Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Why does the Universe Exist? By Jim Holt

source: and accompanying Kindle Book (£4) and TED blog.

Jim Holt talks March 2014. A grand tour of the answers to the question 'Why there is something rather than nothing'. My rambling notes follow!:-

Shopenhauer - you are mentally deficient if don't care why the world exists!

John Archibold Wheeler - how come the universe? How come existence?

We are 5 Einsteins away from knowing why the universe exists (Martin Amis)

Creation 'ex nihilo' (wikipedia)

God + nothing = the world

What made God?

Blank + nothing = the world

To a Buddhist (4m) Nothing = the World = Nothing (a big cosmic vacuuity)

Nirvana is 'just enough life to enjoy being dead'

Blank + Nothing = the World

Science + Nothing = the World ie Physics + Nothing = the World

Quantum Field Theory (wikipedia) show how out of Nothing via Inflation = the World (Lawrence Krauss), its a pseudo-religious worldview. The laws have some ontological clout!

Equations = the World (Stephen Hawking / Alex Vilenkin)

Many Worlds Theories = the World (Stephen Weinberg / Max Tegmark)

Nothing v Many Worlds Theories are the extremes.

Most mathematically elegant reality (Brian Greene) but what is dark energy?? Brian Greene admits it is 'An ugly universe' filled with superfluous elementary particles!

Best of all possible worlds (sentient beings don't suffer ever).

Crummy generic realites: Random Realities Mixture of chaos and order. Chaos of above - Cosmic Junk Shop with Deity 100% malevolent but only 80% effective!)

We live in a generic reality!! Science tells us this.

Why do I / you exist? 10 x 10,000 possible humans (between a google and a googleplex). 50 -100 billion of all humans who have lived is a tiny fraction.

Why should I care?

End of Ramblings.

Why does the world exist? An epic poem by Jim Holt at TED2014

Posted by: Thu-Huong Ha March 19, 2014 at 7:45 pm EDT

Philosopher and writer Jim Holt skips right past the dumb quibbling questions and right to the heart of the great existential mystery: Why something, instead of nothing? Why does the universe exist? And why are we in it? The super-ultimate why question.

The greatest thinkers have obsessed over the question of existence: Wittgenstein said it’s not how things are in the world that’s mystical, it’s that there is a world at all. John Archibald Wheeler wondered, how come the universe? How come existence? Schopenhauer said that those who do not wonder about the contingency of the universe are mentally deficient. It is, says Holt, our darkest, most sublime question.

In the 17th century, Leibniz had an easy answer: The universe exists because God created it. Many people today, said Holt, have this same Judeo-Christian answer. There is no mystery. For them, God + nothing = the world. O-o-okay, but even for believers this should be problematic, says Holt, because it requires you to answer the question of why God exists. Jokes Holt, God should still think to himself: “I’m eternal, I’m all powerful … but why am I here?”

So we have: [blank] + nothing = the world. This is actually fine for Buddhists, who believe in cosmic vacuity. Buddhists, Holt says, believe that “if we let our desires melt away, we’ll see the world as it truly is, and we’ll slip into nirvana: just enough life to enjoy being dead.” Big laughs.

How about: science + nothing = the world? A purely scientific explanation like the one posited by physicist Lawrence Krauss goes something like this: Through the laws of quantum field theory, from no space, time or matter, a little nugget of false vacuum can fluctuate into existence and then … universe!

Nice try. Holt rejects this theory, too, as it treats physics like it has some ontological clout — kinda like God. Physics don’t exist outside the world, Holt says. Even a self-contained world like the one theorized by Stephen Hawking is just equations. “But what breathes fire into the equations?” asks Holt.

Okay … let’s get metaphysical then. Maybe one set of rules presides over our world, and all other sets of rules are possible, too — a vastly rich multiverse that encompasses every possibility. So on one side there’s fullness, everything, and on the other, sheer nothingness. In between, says Holt, there’s a bunch of special-case intermediate realities: there’s the most elegant one (as Brian Greene has theorized), there’s the most ethical one, and so on. These all require extra explanations.

And then there’s Holt’s theory, the one that needs no special rules: Surprise! Somewhere in between! He calls it: “A crummy, generic reality that isn’t special in any way.” This reality is random, a mixture of chaos and order, mathematical beauty and ugliness, infinite mediocrity. Is there a deity? Maybe. But it’s not perfect: “maybe it’s 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” This reality is an “infinite, arbitrary, pointless reality,” says Holt, to smiles and chuckles, “like champagne frothing out of the bottle endlessly. A vast universe with small pockets of charm and peace.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Andrew Copson (BHA) talks to Ignoranti prior to World Humanist Congress


Andrew Copson talks about:-

  • Christian & Muslim Apologists cf Politicians
    • Formulaic answers
    • lack of extemporising
    • Justifications for a belief already held (not testing of hypothesis)
    • Polemics
  • Faith
    • Knowledge v Faith
    • 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so' (Mark Twain)
      • Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), CHAPTER XII.
        • There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." —Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
    • bundling some evidence with Faith
  • moderate believers
    • cover for fundamentalists?
    • moderates prop up Catholic institution that is rotten at the top
  • working with religious people
    • humanists work with religious by sharing belief that state schools should be open to everyone
  • Faith Schools
    • England has a State Church, in N Ireland and Wales Church is disestablished
    • 100% state funded schools run by CofE is ridiculous
    • 1944 Education legislation is outdated as is Collective Worship
  • Birmingham muslim schools
  • World Humanist Congress
    • Defence of the Enlightenment through Freedom of Speech & Expression
  • What Humanists believe
    • Tribal Faith is as dangerous as Religious Faith
    • Ethnic & Irrational / Superstitious / Mysticism thinking is dangerous - abuse of power
    • WHC promotes Universal Humanity
  • Terry Eagleton
    • Culture and the Death of God (Feb 2014)
  • Humanistic Culture
    • don't need to replace Religion
    • library, hospitals, concert halls, museums, parks, portraiture, music, art, literature (Shakespeare over Bible)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Peter Atkins talks post World Humanist Congress

Peter Atkins
source: via

Post by British Humanist Association.

Peter Atkins book 'On Being'.

Peter Atkins on ...

Energy of the Universe (2 mins)

"hardly anything happened at the Creation" (2 mins)

Using E=mc2, taking the mass of of all galaxies and multiplying them by c2 (speed of light2) means the Universe has an enormous energy! Where did all the energy come from? When galaxies attract each other gravitationally, their energy falls. As a result the the energy of the galaxies overall is "reduced by an almost equal amount". When all the interactions of all the galaxies are taken into account the energy is reduced to zero (it is tempting to think!).

At the creation there was nothing with no energy and after the creation there is still no energy so need to worry about where the energy came from.

Where do the laws of nature come from? (4 mins)

The sources of the laws of nature are 1) indolence and 2) anarchy.

Indolence: Before creation you had absolutely nothing (no space and no time), so there must have been absolute uniformity. After creation you have also have uniformity. The theorem of Emmy Noether ('the most important woman in the history of mathematics' according to Einstein) states "every conservation law has an underlying symmetry" ie. Conservation Laws mean nothing changes. Uniformity of time: time ticks on at a uniform rate. Uniform Nothing turned into uniform time giving Conservation of Energy. If absolutely nothing turns itself into uniform space you get another Conservation Law viz. Conservation of Linear Momentum (think of billiard balls bouncing off each other).

Anarchy: (a.k.a. unconstrained freedom) - Light travels in straight line is a law of nature. Why? All the paths that are not straight lines have neighbours that annihilate (aka interfere with each other) one another.

Incipience (definition) is a better word than Creation: How did absolutely nothing turn into more interesting nothing?

What is Consciousness?

If a computer were self aware would it be ethical to experiment upon it? (26 mins)

What is the nature of Faith?

"Faith is a medicine really" (35 mins)
"Preying 5 times a day is a pretty good way of insuring that your Faith is so firmly embedded in your brain that there is no escape from it". (36 mins)
"Just as you can't forget how to ride a bicycle, you can't forget your Faith". (37 mins)
"the brain has been pre-conditioned by environment, by cultural upbringing, by practise. You can't forget how to ride a bicycle, so you can't discard your Faith".

Science and Ethics

more to come...

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

 Who Says Science has Nothing to Say about Morality?

Sam Harris has spent several years publicly criticising religion through his books 'The End of Faith' and 'Letter to a Christian Nation'.

Defenders of religion have generally just three counter arguments:-

  1. A specific religion is true
  2. Religion is a useful framework for morality
  3. Atheism is corrosive of morality

You shouldn't belief something merely based on its utility. You can't adopt beliefs like clothes based on comfort or utility.

Religionists claim that a universal sense of good and evil / right and wrong ie a universal moral framework is required for humanity not to loose its way. Sam shares that fear.

Morality must relate to issues of human and animal well-being. Some moral codes are worse than others eg misogyny and sadism of taliban morals in insisting that women dress in bags.

There are two quantities in this world, facts and values. These cannot, it is claimed, be explained in monistic terms - they are discrete entities. Nor can science, in principle, tell us about values eg how to raise children, what constitutes a good life. Once we agree what we value, science can help us get it but science can't tell us what we ought to value. Science sees a concatenation of causes, one event after another and there is 'no corner of the universe that announces certain events as good or bad, right or wrong' (8m 20s). We broadcast our preferences about right or wrong onto a reality that is intrinsically value free. These preferences have evolved from apish impulses modulated by culture eg sexual jealousy modulated by culture such as marriage. Religionists say its wrong to cheat on your spouse because Yahweh says so.

Split between facts and values is an illusion, argues Sam. He claims values are a certain type of fact, facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Consciousness and well-being terms are introduced.

A universe without consciousness eg just rocks, would not have concept of good or evil.

Imagine a universe where everyone suffers maximally - the worst possible misery for everyone (WPME) is bad. Every other experience is better than WPME. There is continuum from WPME at one end. Experience of conscious creatures depends on the laws of nature. There will be right and wrong ways to move across this continuum. Sams' argument is that moral truth can be located in the context of science. Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, depend upon minds, depend on the possibility of experience. Minds are natural phenomena. Morality can be understood through science. The facts about well-being are genetics, neurobiology/biology, psychology, sociology and economics. The space of all possible experience is a moral landscape. The peaks are the most well-being of conscious creatures, the troughs are the most suffering - the moral landscape analogy. There are multiple peaks - many ways for humans to best thrive, to be sublimely happy.

The Taliban is an example of a society that is not one of the peaks of the moral landscape ie lifespan for women is 44yrs, literacy rate 12%. It is scientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality.

Critics say 'You can't get an ought from an is.' (David Hume) but surely you ought to avoid WPME!

According to Hume, one persons values can ONLY trump another persons values by seeking concensus. All opinions have equal value. Science is merely descriptive. Sam argues that things can be right or wrong independent of a persons values. You can't get an 'is' without embracing 'oughts'.

Well-being is compared to physical health. (18m) Health is not merely the product of culture or personal whim. A science of morality based on a concern for well-being would be on the same footing as the science of medicine based on a concern for health (23m).

Religions can't be best source of morality as written over 600 years ago who knew next to nothing. Didn't know anything about DNA, electricity, did not know why people die, no notion of slavery being problematic. Someday there will no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. If Faith is ever right, it is only right by accident.

Questions with Richard Dawkins

Is your argument a kind of scientific utilitarianism? Sam says (35m) his argument is not simply consequentialism (cf Trolley problem) or utilitarianism.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Moving Naturalism Forward

source: highlights
h/t Neil Davies at Swindon Humanists for reminding me about reminding me about this conference back in October 2012. Attendees included Richard Dawkins, Sean Carroll, Dan Dennett, Alex Rosenberg, Jerry Coyne, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Massimo Pigliucci, Steven Weinberg.

Discussions were about: Naturalism, Morality, Meaning, Purpose, Epistemology, reductionism, Consciousness, Evolution, Determinism, Free will.