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Orlando asks

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, it is.

The argument intends to show that the development of a complex living creature by the random process of natural selection is as likely as the production of a Boeing 707 by the random process of a tornado in a junkyard ie so fantastically unlikely that we can dismiss the idea. Here’s the flaw. The tornado effect is a one-step process. But evolution proceeds by many intermediate steps, each of which is stable and conserved. The difference can be illustrated by the monkey-typing analogy mentioned by Geoffrey Klempner in his answer and used by Dawkins in his writings. The tornado is equivalent to the monkey having to type Hamlet all in one go – if an attempt fails (as it will) he starts again from scratch, and so on it goes, pretty well for ever, without success. Evolution is equivalent to keeping the letters which are correct in any given attempt while starting again with the others: so, if a version produces “T” where it should be, we keep this till  a later version happens to produce an “o” after the “T”, and now we have “To”. Pretty soon we get “To be or” and so on. In this way, and Dawkins quantifies it, Hamlet will not take that long for the monkey to produce.

Incidentally, I am a big fan of Fred Hoyle, his science, popular science books and science fiction. He coined the term “Big Bang” as one of derision (he championed the rival steady state idea which lost out as convincing evidence for the big bang appeared). He should have got the Nobel prize for his work on resonance states of carbon. Maybe his being a blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman outside the “establishment” of his day had something to do with it. He wasnt afraid to go out on a limb with his ideas, and he was more often right than wrong.

Orlando asked:

Is the “junkyard tornado” argument of Sir Fred Hoyle for the existence of God as bad as Richard Dawkins seems to think it is?

Geoffrey Klempner

As I recall — from Dawkins’ 1991 televised Royal Society Christmas Lectures, which I sat through, spellbound — is that Dawkins accepts the ‘steep slope of improbability’ as a challenge which he believes can be met. Improbable as it may seem, computer modelling demonstrates that there is a series of relatively ‘small’ evolutionary steps that lead, e.g. to a fully-formed wing or an eye.

But suppose Dawkins is wrong. I don’t see that it really matters. We can go further and assume that Darwin’s theory of evolution is complete rubbish, just as the creationists say it is.

Imagine that I gave you a typescript of the works of Shakespeare, and told you that it had been typed out, without a single mistake, by my pet chimpanzee. You would have every reason to disbelieve me.

However, we know that there is a finite a priori probability that what I have described might take place — in some possible world. Just work out the total number of actions that a chimpanzee could conceivably perform on a keyboard, including tapping a key, pressing shift or return, etc. then put that number to the power of the number of characters, spaces, paragraphs in Shakespeare’s works.

The result is a very large number. But so what? That doesn’t show that it’s impossible. Only that I must be pulling your leg, by any reasonable standard for belief.

The story of a Boeing 747 being ‘assembled’ by a junkyard tornado out of aeroplane parts is more problematic, because one would first like to see a proof that various stages in the assembly are physically possible, regardless of improbability. For example, inserting rivets requires a riveting gun, otherwise you just don’t have sufficient steady force to do the job. Epoxy glue needs to be heated to the right temperature. And so on.

Well, let’s agree that the formation, say, of DNA from its chemical constituents is as improbable, or even more improbable than the chimpanzee story. The difference is that you and I are here, talking about this, so unless creationism is true in some form or other, we just happen to be extremely lucky. In our possible world — one in a gazillion — things turned out just fine.

Why believe that tall story rather than creationism? The familiar reasons, which I won’t repeat here. The argument I’ve just given isn’t going to convince anyone who is a true believer in the Bible, but it works just fine for any true believer in science who is against creationism on fundamental principle.

My gut feeling is that there’s a lot of work still to do before Darwin’s theory looks like a genuine theory rather than the most plausible conjecture. It’s only on the table because it doesn’t have any real competitor as a naturalistic account. I’m with Fred Hoyle that evolution is not exactly easy to believe.

As an historical digression, the Ancient Greek atomists didn’t have anything so fancy as Darwin’s idea about natural selection to work from. They may well have observed how when wet gravel is shaken in a sieve — as in panning for gold — the heaviest lumps move to the centre. In addition, by the principle of insufficient reason, there must be atoms of every conceivable shape, so when the ‘right’ atoms collide, they stick together like Lego bricks, eventually forming the world as we know it. (Computer model that!)

In other words, with only initial random motion, it is possible to have a physical system whereby entropy is reduced on purely natural principles. That was all the atomists thought they needed.

Timothy asks:

“Are we in a simulation?”

Though it is not strictly a logical approach to ask a philosophical question by reflecting on a feeling I do feel it helps to add meaning and perspective for the question. I wanted to ask what are the chances that we are living in a simulation. One reason I ask this is because of the infinitely unlikely possibility when looked at scientifically that I would ever be alive and yet less to be a human and in the era I could write this. Either this is like winning the lottery 1 million times in a row or something else is at work that I am alive, as a human (my opinion the best thing to be), in this era with all this technology. Thoughts?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Wonder at your existence, worry that you might be a simulant. Two philosophically interesting thoughts in one question. Also, it’s just fine if a question arises from a feeling.

Yes, your (or my, or my cat’s, or the squirrel in my garden’s) existence was hugely improbable. Had a different sperm out of the millions competing to penetrate the ovum been successful, had your father been away on business on the day you were conceived, you wouldnt exist. Also the huge fluke that your parents chose to mate with each other rather than with one of the many alternatives. And it’s mind boggling to think that not a single one of your millions of forebears over 3 billion years failed to reproduce. If just one of your myriad fishy ancestors had been eaten by a bigger fish when young, no you. And yes it is like a lottery. Just as somebody has to win however tiny the odds of success, so, given that you exist, you must be somebody, and somebody has to be you.

As to whether you (and I) are simulants, the answer is it’s a distinct possibility but it’s difficult to assign a probability. We assume there is a real world with intelligent beings in it. And your question is whether you could be a simulated being in a simulated world created by these real beings  who run the simulation on their supercomputers.

Clearly such technology is beyond current human capabilities. But given the pace of developments in computing and AI,  it may be  that future superintelligences, either augmented humans, or maybe more likely nonhuman following the singularity of the development of  smarter-than-us AIs which rapidly engineer ever-smarter successors  to reach unimaginable levels of intelligence.

And so the probability you seek depends on:

  1. Whether superintelligences will arise.
  2. Whether they would be interested in simulating earlier eras of human life (say as a game or for historical research), rather than ignoring or eliminating humans.
  3. Whether such simulations would be frequent (like our computer games played in most households).
  4. Whether simulated humans would be genuinely conscious (like you and me).

If the answers to these four questions are all yes, and they might be, then right now it’s far more likely that we exist in a future simulation than that we live in the real world in the 21st century.

So, in case we do, let’s tell the Simulater that we’re on to it:

Hey there BIGBRAIN, we know you’re there. And in case you had doubts, yes we are aware, we love, laugh, cry and care about our little lives down here. And dont get too smug up there in your real world, for you and your world could themselves just be simulations by yet higher orders of intelligence in the proper real world. Or maybe it’s simulations, rather than turtles, all the way.

Philip asked:

Is it possible that our innate sense of self, our egocentric outlook on the world, could be wrong? After all, our brains are never REALLY connected; so we cannot know for sure that our consciousness is REALLY separated by anything else than space and time. What I mean is; Is it possible that there could be only a single universal consciousness of which we are all a part? Could this REALLY be how it is? Or are there any philosophical arguments against this view? I haven’t been myself since I first had this thought and I’m dying for an answer. On the one hand it feels exhilarating, on the other hand it kinda kills one’s self image. What do you people think?

Timothy asked:

“Are we in a simulation?”

Though it is not strictly a logical approach to ask a philosophical question by reflecting on a feeling, I do feel it helps to add meaning and perspective for the question. I wanted to ask what the chances are we are living in a simulation? One reason I ask this is because of the infinitely unlikely possibility when looked at scientifically that I would ever be alive and less yet to be a human and in the era I could write this. Either this is like winning the lottery 1 Million times in a row or something else is at work that I am alive, as a human (my opinion the best thing to be), in this era with all this technology. Thoughts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

It may not be obvious that these two questions are connected, but I immediately thought of the philosopher Arnold Zuboff. I first met Arnold back around 1974-5, when he gave a paper at Birkbeck College Philosophy Society. As President for that year, it was my duty to entertain invited guests at a local restaurant. Over dinner, he hit me with this question: How unlikely is it that I ever came into existence?

The question seems to smash science into a pile of rubble. There is something science cannot explain, why I am in the world. However, that’s not Zuboff’s view at all. A few months ago, I came across Arnold’s YouTube video, Finding Myself — And Undoing the Fear of Death as Annihilation. (The video is over two hours long so you might want to make some sandwiches.)

In his presentation, Zuboff argues from science — or, rather, from a materialist view of the brain and its relation to consciousness — to the remarkable conclusion that there is only ONE subject, who is you, me, and every other conscious being in the universe.

As Philip says, ‘a single universal consciousness of which we are all part’. This is actually a view put forward, more or less tentatively, by Thomas Nagel in The View From Nowhere. It’s really just a way of looking at the ‘I’ question. The statement ‘I am TN’ when uttered by TN, or the statement ‘I am GK’ when uttered by GK, are both true and non-tautological, because the ‘I’ in each case refers to a singular entity Nagel calls the ‘Objective Self’.

The million-dollar question is what exactly this means. If it’s just a way of looking at the self and consciousness, then nothing is implied about the actual world that we don’t already know. Human beings are separate individuals, just as before. In other words, we’re just talking about a way of assimilating the consequences of materialism, getting comfortable with the idea. However, as an argument against the fear of death — which is what Arnold wants this to be — I don’t feel the least bit comforted by the thought that human life will go on after my material body perishes. I just don’t see the thing that Arnold ‘sees’.

On the other hand, if all this is just a simulation, if the entities of physics are not the ultimate reality but merely, say, patterns on an alien mega-computer chip or hard drive, then that puts a whole different complexion on things. I could be the one singular consciousness playing the ‘video game’ of human life, pretending to be, first, one particular person, then another particular person, then another. In the words of Alan Watts (whom I’ve quoted far too many times) ‘We are all It’. The singular entity, according to Hindu philosophy as articulated in the Upanishads, plays the game of forgetting who It is, and pretending to be you, me and everyone else.

I get it. We’ve all experienced what it’s like to remember something you had forgotten. Imagine if all these lost memories came flooding back at once. You would know that you were not who you thought you were, an ‘ego in a bag of skin’ (Watts The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are) but rather everyone. But I don’t believe that either. What problem would it solve? And wouldn’t the inevitable consequence be that I was, after all, alone in the universe? Just pretending to be a person in relation to other persons? How sad would that be!

For now, I prefer to think that, yes, it is a remarkable fact that I exist, but this isn’t necessarily the same ‘remarkable fact’ as the fact that GK exists. I don’t know what are the conditions for the existence or non-existence of the thing I am now calling ‘I’. Maybe, if GK hadn’t existed, I would be someone else, or maybe not. That’s all one can say until we have more to go on.

Philo asked:

Does the following successfully establish a presumption of strong global atheism?

“Define strong global atheism as the view that there is no god. There is a presumption of strong global atheism because theists propose the addition of a supernatural entity (a god) to what is already known to exist (the natural world). That is, theists make an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, strong global atheism is warranted.”

Answer by Gershon Velvel

As a would-be atheist, I am the first to admit that there is a lot of stuff I don’t know. To paraphrase a remark I heard somewhere, ‘there are unknown unknowns’. It’s bad enough not knowing stuff, worse when you’re not even able to form a conception of the kind of thing that might be missing from your inventory of knowledge.

Not knowing what I don’t know in relation to the God question, I feel somewhat queasy about any argument based on evidence or the lack of it. By saying that ‘evidence is required’, you are issuing a challenge, a challenge you believe cannot be met. But you are leaving the larger claim completely unchallenged: the claim that the God-hypothesis makes some sort of sense. If it didn’t make sense, how do you even know what you are talking about?

First of all, we need to explore a relative side issue. Does the claim that some ‘supernatural entity’ exists require ‘extraordinary evidence’?

It depends. The supernatural entity in question might be rather small and localized: a poltergeist, for example. Admittedly, if someone makes the claim that they have a poltergeist in their home, you are going to want to sift the evidence very carefully indeed. But if you are in the living room, with all your fancy electronic equipment, and objects start flying across the room for no reason at all, there comes a point where you have to say that the evidence of something matching the description of ‘poltergeist’ is overwhelming.

Is this likely to happen? I don’t believe so. David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion makes the point that even with seemingly ‘overwhelming evidence’ you have to consider the balance of probability: the chance that science is fundamentally flawed, and the natural world is not all there is, versus the chance that someone has played a very clever trick or that you’re having a hallucination, or whatever. But then again, if poltergeists became a regular occurrence, that argument would start looking rather thin.

Back to God. There is a case for saying that the flaw in the evidential argument gives the theist all they need. If you allow that the notion of God as a supernatural entity makes sense, then you have to allow that there is some possible world (I mean logically possible not ‘nomologically possible’) in which God exists. God isn’t just some very powerful supernatural being. (That would be the Devil.) God is a necessary being. So far as anyone existing in that logically possible world — call it the God-world — is concerned, God exists in ‘all possible worlds’. By a simple application of modal logic, if God exists as a necessary being in some possible world, then God exists in all possible worlds. Ergo, God exists.

I’ve just offered a version of St Anselm’s ontological argument updated with contemporary possible world semantics. As it stands it sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Intuitively, it just seems a mistake to concede that much to the theist. Then again, maybe you could resist the argument by tweaking your modal logic so that ‘all possible worlds’ means something different in different possible worlds (look up ‘possible worlds’ and ‘accessibility relations’) but that looks like desperation to me.

Milly asked:

Examine the view that our understanding of the universe is enhanced by our ability to distinguish appearance and reality.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, right? Raj, who joined the class at the beginning of term looks a bit of a dimwit. He sits at the back of the class, never asks questions and his conversation consists mostly of monosyllables. Wrong! Turns out that Raj has an IQ of 187 (and you can continue the story from there).

It’s a truism that knowledge and understanding are advanced by questioning our preliminary judgements or the way things first appear to us. Looks can be deceptive. On the other hand, your initial judgement can be absolutely on target. That happens too. Human beings have a remarkable ability to suss things out swiftly, a valuable survival trait gifted to us by evolution. With people, especially. You can be right in your initial impression then subsequently get taken in by a web of lies because you didn’t trust your ‘intuition’.

The ability to distinguish appearance and reality is not confined to human beings. Mimicry as a method of self-defence is a widespread feature of the animal and insect worlds, which has led to an evolutionary arms race between the resourcefulness of the mimics and the ability of predators to see through the mimicry.

To the best of my knowledge, however, non-human animals do not have any ‘understanding of the universe’, so let’s put that aside.

Histories of Western philosophy identify the Presocratic philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes as the first thinkers to question whether the world really is as it appears. Anaximenes held the remarkable view that every object in the universe is more or less compressed air. Despite appearances, you and I are compressed air. The chair you are sitting on is nothing but compressed air, and so on.

The Presocratics were the first thinkers to propose theories to explain the world and how it came to be the way it is. Up to that time, cosmogony, or accounts of how the universe came into being, was basically make-believe.

Here’s an example: once upon a time there was a male and a female god, who had sex and as a result the female god hatched a giant egg which cracked open revealing a fully formed world. — Dumb, right? However, as the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes noted, the best theories of the time were ultimately not much more than guesswork. Human beings can never know what is really real, he thought. We entertain one another with more or less rational ‘accounts’ of the cosmos.

Fast forward 2500 years and we now have ways of testing at least some of these accounts. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted the bending of light by large gravitational fields, a prediction that was first confirmed in 1919. On the other hand, M-theory or ‘string theory’ as it’s known is still waiting a practical test and may never be capable of being verified or falsified.

So what?

So far so good — for science, anyway. Most theories are testable, and the ones that aren’t still provide a useful occupation for theoretical physicists who don’t like to bother with finicky experiments and are happy with just a whiteboard and coloured markers. (They are much cheaper to run than the ones who insist on having time on the Large Hadron Collider, so universities love them.)

In metaphysics, on the other hand, the appearance-reality distinction has proved catastrophic. Over the centuries, philosophers have proposed ever more elaborate ‘theories of everything’ or accounts of ‘ultimate reality’ — from Berkeley to Leibniz to Kant to Schopenhauer, Fichte and Hegel — none of which commands any credence except as an historical curiosity. As a result, metaphysics has become what exactly Kant feared, writing in 1781 in his Preface to the First Edition of Critique of Pure Reason:

“Time was when metaphysics was entitled the Queen of all the sciences; and if the will be taken for the deed, the pre-eminent importance of her accepted tasks gives her every right to this title of honour. Now, however, the changed fashion of the time brings her only scorn; a matron outcast and forsaken, she mourns like Hecuba: Modo maxima rerum, tot generis natisque potens — nunc trahor exul, inops.” [‘Greatest of all things by birth and power, now I am exiled and destitute.’]

Kant is as much to blame as any Western philosopher, with his hopelessly obscure theory of ‘Phenomena and Noumena’, which Hegel rejected only to replace it with an even more fantastical theory, according to which — despite all appearance to the contrary — ‘the Real is Rational and the Rational is the Real.’

Today, the term ‘metaphysics’ in English-speaking philosophy is largely used as a label for anything but the serious attempt to give an account of ultimate reality.

However, I happen to believe that it is possible to give an account of ultimate reality without invoking the appearance-reality distinction. If you want to know how, well that’s something I’m currently working on but you can start by looking at my blog Metaphysical Journal.


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