Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Logic, "Common Sense," and "The Wrong End Of The Telescope"

[Note: This is kind of a response to JohnJ's post "The Case Against Atheism," [201308031125 edit: this blog no longer exists. :'( ] in a "roundabout" way.]

Lately, I've been trying to figure out how to deal with life and my problems rationally, and recognize emotion when it arises within me and prevent it from interfering with logic. For example, a lot of people seem to confuse "common sense" with logic or rationality. This is a mistake. It's actually very easy to "fool" common sense (see: the Monty Hall problem).

Another all-too-common mistake is "looking through the wrong end of the telescope." For example, I assume (and I'm sure that JohnJ does as well) that there is an "objective reality" that's observer-independent. The reason I assume this is that the universe existed before there were any observers (I'm sure JohnJ has his own reasons). I often make the analogy that this "objective reality" is like a picture. But it's obvious to me that the only way available to us to see "the big picture" is through science/reason: one "puzzle-piece" at a time. One of the positive aspects of this is that there are correction mechanisms, for example, if the pieces don't all fit together, then that's an indication that someone has made a mistake. I don't believe that anyone has or will show us "the big picture," so we have to try to piece it together ourselves.

It seems problematic to me that throughout history, people have claimed to have access to a "full" or at least "better" view of this "picture" through some other means than discovering it for themselves in verifiable ways. The claims of these people have often been shown to be false—earth is not the center of the universe, nor is it flat, nor is it sitting atop the backs of turtles or elephants or whatever—and don't even get me started on "mind-body dualism." [Personally], I'd be at least a bit reluctant to believe anything I was told about the missing parts of the puzzle by those who have been (continually) demonstrated to be incorrect regarding the pieces we do have.

Another way of "looking through the wrong end of the telescope" is to assume that the "law" governing the universe is some kind of "intention," i.e., to assume that things happen because they were "meant" to happen. The only "laws" governing the universe are the laws of physics, the fundamental forces, [blah, blah, blah...] I wonder, if the leaves on a tree could "think," if they would think that their existence was the "purpose" for the existence of the tree to which they were attached, or the existence of trees in general. I'm sure that the "odds" of any specific leaf appearing at any specific place on a tree are quite small. But probability isn't the "law" that governs the universe, either. The "law" is cause and effect (and let's throw some "quantum mechanics" in there "for good measure"). The interactions are just too complex for us [given current technology] to predict with absolute certainty what will happen next, so probability is a heuristic we've developed to help us achieve at least some degree of certainty.

So, for example, our explanation for how we got here should include as many events in this "cause and effect chain" as possible. Of course, we've made significant progress in this area. To say that we were the intended result of the big bang, one would (please correct me if I'm wrong) either have to project intentionality onto the laws of physics or claim that the "initial conditions" were intentionally set to produce us (which is what JohnJ seems to claim), but I think one would still need to produce an argument for how this makes sense, because, given the inefficiencies of the process, among other imperfections, it certainly doesn't make sense from an engineering perspective.

I'll grant that if the "initial conditions" of the universe were different, then the current state of the universe would be different as well (of course, this seems like a tautology). The problem I see here is that to claim that there was a purpose for the universe and that we are a part of that purpose, the question remains, "why us?"

In other words, it seems JohnJ's claim is that (P) if the "initial conditions" had been any different, then we wouldn't be here, (Q) "therefore," the "initial conditions" had to have been "set" intentionally. But it doesn't seem to me that the conclusion follows from the premise. The "other side of the coin" is that before we could have existed, a myriad of other events happened [read: had to happen] first that did not per se have anything to do with us, and that those events ocurred over the humanly inconceivable span of 13.7 billion years. You'll notice that the language I used in the previous sentence was that of "looking through the wrong end of the telescope." Perhaps I should have said something like, "Due to the 'initial conditions' of the universe, there was this really long, intelligence-less, intention-less, 'cause and effect' chain of events that resulted in the present state of the universe, including, among other things, us. What, if any, are the implications of that?" At this point, the argument becomes: There was [let's say, "for the sake of argument"] only one set of initial conditions that could have resulted in a universe where our existence was possible, but those initial conditions also resulted in all this other "stuff" that seems pointless and stupid if, indeed, the (or at least one "major") intention behind the "creation" of the universe was our eventual existence. Unfortunately, this no longer seems like an argument [not to be flippant, but you'd be better off saying that the "intention" of Hamlet was to tell a story about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern].

Note that my argument is not that "anything's possible given infinity," it's that a specific (causal) chain of events was possible given "the universe." In other words, a chain of events leading to the present indisputably did happen, and we should (eventually) be able to show ("beyond reasonable doubt") how it happened (through natural processes). At this point, the only question [I can see] is, "Why was it possible?" or "Why did it happen?" Of course, I wouldn't claim to know the answer. "Why" is an idea, and ideas are products of minds, which are products of brains, which are products of biology and evolution, which is a product of self-replicating molecules, which are products of chemistry... [blah, blah, blah]... my point is that minds [at least, "mind as we know it"1] emerged long after the "big bang," so I'm skeptical that "why" "existed" before it. This is the point of [the idea of] "emergent order": that "order" emerges from "chaos" without intelligent direction, rather than through the process by which we, who are [presumably] intelligent, build things such as machines with a plan and a purpose beforehand. This is why [some] people say things like, "We don't need 'god' to explain [xyz]" (regardless of whether or not "God" would be a "better" explanation, which I don't think would be the case anyway, but that's a different argument).

Another question this "initial conditions" argument raises is, "What about the future?" Are future beings going to think that they were part of the "purpose" of the universe? Would there be any way to find out who (if anyone) was correct?

Here, I'll briefly note that even if there is a creator, it does not follow that there is an "objective morality" [*cough*Euthyphro*cough*]. I'll also note that I don't really have major problems with religion [ideology] per se. My [major] problems with [ideology] begin where it tries to act as a stop sign for inquiry (e.g., through "dogma"). I just think that any claims about "knowledge" or "truth" or "reality" should be verifiable.

1 I'm not saying that there could not possibly exist any other type of "mind" than the mind we know about, but if a person proposes that it exists, it needs to be discovered, or at least coherently explained, before I could have a discussion about it with anyone. As I often say, "speculation = masturbation."


  1. for the idiot called *

    you are not going to tell me what I believe...

    we're going to play a NEW GAME...





    you are going to learn even to TALK about GOD the way you do is going to cost you your lives...

    the writing on the wall...

    f*ck you very much!

    THE BOOBQUAKE - 911!

    see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL DIMENSION - THAT OF LIBERATION - not just merely harmless expression...


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