Friday, May 27, 2011

Another physicist performing philosophy without a license: Sean Carroll on life after death

A physicist has trained his scientific instruments on the question of the immortality of the soul and is not getting the right readings and he has therefore concluded that there is no such thing.

Sean Carroll claims that "there is clearly no way for the soul to survive death." Carroll makes this claim in a recent post on his blog Cosmic Variance. There is no reason to believe that Carroll is not a competent scientist, but he has now produced a pretty good reason why we might want to question his competence as a philosopher:
Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?
These kinds of statements make me wonder what I would say if my plumber told me that the interior decoration scheme in my home was all wrong on the basis of his knowledge of pipes, or if my barber tried to explain how he had detected psychological problems with a previous customer based on what he knew about cutting hair.

Carroll is partly responding to Adam Frank, who thinks rightly that science can have nothing to say about the question of the immortality of the soul since there since it is not a scientific question, a position Carroll glibly compares to the position that we can't really know whether the moon is made of green cheese:
Adam claims that “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese ... So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted.
There's just one minor difference here: the composition of the moon is an actual scientific question with a definite scientific answer--whether you have to tools to determine it now or not. It is exactly the kind of question science is designed to answer. Whether the soul is immortal is not. That Carroll thinks it is is a measure of his lack of understanding of the issue before him.

Once again, we have a scientist performing philosophy without a license, thinking that his scientific qualifications fit him for the task when they don't.

C. S. Lewis once noted that there is very little you could know about what was outside nature by what was inside nature:
"But science has shown that there's no such thing [something that exists outside nature]."
"Really," said I. "Which of the sciences?"
"Oh, well, that's a matter of detail," said my friend. "I can't give you chapter and verse from memory."
"But don't you see," said I, "that science never could show anything of the sort?"
"Why on earth not?"
"Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists--anything 'outside'. How could you find that out by studying simply Nature?"
Carroll's argument seems to run something like this:
No reality can exist that does not abide by the laws of physics
A supernatural reality could not abide by the laws of physics
Therefore a supernatural reality cannot exist.
That first premise is a doozy. No wonder he never states it outright in his argument. It simply lurks there in the background throughout the whole article unargued for, unanalyzed, and unacknowledged. How exactly does he know this? In fact, isn't this precisely one of the points at issue between scientific materialists like Carroll and religious thinkers?

Why would we expect that the soul would retain information after we die? Why would anyone belief that it consists of particles? Why would we think there would be physical laws holding it together?

Why would anyone ask questions like this unless they were simply unaware that the question of the immortality of the soul is not a scientific question. I'm sure accountants have a hard time making accounting sense of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I imagine economists have some trouble making economic sense of Beethoven's Symphony Number 3 in E-flat Major. And I've got to believe that the Empire State Building is somewhat impervious to the analysis of a professional psychologist.
Among advocates for life after death, nobody even tries to sit down and do the hard work of explaining how the basic physics of atoms and electrons would have to be altered in order for this to be true. If we tried, the fundamental absurdity of the task would quickly become evident.
Well, the absurdity of the task--and of asking these particular scientific questions about a non-scientific issue--has apparently not been brought home with sufficient force to Carroll to prevent him from engaging in it. Maybe the reason believers in life after death don't ask scientific questions about it know something Carroll apparently doesn't: that it isn't a scientific question.

But somehow we're supposed to believe that a physicist, by plying his particular craft, can resolve the question of the immortality of the soul. I wonder how Carroll would react if a theologian began analyzing problems in science according the principles of religious dogma.
In fact, we already know the answer to that question. Just go look at Carroll's response to creationism! But don't ask Carroll to observe the same limitations that he asks others to observe.

Carroll sets forth the formula that "tells us how electrons behave" [genuflect here]:


He then states:
If you believe in an immaterial soul that interacts with our bodies, you need to believe that this equation is not right, even at everyday energies. There needs to be a new term (at minimum) on the right, representing how the soul interacts with electrons. (If that term doesn’t exist, electrons will just go on their way as if there weren’t any soul at all, and then what’s the point?)
Um, well, no you don't. At least no more than you would need such a thing to happen in the process of affirming the above statement. Such an affirmation would involve a free will decision by Carroll in his conscious mind. In fact, this is one of the problems with the philosophical solvent Carroll wants to apply here: it would not only explain the immortality of the soul away, but consciousness, free will, love--and rational validity itself.

If nothing can be accepted as real if it cannot be encompassed in a mathematical equation, and these things cannot be encompassed in mathematical equations, then these things cannot be accepted as real. What is the formula for consciousness? (a subject Carroll mentions later, as if he'll be able to make any more sense of that) What equation explains free will? By what calculus can you prove love?

And what about life itself? Carroll talks on as if science really understood life, but does it? What is the equation for life? What physical thing is absent from a dead body? Can science even create life? If science cannot explain life itself, by what authority does is pretend to speak on the afterlife?

Aristotle, wiser even in physics than his successors, says that the soul is "the form of the body." The form of a thing is not a material aspect of it. In fact, Carroll is just one of the many philosophically ignorant scientists who gets his formal and material causes mixed up. Modern scientists of Carroll's bent accept material causation, but reject formal causation. But instead of going on their merry way and simply interpreting the world without taking formal causation into account, they either try to make material causes do the work of formal causes or they want to keep formal causation and pretend it is material causation--or (more commonly) both.

In demanding that scientific criteria be applied to the question of whether the soul is immortal, Carroll commits the first of these errors. In not applying it to consciousness, free will, and the process of rational justification, he also commits the second. In both cases, he is committing a category error.

The extent of Carroll's confusion is evidenced by the fact that he doesn't even know he is confused.

31 comments:

JCC said...

As far as I can tell, your entire argument amounts to declaring, by fiat, that questions about souls are not answerable by science, which begs some questions:

(1) Why is it the case that questions about souls are not scientific questions, other than that you (or whomever) says so?

(2) What do you think a soul is? If it's the standard Christian idea of the part of you that determines your actions and behaviors in life and survives you after death in order to be judged and receive eternal reward/punishment, then it has to interact with the material world and retain the "information" of the person it was in life.

Sean's entire point is that if the soul interacts with the brain/body, ie the physical world, then it necessarily must be something that can be studied by science -- if there is a real effect on physical matter by the soul, then we must be able to study that effect.

If the soul isn't something that interacts with the material world, then in what sense do I have one and why would I care?

Martin Cothran said...

JCC,

It seems to me that both of these questions are answered in the post.

In regard to (1), the C. S. Lewis quote directly addresses it. If souls are immaterial, as I think everyone soul who believes in them believes they are, then in what possible way could you say they are subject to scientific analysis, since science only studies the material?

In regard to (2), I answered this as well: I quoted Aristotle's definition of the soul as the "form of the body." It subsists in the material world, but that does not imply that it is itself material--or that it is therefore subject to scientific analysis. That doesn't mean that it has no effect on material existence, it just means that the soul itself is not subject to scientific analysis.

I understand Carroll's point completely. His problem is that he assumes that whatever science is appropriate for analyzing the effect must therefore be appropriate for analyzing the cause. Sorry, but that is nonsense.

Just because some cause has an effect on something else doesn't imply that the tools of analysis that are appropriate to the effect are appropriate to the cause. Just because I am a farmer and my crops are affected by the weather does not mean that the principles of agriculture are applicable the meteorological problem of the weather.

Martin Cothran said...

JCC,

And by the way, I'm wondering how you could possibly interpret what I said as "declaring by fiat."

I offered actual arguments and even went to the trouble of giving examples. I also pointed out the assumption Carroll was making that he failed to even bother to justify.

You might read the post again.

BeingItself said...

So Carrol is confused because he does not buy-in to your medieval metaphysics?

Your medieval metaphysics is just bunch of made-up nonsense.

Martin Cothran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Cothran said...

BeingItself:

So I'm wrong because I do not buy-in to your modern metaphysics?

Your modern metaphysics is just bunch of made-up nonsense.

Art said...

So, Martin and BeingItself agree - metaphysics is just made-up nonsense.

Peter Moore said...

science only studies the material

What exactly do you mean by immaterial? If you mean literally not made of matter, then the above is simply wrong: neither photons or gravity are made of matter, but they are certainly studied by science, and very successfully.

Science can study whatever it can measure. So the boundary for science is not material/immaterial but measurable/immeasurable.

And since anything that impacts the material world can (theoretically, if not practically) be measured, then only things that don't impact the physical world are outside science.

So assuming a soul does affect human behavior and thus the world, how do you justify declaring it not subject to scientific analysis?

BeingItself said...

Martin,

Suppose a flower grows from a seed. You claim a Garden Gremlin made it happen. I explain to you how it naturally occurred by cell division and so on.

You say, yeah, yeah - that's how the Garden Gremlin made it happen!

I will be very skeptical of your Garden Gremlin metaphysics.

Just as I am of your medieval metaphysics about causes.

Ontology 101 said...

What exactly do you mean by immaterial? If you mean literally not made of matter, then the above is simply wrong: neither photons or gravity are made of matter, but they are certainly studied by science, and very successfully.


What do you mean by "(not) made of matter"? Particles and matter are human concepts which we invoke to systematise our experience. I’m a scientist too, so let's go back to basics, which is to say, quantum mechanics. At root, the only things that we know exist are observations (or “information” if you prefer), sentient observers (that's us, whatever we are) and theories (mental constructs). Successful theories allow observers to assign probabilities to the outcomes of future observations. Science has no need of any ontology beyond this. Everything else is human interpretation, often no more than incoherent narratives woven from a combination of corporeal concepts learned in the kindergarten and naive 19th century materialism. These narratives build pseudo-scientific ontological myths from the mathematical models science has developed for phenomenal prediction.


A photon is nothing more than an observable phenomenon. When detected it exhibits the characteristics that we describe as a “particle”; but when not being measured, anything we say about it, that does not involved the probabilities of future measurement outcomes (the solutions of the Schrodinger equation if you prefer), is just a story. The story can include many fantastical, often conceptually incoherent, entities, as best suit one’s tastes in fiction: little packets of energy with classical trajectories, parallel universes, quantum potentials or waves moving backwards in time. All are scientifically meaningless, because they make no empirical predictions that quantum mechanics has not already made. For any proponent of these materialist fairy-tales to criticise somebody else’s religious beliefs is, at best, a case of the pot calling the kettle black.


Souls, if they exist, are necessarily ontological; photons are phenomena. Science cannot study souls, even in principle, because it has no access to ontology (see the above). This is exactly the reason science cannot study whatever is supplying the information that builds our experiential reality. Maybe, as Nick Brostrom has suggested, it’s a cosmic hyper-computer run by a super-civilisation simulating our world and the photon is just a data structure (no, I don’t believe that either, but how are you going to disprove it?). But, whatever it is, the information source (let's call it "objective reality") obviously exists ontologically and, to say the least, "impacts the material world" (since it generates it), yet science cannot study it! So, by counter-example, the assertion that science can study anything that impacts the material world must be false and your argument fails.

Martin Cothran said...

Peter,

Your argument seems to be this:

Science can study photons.
Photons are non-material things.
Therefore, science can study non-material things.

It does seem to me that the second premise is vulnerable, not on the score that the things are non-material (by which I assume you mean that they have no mass?), but that they are not "things"--at least not in any sense in which we commonly think of "things"--namely, as objective entities.

Your argument only has force if we think of a photon as some sort of object in the sense that classical physics sees an object. But a photon is apparently, at least according to more current quantum theoretical models, not an object like that conceived in classical physics at all.

To some of us scientific laymen many times its seems as if the thing some scientists say they are measuring is little more than a part of the measurement mechanism itself.

You have data you need to have explained and so you create a mathematical construct that works in terms of taking account of the data and enabling you to predict--in other words, it makes the formulas work--and you declare it an entity. But is it an entity? Or is it simply the construct we have to employ in our model to allow us to go on with our work?

The late Roger S. Jones of the University of Minnesota (who died last month) put it this way: "In quantum theory we treat nature like a black box. If we press buttons and move levers on the box, quantum theory correctly tells us what the meters on the box will read. But it never tells us what is inside the box, why the meters read as they do, or what goes on inside the box between our readings. According to quantum theory, the box has no inside. No wave or particle picture is needed to predict the results of our experiments with light, and there is no deeper picture of light to be discovered. Whatever conflict there is resides not in the predictions but their interpretation--in the efforts of human beings to visualize what is going on. Quantum theory denies that phenomena have any inner reality. It provides answers only for the results of actual experimental observations, and it tells us nothing about what happens between our observations. Therefore quantum theory claims that science can provide no pictures of the inner workings of nature."

You seem to bank on your reader interpreting a photon as some sort of entity and yet the very theory which provides the intellectual backing for the concept of a photon is said by physicists like Rogers not to speak to the inner reality of the things of nature.

If you are a scientist, maybe you could explain to me in what way a photon is a "thing" that "science studies", rather than a label we give to an explanatory model that allows us to make sense of the data.

Singring said...

'It does seem to me that the second premise is vulnerable, not on the score that the things are non-material (by which I assume you mean that they have no mass?), but that they are not "things"--at least not in any sense in which we commonly think of "things"--namely, as objective entities. '

But then what on earth are 'souls' supposed to be? Are they not 'objective entities'? What are they then? Subjective non-entities?

You are reducing your own definition of what you are arguing for to the absurd, Martin. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence in your assertions aout 'souls'.

Moreover, your entire piece once agains simply asserts, over and over, that metaphysicians can give us accurate, solid information about 'souls' and their fate.

HOW?!

How can C.S. Lewis', Aristotle's or anyone else's opinion on 'souls' or 'forms' be taken as anything other than idle imagination? How do we figure out if what Aristotle thought about 'forms' was true? How do we figure out that what I claim about 'forms' - which is that they are a bunch of complete nonsense - is not true?

You will probably roll out the old 'it's a dialectical argument I can't give here' or 'you just don't understand it' spiel, go ahead. The fact is that these areguments are simply elaborate derivations from arbitrarily chosen assumptions - and we can't even check if these derivations in any way, shape or form acurately reflect reality.

Sean Carroll can sow you experimental, observable, repeatable evidence that electrons exist. All you can do to show him that 'souls' exist is tell him that that's just the way it is and he can't prove otherwise.

To sum it up, let me quote your most egregious paragraph from above:

'Why would we expect that the soul would retain information after we die? Why would anyone belief that it consists of particles? Why would we think there would be physical laws holding it together?'

Because otherwise the word 'soul' would have no meaning. The very fact that definitions of the 'soul' invariably consist of nothing but negatives (immaterial, non-physical, timeless, eternal) shows that all the term amounts to is a word game - a game designed to create a term that forever escapes any criticism from reasonable, rational people who would like a bit more of a reason to believe in their existence than 'Aristotle said so'. Replace the word 'soul' with BLAH in the above statement and you will maybe understand how much sense it makes to anyone outside your circle of metaphysicians to speak of untestable, undetectable, unphysical, unmaterial, un-everything 'entities'.

Singring said...

'If you are a scientist, maybe you could explain to me in what way a photon is a "thing" that "science studies", rather than a label we give to an explanatory model that allows us to make sense of the data.'

Martin, every scientist everywhere, is giving 'labels' to elements in explanatary models models that allow us to make sense of the data. Just becaused we can't directly observe photons the way we can observe a rhino doesn't mean a photon is any less of a physical entity than a rhino.

You can span up a sail in space and it will be physically pushed away from the sun by the force of the photons striking it. So where exactly you get the idea that photons are non-physical just because they are an element of a model of reality - just like evey other physical entitiy we can directly observe - is beyond me.

As to your quote from Jones: read the quotation again - carefully, this time - and you will see he is talking about the absence of an underlying explanation for why particles behave according to quantum theory. He is not at all talking about particles having no physical reality of their own at all. He simply states that we currently don't know and maybe never will know why particles behave according to quantum theory.

Anonymous said...

Mr Singring. I'm an Australian observer and have to say Martin has shown interminable patience and hospitality for you. So much so, that I could be forgiven for thinking you were a Cothran construct - a typical impolite, impudent socially autistic atheist.

Singring said...

Mr. Anonymous, could you please point out where Ihave been any more impolite than anyone else is on this blog,including Martin? Maybe my tone is not to your liking, and I am sorry if that is so,but Martin,myself and eeryone else here seems to enjoy a spirited debate.

I would also like to point out that and barbed remarks I do make ar alwaYs accompanied by an actual argument. Unfortunately I can't say the same for your ad hominem post. If you take issue with some of my points, have at it, as Martin routinely does.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

But then what on earth are 'souls' supposed to be? Are they not 'objective entities'? What are they then? Subjective non-entities?

I don't know what the point of the question is. Souls are objective entities. From the fact that photons (and atoms and a few other things) may be mathematical constructs does not logically imply that souls are.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Moreover, your entire piece once agains simply asserts, over and over, that metaphysicians can give us accurate, solid information about 'souls' and their fate.

Uh, no, sorry. I actually don't say that here. I merely assume (but do not assert) that the question of whether the soul is immortal is a question which metaphysics, but not science, is designed to address.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

How can C.S. Lewis', Aristotle's or anyone else's opinion on 'souls' or 'forms' be taken as anything other than idle imagination? How do we figure out if what Aristotle thought about 'forms' was true? How do we figure out that what I claim about 'forms' - which is that they are a bunch of complete nonsense - is not true?

By reason.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

You will probably roll out the old 'it's a dialectical argument I can't give here' or 'you just don't understand it' spiel, go ahead.

No, I didn't argue this, nor have I ever on this blog.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

The fact is that these areguments are simply elaborate derivations from arbitrarily chosen assumptions - and we can't even check if these derivations in any way, shape or form acurately reflect reality.

How can yours or anyone else's opinion on these arguments be taken as anything other than idle imagination? How do we figure out if what you think about 'forms' is true? How do we figure out that what you claim about 'forms' - which is that they are a bunch of complete nonsense - is true?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

The very fact that definitions of the 'soul' invariably consist of nothing but negatives (immaterial, non-physical, timeless, eternal) shows that all the term amounts to is a word game - a game designed to create a term that forever escapes any criticism from reasonable, rational people who would like a bit more of a reason to believe in their existence than 'Aristotle said so'.

Where did I give a negative definition of soul in this post? The only definition I even mentioned was Aristotle's--"the soul is the form of the body"--and that was not negative.

Say I said things I didn't say, you criticize arguments I didn't make, and you are off topic, since this post is about whether scientists can have anything to say about the soul qua scientists, not about whether to soul is immortal.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Martin, every scientist everywhere, is giving 'labels' to elements in explanatary models models that allow us to make sense of the data. Just becaused we can't directly observe photons the way we can observe a rhino doesn't mean a photon is any less of a physical entity than a rhino.

You can span up a sail in space and it will be physically pushed away from the sun by the force of the photons striking it. So where exactly you get the idea that photons are non-physical just because they are an element of a model of reality - just like evey other physical entitiy we can directly observe - is beyond me.


Are you saying that there is no difference between a physical object and a mathematical construct? And would you say your position on this reflects the belief of scientists working in quantum mechanics who, as I understand it, came up with the idea of a photon in the first place?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

As to your quote from Jones: read the quotation again - carefully, this time - and you will see he is talking about the absence of an underlying explanation for why particles behave according to quantum theory. He is not at all talking about particles having no physical reality of their own at all. He simply states that we currently don't know and maybe never will know why particles behave according to quantum theory.

Jones again: "Quantum theory denies that phenomena have any inner reality."

Singring said...

'I don't know what the point of the question is. Souls are objective entities.'

Martin, your response to Peter was that you alledged that Photons are not 'objective entities' and therefore don't qualify as immaterial things science can study. But that completely begs the question as to what photons and by extension, what souls actually are. If objective entities are what science can study, but mathematical constructs are not, then what is a soul? Is it a mathematical construct also?

Moreover, I have told you of how photons can move objects, so once I again I must ask how you explain these physical, measurable effects of photons if they are 'mathematical constrcuts' with no 'objective reality'?

'Uh, no, sorry. I actually don't say that here.'

My apologies. You don't explicitly say it here, but you say it elsewhere and you certainly implied it here.

'By reason.'

Based on what premises? And how can we check the conclusions that follow are valid? Because metaphysicians think they're nice? Or is there something more substantial?

'How do we figure out that what you claim about 'forms' - which is that they are a bunch of complete nonsense - is true?'

Exactly, Martin. How?

Once again you don't even attempt to address the question, but make my point for me.

'Where did I give a negative definition of soul in this post?'

The entire post is about what a sould not is - i.e. it is not something science can investigate. Curiously, it gives no mention of what it actually is, which makes that claim rather hard to evaluate, I would say. Sure, there is a constant, underpinning implication that a soul is supernatural or of a world that does not abide by physics, but these are negative definitions.

What's a soul? 'Its other than natural and it does not abide by the laws of physics.'

Its as if I wrote a piece arguing that scientists cannot investigate a Blublableh because that's a supernatural thing and its outside its realms of science.

Well, that would be a huge case of begging the question about what a Blublableh actually is, wouldn't you agree?

'Jones again: "Quantum theory denies that phenomena have any inner reality."'

Jones is not saying that quantum particles have no physical reality, he is saying they have no 'inner' reality (whatever exactly he means by that). In the context of the whole paragraph you originally cited, it is clear that he is talking about whether we will ever know why 'things' behave according to quantum theory and where these 'things' come from, not that they are not 'things' at all.

We can observe particles that behave according to quantum theory, we can observe their physical effects, yet time and again you insist on claiming that these particles have no physical reality to them. Electrons behave according to quantum theory, they are what allows you to type posts into your computer, yet you steadfastly claim that electrons have no physical reality. It's quite amazing, really.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Jones is not saying that quantum particles have no physical reality, he is saying they have no 'inner' reality (whatever exactly he means by that).

Jones: "Now the idea of a point particle--a tiny bit of matter that has no size or extension in space--has long been a useful idealization in physics, a metaphor. As a physical reality, it's an impossibility."

Singring said...

'"Now the idea of a point particle--a tiny bit of matter that has no size or extension in space--has long been a useful idealization in physics, a metaphor. As a physical reality, it's an impossibility."'

Unfortunately I couldn't source this quote, so I don't kow the context in which it was made.

Even so, I qill make two points here, Martin:

First, maybe do a quick check on Wikipedia to figure out whether what you are saying is correct.

Read these two entries:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_particle#Physics

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_particle

...and you will find that a 'point particle' is indeed a concept that makes no sense when thinking of 'things' that have some sort of spatial extension, but that 'elementary particles' (i.e. electrons, photons etc.) are not necessarily 'point particles' in that they occupy no space.

It is therefore somewhat disingenuous to quote Jones' statement as if it pertained to elementary particles, when in fact it does not necessarily do so.

I quote:

'The electron is an elementary particle, but its quantum states form three-dimensional patterns.'

So in one sense, the elctron for example occupies three-dimensional space (because of the Heisenberg principle). In another, it doesn't:

'For example, for the electron, experimental evidence shows that the size of an electron is less than 10-18 m.[6] This is consistent with the expected value of exactly zero.'

Now once again, you will note that the article speaks of data 'consistent with' a zero size for the particle itself, which of course basically means it is not clear how large it is or if it has any size at all.

Second, you must explain to me what you mean when you say 'thing', because the more you post about elementary particles, the less I understand what you mean when you use the word.

Photons and electrons have real, measurable, physical effects. They have mass. You computer works because of them.

So even if we assume that these particles occupy zero space, does that mean they are not 'things'??? Then what are they? What are 'things'? Do 'things' have to have spatial dimensions? If so, then how can a soul be a 'thing'? Or is a soul not a 'thing' after all, even though, as you claim, it has effects on the physical world just as electrons and photons do?

Is a soul just a 'mathematical model' in the same way an electron is? Is that what you're saying?

If occupying space is a necessary quality for a 'thing' then how can you believe in a 'thing' (God) that also supposedly occupies zero space?

Maybe you can give us some statements as to what souls are so we can distinguish them from elementary particles and clear up this confusion.

Alaric said...

Singring, You are taking a quasi-classical view of particles and that, I think, is misleading you slightly (well, quite a lot actually). The term “particle” is a historical shorthand for an element of a physical model developed to account for (which is to say, “predict”) observations. Photons, electrons etc, only behave like (localised) particles when they are observed. We have no idea what they do or what they are when they are left to evolve on their own (and even my language here could be criticised for implicitly making unwarranted assumptions but if it unhinges your belief in the objective existence of these entities, I will forgive myself) .


Sometimes popularisers of science will fuzzily inform their hapless victims that electrons or photons are in fact “waves”, for example when trying to explain electron interference, but that is also misleading and, I am afraid, reveals the extent of their own befuddlement. Electrons and photons are not waves: the only waves involved are of the probabilities that attempts to detect properties of the entities in question will prove positive at a given point in space, if we choose to look. In quantum mechanics therefore a photon or electron is no more than a set of probabilities that certain measurements will yield such and such results should we choose to make them. The idea that there are little balls (or waves) "out there" existing independently of us is not consistent and has been abandoned by physics despite the impact on any notion of a visualisable objective reality.

Singring said...

Alaric, I don't quite see why you think that I use the term 'particle' in the way you think I am. I agree with almost everything you say.

I fully accept that it is not accurate to think of electrons or other elementary particles as little balls or some such 'thing' and have never argued that anyone should do so. It strikes me as obviosuly fallacious, however, to claim that just because electrons, for example, behave like 'particles' in some situations and like 'waves' in others implies that they have no objective physical reality independent of us. Just because our observing them changes the behaviour of partciles does not mean they don't exist independently of us. And even if they didn't - that doesn't impinge on my argument since we wouldn't even know one way or another.

However, whatever physicists lable as 'particles' - accurately or not - has certain physical properties (mass, for example) and measurable physical effects. In fact, they are the foundation of all that exists inthe Universe. Therefore, regardless of whether the term 'particle' is just an abstraction that does not accurately reflect a precise physical reality, it is used as a label for something physical that has effects in the physical world that are both measurable and predictable. It therefore strikes me as utterly absurd to argue that these 'particles', regardless of whether models of them accurately reflect what they are or not, have no physical reality. It is akin to saying the universe itself has no objective physical reality, which would make you something of an extreme solipsist, I guess. I doubt this is what you are actually saying, but if you are, maybe you could clarify.

P.S.: I would still like to hear what a soul is and how it affects the physical world - that is, if you believe there is a physical world. You seem to be ambiguous on the issue.

alaric said...

Singring, I am not a solipsist and I do believe in an objective reality that would still be there if there were no observers; however, quantum mechanics shows that we cannot determine the nature of this reality through science (despite much wishful thinking by the subject’s more zealous spin-doctors) and the only logical position is one of open-mindedness to all possibilities that could reproduce quantum predictions. I am afraid I do not know what a soul is although I interpret the term, from the way it is used, to mean roughly the ontological essence of an entity capable of first-person experience. I don’t know what one of the latter is either, although I am absolutely confident that they exist. To make this seem a bit more concrete let me try and give you an analogy while trying at the same time to answer another question of yours above namely, how can photons move solar sails even if photons and solar sails do not really exist except as phenomena? Please remember however that it is an analogy whose only function is to act as a counter-example.


All measurements are of phenomena. To say that photons move things is a shorthand for stating that observations of photon properties are correlated with other observational changes (position and momentum of the solar sail or whatever). To see why this does not allow you to draw ontological conclusions about the nature of photons or solar sails, imagine you are observing these phenomena as part of a multi-player virtual reality game. Your virtual (in-game) experience registers photons and movement, but these things exist only contextually for players immersed in the VR. If you unplug your headset and the core of the program is still running, would the photons or the solar sail still exist? Well, maybe, but only as entangled data structures in the system memory, not in any way accessible as photons or solar sails to those outside the game.


This thinking has led some to suggest that the concept of information is prior to matter, space and time, all of which are then seen to be just human modes of interpretation. The physicist John Wheeler called the idea “It from Bit”. This is not to say that we create matter, space and time on our own. On the contrary, it seems, at first sight at least, that some “thing” is helping us create our reality by supplying the information we interpret. Let us call that thing, “objective reality”, because it would be there whether we were or not: it is, in short an ontological entity.


In the analogy, objective reality is the computer. The players clearly exist at the same level as the hardware (they too are ontological). Perhaps we could call them “souls”? The photons and the sail are game elements and entirely experiential. You cannot directly observe the players through the game and only their avatars (bodies) are accessible to “science” (the name we give to the study of the game rules by its players). Now, this is only an analogy and the point is that, in our “real” lives, we have no idea what the hardware or the players really are like: we have only our first person experience as observers to reason from. However, I think it is enough to show you why an argument dismissive of souls using only evidence from science cannot logically succeed. It is like studying the game phenomena from inside and deciding that, because we cannot see anything ontological in the game, the players or the hardware cannot possibly exist except as game phenomena themselves. Note that I am not claiming that souls do exist, only that any argument that their existence can be disproved, or even thrown into doubt, via science cannot logically succeed.

Singring said...

'however, quantum mechanics shows that we cannot determine the nature of this reality through science'

...on the quantum scale. The largest scale at which quantum theory predictions have been validated is the atomic scale, as far as I am aware.

'...and the only logical position is one of open-mindedness to all possibilities that could reproduce quantum predictions.'

I agree completely. At this moment, we do not know why things on the quantum level behave according to quantum theory. But we know they do. That is important to remember.

String theory is still very much up for discussion, and even if we were to verify it, that would of course beg the question as to why strings exist. So we can either postulate that on the quantum level things just are the way they are na dthat's that (and from what I understand that would be entirely sufficient to explain the existence of the universe and its contents) or we can keep begging questions ad infinitum.

However, as appropriate as open-mindedness is at this level, what we shouldn't be doing is simply rush to conclusions
and accept the existence of 'souls' or other such 'things' that even their advocates are seemingly incapable of even defining, let alone supporting empirically - as you apparently agree.

As to your analogy: It is nice, but to be honest it sounds like a solopsist's manifesto to me. This is reflected in something Wheeler apparently said:

'"I do take 100 percent seriously the idea that the world is a figment of the imagination,"'

(quoted from http://suif.stanford.edu/~jeffop/WWW/wheeler.txt)

While the analogy may be a good approximation of how our reality actually is, it does not provide any evidence that it in fact is this way. Of course it is possible that photons may be just a manifestation of some unkown process or entity beyond the game world you describe - but that does not mean they have no physical existence in the game world. You might claim photons are a manifestation of God's will, I might claim they are a manifestation of giant purple people eater burps. There is no way of knowing as long as we have no access to beyond the game world.

So I must confess that to me, all your analogy amounts to is a fancy hypothesis that I can just as easily deny as you advance it.

'However, I think it is enough to show you why an argument dismissive of souls using only evidence from science cannot logically succeed. It is like studying the game phenomena from inside and deciding that, because we cannot see anything ontological in the game, the players or the hardware cannot possibly exist except as game phenomena themselves.'

I agree completely.

However, I must make two points in response:

1.) While science may not be able - by definition - to examine claims about things external to the game world, it most certainly can examine claims about things that supposedly have physical effects in the game world. This is precisely the claim that is made about God and about souls, as you can read in Martin's posts.

2.) If we, as players in the virtual reality, have no reason and no evidence at all that supports the existence of 'souls' or any other such 'phenomena' outside of the game reality, nor even have a definition of these things because, as players inside the virtual reality, we have no concept of anything beyond that reality, then why should we think they exist?

I admire your analogy, but if I may be frank, it just strikes me as a fancy way of rephrasing age-old theological assertions. It in now way, shape or form does anything to support the existence of souls or how they may or may not behave - and I see that you concede this point.

alaric said...



As to your analogy: It is nice, but to be honest it sounds like a solopsist's manifesto to me.


It is not solipsist; indeed there is nothing solipsist about it. That is the belief that one’s self is all that exists. My position is "open realist". You seem to be suggesting that any metaphysics that is not materialist is solipsist but that is not the case.


You might claim photons are a manifestation of God's will, I might claim they are a manifestation of giant purple people eater burps.


You can call objective reality anything you like, but it does not change its nature. To identify it with God is a serious suggestion and would presumably involve at least the idea that objective reality has the character of a mind. Since mind is the only stuff, apart from information, that we have direct experience of, that is not an unreasonable proposal and, of course, has a venerable history, being the basis of idealist pantheism or panentheist beliefs. The latter part of your suggestion does not seem to have any merit other than as an attempt to counter the former part by means of ridicule. It would be better I think, given that we are not trying to score points, to explain why you think the former part is not coherent rather than using this device.


I admire your analogy, but if I may be frank, it just strikes me as a fancy way of rephrasing age-old theological assertions.


Surely the conclusion you should draw from this is that the age-old arguments are not as weak as you might previously have thought. Despite our throw-away society, an argument is not rendered invalid by having been stated before.


If we, as players in the virtual reality, have no reason and no evidence at all that supports the existence of 'souls' or any other such 'phenomena' outside of the game reality, nor even have a definition of these things because, as players inside the virtual reality, we have no concept of anything beyond that reality, then why should we think they exist?


Souls, assuming such exist, would not be phenomena, they would be ontological (that is why one cannot observe them, except possibly by introspection). Since our experiential reality is entirely phenomenal, to claim that nothing outside it exists would be anti-realism. I’m sure that’s not your position. It would be like saying that the game is appearing to you without any hardware which I guess is roughly equivalent to saying that it is some kind of individual or inter-subjective dream (the former is indeed solipsism).


It in now way, shape or form does anything to support the existence of souls or how they may or may not behave - and I see that you concede this point.


That is correct. My aim was not to prove that souls exist but rather to show that arguments that they do not are not based on science and must also rely on subjective faith. The same, incidentally, applies to arguments against the existence of God.