Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Grand Move in THE GRAND DESIGN


The first two chapters of THE GRAND DESIGN lay out this view:

A quantum-informed understanding of the world is very different than a common sense understanding of the world. Unlike a common sense understanding of the world, a quantum understanding of the world can answer the big questions surrounding why there is a universe, with the laws it has, which make the seeming miracle of our existence possible. Given this claim, the rationales for belief in God that arise out of a common sense understanding of the world are obviated by a quantum-informed understanding of the world. The "space for God" once reserved by natural theology with its common sense view of reality has been eliminated.

As it pertains to the--supposedly now defunct--God question, that is the first two chapters of THE GRAND DESIGN in pure abstraction. Since the Hawking/Mlodinow approach was to give a brief overview based on their expert understanding, it is best for me to give you the bare abstraction and refer you to the book, if you wish to begin filling in a few details. Since I will in no way contest the science--just the conclusions drawn from it, aka, the Hawking/Mlodinow philosophical perspective--that is sufficient.

The just referenced "Hawking/Mlodinow philosophical perspective" implies that even if we grant to them that their quantum-informed science answers the big questions of the old common sense view of reality, there is a new field of metaphysical speculation opened up by their quantum science. Does anyone really think that we won't go meta on the new science and ask "is that all there is?" with respect to the understanding of the world wrought by the new physics?

Implicitly Hawking and Mlodinow address this question. For it is the need to close off this pretty obvious human tendency to "go meta" that they resort to a new form of that old chestnut, positivism: their "model-dependent realism."

The Grand Move

Model-dependent realism is the grand philosophical move in THE GRAND DESIGN. The argument for it is found in Chapter 3, "What Is Reality?"

Hawking and Mlodinow begin their exposition of model-dependent "reality" by making the point that a pet goldfish looking out from a frame of reference that begins with its transparent, spherical bowl would arrive at a different science--we're assuming that fish can do science--than someone outside the bowl. We might hope that the fish would arrive at a paradigm that allows it to think outside the bowl, but let's not spoil the point of the illustration: we are influenced by our means of observing the world, at least till we (via science) arrive at a better way to "see."

They begin with the illustration for an important reason. They want to establish that there is complete identity between what we think of as "reality" and our observation of it. To wit:

"According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that agree with observation, like the goldfish's picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another." (46)

This follows from two things. First, the definition of model-dependent realism, and second, the claim that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality." (42)

Here's the definition:

"...model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations." (45)

Obviously, if there is no concept of reality apart from a model formed from a person's (or fish's) frame of reference, then reality simply IS what we perceive it to be--presumably it should be added, "in coherent moments where one's frame of reference is not distorted," i.e., we can't be on acid or be looking out from a place where our "fishbowl" has a crack or flaw in the glass.

Here's the crucial point--though it is never explicitly addressed in the book. It is incoherent to say of a false point of view that it is "real." For that reason, the Hawking/Mlodonow position must be that "If there are two models that agree with observation, like the goldfish's picture and ours, then one cannot say that one is more real than another." (46) For if model-dependent observations of the world are sometimes wrong, unbeknown to the person in the thrall of their frame of reference at a given time, then it must be allowed that Hawking and Mlodonow implicitly endorse a view by which--incoherently--they claim of a false point of view that it is real.

In my first post on this book, I expressed my frustration with the central use of model-dependent reality for this very incoherency. To buttress my opinion I cited Thomas Kuhn's comment below:

"Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism [from a Ptolemaic frame of reference] does not say, 'I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite.' That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. Instead a convert to the new astronomy says, '...I was mistaken.'" (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second Ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1970) 113-4.)

But in THE GRAND DESIGN the authors specifically take on the view that one frame of reference, or "model" of reality, can falsify another by disallowing the very point I had Kuhn make for me:

"So which is real, the Ptolemaic or Copernican system? Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true. As in the case of our normal view versus that of the goldfish, one can use either picture as a model of the universe, for our observations of the heavens can be explained by assuming either the earth or the sun to be at rest. Despite its role in philosophical debates over the nature of the universe, the real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler..." (41-2)

Is it really that simple--just a choice between alternative realities based on which frame of reference is more convenient or, perhaps, familiar? No. In fact, the example can be clearly falsified, making Kuhn's point of view clearly true, and the Hawking/Mlodonow view clearly false.

Falsifying the Hawking/Mlodinow Grand Move

If one scientific frame of reference simply subsumes another--which is one way of construing the move from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican model of the universe--there is no contradiction between them, and both can be coherently called models of "reality," just as Hawking and Mlodinow wish us to do. But that is not the case, either here or with respect to the move from a Newtonian framework to an Einsteinian one, or from an Einsteinian one to the quantum-based framework in THE GRAND DESIGN. We will look at the falsification of the Ptolemaic model by the Copernican, since it is so simple to show (and it was the case used for purposes of illustration by Hawking/Mlodinow).

Assume just these two commonly known truths of "reality" that current science has confirmed for us: that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference, and that we live in an amazingly vast cosmos, in which the nearest star to the Sun (Alpha Cantauri AB) is 4.37 light years away. Since a frame of reference in which the Sun goes around the Earth will include the third brightest star in the ski (Alpha Centauri AB) as part of the observational backdrop, Alpha Centauri AB will also have to travel around the Earth. But then every day Alpha Centauri AB will need to travel its distance from our (presumed) geocentric center of reference, doubled to get the diameter of the circuit it must travel, times pi to get the circumference of the curcuit, times 365 to convert light year speed to a distance traveled in a single 24-hour period, by which we arrive at a speed for Alpha Centauri AB as it travels around the Earth of 10,016 light years per day. That's a little over one million percent of the speed of light, which is a constant in all frames of reference at one millionth the extrapolated speed of Alpha Centauri AB. If that is not a blatant falsification of the Ptolemaic model, it's difficult to think of what would be.

But that is not the end of the embarrassing problems for Hawking/Mlodinow, based on their own statements. Recall the claim that "There is no picture- or model-independent concept of reality." (42) But what about their handling of the question of free will in the face of the admission that their deterministic paradigm may well never be able to provide a model of how human volition works:

"How can one tell if a being has free will? ... We cannot even solve the equations for three or more particles interacting with each other. Since [a being our size has]...about a thousand trillion trillion would be impossible to solve the equations and predict what [a being our size]... would do. We would therefore have to say [by default] that any complex being has free will--not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions." (178)

So no effective model of human volition is possible, but free will is posited by default as "an effective theory." That sounds like "a model-independent concept of reality." Of course, the hedge that the "theory" is not a "fundamental feature" was made. But there it is for all to see: a "fundamental feature" of reality for which there is no model. That directly contradicts the claim that "There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality." That is, unless a "theory" that can't account for what it is a theory of counts... This is a version of the commonplace objections to old-style positivism that things like love, which we know about, can't be observed in the way positivism requires. But it's nice to have THE GRAND DESIGN provide another example for its ideological opponents.

This is enough to show that Hawking and Mlodinow are very much in need of the philosophical perspective they begin their book by disparaging. Since the grand move by which they want to place philosophical theology out of bounds forever more (model-dependent realism) is so deeply flawed, we can safely call that project as questionable in the least, if not outright failed.

A more interesting line of enquery going forward is whether the questions one can ask when going meta on the new quantum-based physics account of consmology are still meaningful. (Hint: See the C. S. Peirce quote at the head of this blog!)

Note: What a friend has called "the occasion gauntlet," aka, "the holidays," is upon us. I'll get to the next post when I can--but I promise, it will be fun. Since the comments are disabled, email me at with any questions. Any credible challenge will be noted and responded to.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Lesson to Remedy Overconfidence

After a very busy weekend filled with making plans for promoting my rower next year, including exploring possible speed record attempts that have me really excited, I thought I would comment on a life lesson that the weekend reminded me of.

Of words I've heard that seemed way off base when I first heard them, these--spoken at the end of a conversation with the patent examiner of my first application--stand out: "Next time..." The entire comment does not matter here. It is the two words, "Next time..." that matter most.

Having invested a year developing a product to the point that I had tested it enough to believe in it; having spent a year learning how to write a patent correctly; how to research and specify and make the claims effectively in an arcane and detailed form; having called on favors from friends and family to test and comment on and draw the rower for me; the thought of "Next time..." seemed ludicrous. I was just so pleased to be DONE.

Two realizations had not yet set in for me, which would transform my attitude toward those words. First, once begun, an area of experiment and investigation takes on a life of its own--assuming there is enough success for the idea to remain "live." And second, it is very difficult, having already put in tremendous time and effort in an area, not to continue that effort when a promising way forward presents itself. The psychological momentum is just tremendous. Apparently the patent examiner knew all this--as well as the fact that I was far from having perfected my idea.

There are two applications here, for the analysis of Stephen Hawking's and Leonard Mlodinow's view that Feynman's quantum theory obviates theological speculations about ultimate origins. The first is indirect--a background point. Before making an application for a patent, it is crucial that a careful and thorough job of researching the "prior art" has been carried out. Hawking and Mlodinow cite Augustine's ideas from Book Ten of the Confessions about the interface of time and eternity, but utterly fail to understand, let alone appreciate them. Put simply, Augustine's "prior art," with respect to THE GRAND DESIGN, undercuts the Hawking/Mlodinow point of view. I will not link to prior posts on Augustine's argument here, since I have improvements to it that I want to introduce on this blog in forthcoming posts.

More directly, the authors believe that they have finished the work of knocking the life out of philosophical theology. (The direct quote, you will recall, is "...philosophy is dead." (p. 5.)) Well, "next time" the authors take up the subject--and I take no joy in stating this--they will need to think through the implications of their science with more precision. Which is to say that a resurrection of the supposedly "dead" discipline is needed, if they are to clarify their thinking.

An example will help:

"Though it may sound like philosophy, the weak anthropic principle can be used to make scientific predictions. For example, how old is the universe?" (sic., p. 154.) That's a line that--I would have supposed--would be found in the likes of my favorite cartoon, non sequitur. In fact, the thought process--and I may go into this in more detail in a later post--for the authors is a deductive application of current scientific understanding (of the processes that had to be in place to arrive at a planet like ours that supports intelligent life) to the question of the earth's age. But the process of deduction as a means of "advancing" scientific understanding is Aristotelian!

Don't get me wrong. I intend to take Hawking's and Mlodinow's word in all areas of their scientific expertise. Thus, I intend to accept the deductions by which they extend their understanding of quantum theory as it appliers to the origin of our cosmos. So this won't be the latest version of the Flat Earth Society. What it will be is a sober analysis of whether THE GRAND DESIGN is the end of anything.

And as I prepare my thoughts about that I could not help but recall the words, "Next time..." directed my way when I had made the mistake of thinking I had brought a subject to its terminus.

This will be fun. But I hope not to be mean spirited or flippant: it is precisely because THE GRAND DESIGN tells us important new things about the state of scientific understanding with respect to philosophical theology that it is important and interesting. And if Hawking and Mlodinow made a few mistakes and left a few stones unturned that an amateur theologian can point out and pick up, well, it was nice of them to set me up!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Appraising Hawking's THE GRAND DESIGN--Introduction

With co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking begins THE GRAND DESIGN by telling the reader that "...philosophy is dead." ((Bantam, New York: 2010) p. 5.) Having just read the quote a few weeks ago when I had a chance to talk with a friend who teaches ethics through the philosophy department at the local university, I was treated with a little joke: "If philosophy is dead, then nothing is permitted!"

The grand claim, otiose though it certainly is when applied broadly to "philosophy," contains a core point that anyone who cares about the interface of science and theology will want to note. Hawking and Mlodinow employ an approach to quantum physics pioneered by Richard Feynman that obviates the version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that most persons--who take an interest in the interface of science and theology--will be familiar with. William Lane Craig's simplified version of the cosmological argument summarizes the familiar line of argumentation well:

Everything that has a beginning has a cause. The universe has a beginning. Therefore, the universe has a cause. ("The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.")

Paul Davies' words, below, provide insight into why someone as bright as Hawking could arrive at such an immoderate appraisal of their own position.

This so-called cosmological argument has in one form or another often been used as evidence for the existence of God. Over the centuries it has been refined and debated by many theologians and philosophers, sometimes with great subtlety. The enigma of the cosmic origin is probably the one area where the atheistic scientist will feel uncomfortable. (THE MIND OF GOD (Touchstone, New York: 1992) p. 39.)

Clearly Hawking and Mlodinow were focused on "the one area" where a philosopher doing natural theology could still make an "atheistic scientist...feel uncomfortable." If they are correct that the cosmological argument is based on a "naive view of reality...not compatible with modern physics," (p. 7) it follows that the "one area" where philosophy (and theology) still had something of note to bring to a conversation with atheistic scientists has been lost--that is, assuming the informed point of view makes the old, naive philosophical point of view obsolete. In that sense, philosophy would be "dead." They are not correct. But at least we have marked the origin of their overweening claim.

What I like and appreciate about THE GRAND DESIGN is that it wastes no time in getting to the point: An informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself. That is their claim, and they stay on point from first to last, to their credit.

What I like and appreciate least about the book is that its reliance on "model-dependent realism" as the criterion of meaningfulness--pathetically--falsifies itself every time a more encompassing model is devised. In Thomas Kuhn's words,

In the sciences...if perceptual switches accompany paradigm changes, we may not expect scientists to attest to these changes directly. Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism does not say, "I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite." That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press: 1979) p. 114-5.)

Of course, looking backward, it is not a problem that better new paradigms can falsify and obviate older inferior ones. So long as I am in possession of a never-to-be outstripped point of view, I can without fear of contradiction identify reality itself with my model of it. But this view is inconsistent with what a study of the history of science tells us about science itself. It used to be the black mark against positivism--sometimes called "scientism"--that it was a philosophical stance toward science that placed a philosophical stance toward science out of bounds (i.e., that science marked the boundary of the meaningful). This new scientism is inconsistent with the history of science. It places the supposed boundary of meaningful inquiry at the boundary of today's scientific models. One would hope for better from the likes of Hawking.

Nevertheless, the core point of the book is not affected by this almost incredibly ironic philosophical naivete, which will prove the book's downfall. That point, again, is that an informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself.

So it is important to note the philosophical naivete employed in the book, because it exposes the importance of examining the (rash) claims that Hawking and Mlodinow make in dismissing philosophical arguments, to their immediate discredit (and ultimate demise). But an account of the new quantum-based physics' challenge to traditional views of the relationship of natural theology to science is both interesting and important, and I want to voice my appreciation for the clear challenge THE GRAND DESIGN poses.

I hope to do a creditable job of depicting the core argument found in THE GRAND DESIGN in coming posts. Most of us can learn much from the Hawking/Mlodinow narrative--I have, at least. And in saying so I intend to express my trust in their depiction of the new quantum-based physics and how the model of the cosmos it provides affects an analysis of the cosmological argument--that supposed last stand for the philosophical theologian.

Next week we will look at an overview of the Hawking/Mlodinow argument.

[Note: I will not be enabling comments. However, I will pose any substantive question or challenge that I get via email:]