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An Accidental World –– The Jefferson Center, August 2006 –– Taner Edis Truman State University www2.truman.edu/~edis The work of a skeptic Naturalism

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an accidental world the jefferson center august 2006

An Accidental World–– The Jefferson Center, August 2006 ––

Taner Edis

Truman State University

www2.truman.edu/~edis

the work of a skeptic
The work of a skeptic

An Accidental World

naturalism
Naturalism
  • I defend naturalism, or physicalism, or scientific materialism, or whatever you want to call it. No spiritual realities over and above what is realized in the physical world.
  • “An Accidental World” because I present a variety of naturalism that emphasizes randomness––how chance and necessity combine to explain our world.

An Accidental World

what about religion
What about religion?
  • Much of religious life and thought not directly about the supernatural.
  • Morality, meaning.
  • But belief in supernatural/spiritual/ transcendent realities make things hang together.

An Accidental World

liberal religion
Liberal religion
  • Respectable, sophisticated, humane. Good for science.
  • But also depends on gods, souls, transcendent forces.
  • Frustratingly evasive about science and religion. Content with superficial compatibilism.

An Accidental World

enlightenment rationalism
Enlightenment rationalism
  • I belong to this tradition.
  • Yet, too much emphasis on traditional style of philosophy, lawful order of nature, and a kind of moral universalism.
  • Instead, I emphasize randomness, modern science, and moral pluralism.

An Accidental World

what about morality etc
What about morality etc?
  • I hope some of this will come up in Q&A––I’m not sure myself, and Jefferson Center a good place to raise questions.
  • Set aside for now; draw picture of world as I see it…

?

An Accidental World

no gods or ghosts
No gods or ghosts
  • Minimal sense of naturalism: no gods, souls, ghosts. No magic. All persons are embodied.
  • Need better sense of “supernatural agent”

An Accidental World

supernatural agents
Supernatural agents
  • Gods and ghosts––stuff of horror movies and folk tales as much as religions.
  • Cognitive science: category-violating persons. Intuitive dualism.

An Accidental World

the paranormal
The paranormal
  • Can be true…
  • Parapsychology––seek support for dualism, “agent-causation,” spirit acting on matter. Anti-materialist research program.
  • But no reason to believe in supernatural agents or paranormal powers.

An Accidental World

design from above
Design from above
  • Denying ghosts: not affirming common sense. Naturalism is more counterintuitive.
  • Common sense: order and functional complexity is due to intelligent design by a personal agent.
  • In most religions, reality is pictured hierarchically. A top-down existence.

An Accidental World

top down
Top-down

An Accidental World

naturalism bottom up
Naturalism: Bottom-up

Complexity, including life and mind, is assembled out of the lifeless and mindless substrate of mere physics.

An Accidental World

assembling complexity
Assembling complexity
  • Darwinian evolution best example: combine random variation with selection: “chance and necessity.”
  • Non-directed, non-progressive process. Not just common descent.
  • Physics of complexity.

An Accidental World

order and chaos
Order and chaos

Example: space for order in system driven away from equilibrium.

An Accidental World

still top down
Still top-down?
  • Common liberal theistic view: “evolution God’s way of creating”––behind the scenes…
  • ID-lite: God “the ultimate source of the novel informational patterns available to evolution.”
  • Need new emphasis.

An Accidental World

chance and necessity
Chance and Necessity
  • Physics relies on chance and necessity.
  • Radioactive decays happen at random.
  • H2O structure explained by physical laws; QM.
  • Combinations of chance and necessity!

An Accidental World

rules and dice
Rules and Dice
  • “Everything is physically realized” ~ “Everything is due to chance and necessity.”
  • Chance and necessity inseparable––kind of dice.

An Accidental World

contrast to generic id
Contrast to generic ID

An Accidental World

what do i claim
What do I claim?
  • Nothing is irreducibly personal––known agents are entirely physical.
  • Artificial intelligence is possible.
  • Cognitive neuroscience, as well as biology, is continuous with physics.

An Accidental World

chance and disorder
Chance and disorder
  • Disorder vital in classical physics–– thermal physics, boundary conditions, etc.
  • Coin flips…
  • Disorder need not always be due to randomness. Dynamical chaos; information available.

An Accidental World

modern physics
Modern physics
  • Quantum mechanics introduces fundamental randomness, not just disorder.
  • Measurement. Radioactive decay. No further information–– perfect disorder.
  • Quantum coin. No way to improve.

An Accidental World

cosmic randomness
Cosmic randomness
  • Multiple universes with differing laws natural in quantum cosmology.
  • Most basic laws very symmetric, with very little information.
  • Generate complexity by symmetry breaking.

An Accidental World

the world is a dice game
The world is a dice game
  • Elegant fundamental laws say very little about our world. That comes through low-energy laws, “frozen accidents,” randomly realized through symmetry breaking. The most basic laws only tell what sort of dice generated our history.
  • Randomness is fundamental. This is no accident.

An Accidental World

hidden causes
Hidden causes?
  • But is randomness not just a label for ignorance?
  • A God directs seeming accidents of evolution and cosmology? A hidden, nonphysical cause––just what we need.
  • Wouldn’t an accidental world be a formless chaos?

An Accidental World

can it all be an accident
Can it all be an accident?
  • Common sense rebels against the notion that the universe is a mere accident. But for naturalists, at some level, it must be.
  • Is calling something an accident just covering up an ignorance of real causes?

?

Cause

Effect

  • What of the randomness in modern physics?

An Accidental World

what is randomness
What is “randomness”?
  • Mathematically, a random infinite sequence is one which lacks any pattern.

. . .

T

H

T

H

T

H

T

H

Alternating pattern of heads and tails

. . .

H

T

H

T

T

T

H

T

Patternless, random sequence

An Accidental World

where explanation ends
Where explanation ends
  • Can’t predict next coin in random sequence. Can’t find a “theory” giving the pattern.
  • Can’t do our usual pattern recognition and find a place in a network of causes.
  • Something is random if there’s no pattern and no good prospect of finding one. When we have to say it’s a brute fact.

An Accidental World

how about order
How about order?
  • Individual unpredictability  statistical predictability for large numbers.
  • Not the same as ignorance!

An Accidental World

randomness is basic
Randomness is basic!
  • In fundamental theories of physics, we have randomness. The laws are random, simple, framing accidents. The dynamics are also random.
  • Everyday cause and effect are not fundamental. They emerge from a microscopic substrate where things just happen randomly.

An Accidental World

what about persons
What about persons?
  • Very bottom-up picture, suggesting that specially spiritual realities are out of place at a fundamental level.
  • But physical science should be all about mindless stuff doable through chance and necessity. What about persons, minds?
  • Why should a physical style of explanation work across the board?

An Accidental World

generalized id again
Generalized ID again

?

An Accidental World

explaining minds
Explaining minds
  • Cognitive neuroscience has made good progress in explaining minds. Promises a lot more.
  • Old-fashioned dualism is far out of fashion.
  • But can chance and necessity produce real intelligence––genuine creativity?

An Accidental World

computers are not creative
Computers are not creative
  • Programming and input determine the output of a computer. No new information added.

An Accidental World

not bound by rules
Not bound by rules
  • Humans are creative––we are flexible, not bound by pre-programmed rules. We always might figure out a new way to do things.
  • Gödelian critique of AI: Any system of rules is rigid; it has blind spots. ID: no mechanism (including Darwin’s) can be creative.
  • Humans are nonalgorithmic, beyond computer programs. Yes!

An Accidental World

a source of novelty
In games where the opponent can adapt to a set strategy, occasional random behavior can be the best strategy.

Novelty, unpredictability come from randomness.

Combine chance and necessity for flexibility!

A source of novelty

An Accidental World

beyond rules without magic
Beyond rules, without magic
  • The most famous nonalgorithmic functions, such as “Turing’s halting function,” are called oracles. Not only computers, but we also can’t compute them.
  • We need flexibility without oracles.
  • A machine can use a random function (maximally nonalgorithmic) as a source of novelty, to break out of ruts.

An Accidental World

completeness theorem
Completeness Theorem
  • All functions are partly random.
  • The only tasks beyond rules and randomness (chance and necessity) are oracles, for which infinite information must be known.
  • Any human output can be produced by mechanisms including chance.

An Accidental World

darwinian creativity
Darwinian creativity
  • Intelligence relies on broadly Darwinian processes combining chance and necessity.
  • Darwinian thinking has become common in in AI, and cognitive and brain sciences.

An Accidental World

implications
Implications
  • The bottom-up, naturalistic, accidental picture of the world is most likely correct.
  • Implications for religion, or even for the rationality of supernatural belief, are less clear.

An Accidental World

naturalist belief is costly
Naturalist belief is costly
  • Naturalism is counterintuitive––it goes against ingrained and socially reinforced habits of thinking. Such habits work well enough, most of the time, at little cost.
  • Naturalism is costly––it requires specialized knowledge and training for new habits that go against the grain of human nature.
  • Won’t be widespread, not even in Europe.

An Accidental World

morality is not as clear cut
Morality is not as clear-cut
  • My naturalism does not fit with hard moral objectivism. Tends toward values pluralism, or “moral ecology.”
  • There are many viable, successfully reproducing patterns of interests and ways of life. For most people, most of the time, these will include supernatural beliefs.

An Accidental World

back to liberal religion
Back to liberal religion
  • Good compromise.
  • Maybe evasive, too concerned to protect “God” from scientific criticism. Conservatives are wrong; liberals are not even wrong.
  • But strength of liberal religion vital for science etc.

An Accidental World

lerner accuses
Lerner accuses…

Michael Lerner in The Nation, 4/24/2006:

The left has been captivated by a belief that has been called scientism…. ––the belief that the only things are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don’t rely on science to tell me what is right or wrong or what love means or why my life is important… Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification––all these spiritual dimensions of life––are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless. …The view that what is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents.

An Accidental World

naturalism scientism
Naturalism = scientism ?
  • Lerner is profoundly mistaken. “Spiritual dimensions” do not get a free pass from science-based criticism.
  • Troubling, since I usually side with Lerner in political matters. He thinks some attenuated sense of the supernatural is vital, and my views are a variety of “scientism.”
  • Science is a much broader enterprise than Lerner conceives!

An Accidental World

what is the world like
What is the world like?
  • The question of God involves all our sciences––the best of all our knowledge.
  • According to the best of our knowledge, we inhabit an accidental world.

An Accidental World

in the end
In the end
  • Our sciences, in a broad sense, are the best tools to bring to the debate over spiritual/transcendent realities.
  • Best view of the world: Naturalistic, random in the end. It does a much better job explaining things.
  • Yet thoughtful naturalists perhaps also have to be ambivalent.

An Accidental World

to get in touch
To get in touch

www2.truman.edu/~edis

Contains all sorts of articles, including the slides of this talk, and information about my books.

My e-mail is edis@truman.edu

An Accidental World

thanks for listening
Thanks for listening!
  • Any questions?

?

?

?

An Accidental World