The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

It’s been a while since the last time I was the target of an epic meltdown at the #Ozfail (or at least, the last one I noticed). I thought perhaps Chris Mitchell had developed a thicker skin. But, today’s Oz has a full-length editorial responding to a mere tweet about a piece of creationist silliness by one Eric Metaxas, reprinted from Murdoch stablemate, the Wall Street Journal.

We get the usual Oz editorial line about how they aren’t really climate deniers (they just give space to “a couple of contributors who dare to scrutinise the scientific consensus”), creationists (they just think science “can’t explain the universe”), or a rightwing propaganda outfit (they publish Labor lefties like Gary Johns and Graeme Richardson). It’s just that they “love a contest of ideas”.

Moreover, the collection of rightwing delusionists on the opinion pages don’t represent the views of the #Ozfail

Professor, if you ever want to know what the paper thinks or where it stands on any issue, there is only one place you’ll find out. Right here in these editorial columns.

That’s a relief. Having been slagged off in special-purpose opinion pieces, Cut-and-Paste snarks, and various passing comments, I had the feeling the Oz didn’t like me. But the real view, apparently, is that of the anonymous editorialist, who (faintly) praises me as “oft-erudite”.

I do have one small disappointment though. Given the headline “140 characters not the full story” and the protestations of commitment to the contest of ideas, I was expecting the editorial to prove me wrong by inviting me to provide a full-length response to Metaxas’ silliness. Sadly, no.

144 thoughts on “The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

  1. JQ I think gets this one wrong. Metaxas isn’t a creationist in the usual sense of a denier of natural selection as the crucial force in the evolutionary trajectory of life on Earth. Physicists are genuinely puzzled by the anthropic problem; you can’t dismiss Paul Davies for one as a kibitzer.

    Archdeacon Paley got their first. His influential creationist book laid out the standard argument for design from organs of extreme perfection, making creationism a genuine and credible scientific hypothesis until Darwin blew it out of the water in 1859. In a lesser-known passage, Paley pointed out that our stable planetary system requires the gravitational constant to lie in a narrow range. Ergo, a thumb on the scales. Nobody has blown that argument out of the water, and as Metaxas says, there are many more examples. An atheist can respond with a multiverse theory, in which all possible combinations of the values of fundamental constant exist, though most of them collapse, and we just happen to live in the universe which allows life. Angels on pins, anyone?

    The bit of Metaxas’ argument I don’t understand is the long and irrelevant initial rubbishing of SETI. What difference does it make for the case for a Creator whether humans are unique, or one among thousands of intelligent life-forms? The Wikipedia article on the Drake equation does not support Metaxas’ claim that the best estimate of the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy (let alone the universe) has shrunk towards zero; rather it has widened with new data. Basically, we don’t know.

  2. @James Wimberley

    You say “Physicists are genuinely puzzled by the anthropic problem”. If you mean by that, that they are puzzled by why life has not;

    (1) Arisen elsewhere; and then
    (2) Become observable to us.

    Then I say they don’t really need to be puzzled. First consider the issue that “‘Earth-like’ Planets May Be Nothing Like Earth.” Google this phrase and read on the topic.

    The improbabilites which make it highly unlikely that the universal physical constants etc. would have just the right values to allow stable matter and life, are matched by the improbabilites that an earth-size planet in the “Goldilocks” zone will have a stable enough star and just the right presence of water, gas elements at STP and the right ratios of elements. Our star (sun) is actually highly atypical in its stability. Most stars of the universe the age of our star would have cooked a plant in the “Goldilocks” zone to a cinder by now with normal brightness oscillations and solar flares.

    The next issue is the communication or meeting issue across the universe. Not only would alien civilizations have to be relatively close in space, they would have to be relatively close in time. If one arose, flowered and died 5 billion years before us at a 100 million light years distance then their messages have long since gone past us. Add in the issue mentioned by someone above, the inverse square law, random “noise” in space reducing signal and the need of the narrowcast to “point everywhere” in its sweeps then how likely are we to get a signal? Highly unlikely I would think.

  3. @Jack Strocchi

    There are flaws in your line of reasoning, but without going into them (I see other commenters have), your argument still does not lead to Eric Metaxas’s conclusion that the evidence points to the existence of God. Even if your argument is not silly, his still is.

  4. The search for ultimate causes presupposes the existence of causation or at least causation as simple, monistic causation. Such causation cannot simply be assumed to exist. There is a good philosophical case to be made that causation does not exist or if it does exist it does not at all levels match our naive, classical and everyday assumptions about causation. We cannot validly extend everyday causation monistically down to quantum and up to cosmological limits.

    I am a materialist and scientific empiricist in outlook. It’s often thought that having this viewpoint equates to having views supporting scientism, mechanical determinism and simple causation. This might have been true in the era of classical physics but it is no longer automatically applicable in the era of Relativistic Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Field Theory.

    Opinions vary of course, and many quantum physicists still support the notion of causality. However, a quantum physicist if asked whether causation exists will probably say “It depends on what precisely you mean by causation.” Then he or she is likely to give a guarded “yes” that it exists provided you define causation correctly.

    This passage from Wikipedia is interesting.

    “In physics it is helpful to interpret certain terms of a physical theory as causes and other terms as effects.” (This is an interesting statement as it does not amount to a full claim that causation is real.) It goes on;

    “Thus, in classical (Newtonian) mechanics a cause may be represented by a force acting on a body, and an effect by the acceleration which follows as quantitatively explained by Newton’s second law. For different physical theories the notions of cause and effect may be different. For instance, in the general theory of relativity, acceleration is not an effect (since it is not a generally relativistic vector); the general relativistic effects comparable to those of Newtonian mechanics are the deviations from geodesic motion in curved spacetime. Also, the meaning of “uncaused motion” is dependent on the theory being employed: for Newton it is inertial motion (constant velocity with respect to an inertial frame of reference), in the general theory of relativity it is geodesic motion (to be compared with frictionless motion on the surface of a sphere at constant tangential velocity along a great circle). So what constitutes a “cause” and what constitutes an “effect” depends on the total system of explanation in which the putative causal sequence is embedded.”

    Further;

    “The empiricists’ aversion to metaphysical explanations (like Descartes’ vortex theory) lends heavy influence against the idea of the importance of causality. Causality has accordingly sometimes been downplayed (e.g., Newton’s “Hypotheses non fingo”). According to Ernst Mach the notion of force in Newton’s second law was pleonastic, tautological and superfluous. Indeed it is possible to consider the Newtonian equations of motion of the gravitational interaction of two bodies, (equations omitted) as two coupled equations describing the positions… of the two bodies, without interpreting the right hand sides of these equations as forces; the equations just describe a process of interaction, without any necessity to interpret one body as the cause of the motion of the other, and allow one to predict the states of the system at later (as well as earlier) times.”

    On the other hand;

    “In modern physics, the notion of causality had to be clarified. The insights of the theory of special relativity confirmed the assumption of causality, but they made the meaning of the word “simultaneous” observer-dependent. Consequently, the relativistic principle of causality says that the cause must precede its effect according to all inertial observers. This is equivalent to the statement that the cause and its effect are separated by a timelike interval, and the effect belongs to the future of its cause. If a timelike interval separates the two events, this means that a signal could be sent between them at less than the speed of light. On the other hand, if signals could move faster than the speed of light, this would violate causality because it would allow a signal to be sent across spacelike intervals, which means that at least to some inertial observers the signal would travel backward in time. For this reason, special relativity does not allow communication faster than the speed of light.

    In the theory of general relativity, the concept of causality is generalized in the most straightforward way: the effect must belong to the future light cone of its cause, even if the spacetime is curved. New subtleties must be taken into account when we investigate causality in quantum mechanics and relativistic quantum field theory in particular. In quantum field theory, causality is closely related to the principle of locality. However, the principle of locality is disputed: whether it strictly holds depends on the interpretation of quantum mechanics chosen, especially for experiments involving quantum entanglement that satisfy Bell’s Theorem.

    Despite these subtleties, causality remains an important and valid concept in physical theories. For example, the notion that events can be ordered into causes and effects is necessary to prevent (or at least outline) causality paradoxes such as the grandfather paradox, which asks what happens if a time-traveler kills his own grandfather before he ever meets the time-traveler’s grandmother. See also Chronology protection conjecture.”

    Note: All quotes above from Wikipedia.

    To enter more complexities (or at least stand at the door) we can note the following.

    “Those who make causality one of the original uralt (sic – likely German meaning “ancient”) elements in the universe or one of the fundamental categories of thought — of whom you will find that I am not one — have one very awkward fact to explain away. It is that men’s conceptions of a cause are in different stages of scientific culture entirely different and inconsistent. The great principle of causation which, we are told, it is absolutely impossible not to believe, has been one proposition at one period in history and an entirely disparate one at another is still a third one for the modern physicist. The only thing about it which has stood… is the name of it. – Charles Sanders Peirce, Reasoning and the Logic of Things, 1898.

    “The attempt to “analyze” causation seems to have reached an impasse; the proposals on hand seem so widely divergent that one wonders whether they are all analyses of one and the same concept.” – Jaegwon Kim, “Causation”, 1995.

    Note: Following Absract from Processes and Causality – John F. Sowa

    “Abstract: In modern physics, the fundamental laws of nature are expressed in continuous systems of partial differential equations. Yet the words and concepts that people use in talking and reasoning about cause and effect are expressed in discrete terms that have no direct relationship to the theories of physics. As a result, there is a sharp break between the way that physicists characterize the world and the way that people usually talk about it. Yet all concepts and theories of causality, even those of modern physics, are only approximations to the still incompletely known principles of causation that govern the universe. For certain applications, the theories proposed by philosophers, physicists, and engineers may be useful approximations. Even “commonsense” theories that have never been formalized can be adequate guides for people to carry on their daily lives. To accommodate the full range of possible theories, whether formal or informal, scientific or rule of thumb, this paper proposes a continuum of law-governed processes, which bridge the gap between a totally random chaos and a totally predictable determinism. Various theories of causality can be interpreted according to the kinds of laws they assume and the tightness of the constraints they impose.”

    In other words, you first have to know what causation is and what a cause is before you use causation arguments to try to prove God’s existence. To shorthand this, a theory of causation useful for our everyday “classical” world is not useful for “explaining” or detailing causation at the quantum level nor at the cosmological level. This basic, naive conception of causation is simply inapplicable at those other levels. It is as inappropriate as applying Newtonian mechanics to bodies moving near the speed of light or Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics.

    Applying simple, everyday causation logic to the beginning of the universe and to generating a notion of an Uncaused Cause is absurdly and stupendously simplistic. The Eastern philosophies are clearly far more profound (though still not necessarily “correct” whatever “correct” is) in positing complete interconnectedness (laws of relation) and avoiding the use of the concept “cause” for cosmological argumentation or speculation.

  5. Since the Fermi Paradox is being invoked here, I’ll throw in the possibility that intelligent life, if it doesn’t self-destruct beforehand: (a) experiences technological singularities before reaching starfaring capabilities; and (b) then progressively dematerialises and otherwise technologically innovates in such a way as to render physical space travel redundant. In other words, life remakes itself as gods rather than a god making life.

  6. 1) If an alien came here 300000 years ago Sapiens would not have stood out from other life (or the other 4 or 5 kinds of humans) although physiologically we were about the same as we are today. If you or I were borne then we would have lived a life like an ape (or dog etc) does today .Why did we wait so long to do all this ‘special’ stuff ?
    2) Graphed against time, our development in terms of science and technology is exponential. If it keeps going we are about to cease to exist as human as we know them. We will soon manipulate the building blocks of life ,blend with our technology and evolve into something else– not human.
    3) We have so quickly found ways of enhancing our power and getting around the laws of physics , finding possible holes in them ,why hasn’t other life found us yet ? This is all happening in the blink of an eye. Did we happen to get to this point first?
    4) The Anthropic question (why is it like it is) is like the ultimate unanswerable one – why is there anything at all ?
    5) This economics stuff is fun ! Iko I had a little chuckle to myself a few days ago on the deontology (not a very useful term) thread when you protested that Economics gets derailed here ! You love it -you know you do !
    6) Jack Strocchi — I like reading what you say but I know it can be said in way less words ,please try. Here is a challenge for you — think of the ability to say the same thing in less words as a sign of intelligence .
    7) Happy new year to everyone .Leftists rule !. When the sh*it hits the fan I’ll be running with you.

  7. James Wimberley @51:

    What difference does it make for the case for a Creator whether humans are unique, or one among thousands of intelligent life-forms?

    Logically, none. Psychologically, however, theists tend to, in Voltaire’s words, create God in their own image and ascribe to God their own priorities and prejudices. If we were to find that there are thousands of intelligent life forms out there, a fair proportion of which are more capable than we are, it would be very unsettling for most religious adherents’ beliefs about our destiny and our place in the universe.

  8. I think people should pay more attention to the point I raised with a lot of quotation help above.

    (1) We don’t even really know what causation is.
    (2) Causation (what it is and how it works) “shape-shifts” on the spectrum from quantum scale to everyday scale to cosmological scale.

    Therefore it is not valid to;

    (a) accept “causation” as a priori real except provisionally at certain empirical levels;
    (b) accept “causation” as a single neat or monistic concept, category or phenomenon;
    (c) accept “causation” as an explanation for anything well beyond our empirical experience and well beyond any chance of mortal consciousness empirical testing ie. for positing an Uncaused Cause.

    It is pure speculation and in the arena of pure speculation there are no criteria for choosing any explanation over any other explanation.

  9. “It is pure speculation and in the arena of pure speculation there are no criteria for choosing any explanation over any other explanation.”

    Margaret Wertheim who wrote Pythagoras’s Trousers and has a global arts-science communication project to raise awareness of climate change, ocean acidification, and non-Euclidean geometry – Crocheting Coral Reefs – has also written about outsider science I saw when I was looking at the website – the book is called Physics on the Fringe

    “What drives a man with no science training to think he can succeed where Einstein and Stephen Hawking have failed? In 1993, Jim Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw, Washington, sent out to a select group of scientists a letter announcing the publication of a book in which he proposed a complete alternative theory of physics. Gravity and matter, the periodic table, and the creation of the universe – all these Carter explained through wildly creative ideas developed while working as a gold miner and abalone diver. He tested his theories through backyard experiments using garbage cans and a fog machine to make giant smoke rings.

    For the past fifteen years, Wertheim has been collecting the works of Jim Carter and other “outsider physicists,” many of them without formal training and all convinced they have found the true theory of the universe. By considering the motivations of men like Carter, with their do-it-yourself theories and homemade experiments, Wertheim raises the question of what role an amateur can play in relationship to science. Deeply human, literally fantastical, infused with wit and humor, Physics on the Fringe challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for”

  10. @Ikonoclast
    Actually, fairly recent analysis of exo-planet data indicates that the so-called Goldilocks zone might be a very conservative estimate. Furthermore, we keep finding life in the most inhospitable places on this planet: kilometres down in the crust of the planet, right next to underwater vents, where the water is up to 400C (the high pressure of the deep sea prevents the water from vaporising), more than a kilometre under ice in the Antarctic (trapped for several million years), etc.

    As well as that, complex organic molecules keep turning up in space, a very cold place. This indicates it is possible for organic chemical reactions to proceed in space by mechanisms other than thermal energy. The thermal noise is so low in space, it allows intermediary molecular configurations not possible on a planet in the Goldilocks zone.

    We still don’t know how to demonstrate life exists on planets orbiting other stars, the simple reason being the enormous distance limits what can be reliably measured. We can determine if a planet has the right kind of basic elements for life to be possible, but as far as I know, that’s about where we are at.

    When I was a kid, the idea of finding interstellar planetary systems was still a long term objective, very much an idea of science fiction realm. Not any more.

  11. @ZM

    Well, have the outsider “physicists” provided any testable hypotheses leading to any advances in physics? Have they discovered and proven any new Laws of Physics which have survived repeated empirical testing and “peer” review counting all insider and outsider physicists as peers?

  12. @Donald Oats

    When I was a kid the idea of finding a left-over unexploded bunger from cracker night was a long-term objective for the next few days. 😉

    With regard to life beyond earth we just have to keep looking. No other way to approach it. I wonder if Mars landers have already contaminated Mars with life from earth. Could bacteria and viruses have hitched a ride to Mars?

  13. Ikonoclast,

    I don’t think that it is the point of the book that the outsider scientists are correct – more to document these people’s works and to make the point that science is too elitist and not communicated properly so some people go about trying to make sense of things in their own way – which has come to a singularly bad end in climate change denialism

    “The mainstream science world has a way of dealing with people like this – dismiss them as cranks and dump their letters in the bin. While I do not believe any outsider I have encountered has done any work that challenges mainstream physics, I have come to believe that they should not be so summarily ignored.

    Consider the sheer numbers. Outsider physicists have their own organisation, the Natural Philosophy Alliance, whose database lists more than 2100 theorists, 5800 papers and over 1300 books worldwide. They have annual conferences, with this year’s proceedings running to 735 pages. In the time I have been observing the organisation, the NPA has grown from a tiny seed whose founder photocopied his newsletter onto pastel-coloured paper to a thriving international association with video-streamed events.

    Rather than having their dialogue with the world mediated by “experts”, NPA members insist that they can commune with it directly and describe its patterns in accessible terms.

    Regardless of the credibility of this claim, it is sociologically significant. In their militantly egalitarian opposition to the what they see as a physics elite, NPA members mirror the stance of Martin Luther and other pioneers of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was rebelling against the abstractions of the Latin-writing Catholic priesthood, and one of his most revolutionary moves was to translate the Bible into vernacular German. Just as Luther declared that all people could read the book of God for themselves, so the NPA today asserts that all of us ought to be able to read the book of nature for ourselves.

    And just as Luther didn’t reject the basic tenets of Christianity, outsider theorists do not reject science: they believe that it provides the right tools to reveal the majesty of our world. But they insist that the wonders of science be available to everyone.

    It is here that we can find common ground with them. Many of us who love science would probably agree that one of its functions is to enable us to feel “at home in the cosmos”, as theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman of the University of Vermont in Burlington famously put it. Outsider physicists don’t feel at home in a universe described by the tensor equations of general relativity or the gauge symmetries of string theory. They feel alienated by it.

    While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind. “

  14. @ZM

    While we may not agree with the answers outsiders give, none of us should be sanguine when some of the greatest fruits of science are unavailable to most of humankind. “

    Yeah, its a bummer that some stuff is just bloody difficult, isn’t it?

  15. Metaxas gives us nothing more than a not terribly clever or original reprise of the argument from irreducible complexity.

  16. @ZM
    At least in my case, reading Carter’s stuff didn’t “challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.” It (marginally) solidified how I see science, pseudoscience and narrative fiction.

    Have you actually read Carters work? It has more in common with things like alchemy and LOTR than anything we can call science at all. It is a bundle of entities and narratives that might give a feeling of explanation to some people but to the extent that it has any testable consequences it simply fails.

  17. @John Brookes

    That’s the issue. For example, if I had taken mathematics seriously and studied it at tertiary level, I would have been able to get some maths credits for an Arts/Science degree. Could I have gotten a full degree in maths? I seriously doubt it. A Ph.D. in Maths? Chances minuscule. Become a Feynman? Totally impossible. There is stuff that’s just too hard for most people. And the universe in total is far too complex for humanity in total.

    At the elite science level communication with and tutoring of average people would stand as much chance of success as me now training to become world tennis number one. But people need basic maths literacy, science literacy and logic literacy. They need enough to know real science and reasoning from bulldust basically. I’d nominate passes in the Grade 12 subjects.

    As a footnote: Those alternative science events must be really weird. I suspect everyone listens politely to eveyone else in order to get listened to politely themselves… if they can maintain politenss and contain themselves that long. I doubt anyone would actually get anyone’s elses theories. OMG! That seems the same as blogging!

  18. ZM If the history of science is anything to go by the next big thing could well come from somewhere like the NPA (or the NRA if were unlucky).

    The fact (I think its still a fact) that human sized things are in the middle of the range of physical sizes known to science, from the universe down to quantum sizes, seems possibly Anthropomorphic to me . Also that the laws of chemistry (and of physics ?) work backwards as well as in the direction observed seems odd. Is it somehow only consciousness that puts a direction on it ? Its said that our consciousness plays around in the quantum world too I think. Today this makes me to wonder about the nature of a/our/my system which is doing the wondering.

    The totality of the language of mathematics (and in a way of science ,speaking, thinking, writing etc ) can be reduced to basic axiomatic concepts — and, or , not, if…then… . You dont even need all of them, you can derive one or two of them from the others. .If… then…is an interesting one as it covers any kind of argument to a conclusion and causality, and cannot be derived from the others. As Iko says the idea of causality seems a faith ,unable to be built up from a place prior to familiarity with it, and not necessarily always clearly present in the world either. Would it be strange if the world often looked like a language ? Thats what I think of your causality Iko .I think ‘what is the nature of language ?’ is good entertainment.

  19. The charge of zero testable consequences has also been leveled at string theory, or string theories. They introduce a bunch of new elements – like some new invisible dimensions of space time – but are to date unable to produce any new testable consequences. This seems to me a rather weak starting point from which to “conjure” a very large number of additional inherently unobservable universes and then use these to “explain” our apparently life-friendly physical constants as chance selection.

    It doesn’t strike me as a particularly robust line of evidence-based reasoning. I can quite easily imagine the whole wobbly edifice being blown away fairly suddenly by a better theory with a single universe and far less accompanying fundamental constants, fields, particles, dimensions, etc.

  20. @Ikonoclast
    Agree on the keep on looking: as technology improves, the impossible becomes feasible, and then the feasbile becomes routine. It is certainly possible for bacteria and/or viruses to hitch a ride on a component of a spacecraft, although significant effort is undertaken to ensure that the landing components are clean prior to launch. NASA have protocols for it. If something did survive the journey and then thrivds on Mars, genetic analysis would pick up that it came from Earth, and recently. Could be a bummer for any local life though 😦

  21. @Jim Birch
    The extra dimensions aren’t necessarily physical dimensions in the manner of the four dimensions of spacetime; they are compactified. A visual metaphor for the compactified dimensions is a rolled up scroll, or a sphere, or doughnut, etc. If the compactified dimensions are in some sense small compared to the physical dimensions of spacetime, then they won’t be apparent at the macro level, although at a quantum level and under great gravitational stress, the effects of the extra dimensions might be detectable. At least that’s my understanding of the situation. The extra dimensions kind of pop out of string theory, as they are necessary for it to be consistent (I think). Unfortunately, there are other parameters which are not so constrained, and that is the inherent issue, for different parameter values beget different string theories (sort of).

    Physicists fool around with different representations of reality—the part they are interested in, at any rate—and these representations are mathematically complex; it can take years to master, and there are no guarantees of gaining new insights into the material world. Such is the nature of research, for even the most ardent empiricist needs a model to hang their data on.

  22. Jim Birch,

    “Have you actually read Carters work?”

    No – I just brought the topic up since I happened on seeing something about that book about outsider scientists – but I am just interested in the crocheting coral reefs project myself.

    I do think it is interesting to look at science in terms of culture and society though – Bruno Latour is the one most famous for this as far as I know.

    It is a somewhat interesting turn that I have any interest in science now at all – and mostly because if climate change and sustainability. In general I think science can be good or bad – a woman in the 17th C wrote a book against experimental philosophy as she called it , and I tend to think science gas trespassed a lot of limits that should not have been trespassed against. But regardless science is also how we know about climate change and unsustainability .

    I was just reading Montaigne’s An Apologie (defense) for Raymond Sebonde – which is a key text in the Western tradition of scepticism – not that you’d know it by our sceptics these days who Christopher Pyne is quite right about forgetting the Western cannon – they are just pigheaded rather than sceptical like Montaigne. Anyway , Raymond Sebonde wrote Natural Theology in a Catalan dialect of Latin and this was quite controversial so Montaigne defended him – the idea being that the natural world is as divinely God’s work as the bible and can accordingly be read to understand the divine – Montaigne in addition makes quite an argument on behalf of animals, that human’s can be apish, and that you need both reason and Grace together. As is said – today’s self styled sceptics are just pigheaded fools in comparison.

  23. John Brookes,

    “Yeah, its a bummer that some stuff is just bloody difficult, isn’t it?”

    It is quite a problem I think – because trust is really being invoked rather than understanding unless you have many years to study things yourself. A professor told me it would take me four years just to understand exactly what it’s supposed to be that spacetime refers to since so many equations are involved. I am not that interested to spend four years looking at that particular concept so I have just resigned myself to never knowing what it is supposed to be when I read the term unless someone works out a faster method for learning it, which seems unlikely.

  24. Nick @ #45 said:

    Well, sure Jack. Now bearing in mind fundamentals like signal-to-noise ratio and the inverse square law, have a go at working out the power requirements you’d need to narrowcast a signal over 10 quadrillion kilometres, and still have something identifiable left to decode on the other side. Then work out the probability that any one of your 200 or 500 or whatever RCs randomly pointed the beam in *our* direction.

    Just to re-iterate, I do not believe in ETs and I think SETI is a waste of time, at least at our current state of economic development. I’ll grant you that ET RCs looking for each other in the galaxy would be like needles searching for each other in a haystack. But the problem is not nearly as difficult as your off-hand remarks suggest.

    Your reasoning is flawed, based on a double fallacy of spatio-temporal parochialism. Firstly, spatial proliferation. ETs would not be constrained to point their beams in only in “‘our’ direction”, but in the direction of any number of other more proximate RCs with whom they might like to network. And secondly, temporal duration. Five billion years is a very long time, plenty long enough for any RCs to “randomly point their beams” in as many directions as you like.

    Remember, the point of Sagan-Drake is to show the mediocrity of life in general, not just human life. This implies that all forms of life are not “special” and that as a consequence in the process of the “galaxafication” of life there should be lots of communication between RCs, (Just as in the process of globalisation there is lots of communication between all sorts of nations.) Its reasonable to assume that inter-stellar communications would operate on a similar principle to inter-state communications – the establishment and leap-frog seeding of a network of relay stations throughout the local stellar precinct. No doubt using AI systems to overcome the inconveniences of long flights for organic beings.

    As regards inverse-square laws, its fortunate that the Milky Way is more of a disc than a sphere – an average of only one thousand light years thick – which takes most volume out of the problem, making the communication problem more tractable. I dont know much about signal-to-noise ratios except that they seem to have markedly improved, particularly since Shannon and Moore put their two bobs worth in. I interviewed Marcus Hutter a couple of years back and was pretty impressed with his AI algorithim and more general work which aims at the Lossless Compression of Human Knowledge. More power to him.

    Harnessing power is obviously not a deal breaker for Stage II and Stage III RCs, assuming that Kardashev did not labour in vain. Perhaps it is reckless of me to make this assumption. But we are still within living memory of the first space flight and we just dropped a robot onto a comet several billion kms away. Perhaps its just me, but I am rather fond of exploring. Thats even before I got old enough to compose a bucket list. And I certainly dont think I am “special”, going by the impressive efforts of the European Space Agency.

    Still, the evidence suggests that we are probably alone in the galaxy. Or, if we are not alone, then for some reason no one seems to be interested in talking to us or anyone else for that matter. If life really is not special and it has galaxified it is being remarkably anti-social. So the Fermi Paradox remains un-resolved, at least in the conventional way.

    More speculatively, lets assume, for the sake of argument, that Sagan-Drake (and you?) are correct and They are out there in large numbers. Why the galactic cold shoulder? My best guess, FWIW, is that the process of the digitalisation of life tends to focus RCs inward, rather than out-ward, towards the exploration of inner-space ie the self. This point made by David Bowie around the time Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “the Me generation” and in the age of the “selfie” it still has legs.

    Virtual narcissism is cheaper and probably more fun than the ball-busting business of actual pioneering. Why talk to anyone else when navel-gazing is so much more satisfying? Thats certainly the way we are heading. And, if life is not “special”, then I guess the rest of the galaxy would be heading to hell in a hand-basket for much the same reason. A good reason to re-examine our current civilizational-suicide course, no?

  25. @Donald Oats

    Yeah, on the issue of exotic species, there are a lot of “spooky” things happening to Britain. Just look up “red squirrels killed by grey squirrels killed by mutant black squirrels”. The exotic grey squirrels (introduced from New World about a century ago have recently mutated to black in a sub population up to 25,000 now. The black squirrels are better adapted, more agressive, compete better and grey squirrel females prefer the black males. Scientists have traced the precise mutation. Bit of mud in the eye for the “there’s no evolution crowd” eh what? I don’t know how they explain new multiple drug resistant bacteria popping up all the time either.

    Also look up Invasive Chinese mitten crab found in Scotland. And other marine nasties from about the Black Sea area IIRC are invading British coastal areas and estuaries. I think climate change is rendering the waters there more suitable for them. They arrive on boat hulls, in ballast water etc. We humans have unleashed everything; climate change, massive mixing of exotic species with native species all over the world and so on. Of course species can naturally disperse and migrate long distances but we must have sped up the process by many orders of magnitude. It’s not so much the genie out of the bottle but tens of thousands of genies out of the bottle.

  26. Thanks for that Nevil Kingston-Brown.

    Never mind the sophistry being evoked by the home team here, it is patently clear that Metaxas as well as the writer of the editorial has not a sound understanding of the basic function and value of science and it’s endeavours. Just take the key phrase in the ‘Opinion’ piece “..The article by Eric Metaxas, headlined “Is science showing there really is a God?’’, questioned why science couldn’t explain the universe. “, it reeks of amateurish vaudeville.

    Memo to Metaxas and Oz opinion writer get a basic understanding of science before you want to engage in a “battle of ideas” on that topic. As with regards to “journalism not being sociology”; journalism, as well as science, should not be vaudeville either.

    What a disgrace the standart bearer for dumbing down our nation has become.

  27. @Nevil Kingston-Brown

    I have a pet hate. For some reason, over the last decade or so people keep using “than” interchangeably with “then”. Apart from the fact that they are similar looking words (with totally different meanings), unless people have become universally more stupid I can see no reason for this.

    I ignored the weird and creepy ads on that website and got to the second paragraph of the story. But I gave up when I saw the “than/then” effect in action.

  28. Douglas Adams said it best:

    This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’

  29. @Jack Strocchi

    I see that you are making no attempt to defend Metaxas’s argument. Can I then take it that you accept it’s silly, as John Quiggin originally assessed it?

  30. J-D @ #31 said:

    I see that you are making no attempt to defend Metaxas’s argument. Can I then take it that you accept it’s silly, as John Quiggin originally assessed it?

    No, you take it wrong. Pr Q characterised Metaxas’ argument as “creationist silliness”, which was a travesty of the article main content. The crux of Metaxas was a perfectly reasonable up-dating of the anthropic principle (AP), particularly in the light of the weakening of the Drake equation, the discovery of ~ 10 billion potentially life-habitable exo-planets and the collapse of SETI. These are all hard scientific facts which tend to strengthen the case for AP in particular and the notion of “human specialness” in general.

    The fact that Metaxas used this solid scientific ground to make an Almighty leap to a theistic conclusion is not particularly “silly”, just an unwarranted transmission of logic. He may even be right if the Simulation argument has any force, and I think it does, a bit.

  31. faustusnote @ #50 said:

    And your 20 million year spaceship example is complete crap, because it neglects to account for the spherical nature of the search space.

    The Milky Way is more a disc than a sphere, which takes a lot of the second dimension out of the problem.

    faustusnote said:

    Your thinking shows you haven’t grasped the enormity of the physical space we inhabit.

    Your thinking shows you haven’t grasped the enormity of the physical time that we have endured.

    faustusnote said:

    And isn’t it deficit hawk conservative weirdos like you who say we can’t afford to do this shit? Maybe other societies out there in space are more realistic about government funding than conservative scare-babies like you, but even if they devote an entire society’s resources to the task, how long before they jet off a ship in exactly our direction?

    You’ve got me pegged for the wrong guy, buddy. I’m no “conservative scare-baby…deficit hawk”. Just an ordinary man, trying to make sense of this crazy, mixed-up world.

    faustusnote said:

    Maybe it’s this narrow vision which makes you amenable to visions of the beardy dude in his cloud?

    I’ve said I am an agnostic but this simple piece of data does not seem to compute. Also the phrases “flying spaghetti monster” and “bearded dude in his cloud” are derisive characterisations of sophisticated theistic belief. I dont think Pascal would be amused.

    I don’t hold with the un-scientific dogmas of either theists like Metaxas or the various militant atheists that seem to have sprung up like poisonous mushrooms of late.

  32. The OP was about a certain newspaper’s toils in the battle of ideas. Nick Cater seems to have become the Colonel Blimp in the battle, as evidence by his salvo in this morning’s edition of the newspaper.

    LONG MARCH WITH BRA-BURNING BILL
    Cater, Nick. The Australian

    The long institutional march is a legacy of the thuggish, subversive world of West German political activism at the height of the Cold War.

    Full Text

    With little else to go on, Labor is courting the wimmin’s vote

    JUST when you thought things couldn’t get any creepier, Bill Shorten has turned to the radical fringes of 1960s euro-communism in search for a policy to end the subjugation of Australian women.

    In November, he told the National Press Club that the progress of society depends “on assisting the march of women through the institutions of power”.

    To flirt with the language of cultural Marxism in a single speech could be dismissed as banter. To flirt for a second time, however, as the Opposition Leader did last week, suggests he actually means it.

    The long institutional march is a legacy of the thuggish, subversive world of West German political activism at the height of the Cold War. In 1967, the radical student leader Rudi Dutschke invoked the imagery of Mao Zedong’s Long March to advocate the infiltration of workplaces, universities and other institutions to execute radical change from within.

    Dutschke died in 1979 but his madcap metaphor survived within enclaves of the crackbrained Left and now, apparently, in the policy of the Australian Labor Party.

    Ever since Julia Gillard’s dishonest attack on Tony Abbott’s alleged sexism took off on YouTube and the compilers of the Macquarie Dictionary devalued their brand by redefining the word misogyny, Labor has appeared convinced that feminism is a political trump card.

    Egged on by a noisy lynch mob, whose members include the “frightbats”, memorably named by The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair, Labor jumps on the PM’s words and gestures as evidence of chauvinist piggery of the lowest order.

    That it is a deceitful slur on the Prime Minister’s character matters not a jot. What’s bad for Abbott is good for Labor and good for the country, it seems to think, and therefore anything goes.

    In any case, what else has the party got to go on? Having rejected the grounded approach of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the party has little to offer except sentimentalism.

    The worker’s party has become the warm and fuzzy party. It struggles to explain how to fix the budget but rest assured that once Labor is back in power Australia will be a fairer, more compassionate and more inclusive place.

    Gender equity seems at first glance to be a natural fit for the self-styled party of virtue. Yet a fairer deal for the fairer sex (undoubtedly we’re not allowed to call them that) has been a bipartisan aim for as long as anyone can remember. The legal and institutional barriers to equality fell long ago and if, perchance, some residue of gender prejudice was discovered in the statute books, it would be removed without fuss.

    To differentiate its product, Labor has made the dangerous leap from practical politics to the ideologically charged language of modern Feminism. It is siding with a crowd not content to merely improve the world; they think they have the formula to fix it.

    Labor has taken this path before, most notably in 1983 when it broke from bipartisan policy on conservation to side with Bob Brown’s deep green ideologues and block construction of the Gordon below Franklin dam.

    Graham Richardson called it “the perfect convergence” proclaiming “what was right was also popular”. Richardson, as it turned out, was wrong. Labor lost four blue collar seats in Tasmania in 1983, where unemployment rates were between 20 and 24 per cent.

    By the late 1980s, the hardheads in Hawke’s cabinet were revolting against the insatiable demands of the environmental activists. “Every compromise, every agreement is seen by them to be no more than the launching pad for another assault on industry and employment,” wrote Labor’s finance minister, Peter Walsh.

    Labor’s alliance with radical feminism will, in the long run, prove equally disastrous. Australians have a low tolerance for words ending in “ism”. They are in favour of taking care of our air, soil and water but are uncomfortable with deep green environmentalism — the misanthropic, utopian pursuit of biospherical purity in which the presumed rights of nature trump those of the human race.

    They are in favour of equal opportunities for women and recognise that women often need additional support to pursue life’s opportunities. Few Australians, however, adhere to the ideology of feminism as it has evolved in our modern universities.

    They might care about affordable childcare, but the destruction of a phallocentric society is not something that keeps the average Aussie awake at night.

    Outside the other-worldly circle of frightbat feminism, few consider that gender inequality is “a direct result of the enforcement of patriarchal structures” and that women must fight to end “gender oppression”, as one columnist wrote recently in The Age.

    In fact they do not believe that the world, with all its unpredictable twists and turns, is governed by structures of that kind at all. The world is imperfect because its seven billion inhabitants imperfectly struggle to manage the business of everyday life, not because of an oppressive, hegemonic “system”.

    The world interpreted by common sense is unrecognisable from the world ordered by ideology. Common sense recognises that there are limits to what can be practically done by government to assist women, that change occurs incrementally and, in a democratic society, must be negotiated.

    Common sense also recognises that gender inequality is not the sole obstacle to a perfect world. It understands that fairness is best advanced through prosperity.

    It is no accident that the women’s movement grew alongside modernity, when increased wealth and technology created opportunities beyond a lifetime of nurturing the young.

    The delusion that social injustice can be cured through social reform alone will eventually come unstuck.Women’s lives will not be improved by marching through institutions. Liberty, democracy and prosperity are the engines of social progress.

  33. Megan, if you go to the Richard Dawkins Foundation website you will be able to view Lawrence Krauss’ critique unadulterated.

    From Metaxas FB page

    It doesn’t seem like my Wall Street Journal article is going to go away any time soon… Christian websites and atheist websites alike — not to mention some middle-of-the-road mainstream websites — are picking it up. I don’t see where the raging controversy comes from. It’s all pretty straight-forward, isn’t it?

    Yup, vaudeville.

  34. Paul, that is indeed Grade A drivel. I’ve never read Carter before, but will now know not to waste my time on any article with his byline on it.

    Though I do especially like the appeal to “commonsense” rather than “ideology”; he has clearly never thought about either concept. One can imagine the declension:

    I have commonsense
    You have preconceptions
    He is an ideologue”

  35. Paul Norton,

    If Cater is really – as opposed to idiotically rhetorically – of the view that the use of the term “march” in a political rather than marching band context is necessarily invoking Marxism/Feminism/Ideology then I guess his writer Paul Kelly must right now be greatly quivering in his boots for fear of being purged from The Australian since he called his recent book The March of Patriots. Perhaps if Kelly is quick witted he can save himself by writing an article renouncing his use of the word march in this way concluding “Patriots’ and nationalists’ lives will not be improved by marching through institutions.”

    This will certainly be a blow to patriots and nationalists everywhere – what will they do with The Australian set against them marching through our institutions – and this in the anniversary of Gallipoli too. I hope we may see Cater stick resolutely to this grand objection to marching through institutions for at least this whole year 2015.

  36. @Donald Oats
    I’m in agreement with what you say but my physics aesthetic doesn’t like the proliferation of fundamental entities that is occurring in modern physics, especially entities that cannot be observed. An infinite number of universes required by theory with no testable consequences sounds very suspiciously like seduction by theory to me. What about Occam, or even “We don’t know”?

    Did you see this?

    http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

    It seems to me, as an interested outsider, that a key basic assumption of modern physics must be provisional and incomplete: loosely that spacetime is a differentiable Lorentzian manifold, with various bits of energy stuff (the standard model, various fields) bouncing around in it and quantum/uncertainty producing an array of interesting effects. Extrapolating quantum effects to around the Planck length, current theory finds quantum effects dominate spacetime to such an extent that past, future, position, adjacency, differentiability, etc, are totally scrambled. AFAIK no one knows what’s going on down there, and there is no mathematics for it yet. However, looking upwards from this level I think we should conclude that spacetime, quantum physics, the particles of the Standard Model, etc, are actually emergent macro properties of whatever it is that is going on down there. This would be akin to the way that the electron wave equation unifies chemistry. Apart from the not insignificant cost savings, it would be nice to be able to calculate the energy of the Higgs Boson working upwards rather than deduce it from zillions of particle decay cascades. Unfortunately we don’t know the topology at this level. (We might also find that some of these mysteriously “optimised” physical constants pop out of such a model.) I don’t know much about string theory – currently reading up – but it seems, again from the outside, that it isn’t it. This might be wishful, even quaint, but I want and expect the universe to have a fundamentally simple kernel.

  37. Cater’s invocation of late 60s student Marxism is probably meant to invoke images of Red Guards marching revisionists down the main street of Beijing in dunce’s caps. I can think of many reasons why Cater should be marched down the main street of Sydney in a dunce’s cap, but most of them don’t require a Marxist theoretical justification.

  38. Jack it’s not a restatement of the Anthropic principle and is clearly ignorant of it. It’s also scientifically incorrect, and others have presented references.

  39. faustusnotes @ #41 said:

    Jack it’s not a restatement of the Anthropic principle and is clearly ignorant of it. It’s also scientifically incorrect, and others have presented references.

    Wrong. The fine-tuning argument, which Metaxs explicitly employs, is foundational to several of the more plausible versions Anthropic Principle. It is inconceivable that Metaxas could employ such reasoning without being aware of its conclusion. A moments googling proves my expectation:

    From science we can get this idea that we absolutely should not be here. The existence of life is an unfathomable reality. I go into the fine-tuning of the universe, what’s called the anthropic principle. Most scientists, if they aren’t ignoring that, are contorting themselves impossibly to figure out a way out of it, like the multiverse theory. Incredibly, science has led us more and more to the idea that life is an outlandish impossibility and a miracle. The average person hasn’t heard this. This is news, huge news.

    The weak version of the Anthropic Principle is not “scientifically incorrect”, although it does get perilously close to a truism. But it becomes scientifically interesting when combined with the observation that advanced life, though evidently possible, is very far from inevitable.

    So far both faustausnotes, nick and J-D have made several attempts at criticizing Metaxas use of this argument, making numerous howlers. I have refuted them chapter-and-verse. Its time to come to grips with the implications of the uniqueness of advanced life, rather than denying it with all this transparent bluster.

  40. @Jack Strocchi
    According to your citation of Metaxas:

    …Incredibly, science has led us more and more to the idea that life is an outlandish impossibility and a miracle.

    Why should it be so incredible that science leads us to such a conclusion when, from the mid nineteenth century on, any number of philosophers, artists of all sorts, poets especially and others including Sartre and Beckett, have drawn similar conclusions without the need for extravagant metaphysics?

    The Buddhists probably cope better than others through aphorisms like “before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

  41. nick @ #49 said:

    Thankyou for pointing me to that gif which tells me nothing I dont know already but provides yet another helpful way to waste time on the internet. It would have been just as easy, and a lot quicker, to quote Douglas Adams on the magnitude of space:

    Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

    It was a happy irony that the discoverer of the Big Bang and cosmic recession was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest. This would suggest that at least one theist is aware of the scale of the world.

    Perhaps my mind is too small to grasp such vast profundities. Let my perspective be as beknighted and short-sighted as you like, reflecting poorly on me. But it does not reflect poorly on the original author of the human solitude argument: Enrico Fermi. I am merely re-stating him in the light of current evidence. Unless you think that Fermi was ignorant of the magnitude of space. This would be the Fermi who explained cosmic radiation, laid out Fermi Co-ordinates and was nick-named “the Pope” because he appeared to be infallible. Yeah, that Fermi.

    It did not take him all that long, after the discoveries of Hubble-Lemaitre, to grasp the significance of apparent human solitude. When you combine the prosaic nature of carbon-based life, the galaxy’s vast sample population of habitable planets and the antiquity of galactic time you should get endless possibilities for the evolutionary experimentation and dissemination of life throughout the galaxy. Yet there is no evidence for this. The most obvious conclusion is that advanced life is somewhat “special”: neither prosaic in formation, mediocre in type or prolific in incidence.

    This is not an argument for theism per se. But it is a bit more friendly to it, as someone like Marculani would have appreciated. It certainly gives no grounds for the contemptuous derision heaped on Metaxas by the dopier sort of atheist that one sees so much of these days.

  42. @jungney

    It’s interesting for me, in a synchronicty sense, that you mention the Buddhist aphorism. “Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” I have just written a short essay for myself which I do to explore ideas.

    My essay is titled “Epiphanies and what comes after.” I won’t burden this site with the whole thing. Of course, an epiphany is not an enlightenment unless the effects of the epiphany persist postively and indefinitely in some way. I start off by pointing out that some of Tolstoys’s main characters have an epiphany or epiphanies at some point in their lives. Most novelists tend to use character epiphanies to advance plot or to develop or change a character. Tolstoy does not do that.

    In Tolstoy’s works epiphany appears in a different light. The epiphany occurs and seems to indicate some form of temporary transcendence. The narrative continues, often shifting to other characters and only later returning to the “epiphanous” character to advance his (or her) story. The reader slowly realises that the character has not changed and is not changing. His old habits, his old modes of thinking and all the usual press of external factors return just as before. The epiphany itself becomes doubtful. It occurred but was it substantial or just an illusion? What lasting value has an epiphany if following it nothing changes? After the epiphany the banal returns.

    I then speculate about what is the opposite of the transcendent or insightful short epiphany? Is it depression? This does not seem so. Depression in most cases is of some duration or even chronic. An epiphany typically is short, even transient. On the other hand, an extended epiphany would begin to look like and be experienced as a manic episode or a trance or perhaps enlightenment. An epiphany, depending on your own lived experience or by reference to both novelistic imagination or empirical medical literature, could apparently fundamentally change someone or completely fail to do so. My bias is to suspect, as Tolstoy seemed to portray it in his novels that epiphanies fail to change anything of substance, at least for the majority of people.

    So what is the opposite of a short epiphany? My candidate is the short dissociative episode. Now apparently, dissociative episodes come in “flavours” rather like quarks. I am being a little flippant here, but one is tempted to think there may be “up”, “charm”, and “top dissociative episodes”, namely epiphanies, are well as “down”, “strange” and “bottom” episodes. I suspect however, leaving my levity aside, that many dissociative episodes tend to be “down”, “strange” or “bottom” but most particularly the “strange” episode figures prominently. Thus, one is tempted to think of an epiphany as a dissociative episode of the “up” family.

    The so-called depersonalisation-derealisation episode is the inverse of an “up” epiphany in my estimation. The Mayo Clinic site says;

    “This disorder involves an ongoing or episodic sense of detachment or being outside yourself — observing your actions, feelings, thoughts and self from a distance as though watching a movie (depersonalisation). Other people and things around you may feel detached and foggy or dreamlike, and the world may seem unreal (derealisation). You may experience depersonalisation, derealisation or both. Symptoms, which can be profoundly distressing, may last only a few moments or come and go over many years.”

    From personal experience, a long time ago now, I can relate my experience of an epiphany or “up” dissociative episode. This episode was shall we say “substance mediated”. I can also relate the lived experience of a “down” dissociative episode of the “strange” flavour. This episode was not substance mediated but stress, anger and grief mediated with both exogenous and endogenous causes.

    The epiphany or “up” dissociated episode occured as follows. The commonplace substance water suddenly appeared to be imbued with a new and extensive significance. It became, at once profoundly PRESENT and TRANSPARENT (i.e. almost invisible) thus transmuting symbolically-mysteriously to display an apparent new profound significance, turning it into a “Sign” or a Gnostic-like apprehension of a deeper reality. This included a deep feeling that reality is much more extensive than previously imagined; that much of reality is unseen, unperceived by one’s normal, everyday self.

    At such a point, rational explanations for anything appear extraordinarily inadequate and absurd. Water is wet. Water is H2O. Water is something I can drink when thirsty. Water is a transparent fluid which forms the world’s streams, lakes, oceans and rain and so on. All of these explanations now appear inadequate and highly absurd compared to the real phenomenon. Water thus fixated upon becomes a transcendent substance seemingly embodying the essence of some deeper reality. At the same time it is “here, now, present, always” and there are strong emotional reactions to it via heightened direct sense feelings. These feelings generate awe, gratitude and even a profound but subdued fear about the “enourmity” and “is-ness” of everything. In this state of epiphany or delusion, there is a deep feeling that nothing is genuinely explicable. All explanations are petty and illusory. Reality is mysterious, extensive and all-connected. It is ALL yet nothing of it can be grasped.

    Such an epiphany might happen seemingly spontaneously to some people. More commonly it might happen during or after certain techniques, both “sacred” and “profane”; namely meditation, fasting, ritual, ritual dancing, tantrism, sacred drug taking, recreational drug taking and so on. Given the methods that induce it, one is tempted to suspect disruption of brain chemistry is perhaps the key. This of course is the standard modern rational explanation that comes back with the return of normality and banality. Nonetheless it is an explanation not to be lightly dismissed. The trouble with gnosis and delusion both is that they are individual, idiosyncratic, unverifiable, undefinable, untestable and in detail (in specific insight and emotional affect) unrepeatable in my experience. In the empirical sense, there is nothing to separate gnosis, as direct apprehension of “Real reality”, from delusion.

    To come back to the inverse of such an epiphany or gnostic-like experience. This is the depersonalisation-derealisation episode which is usually rare, episodic (obviously) and of a duration of a few hours to a few days. This experience feels like an emptying of significance. Both the self and the external world change in no manner yet rapidly empty of all significance and stay that way for several hours or days. It is kind of the opposite of connectedness, feeling and real meaning in things that one has at normal levels in normality and at heightened levels in an epiphany or hallucination.

    However, in depersonalisation-derealisation episode rational meaning is not lost. There is this (rational) kind of meaning persisting but there is no significance to it. All one’s language, rational thought, rational response and so on remain intact and it is perfectly possible to exercise them and function at work, home and socially. There is no fogginess or dreamlike feeling in my experience. Everything can be very clear. It as if all emotional feeling has gone except an apprehension or perception remaining that one has no feelings now currently whereas one did have them before. It seems that this ought to induce horror or terror but one can’t feel those emotions either. This “ghost” of feeling is just another rational construct operating at the level of learned and residual rational knowledge of feeling that remains reified in one’s language constructs and memory and is thus still accessible by internal monologue and rationalising.

    It is indeed possible to hide these episodes if they are rare and not too long. After the episode(s), strategic, limited, separate, low-key questions to colleagues, friends and family can be asked along the lines “Have I seemed a bit different the last few days?” The answers are usually, “Yes, you have seemed a little quiet and preoccupied.” “Your work rate dropped a bit. Did you having something else on your mind?” It appears that nothing major is apparent to outsiders for these specific episodes (if the sufferer remains at least moderately functional and hides the condition) other than perceptions that the person might be a little distracted, down in the dumps or somewhat mechanically going through the motions. It seems to me however that if such episodes continued for a long time they simply could not borne. The rift between remnant logical meaning and real significance, emotionally felt, would become too great and extremely disorienting.

    With short episodes at least, the logical apprehension that one should not do dangerous self-harming things, for example, can still be strong. Strangely, a person can actually become almost hypervigilant about this issue during the episode. Drink, drugs and anything that could increase the apprehension of disconnect can be studiously avoided as also can a whole range of insane actions the person knows he/she could now do because nothing has any significance. It is not at all certain that this “emergency safeguard state” could persist against a long episode. The logical or rational memory of feeling and significance is reasonably strong at first and is able to be employed as a surrogate for real feeling and significance. It may be that this phenomenon has a kind of half-life and if not reinforced by real feeling consciously felt will decay over time.

    It seems to me from these countervailing episodes and the “insights” contained therein that they are related. For example, some mediating chemical transmitter substance in the brain could be related to carrying emotional feeling as “significance”. Too much (a flood) of it generates epiphany i.e. heightened significance. A real dearth of it (likely engineered endogenously as an emotional defence mechanism) can lead to a depersonalisation-dissociation episode.

    It appears that we need “meaning” in both the rational sense and the emotional sense. If things lose all emotional meaning then they lose significance. This is why I use “meaning” for rational meaning and “significance” for “emotional meaning”. It is these thoughts that lead me to be wary of concepts that epiphany and enlightenment have real transcendent, spiritual or gnostic meaning.

  43. Just waiting for an antipodean speaker tour of Congressman Shimkus. Now there is an “idea” for the Oz to do battle with.

    As a migrant from German speaking part of the world, I am still struggling to split arts and science in its foundation as it is predominately done in the English Weltanschauung. I am very uncomfortable with a popular science/spirituality which sells itself to absolutism in either domain.
    Cognitive science, AI and research in consciousness give us additional valuable insights on how spirit and nature shadow each other. Thank you Jack, Iko and rest of the home team for taking this topic serious and doing it justice.

  44. @Jack Strocchi
    Some of my best friends are theists 🙂 and I treat them with respect but on the general understanding that it is inappropriate, in the absence of proof of the existence of God, to allow their values to inform what ought to be rational social policy in the public sphere. Their beliefs, absent a satisfactory means to either confirm or falsify the thesis, should have no authority over their public conduct.

    As to Fermi – I didn’t study science so much as the history and philosophy of science. It doesn’t surprise me that those who are absorbed in study of material reality go on to pose major questions about what I’ll term “ultimate reality”, as they ought. What surprises me is why anyone would privilege their answers over someone like MacIntyre who proposed that “the good life is the life speent seeking the good life” which is eminently sensible, achievable and doesn’t rely on metaphysics at all for meaning or authorisation.

  45. @Ootz
    Ootz, cheers! We shouldn’t lose sight of the context of Prof Q’s dismissive comment which is the dominance of the barking mad christian right in the US of whom Shimkus, of whom I’d not heard till now, would be exemplary.

    The article reads:

    Shimkus drew snickers from the left in March 2009 when he quoted an exchange between God and Noah in Genesis during a subcommittee hearing on adaptation policies…

    Imagine that, God and Noah on a planning subc’ttee.

  46. But jungney, how do you account for rationality and belief in the first place if we’re just a pile of atoms?

    Talk about emergent/creative evolution whatever. But how do you explain the sheer fact that we can explain so much stuff?

    It seems the whole a/theist argument hinges on this difference as to rationality itself.

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