No time to ‘splain. Let me sum up… The setting is an Intelligence Squared debate in which we have two teams: Team A, composed of physicist Lawrence Krauss and writer Michael Shermer, arguing the motion that “science refutes God” and Team B, composed of political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and physicist Ian Hutchinson, arguing against the motion.
The debate moved to a secondary subject, which was the nature of physical laws. Team A (spokesman Laurence Krauss) opened the dialogue this way….
– so I want to just make it clear. The laws of physics are deterministic. The Schrödinger equation which is the basis of quantum mechanics is a second order differential equation, and, therefore, the laws are deterministic. Our observations aren’t deterministic, but the underlying laws are deterministic. Nothing’s changed in 400 years. And so it’s really important – You start with an initial condition for the equations of quantum mechanics, and the evolution of the system is determined unambiguously – It has no uncertainty. Your measurement of the system has uncertainty, but the evolution of the underlying system is completely determined.
This argument seems circular to me. Essentially Krauss is saying that since we have chosen to order quantum mechanical equations in this way, and label them thusly, therefore the laws are deterministic. The argument that it is our observations and not the underlying laws that are ambiguous is a satisfying one, and I would say obviously applies to mechanistic physical structures, but it doesn’t account for intervention by competing systems and sub-systems.
To illustrate, gravity pulls objects down along a pre-determined trajectory … unless another system or object intervenes, then the trajectory is changed. That new trajectory may be determined by laws of physics, but it can be upset yet again by another intervention. That these other objects or systems can intervene is, itself, an evidence that though its laws may be deterministic taken alone, as a system, they are not.
Moreover, this is an argument given by the same limited consciousness that is making the ambiguous observations. If we are to have any external knowledge of the “water” in which we swim that is not filtered through that same water, it must come from an external source … a God.
Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at some length about the role of the senses and reason in the formation of human philosophy and scientific views before an audience of agnostics, atheists and free-thinkers in San Francisco back in 1912. I’m going to let him debate Krauss on this point:
The criterion of judgment in the estimation of western philosophers is sense perception. They consider that which is tangible or perceptible to the senses to be a reality—that there is no doubt of its existence. For example, we prove the existence of this light through the sense of sight… The opinion of these philosophers is that such perception is reality, that the senses are the highest standard of perception and judgment, in which there can neither be doubt nor uncertainty. In the estimation of the philosophers of the Orient, especially those of Greece and Persia, the standard of judgment is the intellect. They are of the opinion that the criterion of the senses is defective, and their proof is that the senses are often deceived and mistaken. That which is liable to mistake cannot be infallible, cannot be a true standard of judgment.
Among the senses the most powerful and reliable is that of sight. This sense views a mirage as a body of water and is positive as to its character, whereas a mirage is nonexistent. The sense of vision, or sight, sees reflected images in a mirror as verities, when reason declares them to be nonexistent. The eye sees the sun and planets revolving around the earth, whereas in reality the sun is stationary, central, and the earth revolves upon its own axis. The sense of sight sees the earth as a plane, whereas the faculty of reason discovers it to be spherical. The eye views the heavenly bodies in boundless space as small and insignificant, whereas reason declares them to be colossal suns. … Briefly, there are many instances and evidences which disprove the assertion that tangibilities and sense impressions are certainties, for the senses are misleading and often mistaken. How, then, can we rightly declare that they prove reality when the standard or criterion itself is defective? — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 356
I told you if the stars moved around today, I’d be really thinking there’s some intelligence in the universe. There’s just never been such an observation. So until there is, I’ll assume the reasonable logical thing, since there’s never been such an observation, there’s unlikely to be one. That’s all. As a scientist, I can say what’s likely and what’s unlikely. I don’t believe anything. I can say, is this likely or unlikely. That’s all.
I have to ask why the stars moving would imply there’s some intelligence in the universe. Why would a rational intelligence arbitrarily move things around? Wouldn’t rather, the existence of order and a rational creature that insists on infusing life with meaning imply the existence of such a rational intelligence in the universe as a whole?
Krauss’s construct seems both arbitrary and non sequitur. It’s as if one said, “If a red rose grew on my white gardenia bush, it would imply there’s love in the universe.” The two things aren’t congruent.
His contention that he doesn’t believe anything is disingenuous at best. His entire performance here has been about what he believes to be true based on his personal experience and perception of the universe as filtered through—well, through his beliefs and perceptions. What he states here: that if stars moved around arbitrarily he’d believe in a God is a statement of the belief that God must be arbitrary and lack of arbitrariness in the universe means there’s no God.
Speaking to that same group I mentioned above, Abdu’l-Bahá spoke to the subject of reason, as well:
The philosophers of the East consider the perfect criterion to be reason or intellect, and according to that standard the realities of all objects can be proved; for, they say, the standard of reason and intellect is perfect, and everything provable through reason is veritable. Therefore, those philosophers consider all philosophical deductions to be correct when weighed according to the standard of reason, and they state that the senses are the assistants and instruments of reason, and that although the investigation of realities may be conducted through the senses, the standard of knowing and judgment is reason itself.…
Man is distinguished above the animals through his reason. The perceptions of man are of two kinds: tangible, or sensible, and reasonable, whereas the animal perceptions are limited to the senses, the tangible only. The tangible perceptions may be likened to this candle, the reasonable perceptions to the light. Calculations of mathematical problems and determining the spherical form of the earth are through the reasonable perceptions. The center of gravity is a hypothesis of reason. Reason itself is not tangible, perceptible to the senses. Reason is an intellectual verity or reality. All qualities are ideal realities, not tangible realities. For instance, we say this man is a scholarly man. Knowledge is an ideal attainment not perceptible to the senses. When you see this scholarly man, your eye does not see his knowledge, your ear cannot hear his science, nor can you sense it by taste. It is not a tangible verity. Science itself is an ideal verity. It is evident, therefore, that the perceptions of man are twofold: the reasonable and the tangible, or sensible. — Abdu’l-Bahá, ibid. pp. 356-7
All of the above leads me to ask a perfectly serious question: As it is possible to be blinded by strong emotion, dogmatism or wishful thinking, is it possible (as several songwriters have suggested) to be blinded by science? Can our belief in or trust of our ability to know ourselves and the universe we inhabit blind us to mistaken perceptions?
Seems to me the answer is obvious: if we can be blinded by one thing, we can be blinded by another. As Abdu’l-Bahá suggests, it is through a concerted application of reason to the things we observe—both tangible and intangible—that we arrive at a clearer perception of ourselves and our environment. But that perception can never be perfectly objective. We live in the environment we are trying to study and cannot see it from a different perspective. We live in our own heads, which makes study of same problematic, at best. This makes me think of Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle which posits that it is impossible to observe certain pairs of attributes of a thing or, more broadly, that by observing something, we alter it in some way. In physics, this is often illustrated with the impossibility of measuring the speed of something and its location.
But when the thing we are trying to measure is our own thought, our own perceptions, our own intangible, insensible rational workings, the task becomes even more impossible. We can map the path of a neuron, measure the speed of a synaptic interaction, or measure the volume of a human brain—we can even determine the nature of the electrical and chemical makeup of the physical evidences of the thought process—but we can do all that and still not have touched the thoughts themselves.
Which is not to say we shouldn’t try to understand all of it. In fact, I would suggest that what those beings who claim to speak for the Divine have told us is that understanding ourselves and our universe is the purpose behind our very existence as rational beings. “He hath known God,” writes Bahá’u’lláh, “who hath known himself.”
This begs the question: Which Self is it that we know? Do we know ourselves by what we hold in common with other animals, or by what distinguishes us from them?
Next time: Krauss argues against purpose in the universe.