Book: Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

Deltasigma, thanx for the time you took to respond.
You said “I’m not sure what you had in mind” and it reminded me of that bag of Camaro parts, being shaken to infinity and back:D trying to get a Camaro…(jeezwhy not a Beetle?) anyways, my mind, as an agnostic westerner, seems to be full of all kinds of bits and pieces of philosophy, science, and religious bits, nothing complete enough to make any sense…I have family members of all these various persuasions as well, and lean more towards those who “practice” Buddhism…but jeepers, the amounts of written words, names stories and concepts in Buddhism, its as bad as my early botany classes…names and memorizing…grrr…not my strong suit… but, as you pointed out, many paths are valid. So that form of study, may work for some.
I recall posting an analogy about “stuff”… Its about digging a deep well to find water, and finding none…do you pick up and move on, digging shallow holes everywhere and finding nothing, or do you double down you efforts and dig REALLY deeply to find water?
Or course, you can still find nothing, or the opposite, find water in a shallow hole …haha… Jke(study geology first)

I have always liked this analogy(i suspect I heisted it from somewhere) for seeking various things, as so often browsing many subjects certainly is more “entertaining” and “easier”, but you really need to dig deep into things to get the goodies, otherwise you end up with the mishmash of stuff like I have upstairs…little bit of this, little of that…
…It “seems” like some people have figured this out, but the translations back to the regular folks, just seem lacking…IMHO… Buddhist thought, perhaps the Zen side of things, at least admits its kind of a “cannot use language or logic for this”…haha, which of course appeals to me!!

And back to the original point of the the OP, I’ve always felt that given the right combo of human hardware and software, now augmented by machines, perhaps we get to figure this question out…soon? haha…maybe not?

Wheres the teeny tiny turtles all the way down smilie?

Thanks SMJ. It occurred to me last night that I may have gone too far though in emphasizing the folly of a Buddhist philosophy since in fact there is a common conceptual language that Buddhists use, much of which was inherited from Hinduism. The whole concept of samsara, the cycle of rebirth, and karma are good examples of that. So there is a common view of the world/universe/reality as it is perceived by the unenlightened.

However one of the first things the sacred texts will emphasize is that it is this very process of discrimination and distinguishing, even on a gross level between what is real and not real, that is the basis of Maya, or the illusion of reality. So once again we come back to the idea of a language which isn’t really a language at all but more of a cryptic sign post trying to point us toward the shorter of the various routes to our ultimate destination.

So I just watched the debate, and I have to say I’m a bit nonplussed. Krauss continues to cling to his own version of the notion of nothing, which is basically ‘something that gives rise to the universe we observe’, and defends that this should be the ‘right’ notion mainly because ‘the why question makes no sense’, that is, he can’t seem to see how to answer the actual question of ‘Why anything? Why this?’, and so he substitutes in another question he (believes he) can answer. Holt points this out to him a few times, but in the end doesn’t quite get any traction with the points he’s trying to make.

Of the other participants, really only Richard Gott got in a few interesting remarks, at least trying to find a way to sort of point out the distinction between what I call the ‘philosopher’s nothing’ and the ‘physicist’s nothing’; he proposes a model of a self-creation cosmology in which the universe contains a branch that consists of a causal loop, i.e. it ‘goes back in time’ and creates itself. Holt rightly points out that even though every event in such a universe has a cause and is thus explained, that doesn’t mean that the universe as a whole is explained, as well (the same objection goes towards eternally existing universes).

The problem really is that what Krauss tries to explain and what needs to be explained doesn’t differ merely in quantity, but in quality: Krauss proposes ever smaller and lesser things from which to create a universe, and certainly produces many interesting arguments in this regard; but you can’t get to nothing with this strategy anymore than you can get to infinity by heaping up ever more things onto one another. You’re still entrained to the realm of the finite with such a strategy, and there will always be an explanatory gap. Borrowing terminology from the philosophy of mind, Krauss (and really, most physicists considering this issue) does an admirable job at attacking the ‘easy’ problems of cosmogony, but the problem that most would like to have solved—the ‘hard’ problem—is not even touched by this.

Thank you for the update. I also read an article that Doper Crotalus pointed out to me on Thomas Nagel’s recent book and how many Materialist scientists and thinkers are dismissive of him for it…

I think I largely side with Nagel’s critics on this one (though I haven’t read the book). To me, his ‘brute facts’ are simply a premature admission of defeat. Science is an endeavor to make the world understandable, apprehensible, to discover how things came to be the way they are. There’s no guarantee that this endeavor will succeed, of course; it may well be the case that the world just isn’t understandable, that there is no reason for it to be the way it is, that it’s random, chaotic, or mysterious. To me, the jury simply isn’t out yet, but I throw my coins in with the option I find more appealing, which simply is that there is some reason that we might discover; some people, as for instance the writer of the article, seem to favor the opposite option, which I personally can’t understand, but can accept.

However, the dismissiveness with which this is usually presented, and the air of superiority the proponents of such a picture usually assume towards us ‘mere materialists’—the insinuation that in looking for ‘mechanistic’ explanations, we fail to appreciate some ‘true beauty’ of a phenomenon, that there must be some paucity in a life that lacks fundamental mystery—frankly gets on my tits. The materialist, reductionist, whatever-you-want-to-call-it-ist picture is not cold, sterile and inhumane, quite to the contrary: it is a hopeful one, and it expresses the hope that in some way, the world makes sense, and that we are capable of making sense of it. Reductionist explanation, despite the unfortunate name, does not take away, but adds to phenomena: even if I know that love is just a chemical reaction induced by evolutionary pressure, that doesn’t make it in any way suddenly not love, anymore than knowing that my arm is a collection of cells reacting to neural impulses makes it in some way not my arm. There are different accounts valid on different levels: just as it is useless to describe the cause of somebody’s black eye in terms of cells contracting and expanding in response to neurochemical signals, it is useless to describe my relationship to my girlfriend in terms of the amount of certain chemical substances in my neural system—the information any hearer of the story cares about just wouldn’t be there. Any part of the world may be completely describable in terms of particles and fields doing their thing, but this doesn’t entail that any other description therefore ceases to be valid.

Such explanation will run counter to intuition—the mind-body problem here is an especially ferocious example: since the explanation of a phenomenon entails its reduction to a level in which it is absent (otherwise, we would face circularity), and we can’t imagine a level in which there is no mind, since the mind is what we do all our imagining with (more concretely, we can’t imagine mind coming from no-mind, since whenever we imagine anything, there’s always mind present, in the form of the ‘point of view’ inherent in our imaginings), any explanation is bound to seem grossly counter to experience. But this is not a reason to give up: if we’d done that, we would have made none of our greatest breakthroughs, like quantum mechanics, relativity and so on.

But I think any declaration of the form ‘science can’t explain…’ is simply premature, and somehow smells of throwing in the towel because things are beginning to get too hard (or, less charitably, of a hidden agenda in need of some promotion). The successes of science (as compared to everything else we’ve tried) are such that it seems worth sticking with it, at least for a couple of thousand years (if nobody comes up with something better, that is).

Anyway, coming back to Nagel’s book, if the arguments given in the article are faithful representations, then there indeed doesn’t seem much to be gained from it: take, for instance, the argument that our higher reasoning capacities aren’t adaptive. This seems pretty obvious: you don’t need to do calculus while hunting mammoths. But there’s certain capacities you do need—or that are, at the very least, advantageous. Taken together, these capacities consist of things like forming a strategy, reacting to changing parameters, forecasting dangers and opportunities—in other words, executing algorithms. But if you can execute arbitrary algorithms, you can execute all possible computations (this is known as computational universality), so at least potentially, higher reasoning capabilities come part and parcel with those even the writer of the article would agree were advantageous to early humans. And in forming a civilization, creating a society, it’s not hard to come up with a way how those higher reasoning capabilities could conceivably have developed.

The only downside is that a computing machine hardwired for one type of computation will in general have a hard time performing one that it does not natively implement—roughly, like emulating Windows on a Mac. And this is, of course, exactly what we find: certain hard-wired functions come so easily to us that we hardly register them being performed—facial recognition, the assessment of potential danger in a situation, and so on. But for much of these higher reasoning capabilities—doing calculus, forming a logical argument, constructing overly lengthy message board posts—, we have to exercise considerable mental effort. So in fact, the lambasted evolutionary picture predicts exactly what we observe—and much better so than the alternative: if our higher reasoning capabilities are the result of some form of design, why are they designed so poorly? Why do they not come to us as naturally as other, computationally equally complex, tasks?

Sorry, that became a bit of a rant… :rolleyes:

That’s a fine post and I think I agree with you all the down the line.

It’s always a problem to critique people based on a third party’s analysis of their work and like you I haven’t read Nagel’s book. If - a big if - it’s been correctly interpreted, however, Nagel is saying that he doesn’t want materialism to be true but can give no substitute for it except a religious one, which he also doesn’t want to accept. Why? Neither one is satisfactory to his way of thinking. That’s not in itself a problem. There are people who claim that our universe is a computer simulation of a universe in some fantastically advanced world, indeed, must be so because the odds of many advanced someones doing this are so large that any other course is unlikely. I can think of no way to disprove this, but I don’t want to accept it: to my mind it multiplies ridiculous suppositions to a ludicrous conclusion. And that is essentially Nagel’s argument.

But Feguson’s article also has a fatal flaw. It’s in this passage:

Honestly, no. They are exactly the same in kind. If he accepts, as he says he does, that quantum interactions somehow result in our “common sense” macroscopic universe, then the emergence of mind is in no way conceptually different. It just feels different. And we’ll have infinitely more to say on the science in 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years while our feelings will have remained the same. The objection will not stand.

We are incapable of looking at an action, a feeling, a thought, a dream and saying whether we have taken it from free will or are determined to do so. My interpretation is that it’s a false dichotomy and that some synthesis will emerge. Materialism versus spooky stuff is probably equally a product of our ignorance and will be resolved at a higher level. But “I don’t like it because we’re special” is not an argument; it’s a tantrum.

I also am comfortable with your two posts. But why does it have to be “spooky stuff”? What I hear in Nagel’s writing - or more accurately, write-ups of it - is a concern about epistemic arrogance. Materialist thinking, in a negative interpretation, can mean “we can know everything; we just don’t yet.” Why can’t it be “we don’t know everything and are so far away from knowing everything that we have a ways to go.”?

I am okay with the Gödelian possibility that we can’t know everything.

That’s fine with me as well, but it’s not the way that Nagel’s argument was presented. Both from the article and from what I’ve read about the book elsewhere, his claim is that materialist thinking is just plain wrong on a priori grounds.

My position is similar to the one I took above. Just as the proper question there is “why should you think nothing is possible?” the proper question here is “why do you think the universe is susceptible to common sense explanations?” Shouldn’t the answers to the extremes of the universe, realms in which human experience can never intrude, be intrinsically incomprehensible to human experience? Whether math is a part of human experience for this statement remains an open question.

That all makes sense to me - if you feel a key question is to ask “why should we think that the universe can be explained in straightforward ways?” then that suggests that it is possible that the universe is explainable but in ways beyond human comprehension or that it is a priori unexplainable. I don’t feel qualified to tease those options apart as much as it strikes me that expecting to find the universe to be common-sense explainable is an arrogant stretch on Humankind’s part. So Nagel may not be qualified to declare the universe as a priori unexplainable, but I am more comfortable erring on the side of unexplainable vs. fully, Materialistically explainable.

“Oh, Univerrrrrrse, you got some ‘splainin’ to doooooo”


I think this is a very valid concern, which is why I try to be as nondogmatic as I can about my materialism—I certainly don’t think it would be wise to expect or assume that the world needs to conform to my philosophical prejudice. I do think that there are good arguments that such explanation should, in principle, be possible—relating to ideas of causal closure and the simple observation that if an explanation is not possible, it would seem to be a miracle that we have gotten as far as we have—, but ultimately, science and materialism is an epistemic endeavor that, as such, may well fail. However, declaring its failure is premature in my eyes—akin to declaring the failure of medicine because there is still no cure for cancer (and in the case of the Weekly Standard article, akin to arguing that therefore, we should go back to herbal remedies and prayer healing—which would not follow even if the alleged failure were real).

I simply prefer to remain hopeful, because otherwise, what are the alternatives? If we exclude ‘spooky stuff’—which to me, never appears to be an explanation as much as just papering over the holes in our understanding—, about the only ones I can think of are in the realm of the philosophy of mind, anomalous monism (which attempts to give a physicalist, but non-reductive account of mentality), and dual aspect theory (in which some substance—for instance, information—exists that has both physical and mental aspects). (The classification of both as non-materialist can, and has, been debated; I guess actually most people would probably be happy to call anomalous monism in particular materialistic, but my own idea of materialism contains a certain sort of lawfulness that is absent in this account.) So, naturalist (in the sense of ‘no spooky stuff’) non-materialist accounts are hard to come by, it seems (or that might just be an artifact of my ignorance of the literature). Of course, the other option would be to embrace an all-out idealism, but at least to me, that’s also not a very attractive notion: if everything is thought, what’s doing the thinking? Why does it seem as if there are physical systems that themselves produce thought? The ontology seems curiously tangled: thought gives rise to physical systems, (some of) which give rise to thought. Why the apparent physical intermediary?

Invoking Gödel’s theorems in philosophical discussion is always a bit of a cagey enterprise. There’s a great little book by Torkel Franzén, Gödel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse, which highlights the way in which they are often used somewhat erroneously in discussion. The main point is that really, Gödel’s theorems are an assertion about a very narrow domain of discourse—relating to the completeness of formal systems—, and should not be taken too quickly to have importance in discussions beyond this domain. In particular, the inference from ‘in every formal theory capable of capturing a certain fragment of arithmetic, there exist statements that theory can never prove true or false’ to ‘we can’t know everything’ is quite questionable.

The upshot is of course that we can’t know everything for much simpler reasons: some computations may always remain intractable, some observations will just never be made, and some things may be just too damn hard to figure out (or be too uninteresting to ever invest the effort). Gödel’s theorem really is the least of it; what ultimately epistemically limits us is our finite nature. Take the halting problem as a concrete instance of undecidability in the physical world: we can set a computer to perform some task, i.e. some computation. It is in principle impossible to predict whether that computer ever will complete its task, but nevertheless, we can find out in all interesting cases: we just wait and see. If it halts in a time in which the computer is useful for us to perform that task, we will eventually come to know this (even though the question is formally undecidable in the Gödelian sense). If it never halts, we of course never find out—but what we do find out is whether it halts in time to be useful. So while we can’t solve the Gödelian problem, we can solve the practical one—and that’s all we can care about, anyway.

But it’s actually the reliance on common sense that misleads many of those advocating against materialism or reductionism (and it certainly seems to be what riles up the writer of the Weekly Standard article, if maybe not Nagel himself): the idea that mind can come from non-mind seems viscerally wrong, just as the ideas that properties can’t be ascribed to physical systems absent an experimental context or that there is no absolute notion of simultaneity seem to be. Exapno quoted the relevant part of the article: the reasoning seems to be, OK, quantum physics is strange, and so is relativity, but materialistic theories of the mind are really really strange, and hence, can’t be true.

That’s all good stuff; I appreciate your breakdown of these lines of inquiry, especially stuff like over-applying Gödel’s theorem, which I invoked in exactly the dilettante way you describe ;).

Ultimately, your use of the word practical resonates. There is some stuff that Humankind can noodle over but never answer definitively. My basic premise is that we may have another Einsteinian “eureka” moment soon which (for the sake of exaggerated argument) doubles our knowledge of the universe around us - and that would mean we now know, I dunno, .5% of what’s out there instead of .25%. This quantified-knowledge analogy is silly, but my point is that I suspect what we don’t know massively outweighs what we do know and that this will be the case, for all practical purposes, forever.

So hearing that Materialists argue that all is knowable feels like a rhetorical argument. Epistemic arrogance - a too-cocky belief that we know more than we do and that we can know more than it is really possible to know - feels like it is a essential facet of the Human Condition that will always trip us up, from Greek Tragedy to the latest Financial Crisis. Part of all inquiry should include a check - “okay, where are we over-extending ourselves this time?” Nagel may be asserting we can’t know everything, period - but whether that’s true, or it is more of the case that we won’t practically be able to know everything because of Humankind’s cognitive limitations, it still means that unexplainable “spooky stuff” will always be out there. And no, we don’t need to ascribe the “spooky stuff” to proof of God or other unknown forces. But we shouldn’t be like Lord Kelvin, who famously declared* that everything discoverable had been discovered.

Hope this makes sense - not that anyone has to agree with it, just that my points are understandable.

Kelvin’s quote may be apocryphal according to Wikipedia: "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement."Lord Kelvin, allegedly speaking to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. The veracity of this attribution is disputed, and no contemporaneous documentation of the statement is known.* But specifically attributable or not, it sure sounds like us humans when we think we’ve got it figured out :wink:

I have inherent biases just as much as Nagel does, and one of them is about philosophers who don’t know science making pronouncements on it. I started flitting around the edges of the academic side of science fiction as far back as the 1970s, when there was a corresponding rise in philosophical commentary on the weirdnesses of sf tropes, like time travel, and what they really, really meant. Whatever their value as philosophy, the vast majority of them were immediately dismissible because they didn’t analyze the math of relativity, they analyzed the words that talked about the math. IOW, these tenured professors wrote articles in peer-reviewed publications with all the understanding of someone starting a physics thread in GQ.

Since that time a good number of philosophers have put in the hard work of doing graduate-level physics. Obviously, some haven’t. Nagel admittedly has not; he has not gone beyond popular science - even pseudoscience, since reviews state he cites Creationist literature. This enrages me.

Popular science has biases of its own. That Leon Lederman’s book was titled The God Particle instead of That Goddamn Particle says it all. Just as books on the reality of UFOs or the Bermuda Triangle outsell dunking books 100 to 1, popular science books sell better when they make large claims, however hedged in the fine print. I can understand why someone would want to debunk large claims made at the very edges of our ignorance. Doing so by stating that our ignorance is invincible deserves all the scorn it’s received.

If that is what Nagel is doing, I can understand your strong reaction. Stating that our ignorance is invincible would be as epistemically arrogant as a pure Materialist assertion that everything is knowable. Black and white extremes on the same spectrum.

Hmm, I am not feeling debatey, just discussiony - hope that’s okay.

Well, I can’t debate anything because I’m trying to be measured in talking about a book I haven’t read. I hope I put an “if” every sentence. If not… add ifs to taste.

Again, I believe that’s a very valid concern. We’ve certainly shown a tendency to look to the next hill and believing that once we’ve climbed this one, we’ll have climbed them all, completely missing the mountain obscured by it. And in a sense, this isn’t unreasonable: we can only ever take into account known unknowns, which are of course limited by what we know. Trying to plan for unknown unknowns would both be paralyzing and futile, but nevertheless, one should always consider their possibility (moreover, likeliness).

Personally, however, and in full knowledge of the possibility that I might be pulling a Kelvin, I think there’s good reason to believe that we can come to know the answer to most of the interesting questions, even though we can’t know the answer to all questions simpliciter. The reason is basically that these questions have a global character: questions like ‘why* is there something and not nothing?’, ‘how does consciousness work?’, or ‘what is the theory of everything?’ seem—if they can be answered at all, that is—unlikely to depend for their explanation on epistemically remote or inaccessible features of the universe, as the consequences of their answers are all around us, all the time.

But there’s a flipside ‘epistemic hubris’ attached to this thought that one should carefully guard oneself against as well: it is all too easily possible to fabricate an air of mock superiority over those at the bleeding edge of scientific discovery by simply positing that they’ll never know everything, and they don’t even know that. But I do, so I know more than them. It’s an attractive and easy shortcut way: one gets to feel smarter than everyone without having to expend much energy to actually learn and study things (and one gets to feel doubly smart because all those boffins are not only fools because they believe they know (or can know) everything, but also because they arrived there at this laborious route—all for naught!).

I think this is also a very human folly: we naturally seek out the pedestal by which to elevate us above our peers. And I think there’s few that haven’t been down that road one time or another (after all, we’ve all known everything when we were young enough—I know I was a particularly embarrassing know-it-all). But once we fashion this excuse for ignorance into a philosophy, things become problematic: whenever a question we declared unanswerable becomes answered—as it probably will—, the foundation for our nice little pedestal is threatened, and we lash out in all the familiar ways known from creationists, conspiracy theorists, climate change skeptics and other c-words. All very human, to be sure—our own personal pedestal after all provides for us a way to pick us out of the masses, to identify ourselves, and any attack on it then is essentially an attack on our very own personal selves. But also quite dangerous.

*Krauss, in the debate, makes much of the old adage that ‘science can’t answer “why”-questions, it only answers “how”’. Personally, I think this is flat wrong in general; for one, science answers ‘why’-questions all the time: why did the stone fall down? Gravity. Why does photosynthesis exceed all reasonable expectations in efficiency? Because of quantum mechanical coherence between chromatophores. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because evolutionary selection pressures outfitted it with a road-crossing instinct (OK, so some answers are better than others). But more importantly, it’s really not the type of question that determines whether or not it can be answered scientifically, but the type of answer: specifically, a teleological answer—where a ‘why’ question is answered by some sort of ultimate end, say, the will of an almighty god—won’t be found via the scientific method. In a rough sense, one might say that ‘why’-questions that can’t be reformulated as ‘how’-questions, i.e. that can’t be answered by finding a mechanism whose description is asked for by the ‘how’ question, are not the kind of questions answered by science—but then, asserting that any given ‘why’ question has no scientific answer is no more than just a brute assertion, whose justification can at best come post facto, after a definite answer has been found. Science has other limitations, to be sure—for one, it doesn’t care about much but the factual, or more accurately empirical, content of a statement, rather than its justification and analysis. But I think the ‘why’-plea should be put to rest.

Yep, all good - your concerns about arrogantly asserting we can’t know everything is what I talk about in my post #33 above - that is just as much a concern as arrogantly asserting we can know everything. Any time we humans are finding ourselves making such assertions, my antenna immediately goes up.