Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Contemplating the Deeply Strange

I watched this bloggingheads.tv dialogue between Robert Wright, whose latest book (The Evolution of God) I reviewed in the prior post, and Tyler Cowen, economics professor and prolific blogger at Marginal Revolution. They discussed Wright’s book but also expanded somewhat on each of their own views. One thing both men have in common is that they are non-believers, but take the challenge of responding to religious impulses seriously. I wanted to highlight here a good point made by Cowen. (The relevant parts of the dialogue span a couple of minutes beginning at 38 minutes in, then a few more starting at the 47 minute mark.)

Paraphrasing, Cowen says most non-believers should think more about religion and should specifically take the design/fine-tuning argument seriously: contemplation of this often leads to the concept of a complicated multiverse. He says we need to consider that our common-sense view of the world is wrong, and that there is room for a “deep strangeness” in reality. He mentions quantum mechanics and says one has to come to terms with a reality that seems absurd. He says his alternative to believing in God turns out to be believing something strange as well.

I would add that the multiverse concept in particular, is not only strange, but, if embraced, commits one to acknowledge something transcendent (a reality far beyond our observable universe). Investigations of our world have led to several ways to motivate the multiverse: in addition to the fine-tuning argument and the interpretation of QM, there are extensions of specific cosmological theories (eternal inflation, the string theory “landscape”), and there is the modal realism of philosophers. If a non-believer is motivated to explore deeper explanations of reality, he or she will almost surely end up somewhere well beyond a common-sense starting point.

Once you rule out the supernatural entities and interventions of traditional theism, there’s still a lot of hard work to do to explain what’s given to us: and the journey may lead to places one didn’t intend to go.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

Robert Wright is an intellectually curious journalist and a fine writer whose previous books I enjoyed (these days he is also editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv). In 1994’s The Moral Animal, he summarized and popularized ideas from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. In 2001’s Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny, he examined how game theory helps make sense of the development of human nature and human societies. In addition to presenting a digest of interesting research in these books, he laid out his own prism for viewing these topics: while our values can be explained entirely as natural phenomena, there is evidence of historical progress in the moral dimension of human affairs which seems to possibly point to something more transcendent. Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God, fits right into this theme: he explores the character of religion through history, and, by marshalling summaries of scholarly work, shows how religious ideas developed in response to changing social and political circumstances. The explanations make no appeal to the supernatural. But, as in his other books, Wright sees progress (however haphazard and intermittent) in the moral dimension of religion through time, which leads him to speculate that this phenomenon actually points to the existence of something worthy of being named divine.

The bulk of the book is an interesting run through research findings from anthropology, archaeology and textual analysis on the topic of historical religious ideas and practices. The tour begins with a look at hunter-gatherer style animism and the role of gods and religion in tribal cultures. Religious ideas in these milieus are seen to fit into and lubricate social organization. Then Wright examines the development of the various pantheons of gods in civilizations beginning with Mesopotamia and Egypt: the theme is how religion changed hand in hand with conquests, trade, and internal politics. In all cases there seems to be a plausible explanation of religious ideas (and the lineup of gods acknowledged) changing in concert with the “facts on the ground”.

This sets things up for the larger sections on the Abrahamic traditions. Wright, drawing on scholarly research, looks at the development of the religion of Israel from polytheistic roots, to monolatry (veneration of only one god), to the beginnings of true monotheism. The relationship of the tribe/nation of Israel to its neighbors through episodes of conquest, defeat, vassalship, and exile is seen as the prime driver of these developments. Christianity gets its turn in the barrel, as Wright sets out to show that its incorporation of the ideals of love and ethnic fellowship (and their backward projection onto the figure of Jesus) are best seen as an outgrowth of the mission to the gentiles in the context of a multi-cultural Roman empire. The expression of ideas in the Koran (including the fluctuations from tolerance to intolerance regarding infidels) is likewise tracked to the stages in the earthly career of Muhammad and his followers. (Eastern religions are left mostly undiscussed, but it is a long book as it is*).

The general theme is reinforced throughout: changes in religious ideas track earthly events. As nations make war, their gods intone contempt for non-believers. As empires digest conquests, they co-opt the gods of their new subjects. More positively, as societies enter into non-zero sum relationships with a wider circle of neighbors, their gods become more universal and more supportive of a broader moral vision.

I enjoyed these parts of the book and raced through 400 pages quickly. I found most of conclusions very plausible. I predict that one group of people who will have some problems with this material are the actual scholars who work in these fields: to them Wright’s account will surely seem superficial and far too quick to seize on conclusions which are the subject of significant debate and controversy. I think The Moral Animal could be criticized for confidently presenting plausible-sounding conclusions from evolutionary psychology that look shakier today. In any case, however, Wright has his eyes on the big picture, and the thrust of the ideas here was persuasive to me even if some of the details are in error.

In the last fifty pages of the book Wright presents his own thoughts on what it all means (some of these have of course been broached in previous chapters). Here the terrain became more difficult and I found some of his discussion to be repetitive. But watching him grapple with the ideas was nonetheless thought-provoking. First off (repeating the theme from Nonzero), Wright argues that with the passage of time, humans have expanded their circle of moral consideration, and that this constitutes an arrow of moral progress through history. I think he is on firm ground here: as we include more and more people (first extended family, then tribe, then nation, then international trading partners) in our field of empathy, we can see this properly as progress. However, I think it’s difficult to tie this to the main topic of the book: can we point to the evolution of our ideas regarding gods or God (more loving, less vengeful), and say that this adds anything to the story of moral progress? He does show that religion mirrors the state of play in the moral calculations of nations and peoples. But his analysis doesn’t provide evidence that religion drives moral progress – it seems to mainly reflect it.

In the final section (the Afterword), Wright proposes that the existence of an historical arrow of moral progress might be evidence for an objective moral order which transcends nature. He argues that even if the traditional idea of a personal God seems highly implausible given naturalism, it might nonetheless point (however imperfectly) towards truth. Maybe there is some kind of Logos of divine origin present in the temporal unfolding of human events. He draws an analogy between a traditional religion’s imperfect conception of God and a physicist’s imperfect conception of an electron (it’s not like a particle or a wave or anything else we can picture, yet we know it’s there from its manifestations).

Wright doesn’t commit to a conclusion that God exists, but he clearly wants to embrace the idea that our moral progress points to something transcendent. His arguments for this position aren’t strong, however, consisting as they do of analogies and a repeated appeal that something special must be going on to account for the moral axis of human affairs. I don’t think many traditional materialist-atheists will be convinced.

This is unfortunate because I think his intuition is sound. I think that any naturalist worldview needs to be expansive enough to account for first person experience and the meaning and values which arise from our engagement with the world. A purely third-person materialist description is incomplete. What’s missing from Wright’s argument (and it would take another book, of course) is a convincing metaphysical story of how this all fits together. Specifically, we need to account for how these first-person truths are rooted in the fundamental (pre-biological) fabric of nature -- a main goal of this blog. If we can do this, then we’ll build a foundation for Wright’s further story of how biological natural selection and cultural dynamics have shaped humanity.

Still, I admire Wright’s contribution in these books. And in particular I find his vision of moral progress to be inspiring. As he says, the forces of interconnectedness and globalization in today’s world offer the possibility that we can expand our circle of moral concern to finally cover the planet. As I’ve drafted this review over the past week, millions of people from all corners of the world have been morally identifying with protestors in Iran via the internet. A vision of progress toward a world of peace is right there before us.

* I should also mention that there is a good appendix which examines the roots of our religious impulses in evolutionary prehistory. He doubts we’ll find a “god gene” but discusses how different aspects of human and primate nature set the stage for religious impulses.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Physics Links and Notes

Here are three interesting things I read recently.

1. Lee Smolin has an article titled “The unique universe” in physicsworld (hat tip: Not Even Wrong). It covers some of the same ground as the video I had earlier posted here. In it he argues against some ideas which have been recently popular among physicists when considering the shape of the next fundamental theory of cosmology. First, many now argue that our universe is just one of a vast or infinite number of others: the multiverse. Also, it is argued that the fundamental theory will be timeless, since they see our experience of the flow of time as an emergent local phenomenon. This leaves us with a vision of a timeless and static multiverse.

Smolin says advocates of this vision are led by mistaken reasoning. One problem arises when physicists take the essentially Newtonian schema we use to evaluate systems within the universe (deterministic laws + initial conditions) and try to apply it to the entire cosmos. This leads them to try to describe a process for selecting our universe from a landscape of many universes (anthropically or otherwise). Smolin argues that we would do better to explore theories which take time to be fundamental, and where laws can vary in a process of cosmic evolution.

2. Many people are optimistic that an information-theoretic perspective will lead to new insights in exploring the foundations of quantum mechanics, and this multi-authored paper, called “A new physical principle: Information Causality”, is an interesting effort in this regard. Information causality is, according to the authors, a principle which helps pick out QM from a space of possible theories which, like QM, feature entangled correlations but allow no faster than light signaling. While the principle seems simple when stated (“communication of m classical bits causes information gain of at most m bits”), the fact that other (hypothetical) theories which feature strong correlations don’t meet it is notable. Hat tip goes to this post by the Quantum Pontiff which has some helpful discussion.

3. I had come across the essay “Free will, undecidability, and the problem of time in quantum gravity” by Rodolfo Gambini, which was submitted to the FQXi contest (see here), but I didn’t immediately catch on to his arguments. But now having reviewed two papers on Arxiv by Gambini and colleagues (here and here) I have a better idea what his program is. The key starting point is this: the mathematics of quantum mechanics treat time as an external infinitely divisible classical variable; Gambini et.al. think that fundamental limitations on the practical measurement of time within the physical world have implications for how we should interpret the problem of quantum measurement. For instance, if we look at decoherence theory, we see that a quantum superposition involving a system, a measuring device and the environment can evolve such that the degrees of freedom responsible for interference are dispersed. But decoherence itself says nothing about a measurement taking place -- the system is still evolving unitarily. Gambini et.al. argue that a point comes where no possible mechanism is available to tell whether or not a measurement outcome (or event) has or has not taken place. They think this undecidability threshold can be seen as the marker for when an event has occurred. (Then, in the essay, Gambini waxes philosophical and speculates that this undecidability between evolution and collapse might create space for free will.) A thread about this in physicsforums is here.

I liked reading Gambini’s papers, but I think the calculations regarding the undecidability point are controversial, given that a full explanation would require a theory of quantum gravity. And if my preferred approach to QG is right -- where time is a fundamental aspect of a pre-gravity microscopic quantum theory, and the particles and space-time geometry of current theories are emergent regularities -- then I suspect that the constraints on describing a physical clock would not arise in the same way as it does here.

Monday, June 01, 2009

5th Blogiversary Post

Thank you to everyone who has visited. I’m extremely grateful to those who have commented: the discussions that have taken place have been very valuable.

(Brief retrospective meta-blogging follows.)

Actually, I “cheated” at the beginning. The first ten posts from June 2004 were drawn from an essay I had previously written and distributed to some friends and family members, which I called (tongue-in-cheek) “Steve’s Guide to Reality”. After a little while, though, the blog started to show some life, becoming more interactive (thanks to Justin and Peter for early comments). While the equilibrium frequency of posting turned out to be pretty low, it has held fairly steady.

I’m happy with the results. In addition to the comment and e-mail dialogues the blog has engendered, it has helped organize and record my thoughts much more effectively than the previous battered-notebook approach. Also, blogging has obviously facilitated taking advantage of the explosion of resources available to read and link to on the internet. I’m indebted to all the scholars, students and fellow laypeople who blog or otherwise post their work online.

Blogging is, then, a valuable tool which is helping me toward a goal: the development of a metaphysical worldview. This has been my number one “hobby” since I was a teenager, and I think I’ve made more progress in these last five years then ever before.

Thanks again.