Friday, July 20, 2012

Reviewing The Grand Design, Chapter Three: What is Reality?

It's been a few months, but Dan Ventress is back to continue this series.


My apologies for the hiatus, but I had university work to do. Now that I have some more free time available, I can continue the review of Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design. During said hiatus, however, I did manage to go to the Unbelievable? 2012 conference in Clapham, London here in the UK, where I got to see none other than John Lennox, but also Canadian astrophysicist, Hugh Ross, both of whom were giving talks on the relationship between religion and science and both of whom made mention of Hawking and his and Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design. It is also fitting that we return to review the third chapter, given that it is one of the centrepieces of the book, and yet is by far the worst piece of sophistry I have ever read. In this chapter, Hawking and Mlodinow describe what they refer to as ‘model-dependent realism.’ Whilst I will, of course, spend the most amount of time deconstructing the laughably absurd ideas contained within this notion, I will also devote some time to correcting the other profuse errors contained within this chapter.

They begin the third chapter with the ‘goldfish analogy.’ They note how a council in Monza, Italy, banned its citizens from keeping goldfish in bowls because it would present the fish with a distorted view of reality, and so would thus be cruel. Hawking and Mlodinow question whether or not that would really be the case:
But how do we know we have the true, undistorted view of reality? Might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens? The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?” Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p53.
Hawking and Mlodinow use this as the pretext for their discussion on epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, and aims to address issues such as defining knowledge, detailing how knowledge is acquired, and asking whether or not it is even possible to obtain knowledge. This is incredibly ironic, as Hawking and Mlodinow have previously asserted that philosophy is dead, but then, nobody accused them of being consistent.

Now, you would expect for Hawking and Mlodinow to assert that science is the supreme and ultimate arbiter of knowledge, a self-defeating epistemological system known as ‘scientism,’ derived from the hopelessly defunct verificationism, and logical positivism of the 1940s. Yet, strangely, they do not do this, despite their misleading appeal to Copernicus, Galileo, and the Roman Catholic Church. They literally assert that, hypothetically speaking, if goldfish were able to hold scientific laws from their own distorted perspective that always held true, and thus enabled them to make testable predictions about objects outside of the fishbowl, then would have to admit that their view of reality was valid. In a way, this is similar to scientism, except that whilst those who hold to scientism maintain that there is an objective reality, and science is the only thing that can establish fact, Hawking and Mlodinow appear here to be saying that something is true if it is part of a successful model or theory.

This example is flawed for so many reasons. First of all, again assuming along with Hawking and Mlodinow that, in some hypothetical situation, goldfish were able to formulate scientific hypotheses, how would the way goldfish see things physically affect their theories of light? Let’s think about this: we as humans KNOW that other animals, such as the goldfish, see things differently than us. Even certain subsets of human see things differently, such as people who are colour-blind and so on. The reason we know these things is precisely because of our understanding of how the world works. Our knowledge is informed by scientific knowledge on the anatomy of various biological life forms, and our knowledge of how light acts physically. The only thing is different is the perception of each individual species, and, indeed, even of unique individuals within a species.

Perhaps a better hypothetical example would be bats, since they are blind and thus cannot see at all, instead using sonar navigation. Yet this still would not lead to a multiplicity of views being equally valid. Hawking and Mlodinow would no doubt assert that, because bats can’t detect light, then it is not real to them (providing they can develop theories that are different to ours and do not utilise light) but at the same time say light is real for us. This is simply not the case whatsoever. This is the age-old dilemma of: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Something exists, regardless of whether or not we can detect it. There could be an invisible teapot orbiting Mars. Such a thing might be unknowable from a purely physical, scientific standpoint, but has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it exists. Indeed, we can reasonably conclude that such a thing does not exist based on our current knowledge. Again, we can’t be 100% sure, but then, nobody requires 100% proof for anything. Those who assert otherwise are simply deluded, fact, not opinion.

Hawking and Mlodinow’s argument thus appears to be as follows:
1.      Something can only be said to be real if it is part of a successful scientific model.
2.      There can be multiple models explaining the same phenomenon that are equally successful.
3.      Therefore, these models are equally valid.
This argument is predicated on the following (false) assumptions, however:
1.      Science is the only means of acquiring knowledge.
2.      Truth of a theory is measured by its success at explaining current phenomenon, and predicting future phenomenon.
3.      Knowledge requires 100% certainty.

If we reject these three assumptions, then there is no reason whatsoever to buy into Hawking and Mlodinow’s argument whatsoever. For example, Hawking and Mlodinow think that two competing models are equally valid if they are both successful models. However, why think truth is measured by success? This is merely a form of epistemological pragmatism: something is true if it works for me.

The problem is that, if what they are saying is true, we have no reason to accept it. Since they have not demonstrated the truth of their statements using the scientific method, they have not demonstrated their statements are successful in the sense they use the term, and have not demonstrated what they are saying is true is 100% certain. Of course, they can’t do this, not only because it is impossible, but also because they fallaciously conclude that, because said things are impossible, then knowledge of such statements truth-values are impossible. This is nothing but self-defeating epistemological suicide. Nothing has any meaning whatsoever. You could interpret my words, all of which are clearly defined in English, as meaning anything. Or you could randomly decide they have no meaning. I could just string together any random assortment of non-sequiturs I like, as it wouldn’t matter anymore.

Moving on, let us look at more of the blunders Hawking and Mlodinow. In order to illustrate two different models of reality, they describe geocentrism and heliocentrism, which describe the movement of celestial bodies. The geocentric model states that the earth is stationary, and that other planets go around it, whereas the heliocentric model states that the earth, and the other planets go around the sun. Now, before I get started critiquing various blunders they make presenting the historical background of these ideas, I just want to say how hilarious it is for Hawking and Mlodinow to use these examples as the basis for talking about their ‘model-dependent realism.’ Are they seriously suggesting that heliocentrism is no more or less real than geocentrism? We’ll come back to more of this later.

The whole manner in which they present the history of these ideas is simply fallacious and factually incorrect. For instance, the authors make the following remark:
Despite Aristarchus’ heliocentric model, these beliefs [geocentrism] had been held by most educated Greeks since at least the time of Aristotle, who believed for mystical reasons that the earth should be at the centre of the universe.” – Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p55
First of all, and this is just a minor nitpick, it is implied that Aristarchus had a fully fledged heliocentric model that was rejected in favour of Aristotle’s ideas, eventually culminating in Ptolemy’s models and ideas as presented in The Almagest. This straightforward account, if indeed Hawking and Mlodinow intended for their account to be taken this way (and given their appalling historical knowledge I would not be surprised if it were) is simply incorrect. First off, Aristotle preceded Aristarchus by 70 years, and even died 10 years before Aristarchus was even born. Secondly, the earliest forms of Greek geocentrism can be traced back at least as far as Anaximander, almost 300 years prior to Aristotle. Secondly, we have no way of knowing how complete Aristarchus’ model was, since his works are lost, and the only reason we know of his heliocentric model is because it is reference by Archimedes in his book The Sand Reckoner.

Thirdly, the ancients had no way of knowing whether or not which model was the correct one. Aristarchus hypothesised that the stars were very far away, and that this explained why there were no observable movement of the stars relative to each other as the Earth went around the Sun, a phenomenon known as parallax. Since stellar parallax is only detectable through telescopes, Aristarchus' prediction was simply unprovable at the time, and since geocentrism was consistent with planetary parallax, it was assumed to be the reason why no stellar parallax was observed. Geocentrism was not held for “mystical” reasons whatsoever. That was simply the limit of the science of their day. Hawking and Mlodinow argue that such a model “feels natural,” thus implying that human intuition is either flawed, or outright false. This is simply nothing more than a veiled well poisoning, as well as a slippery slope fallacy. However, they manage to make the blunder of outright asserting that the geocentric model was adopted by the Catholic Church and held as official doctrine for 1400 years.

This is simply outright false, and for many, many reasons. First of all, the Roman Catholic Church did not even exist until 300 AD at the earliest. This was when the Bishop of Rome began assuming to himself a role of superiority over the other bishops, thus negating previous tradition as well as ignoring the Bible. This was the beginning of a series of changes instigated by the Bishop of Rome, eventually culminating with the Great Schism between the Churches who opposed the changes made by Rome, and those who sided with them. Secondly, there was no universal doctrine regarding the relation between the earth and the sun until the Galileo affair. In other words, prior to Galileo, there was NO official doctrine on the matter whatsoever. Since Hawking and Mlodinow argue that no model is more or less real than the other, then it is rather puzzling why such an example is even bought up at all. What is really going is that Hawking and Mlodinow are simply trying to bash religion and philosophy.

Indeed, their next move is to fallaciously bring up the case of Galileo as some kind of proof that religion is inimical to science:
Though the idea wasn’t new, its revival was met with passionate resistance. The Copernican model was held to contradict the Bible, which was interpreted as saying that the planets moved around the earth, even though the Bible never clearly stated that. In fact, at the time the Bible was written people believed the earth was flat. The Copernican model led to a furious debate as to whether the earth was at test, culminating in Galileo’s trial for heresy in 1633 for advocating the Copernican model, and for “thinking that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to the Holy Scripture”. He was found guilty, confined to house arrest for the rest of his life, and forced to recant. He is said to have muttered under his breath “Eppur si muove”, “But still it moves”. In 1992 the Roman Catholic Church finally acknowledged that it had been wrong to condemn Galileo.” – Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p56
This is so absolutely and unremittingly false that I scarcely know where to begin, although I can at least comment that their errors here manage to be less than most commenters on this matter.

Copernicanism was not met with “passionate resistance” until the Galileo affair. Whatever debate and opposition was stirred up prior to the Galileo affair was minimal and amounted to nothing. There was no “furious debate” that culminated in Galileo being tried for heresy. Rather, the furious debate, and Galileo’s subsequent trial, was a result of Galileo’s publication Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo was encourage by the Pope, who was Galileo’s supporter at the time, to write a book whereby he featured the best arguments for and against both Geocentric and Heliocentric models. However, what Galileo did was to produce a very one-sided account whereby the Copernican scientist and the neutral observer sided against the supporter of Geocentrism, a priest named Simplicio (which means ‘idiot’ or ‘simpleton.’) Worse, Galileo attributed some of the Pope’s own words to this Simplicio character, which was tremendously insulting.

It was for this that the Pope turned against Galileo and sent him to the Inquisitors. Furthermore, Galileo’s own data was consistent with the Tychonic system as well as Copernicanism. As for the Catholic Church overturning these decisions, it overturned its rulings on the ban on teaching Heliocentrism in 1758. The prohibition of Galileo and Copernicus’ work was overturned in 1835. The 1992 statement was Pope John Paul II issuing a formal apology on behalf of the entire Roman Catholic Church. Yet it had already overturned the decisions that resulted from Galileo’s trial much earlier. As for the phrase “Eppur si muove” there is no evidence that Galileo ever actually uttered it. To their credit, Hawking and Mlodinow rightly note how the Bible is actually silent on the issue of planetary orbits. Of course, they still try their hand at making subtle digs against religion by implying that the Biblical authors believed that the world was flat. It was believed that the world was flat during much of the Old Testament period, however, not only is there is no evidence of such a doctrine within the Biblical text, there is no clear indication whether or not the Ancient Israelites even believed in a flat earth (not that it would have mattered if they had done.)

Yet, as aforementioned, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that neither geocentrism nor heliocentrism can be said to be more real than the other. So, what is the point of bringing up such examples? It seems as if it is little more than simply to bash religion. On the one hand, there is no right and wrong, but on the other hand, one answer is somehow better than the other… and religion and philosophy are stupid, or something. It really is hard to tell what Hawking and Mlodinow are getting at sometimes, since there rarely is ever any semblance of coherency in their book. It is amazing the depths some people are willing to stoop to in order to defame religion. That a scientist of Hawking’s calibre has to stoop to defending anti-realism solely in order to call religion names speaks volumes. As William Lane Craig has said, bad arguments such as these are actually backhanded compliments for theism. Theism is just so plausible, coherent, and well evidenced that any argument for atheism has to be put forward, physics, even the laws of logic themselves be damned.

However, now we have slogged our way through that tedium, it is time to grapple with the central “argument” of the chapter, and one of the key parts of the book. This is where the nuttiness level goes from 10 to 11, and where the true ennui begins. They flat out assert that either Copernicanism or geocentrism can be used as a model of the universe, bringing up their goldfish example again. They say that the “real advantage of the Copernican system is simply that the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest.” (Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p57.) They even make allusions to the Matrix, asking how can we be sure if what we see is real or a computer simulation. They stipulate that aliens could be in control of our reality, and that even such aliens would also be unable to know if their reality is more real than our own. Hawking and Mlodinow state: “This is the modern version of the idea that we are all figments of someone else’s dream.” (Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p57.)

They call their view “model dependent realism.” The view that there is no picture or theory independent conception of reality. They say that this is the lens with which to interpret modern science through. They say that the traditional belief that the external world is real and exists independently of observers, etc. is thus difficult to defend in light of modern science. It pains me to read such sophistry, literally, and figuratively. However, it gets worse if you can imagine. They claim that certain principles of quantum mechanics have produced results that contradict realism and even go so far as to suggest that our ‘four-dimensional world’ might just be a shadow of a larger five-dimensional space-time. They go on to mention anti-realism, saying that it cannot be disproven, but we have no choice to accept that is true.

When it comes to going into more detail about their absurd philosophical claims, they assert that: “Model-dependent realism short-circuits all this argument and discussion between the realist and anti-realist schools of thought. According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observations.” (Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p61.) They say that if two models both agree with observations, then we can’t say that one is more real than the other, and that one is free to use whatever model is most convenient. This is excusable, they argue, because this is how people behave in the real world. In real life, people form models consciously and sub-consciously in order to interpret and understand the external world, and so the same should apply in science.

Where does one begin in dealing with such bizarre and logically disconnected statements? I’ve had to stop half-way through Hawking and Mlodinow’s description of their philosophical outlook here, because not only is it so long and tedious, but there are just so many errors, I’m going to have to stop to correct them now before continuing on. For starters, their claim that neither heliocentrism nor geocentrism can be said to be more real than the other. I’ll be blunt; heliocentrism is a fact. The scientific data we have confutes the view that the Earth is stationary in the centre of the universe, with the other celestial bodies revolving around it. This is one of the most basic of astronomical facts. The real advantage of Copernicanism is not its simplicity, but due to the fact it is the scientific model of the solar system that best agrees with the data we have.

That was the blatantly obvious and ridiculously easy to refute error. Now we shall take a look at the confused mare’s nest of philosophical blunders and errors Hawking and Mlodinow have made in those statements. Their appeals to the Matrix, and other Solipsist type philosophies is nothing short of hilarious. Do they seriously think there are no answers to such problems? Do they seriously think these are plausibly true scenarios? Of course, given their earlier pronouncement that philosophy is ‘dead,’ and these are all philosophical statements, it is not hard to see why they think these issues are problematic.

It is also not particularly hard to refute such notions that they bring up as being problematic. For starters, how do we know that we exist? From the simple fact that we are aware, that we are thinking, etc. The only response to the question of whether or not you exist is: “who wants to know?” Secondly, we may recall the famous Cartesian maxim of cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. The very fact that I am even contemplating my existence is proof of my existence. For if I did not exist, then who would be there to be doing the doubting? Thus bringing us back to the previous answer of: “who wants to know?” One’s own existence is probably the most concrete fact there is. Whilst it is possible, however unlikely, that other people do not exist, I can be totally sure that I exist. This is a philosophical issue, but, again, Hawking and Mlodinow think philosophy is dead.

Whether or not there exist other minds and other people is not so concretely established, but is something that is once again relatively easy to show. Let us consider Solipsism, the belief that there exists only one person, and everybody else isn’t real. Needless to say all the various people who have been Solipsists in the past all thought they were the ones who were real. Solipsism is easy to refute on the basis that I am not a necessary being. As such, it becomes inexplicable why I and I exist alone, and furthermore supposes the existence of at least one other being, namely, the necessary being. The other scenarios that Hawking and Mlodinow discuss can be similarly deconstructed, and it goes without saying that I could have deconstructed the previous scenarios in greater details, but I do not wish to ramble on longer than necessary. These matters are important philosophical issues, and it just makes me laugh how Hawking and Mlodinow throw their hands up as if these problems are insurmountable.

The main failing of their entire outlook, however, is the fact they think it is okay to hold to whatever model one finds convenient, and that multiple models can be accepted as true. Furthermore, according to Hawking and Mlodinow, multiple models can be held to, providing they all agree with observational data, even if they are mutually exclusive. This is simply fallacious, faulty reasoning. An important and elementary point of basic logic is that two contradictory statements cannot both be true simultaneously. Thus, a shape cannot be square and not square at the same time, a man cannot be married and be a bachelor at the same time, and so on. One could always deny the laws of logic, but then nothing they said would have any meaning any more. Since rational thought, mathematics, science, philosophy, etc. are all predicated upon the rules of logical inference. Without logic, there can be no meaning, and so I could string together whatever random collection of non-sequiturs I liked. Of course, if the laws of logic did not hold, then we would be observing a much different universe, and the denial of logic leads to impossible results.

With that said, there are opposing models that are, currently, on equal footing from an evidential point of view. Consider the various interpretations of the special theory of relativity. On one interpretation, absolute simultaneity does not exist, whereas on another interpretation, it does. On one interpretation, four-dimensional space-time is to be interpreted as a tenselessly existing block, whereas on another interpretation, space-time is tensed and three-dimensional, with the fourth dimension representing time. In both cases, either interpretation is on equal footing, yet there are still valid reasons for preferring one to another. For example, the interpretation where relations of absolute simultaneity are preserved and space-time is tensed and three-dimensional is to be preferred since it is consistent with the A-theory of time. The A-theory of time can be considered correct for other reasons, and since there are valid interpretations of STR that imply the A-theory of time, those interpretations are to be preferred.

Moving on, the implication that, because people employ metaphysical pluralism on a daily basis, metaphysical pluralism is somehow correct is more than simply erroneous, it is absolutely and unremittingly false. If there is any one uniform fact about human beings as a whole, is that the overwhelming majority are monumentally and superlatively moronic. People regularly employ certain systems of thought, modes of thinking, and employ homespun wisdom about common sense that utterly and entirely antithetical to human reason. The horror stories about encounters between the intelligent few and the unwashed hoards of human stupidity are all over the internet. There are literally people who cannot understand store deals, such as: buy one, get one half-price. This is simply a bandwagon fallacy, plain and simple. The irony, though, is that most people operate under the assumption that the external world is real.

Hawking and Mlodinow’s rationale seems to be, because people operate under so many different worldviews (or ‘models’ as they call them), then no worldview can be said to be more real than the other. This is a particularly bizarre variation of the old argument that, because there are so many different religions in the world, they are all somehow false as a result. This is such bizarre, and faulty logic that it truly strains credulity. How does the mere fact that many models exist mean that none can be said to be more real than the other? This is simply a non-sequitur that cannot be supported by any rules of logical inference.

Hawking and Mlodinow continue:
“...what one means when one says “I see a chair” is merely that one has used the light scattered by the chair to build a mental image or model of the chair… another problem that model-dependent realism solves, or at least avoids, is the meaning of existence. How do I know that a table still exists if I go out of the room and can’t see it?... The model in which the table stays put is much simpler and agrees with observation. That is all one can ask.” – Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, 63, 64
Essentially, Hawking and Mlodinow are trying to justify their anti-realist pluralism by arguing that the reality we think we are seeing is really a virtual construct produced by our brains not representative of true reality. The implication is that, because we cannot trust our senses, we cannot trust scientific models as being actually real. However, they then simultaneously claim that we can accept the existence of the external world on the basis that it is ‘simpler.’

Hawking and Mlodinow frame the discussion in terms of emphasising a difference between observation and reality. Observation is merely the electrical signals interpreted by our brains, whereas ‘reality’ is an almost ethereal metaphysical plane we can ultimately gain no knowledge of. This is a yet another version of the previous Solipsist style philosophies already mentioned. Instead of being trapped inside a virtual reality, this scenario places us firmly within a metaphysical reality that we call the ‘real world.’ However, despite being in the real world, we have no real contact with it due to a perceived gulf between it and our re-constructions of it. Because we do not perceive reality directly, but rather, our brains process the information our sensory organs take it before feeding it back to us, it is queried whether or not the brain, the sensory organs, and the data we receive are accurate. We are thus limited to the confines of our own mental constructs, reality blurred by our fixed, restricted fields of vision.

Note how Hawking and Mlodinow do not even pose an answer to the question at hand and do not even address the matter directly. They merely assume that such a gulf does exist, and that these things aren’t accurate. No arguments are discussed or even aired at all. What reason is there for suggesting that the mental construct produces by our brains from the data received from our sensory organs provide us with an image radically different to what actually exists? Mere unknowability is not a valid argument as it is simply an argument from ignorance, whereas there are good, valid reasons for trusting our minds and senses. When we see a chair, the belief that the chair is real and that we are seeing what it really looks like is a properly basic belief. Stating that we are building a mental image or model of an object based on light scattered off of said object is merely a description of how we are able to see the object. As such, this does not present an adequate defeater for our belief, and so our properly basic belief is thus warranted.

The main failing, however, is Hawking and Mlodinow are operating under the entirely unwarranted assumption that one hundred percent accuracy is required to establish fact. Because there is a degree of uncertainty, no matter how great or small, they conclude that that is apparent grounds for complete and total Cartesian scepticism. As far as I am aware, the only people who maintain the illusion of total certainty are fundamentalists who, ironically, maintain the same belief that total certainty is required to know something. Most people have no problem accepting things as probably true or untrue based on certainties lower than the one hundred percent. The only thing that could ever be known with that level of accuracy is that one exists, for reasons already discussed. Everything else is subject to at least some level of uncertainty, no matter how minute.

Moving on to the question of whether a table ceases to exist whilst I am out of the room, Hawking and Mlodinow, despite maintaining that no model is more or less real than another, still claim this question can be solved with their approach by stating that the model which is simpler and agrees with observation is to be preferred. This is simply a philosophical argument, albeit Hawking and Mlodinow don’t actually give any arguments in favour of their position. They just make a few bare assertions and expect their readers to accept it on blind faith. Indeed, there are good philosophical reasons for accepting the model where tables and other objects continue existing when we leave a room, because the model where they cease existing is simply implausible. Hawking and Mlodinow are correct that the model where objects continue to exist is simpler.

However, simplicity is only one measure and cannot be used as the sole basis for determining plausibility, although it is certainly useful. For example, for two competing models, one model could be simpler than the other and yet still be false. It is always important to have clearly-defined criteria when it comes to testing hypotheses, especially philosophy and science. In this case, however, there is just no evidence suggesting that the model where objects cease to exist once you leave the room is more plausible. Other reasons for rejecting the model where objects cease to exist is the principle that something cannot come from nothing. As such, for any model where objects cease to exist when you leave the room, there needs to be a mechanism or agent posited as the cause for this. Since there is no plausible mechanism or agent posited, this is another reasons for not accepting said model. However, the main reason for accepting the model where objects continue existing is due to the fact that this belief is based on the properly basic belief in the reality of the external world.

Of course, to say that Model Dependent Realism “solves” this problem existence is an absolute falsehood. It solves no problems whatsoever, raises dozens of problems of its own, and is simply patently invalid. Hawking and Mlodinow continue by discussing things readily held to exist, such as quarks, but cannot be seen and state: “...according to model-dependent realism, quarks exist in a model that agrees with our observations of how subnuclear particles behave.” [Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p66.] It thus seems as if they believe that it is okay to treat quarks as real when dealing with the aforementioned model, even if they are not actually real… or something. Again, Hawking and Mlodinow aren’t exactly clear and concise in their language. Indeed, it is unclear what quarks existing in a model even means. Do they mean that they are treated as being real, or that hey actually exist? Does this occur when the model is being discussed, or simultaneously real and unreal at the same time? Whatever the answers are, it is clear that it devoid of any real substance.

Hawking and Mlodinow continue on to briefly discuss the matter of cosmological origins and how ‘Model Dependent Realism’ allegedly offers a framework for questions in this area:
An early Christian philosopher, St. Augustine (354-430), said that the answer was not that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions, but that time was a property of the world that God created and that time did not exist before the creation, which he believed had occurred not that long ago. This is one possible model, which is favoured by those who maintain that the account given in Genesis is literally true even though the world contains fossil and other evidence that makes it much look older. (Were they put there to fool us?) One can also have a different model, in which time continues back 13.7 billion years to the big bang.” – Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p67-68.
This really made me laugh out loud, and when you are wading through mind-numbing tedium such as this, you need all the laughs you can get.

Firstly, Augustine is not exactly an early Christian philosopher, given that he was born after the first council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Generally, early Christianity is defined as occurring between the death of Jesus and the first council of Nicaea. Secondly, the line about God preparing hell seems to be a veiled well poisoning fallacy judging by how it is phrased and where it occurs in the sentence. It is hard to tell, since the same line appears in Hawking’s work, A Brief History of Time, albeit written in a way that does not imply aforementioned well poisoning. Either way, this is an incidental point. However, the remark about Augustine believing that creation had occurred not too long ago most probably is, as is the rest of the quoted paragraph.

The third error that Hawking and Mlodinow commit is to make a blatant false dichotomy, mixed in with veiled ad hominems. Hawking and Mlodinow present belief in divine creation as being the exclusive preference young earth creationists, and falsely claim that belief in a 13.8 billion year old universe is a rival hypothesis to divine creation. This is an absolute and unremitting untruth. Not only is belief that the universe was created by God not the exclusive proviso of those who believe that the cosmos is a mere six thousands years old, but the amount of people who believe God created the universe, whilst simultaneously believing that the universe is 13.7-13.8 billion years old, is a very sizeable number. William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, and Kenneth Samples are very prominent old earth creationists. Hugh Ross is himself an astrophysicist! Did Hawking and Mlodinow seriously not know this? Or did they know and hope to dupe unwitting readers into accepting this palpable falsehood?

Even more laughable is how they try and paint Augustine, and others who hold to belief in divine creation, as simple idiots. Even though there are Christians, such as William Lane Craig, et al., who argue for divine creation on the basis of existing and well-established data regarding the universe, such as the expansion of the universe and its thermodynamic properties. Furthermore, in his work, On The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine specifically states that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and that Christians should be willing to change their minds about it as new information is discovered and presented. Despite believing that the world was younger than the estimations of pagans, he maintained a fairly allegorical interpretation of Genesis, and that the Bible does not mention the “course of the sun and the moon” because God willed to make us Christians. He even goes as far as to call it shameful when Christians speak on these matters ignorantly.

Lastly, whilst not as widely accepted as big-bang cosmology, evolutionary biology is not incompatible with belief in divine creation. There are many prominent Christians who accept evolution, such as: Francis Collins, Alistair McGrath, John Polkinghorne, and Kenneth Miller. The remark about fossils possibly being placed to “test us,” whilst a valid critique of young earth creationism, is simply an appeal to ridicule in the context in which it appears. Given that this paragraph is purely an exercise in poisoning the well against theism, however, I don’t really expect to see any decent arguments against any form of theism.

Hawking and Mlodinow next describe what they consider to be a good model. A model is a good one, according to them, if it is elegant, contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements, agrees with and explains all existing observations, and makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they are not borne out. This is actually not too disagreeable. The only problem would be ‘elegance’ since it seems particularly vacuous and poorly defined. Ironically, this is something Hawking and Mlodinow agree with this assessment, but then state that all of their above criteria are “obviously subjective.” [Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p69] However, since the only example they give is, of course, the criteria of ‘elegance,’ it is hard to see why.

They also seem particularly incapable of even defining what exactly ‘elegance’ is. Hawking and Mlodinow seem to imply a principle not too dissimilar from Ockham’s Razor, yet it is hard to tell, given the vague, cryptic prose. What follows for the next few pages is are the examples of how successful theories came to replace unsuccessful theories, noting the example of how big bang cosmology replaced the steady state theory. The second example, however, is the example of an unsuccessful theory, Newton’s theory of light. Newton’s theory of light could not describe the Newton’s ring phenomenon, whereas the wave theory of light could. However, Hawking and Mlodinow note that in the 20th century, Einstein showed how the same effect could also be described by the particle theory of light.

In a rather bizarre turn, Hawking and Mlodinow claim that this “duality” supports their notion of ‘model-dependent realism.’
Dualities like this – situations in which two very different theories accurately describe the same phenomenon – are consistent with model-dependent realism. Each theory can describe and explain certain properties, and neither can be said to be better or more real than the other.” – Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p76.
Not only is this a complete non-sequitur, but, as we have already seen, this is completely false. We have already seen how one theory can be preferred over another despite both theories being equal from an evidential standpoint. Hawking and Mlodinow continue unphased, and simply end by claiming that M-theory, a network of theories they claim is good at describing phenomenon with a certain range, whilst not a single unified theory is “acceptable within the framework of model-dependent realism.” [Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p77]

Throughout the whole chapter, I was expecting them to conclude with a philosophical system to test theories, yet not only do they not do this, they end with yet another complete and utter non-sequitur. How has anything they said about ‘model-dependent realism’ led to this conclusion about M-theory? What even is M-theory? They haven’t even provided a single example of ‘model-dependent realism’ being a useful way of testing theories and now, all of a sudden, have dropped M-theory on top of us out of nowhere. Even worse, they end the chapter simply by briefly discussing the ‘alternative histories’ interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and simply barely assert that it has passed every experimental test that it has been subject to.

This is yet another falsehood. Quantum Mechanics has passed experimental tests. However, the ‘alternative histories’ interpretation has not, since it is an interpretation of the QM model, not a model itself. There are many interpretations of QM, and they are ALL equal evidentially. This is simply nothing more than a fallacy of equivocation. All throughout this chapter Hawking and Mlodinow have made gross errors and a number of ludicrous claims and remarks, some even making no coherent sense whatsoever. Even worse, large sections of the chapter don’t even seem connected to the rest. My main complaint about this entire chapter as a whole is that is tedious, cluttered, and does not have a logical flow of argumentation.

After finishing this chapter, I am not even sure what Hawking and Mlodinow are even trying to argue, other than: M-theory is great, and the alternative histories interpretation of Quantum Mechanics rules. Both of which are, of course, bare assertions completely unsupported by the rest of the content of this chapter, and not even connected to the subject content of the rest of the chapter. This chapter simply has no real substance, and does not read coherently in any way whatsoever.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Storm Disgracers

I've never been much impressed with John Piper. I just got done with N. T. Wright's Justification, where Piper gets himself ripped handily, and it included some quotes from Piper about first century contexts which, if accurate (and with Wright, why would they not be?) reveal Piper to be a fundamentalist exegete on the order of Geisler.

But that's not the topic of today's post. The topic is how Piper has abused a story of a tornado that hit Minneapolis in August, 2009, at the time of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's (ELCA) conference. Piper made much of how this tornado, a very weak one, hit the church the ELCA was using as a base (they were meeting at a convention center across the street) and knocked the steeple over, at roughly the same time the ELCA was taking a controversial vote on homosexuality. Piper described this event and concluded with a smugly self-righteous commentary that it typical of the tone he takes with others he condemns, particularly those who reject Calvinism, though that didn't enter into things here:

The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.

In turn, the fundamentalist we commented on Monday -- an apologist who should be disbarred from practicing apologetics, for this and other reasons -- made a YouTube video on the same theme and story.

I've never had much patience with those who make asinine remarks about how certain weather events mark God's judgment (e.g., Hurricane Katrina vs New Orleans). Not only is it arbitrarily judgmental, it is also absurd. We're apparently to believe that the God who struck people dead for lying to the Holy Spirit is now into "gentle reminders" instead. He also is so incompetent at target shooting that He has to send a whole raft of tornadoes over several states, just to knock down one steeple. Finally, God has apparently never noticed a whole lot of other churches where serious sin is going on, like one near me where the pastor collected people's Social Security information under the pretense of providing services and instead used the data to commit fraud. That ought to be worth at least a sinkhole here in Florida, but no dice.  Piper's God has apparently gone daft since the days of Ananias and Sapphira.

It goes deeper than that though. Piper's report is premised on a major inaccuracy. No, I didn't become a weather expert overnight; but I know one -- someone who hangs out with those "storm chaser" guys, and, although not a trained expert himself, knows his business well enough to debunk Piper's theological fantasies. I asked for his feedback, and he sent me some commentary and some confirming links to NOAA weather data and predictions. These are the sorts of things Piper should have checked before mouthing off, but I've never known the self-righteous to do much fact-checking when God has a plan to smack their Sinners of the Month.

One major point Piper makes to set the stage for this alleged bumble of providence (lower case P intended) is in a quote from a "friend" of his who wrote:

On a day when no severe weather was predicted or expected...a tornado forms, baffling the weather experts—most saying they’ve never seen anything like it. It happens right in the city. The city: Minneapolis.

No severe weather predicted or expected, huh. Hmm. Yeah, this is what happens when you "ask a friend" instead of someone who knows their business. I'll relate what my friend said in my own words.

Simply put, it's just plain false that no severe weather was predicted or expected. On that date, August 19, 2009, there was a potent low-pressure system in the area, and the winds from it were enough for an outbreak to occur, but certain other conditions with respect to instability in the air raised questions about exactly what would happen. In the end, though, and without using technical jargon, conditions were such that if any place was going to be hit by a tornado -- it was Minneapolis.

What may be confusing Piper's friend is that there wasn't a tornado watch at the time. Well, that's not unusual with weak systems that may end up doing nothing at all, and it's quite understandable. Here in Florida there's a fine balance between warning people about hurricanes and not warning them so much that if one take a sudden turn and misses, they get more complacent next year. I imagine the same logic is used for posting tornado watches, though it's no doubt a little different inasmuch as you can see a hurricane coming a lot easier.

In any event, the Storm Prediction Center had warned that morning that there was a heightened risk of storms in the Minneapolis area. A 2-5% "tornado outlook" was maintained in their public outlook. Links below tell more of the story. As you can see, there were 30 reports of tornadoes that day, and all came from a narrow corridor that went from Minnesota to Ohio, with a concentration in the Minneapolis area. There was also a 15% outlook for damaging winds in and around Minneapolis. Maybe Piper can find some sinners being conveniently judged in those areas, too.

Piper and his little friend on Youtube might want to take some advice from far wiser parties:

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45)

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Exodus 20:7)

In my ideal world, "godly men" like Piper who do things like this, and apologists like the aforementioned fundamentalist, would never be permitted to teach or preach again until after they'd taken some courses in logic, research, and exegesis. Then they'd get one more chance and if they screwed up this bad again, they'd be fired for life.

Good thing for them that the god (lower case intentional) in charge of their world has such problems hitting his targets.