. We were starting to enter woo woo land.

Also nothing in their talk seemed to violate reductionism. Emergentist appear to be the modern dualist. This entire idea of different or second laws of physics is just silly. I agree with Julia in that most of what they were talking about weren't actually different philosophical positions.

I agree with some of the other comments on here that Massimo was often using the god of gaps argument.

January 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarson

In the concluding section Julia discusses the pleasure she receives from thwarting the best interests of her genes, from behaving non-adaptively. The psychological causes and effects of an extreme non-adaptive lifestyle are explored by Dostoevsky in the novel Notes from Underground.

June 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNaji Rodes

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