Reality Conditions

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Quick Links

Aaron Bergman is guestblogging at Uncertain Principles and promises to answer all your questions about String Theory

*Peter Woit gets criticized for scientism by Richard for dismissing the "simulation argument", in what seems to me an example of people with different concerns talking past each other. Richard is right that science, in the narrow sense of empirically testable theories, does not exhaust the realm of rational discourse; Peter is right that the simulation argument is not science nor is even close to being science, as some versions of the anthropic principle may be. If philosophers want to have rational discussions of the simulation argument they may do so, and they may even come to illuminate some matters in epistemology; but this is not connected to anything scientific, and to pretend otherwise would be pseudo-science. (I also think that philosophical discussions with no scientific or practical connections will tend towards the sterile and the scholastic, but that's a separate discussion.)

*Via this discussion I found an intersting blog to add to my blogroll, Overcoming Bias. Its ultra-Bayesian-rationalistic approach to everything under the sun looks to me very limited and a distorted view of actual rational practices; but many of the posts there can be extremely thought-provoking when abstracted from this framework in which they are posed.

*Windmills of my Mind, an excellent film blog, is dedicating this month to exhaustive analysis of Steven Spielberg's films: one post per day, one per film.

*Even though he hates the books and I am a certified fan, I am enjoying Mike Smith's snarky chapter-by-chapter review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I liked the book a lot, though there were a couple of disappointments. And I was right on target with one of my main predictions -and wrong with several others. Best of the dozens of online discussions I've read are at Pandagon and In Medias Res. Also unmissble are the summary of the book in lolspeak and the roundup of naughty double entendres.



  • Of course, I wasn't objecting to Woit's claim that the simulation argument is not properly called "science". (A rose by any other name...) I was objecting to further suggestions -- check my quotes -- that all non-science is rationally on a par.

    By Blogger Richard, at 3:29 AM, August 20, 2007  

  • Yes -and I agreed with you in that criticism. But Woit's main concern is not to bash philosophy, but to keep science free of inherently untestable speculations . He got carried away lumping the simulation argument with religion, in response to posters who argued that it was scientific. You may say that both sides in that discussion were assuming some kind of scientism.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 6:03 PM, August 20, 2007  

  • You didn't agree that my criticism was on target, you said I was "talking past" him. I disagree - I quoted and engaged with precisely what he said - and Woit's pathetic follow-up post confirms his unreflective scientism.

    (The alleged fact that his "main concern" is with saying something true, would still be no excuse for *this* mistake. But I doubt that this is his main concern anyway. Who cares about a label? It only matters because "science" is treated as an honorific: what he really doesn't like is people "wasting their time" considering philosophical arguments instead of his preferred research.)

    By Blogger Richard, at 3:10 AM, August 21, 2007  

  • Damian's blog on Spielberg has been accused of plagiarism on the forum discussion list:

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:28 PM, August 21, 2007  

  • I hope you won't mind my asking a religion and science question, since you've mentioned them before. I recently ran across a chatecism that says the Universe's existence is evidence (not proof) for God because "matter is inert". It says that a body is inert when it cannot of itself and apart from outside intervention, change its state or nature.

    Is this something that physical science now denies or does not address?

    By Blogger Alana Asby Roberts, at 4:21 PM, August 27, 2007  

  • Alana,

    Thanks for asking, it is an interesting question. I would say that according to modern physics, while it is true that an elementary particle with no outside influence will not change its state, the same is not true for a composite system. As a result of the interaction of its parts, the system can change drastically its state, as long as a few global constraints like conservation of energy and growth of entropy are satisfied. For example:

    - An unstable atom can, without external influence, emit alpha or beta particles (radioactivity) and turn into a different atom.

    - A great mass of gas can, without external influence, collapse gravitationally to a point in which nuclear reactions start to occurr, become a star, shine for billions of years and then become something different like a white dwarf, a neutron star or a black hole. Even a black hole, perhaps the simplest system known to physics, will left by itself emit a weak radiation of quantum particles (the Hawking radiation) and very slowly evaporate.

    - In a system formed by a star and a planet, without external influence, the radiation from the star can trigger chemical changes in molecules present in the planet, which after millions of years become life and after billions of years, intelligent life.

    So if the argument is that without a God the universe would be inert and nothing new would ever appear, then my conclusion is that the argument does not have any force at all.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 9:24 PM, August 27, 2007  

  • Thanks, Alejandro. Sorry it took me a while to get back here. Yes, those answers are helpful.

    However I don't think that was the exact argument, I'll just paste it below.

    "The universe, (the earth and the heavenly bodies) could not come
    into being of itself because it consists of matter, which is inert. (A body is called inert, when it of itself, without external influence, cannot change its state.)" (I post the URL not to say you should read it but just to credit my source.)

    Also, one more question. You speak of stars emiting radiation which causes life. Do biology and physics agree on the beginning of life? Also, have physicists reproduced this phenomenon?


    By Blogger Alana Asby Roberts, at 4:03 AM, August 30, 2007  

  • Alana,

    I am not at all an expert in the topic of the beginning of life. As far as I know, the mechanisms are not completely understood, and there are several competing models or theories for how it happened. It is obviously difficult to get reliable evidence to test these models. These models must combine facts known from physics, chemistry and biology to be even considered -sciences are not isolated, but part of a continuum. I think that all viable models would use the energy provided by the sun to trigger the chemical reactions.

    There is no clear-cut distinction between life and non-life. Scientists have reproduced the creation of organic molecules, such as amino-acids and "proto-protein" combinations of them, from non-organic ones, in conditions similar to those in the early Earth. No complete functional cell has been produced by these methods, but this does not mean anything -the progress from the simplest organic molecules to the more complex combinations could have taken millions of years. We can't expect to reproduce it in a short time in the lab.

    In summary, though we don't know exactly how life started, this is more because of the difficulty of testing the particular models and theories proposed, than because it is a "Mystery" that is intrinsically impossible to solve scientifically. The vast majority of scientists -including religious ones- would agree that the beginning of life was as much a natural event as any other we can observe nowadays. Having little information about how it happened exactly is not a license to say "God did it", but an incentive to continue research.

    The Wikipedia article ( seems quite good.

    Regarding the argument you quote from the Catechism, addressing it in a worthy way would require a full post, which I can't write now. I'll probably write something on it sometime in the next couple of days.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:31 AM, August 31, 2007  

  • Thanks once again for your time and explanations. This clarifies a lot for me and I look forward to continued reading.

    I would agree that scientific discoveries are not licences to say anything about God.

    By Blogger Alana Asby Roberts, at 5:43 AM, September 03, 2007  

  • I got a bit delayed with other stuff, but you may look forward to see an extensive discussion of the argument in one or at most two days' time.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 12:02 AM, September 04, 2007  

  • By Anonymous Benedict, at 6:25 AM, October 13, 2011  

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