Budding Philosophers

I’ve been calling my wife Mrs. H online lately to honor her request for anonymity.  I mentioned that to her the other night and she said, “ah yes, I’m Mrs. HiggsBoson”.  I love being married to someone crazy about science.

Anyway, we were sitting around the table the other night and my daughter asked us if we were 100% sure about something (I can’t remember the topic).  At the same time both HiggsBoson and myself quickly said that there is very little we can be 100% sure of.  Here’s some of the dialogue:

Daughter: Is there anything we can be 100% sure of?

HiggsBoson: Some things, like I am 100% sure you are my daughter.

Howie: Ah, but what if one of us is just a brain in a vat?

HiggsBoson: Oh quit it with the crazy philosophy stuff will you? [while my wife loves science, she isn’t a huge fan of philosophy].

Howie: The kids know what I’m talking about.

Son: What’s a brain in a vat?

Howie: That’s the idea that your body doesn’t exist, but that all of your thoughts are just generated by a brain in a jar somewhere.

Son: Oh yeah, I’ve thought of that before.

Daughter: me too!

Both of our kids seem to share my interest in deep life questions (especially my son). My wish is for them to never go through the pain that I went through in my search for answers.  Right now they remind me of how I was when I was young – a time where thinking about those things was just plain fun!  I’m glad I decided to return to that perspective.  Our children will know that the unknown is not worth the worry. They will also grow up knowing that their mom and I don’t worry about some invisible mind somewhere that gets offended if we don’t see the need to search for it.  And most importantly, they will know that if they end up finding the concept of a deity comforting to them that we will still love them exactly the same even though we don’t see things the same way.

Dear HiggsBoson: Thank you for keeping some balance in our family and for keeping your 3 philosophers from going to crazy town.  I’m so glad philosophy doesn’t float your boat, because we desperately need that balance in our family.  And I’m also glad we met after I was done with my stint with religion and also done with my desperate searching period, because if we had met before that we likely wouldn’t be together.  And that would have been a crying shame since we fit together like 2 puzzle pieces (oh, and by the way, thanks for the huge jigsaw puzzle you guys gave me on my birthday – I’m enjoying it quite a bit).  Have a great Mother’s Day!

And to all my readers who are mothers: I hope you have a great Mothers Day.  Maybe you’ll find the following video as heartwarming as HiggsBoson and I found it:

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“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review

WhyIsThereAnything

About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.

Why Ask Why, Drink Bud Dry

This is just a little bit of a teaser for the review I’m trying to write of “Why Is There Anything”, by Matthew Rave.  Jim Holt’s solution in the TEDx video above is a bit different from Matthew Rave’s, but they are both critical of Lawrence Krauss’ solution.  I recommend giving it a watch.  While I don’t really see the question really being answered in the video, I thought Jim Holt had a lot of interesting things to say and he was actually quite entertaining to listen to.

Ever since I was a young boy I loved thinking about deep questions like this, and I know I’m not alone in that, although I may be in the minority.  I remember connecting with a friend of mine in junior high school regarding the “end point” of space.  Our other friends thought we were a bit strange.  We both found the concept fascinating as well as disconcerting.  If space had an end then what was beyond that end point?  And the idea that space continues infinitely was equally troubling to our finite minds.

It was this probing philosophical mind along with my guilt prone Jewish background that made me ripe for the Christian worldview to grab hold of me a few years after that.  Christianity was like a carrot which had all the answers to these probing questions.  But as my years as a Christian progressed, trouble brewed in paradise.  It became clearer that the “answers” given were more about tradition passed down from people a long time ago who lived in a superstitious time, rather than answers backed by empirical analysis. They were simply revealed just like the other religions had their revelations.  So the Christian answers to the probing questions that all of us have not only were derived without careful and critical analysis, but those answers then brought up many more questions.  The carrot began to look more and more like just a painting of a carrot.  Why is there anything at all? – because there is an all-perfect all-knowing God, and the existence of that God doesn’t require explanation – and if you think it does you just aren’t thinking correctly, even though it seems like the existence of that God would require even more of an explanation.  I’m sorry, but the mystery is still there.

I’m growing convinced that Buddha had some of the best perspectives when it comes to these metaphysical type questions.  It’s related to this video I posted before:

Just like I mentioned in the previous post with that video, I encourage continued exploration and thinking about these questions.  Obviously I continue to explore myself.  But I also see it as important to deal with the possibility that some of these questions may very well be unanswerable. None of the solutions to the question of why is there anything seem satisfactory to me, especially the all-knowing God answer.  This question may just be out of the realm of human thought.

Oh, and totally unrelated – have any of you found a good antidote for writer’s block besides just forcing myself to begin?  Is there any kind of music that might get the juices flowing and help me clear my mind to be able to get the stuff in my mind into words?

Can There be a Purpose to This Post?

EvangelistsA few weeks ago Josh brought up some good points about meaning and purpose in life at this link on Nate’s post.  We hashed through some of that over there but I thought I’d try to add a few more of my thoughts on the subject.  I actually agree with a lot of what Josh wrote (although I’m not sure he realized that), but there were some things he wrote that I thought could be looked at from a different angle.

First I’d like to explore what in the world is meant by “life’s meaning”.  For this I’d like to start with a quote from Loyal Rue:

When individuals articulate the meaning of life they are attempting to specify why they value life. 1

I believe this hits the nail on the head, and I believe it explains why atheists are actually correct when they say that their life is still meaningful to them even without a transcendent purpose.  They have their own reasons why they value living: perhaps relationships with friends and family, or the sheer joy of helping others, the enjoyment of learning, looking on a breathtaking vista, breathing in the fresh cool air of a new fall season, or all of those and more.  Whatever it may be, living is important to them (i.e. they value it) and they have many reasons to continue living.  That is what atheists are trying to express when they say “my life is meaningful” or “we can create meaning”.  This is why I believe that part of Josh’s last comment is not entirely true:

I do think it covers up the deeper reality that there really isn’t any reason to continue living the life we live without ultimate purpose.

There are reasons to continue living.  We have those reasons ourselves.  And my reasons for living aren’t even only within myself.  I know there are others who love me and want me to continue living as well.  So there are actually reasons to live even external of myself.  However, where I agree with Josh (and perhaps he just didn’t word the above carefully) is that outside of the desires of human beings there are no transcendent reasons to live if the more popular forms of naturalism are true (I say it that way because not all naturalists are alike in their beliefs).  What I think theists don’t realize though is that many atheists realize this and their response is “so what?”.  This actually is similar to the Buddhist response and relates to the parable of the poisoned arrow I explained in this post.

I’d like to dig even a bit deeper.  I think there may be a distinction between “meaning in life” and “meaning of life”.  What I mean is that usually when someone asks “what is the meaning of life”, I believe they are asking what meaning there is above and beyond humans (a.k.a. transcendent, ultimate, or cosmic). I’d like to share with Josh and others that I can relate to their need to have some “higher purpose”.  Feeling like I could be a part of something bigger than myself was a big draw for me before I became a Christian, and was a significant loss for me when I left.

Now when theists say “there is no meaning of life without God”, I believe there is actually a hidden premise in there.  The premise is: “meaning must come from a thinking, intentional mind” (because that’s how the monotheists who push this argument define God).  This seems to be a foundational belief, but I don’t see any logical reason that this must be true.  Perhaps there is somehow meaning built-in as a basic property of reality.  I believe this is a bit more of an eastern way of looking at things (perhaps Taoist), but Spinoza, Einstein and others seemed to also express such ideas.  But my western mind has the same bias that theists have, so while I’m open to possibilities I lean toward agreeing that “meaning can only come from thinking, intentional minds.” But think about that – where does that premise come from?  I believe it comes from our own experience that purpose and meaning are generated from human minds.  So there you have it – it comes full circle.  The very argument itself shows that humans can create purpose and meaning (which some theists, including Josh, agree to). They may not be eternal, but that’s not the point.

Further, I’d like to ask my readers to think and comment on 3 thought experiments. Theists will probably learn the most about themselves from them, but I believe some atheists can benefit as well.  Keep in mind that the experiments may not be possible scenarios, but that’s how thought experiments go:

  1. Consider a world where there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who has created human beings for a purpose.  However, God tells all of us that absolutely nothing (including himself) is eternal.  All will come to an end at some point in the far future.  But he tells us that he still has a purpose for all of us to be alive.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  2. Consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God (don’t ask me how – it’s a thought experiment!), and there also is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds.  However, we also know for sure that human beings will exist for eternity.  Could this scenario be meaningful to you?
  3. Last consider a world where we all know for sure that there is no God and there is no transcendent meaning beyond human minds, but in this last world human beings all die like we do in our real world.  Also, we all know that humanity will come to an end at some point far in the future.  Most traditional monotheists would not find this kind of life meaningful.  But really think about it – what would you do if tomorrow scientists, philosophers, and theologians all got together and came to a 100% consensus that this is the way the world is?

The first 2 scenarios actually have an interesting story to them. In my blogging I’ve actually been surprised to find that some theists have desires which are very different from the ones I had as a Christian.  When I was a Christian it was more about feeling like I was a part of something grander than myself, so I would have answered with a resounding YES to question #1.  Eternity really had nothing to do with it.  In fact living eternally has never been much of a big draw for me.  I obviously wouldn’t want to live eternally in sadness, and I’d be ok with an eternity of bliss, but to be honest never-ending consciousness just seems a bit too much to me.  What I was very surprised to find however in an online discussion I had with Brandon was that the idea of “something(s)” being around in eternity and being affected by his life was an important factor for him in regards to meaning. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from this – all of us should know and recognize that we are all built differently, with different needs and desires.  While there is a great deal of overlap in many of our needs, when it comes to our desires related to questions of meaning it really does span the map.  My wife is the perfect example of this – she is the most content person I’ve ever met and it boggles her mind why anyone would ever care about or need any kind of ultimate purpose in their lives.  So theists should keep in mind that if they are trying to sell their worldview with the “meaning card” their effort may very well be wasted.

And in regards to eternity, this quote from John McTaggart is worth thinking about:

If we do not start with the certainty that love for an hour on earth is unconditionally good, I do not see what ground we should have for believing that it would be good for an eternity in heaven. 2

Lastly, given that I have a bit of agnosticism in me, in my mind there is still the possibility that there really is some meaning to the universe, be it from gods or from some basic properties of the universe.  While I’ve fully faced scenario #3 and already dealt with the fact that there is likely no transcendent meaning, I see no reason to completely dispense with the idea.  I talked more about that as well as other related things in this post.  I think it’s good to face all different kinds of possible scenarios in similar ways.  We can never remove our preferences, but it can help in reducing bias.


Footnotes:

  1. “Nature Is Enough”, by Loyal Rue
  2. Quoted by Erik Wielenberg in “Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism”

Moving Forward With Ultimate Questions

My blog is more focussed on moving forward when it comes to the big questions of life rather than looking back. So while I certainly plan to have posts that discuss why I no longer believe certain things (because I recognize there are many people who are still convinced of beliefs which have been shown to be very unlikely and more education is needed regarding that), I would much rather focus on the progress that could be made toward answering some of our big questions. While it is certainly possible the answers to some of these questions will forever be out of our reach, we don’t know this for sure so as I’ve said before I don’t see a reason to throw in the towel. And while I see it as likely that they won’t be answered conclusively for hundreds of years, humans could be around for a lot longer than that, so why not continue seeking for answers.

So in that vein, I’d again like to post what I see as ways of moving forward with these questions.

First, the video about possiblianism:

While I wasn’t very impressed with David Eagleman’s book “Sum”, the video above impressed me with the way he presents the ideas of there being a whole possibility space for answers to the big (or “ultimate”, or “metaphysical” – I use these words interchangeably) questions we have. Each of the religions that have existed represent dots in the tremendous amount of dots that exist in the possibility range of metaphysical reality. The other big take-away for me is the focus on using objective methods (scientific method being just one example of that) in our search for answers.

John Schellenberg, although more philosophical and sophisticated than David Eagleman, really presents a very similar viewpoint in these 2 videos: Part 1 and Part 2 (if anyone can tell me how to embed videos from the Closer to Truth website I’d really appreciate it).  I highly recommend taking the time to watch the videos, especially if you are interested in understanding my viewpoint regarding religion or ultimate truth (as some of my friends have asked me to explain my views on religion, this will now be the post and videos I forward them to, along with this and this).  Obviously a few short posts and a few videos can’t explain all of my views on religion, but it’s a good starting point for the main points:

  1. We have not yet reached a point in human history where we can conclusively know the answers to our ultimate (metaphysical, spiritual, religious, etc.) questions.
  2. The possibility space for answers to these questions is tremendous compared to all of the answers we have had in the past from religions.
  3. We should use critical thinking and the objective methods that we have used in all other fields of interest to explore and research these kinds of questions.
  4. All the rigorous and nit-picky checks as well as peer reviews that are applied in the other fields should apply to these questions as well because without them history has shown that we can easily fool ourselves into believing false things without them.  We have to avoid falling into the traps of “pseudoscience”.
  5. While some of these questions may never be able to be answered with these kinds of methods, we should not give up on coming up with unique ways to overcome these difficulties.
  6. If we end up agreeing that some of the questions are out of reach of these methods, then we honestly conclude that we don’t have the answers. We don’t grab a conclusion that seems to work best and say that that is the one that everyone in the world must adhere to.

Some examples of research that has already been done: consciousness, spiritual development, spirituality in the brain (this is just a short list of examples of things being researched that I’ve quickly grabbed and it’s likely some of them don’t properly adhere to the rigors I am talking about).

Now all sorts of questions arise when we discuss research regarding ultimate questions, and there is no way I can address them all in one small post, but I will try a few.

Some say that all ultimate questions are incapable of being studied by objective methods. Here I have to disagree.  While I understand the huge difficulties and even the possibility that some of them are out of reach, there are clearly still areas that are up for research using the methods that we know work the best.  The examples I’ve given above are some.  The main idea is that while a “supernatural” or “ultimate” realm may not be able to be investigated directly, the indirect effects that it may have on our natural realm are definitely capable of investigation.  I could say more here, but I’m running very long – I’ll leave it to another post.

I’m not suggesting we spend tax dollars on this kind of research, or even suggesting that everyone should give money towards it.  But if you are giving money to a “static” institution which declares that they have the truth and there is no need for progress or research to go forward then you should consider giving some of that money toward real research in these areas.

An important part of this process is being willing to give up on our most cherished beliefs.  We don’t have to abandon them completely (unless they are very conclusively wrong), but we must be willing to challenge them and consider that they might be wrong in order to progress forward.  History has shown that this is the way that we move forward. Flat earth, sun revolving around the earth, demons being the source of sickness, bloodletting for illness treatment, less than 10,000 year old earth, and evolution denial are all examples of cherished beliefs that a lot of people had a very difficult time giving up on (and some of them still remain as issues for a large amount of people), yet once we were willing to challenge and question them we were able to progress forward.