A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, May 16, 2011

Interview With a Physicist

The Commemoration of Jean d'Arc, Maid of Orleans

On this day in history, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.  It might could be that women in the Middle Ages did not have all the possibilities of their modern sisters.  But when we recall Joan -- and Sts. Hildegarde of Bingen; Hroswitha of Ganderheim; Gertrude of Helfta, Doctor of Theology; Abbess Petronilla of the dual-abbey at Fontevrault; not to mention Eleanor of Aquitaine and Blanche of Castile; or that the tax rolls of Paris (late 1200’s) list women as schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer, copyist, miniaturist, binder, etc.; and the ‘Inquiries’ of King Louis mention women as hairdresser, salt merchant, miller, farmer, chatelaine, even a woman Crusader!  -- we might pause to consider that they likely had a wider scope of action than their Victorian descendants. 

Hawking Off the Reservation, Again. 

The propensity of physicists to regard themselves as gurus in non-physical matters continues unabated.  The eminent physicist Stephen Hawking was recently interviewed by the Guardian (nee Manchester Guardian) in which exchange he unburdened himself of a number of opinions of no great weight, save he wears the white vestments of the lab coat.  However, his eminence demands that he be taken every bit as seriously as the Dean of Westminster Cathedral should that worthy ever unburden himself on the matter of black holes. 

One must make allowances for a man who speaks with the aid of a vocoder; but even so, his answers to the interview questions seem unusually disjointed, and often sophomoric.  He would never speak this way on matters physic. 

Let's take a look at one or two items. 

Guardian: What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"

Hawking: The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

In all charity, this does not even make sense, let alone answer the question.  The universe is not "governed by science."  It is described by science.  There is a difference.  One may as well say that pretty flowers are governed by photography, or the highways by Rand-McNally. 

Let's assume he meant "the universe is described by natural laws."  That's a nice medieval Catholic position, so why not.  But which equations is he talking about that "science tells us" we can't solve "directly in the abstract"?  There are many scientific laws that have been solved just so.  And how else can a mathematical system be solved other than in the abstract? 

Then comes an appeal to Darwinian natural selection, not of better fit individuals in species, but in some metaphorical sense regarding societies.  IOW, he is not calling upon actual Darwinian natural selection.  But of course there are no "Darwin equations" to be solved, abstractly or otherwise.  If biologists could so mathematics, one wag wrote, they would have become physicists. 

And what does "selection of those societies most likely to survive" mean?  It's a tautology.  How does selection know which societies are more likely to survive?  That's in the future, and whatever is acting on the units must be acting on them now.  Retrospectively, those societies that have already survived must be the ones that were "selected."  How do we know?  Because they have survived.  One wonders if there is a time limit on the survival.  Surely all societies have survived at least for some period of time.  And what exactly is a "society," anyway?

So, finally, "we" "assign" the surviving societies a "higher" "value."  It's hard to say if any of these terms has a definition at all.  What value?  Higher on what scale?  How do we know which societies are "most likely to survive"?  What do we do with a society to which "we" have "assigned" a lower value?  Make sure they don't survive?  (Why are Darwin's Laws the only scientific laws that need human vigilance to ensure they work properly?) 

The only way to make sense of his response is that it boils down to: "We're here because we're here."  Namely: science is omnicompetent.  (Societies are parts of the universe.)  We can't solve the equations for Darwinian selection of societies (because there aren't any).  And since we have survived, we are obviously more valuable.  Or something. 
Guardian:  You've said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?

Hawking: Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

Oh, dear.  This is what he said earlier, and it had to be pointed out to him that the scenarios he imagined were not "creation" and were not "out of nothing."  They presupposed, for example, the laws of quantum mechanics and presumably (though Hawking did not say so) the Quantum Vacuum.  These are not nothing.  In fact, by supposing that the laws of nature pre-existed nature itself, he was saying in effect "In the beginning was the Word..." 
Guardian: So here we are. What should we do?

Hawking: We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Umm.  Well.  Okay.  Whatever that means. 
Hawking: I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

It is wonderful that Hawking has the gnosis to penetrate the psyches of so many people.  Of course!  They're afraid of the dark!  *Headslap.  Why didn't we think of that?  However, other people may be just as afraid of judgment, and so be similarly motivated to deny survival.  What if heaven is one of those myriad of multiverses he imagines? 

We live in a computer age and so we see everything in computer metaphors.  When the top tech was hydraulics (like aqueducts), the mind was imagined as hydraulic systems with humours and such.  When the mechanical age came, the brain/mind was re-imagined as a mechanism or machine, with cogs and wheels.  Now it is the computer's age.  My fork is a computer executing a program: Lie on the desk and do nothing

I'll point out the most obvious distinction: a computer is an artifact and the brain is a natural organ.  That is, the components of a computer have no natural tendency to come together and function as a computer.  In fact, as John Searle has pointed out, nothing actually is a computer in itself (per se) save in relation to human purposes.  Even those functions that seem to mimic human cognitive functions turn out to be only analogous.  Computer memory is not the same thing as human memory.  To employ an example used by William Wallace, a computer retrieving from memory [sic] is like a secretary retrieving a file from a file cabinet.  The past is pulled up into the present, as it were.  But when the secretary remembers placing the file in the cabinet and where, the past is remembered as past.  We see this clearly in those cases when we stumble across things we have forgotten.  The file is there in the cabinet, but we do not remember putting it there. 

A further distinction is that a computer can access only sentences provable within its own system.  It cannot recognize sentences that are true-but-unprovable, whereas humans can.  For a computer to recognize one of its own Gödel sentences, it would need input from a higher-order system.  Let's call that "revelation," just to play head games. 

The net result of Lucas' Gödelian dialectic, of Searle's Chinese Room, and other lines of inquiry is that, whether the brain is a computer or not, the mind is certainly not; and so mind≠brain.  Furthermore, it can be demonstrated deductively that the mind is not material. 

Briefly thus: the intellect knows by grasping the form or essence of a thing.  If things did not have forms, science would have nothing to consider.  You cannot have a science of this fork on my desk, which is a concrete particular; but one may have a science of forks, an abstract generality.  You cannot have a physics of this particle or of that particle; but you can have particle physics.  Now for matter to take on a form is just to be that thing.  Matter that takes on the form of a cat just is a cat.  But to know something is to take on its form.  When I see a cat, I know that cat.  The form of that cat is in the cat, and also in my mind.  If my mind were matter, then some part of the mind would just be a cat.  But this is absurd (I hear you say).  Well, certainly, and that is why the mind cannot be material.(*)  And in particular, it cannot be brain. 

In particular, there are peculiar cases of people who lack virtually their entire brain and still live a normal life.  They have minds, but not brains.  Weird. 

This does not mean there is no relationship.  A human substance is a composite of matter and form, of body and soul (or body and mind, to use modern lingo).  Thus, the condition of one affects the other in various ways.  That is not at issue.  The soul is the substantive form of the body, that is, its shape/functioning.  It is what makes a living thing alive.  It is not a separate substance somehow inhabiting the same space as the body any more than a sphere somehow inhabits the same space as a basketball. 
Now any power dependent on a physical organ cannot survive the corruption of that organ.  So, when the ear is destroyed, we no longer hear; when the eye is destroyed, we no longer see.  But if intellection is not material, it cannot pass away due to the corruption of any material thing.  Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suppose on the basis of experience and logic that at least some portion of a rational soul exists after death.  Regardless of whether one is afraid of the dark or not. 

The intellect reflects upon perceptions, and these come through sensation.  "Nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses."  So with the decay of the body comes the decay of sensation, perception, memory, and the like.  These are also part of the soul and, in the case of animals and plants, the whole soul.  But the substance that is me, or you, or Great-aunt Matilda is a body and soul.  This is why the Christian creed emphasizes "the resurrection of the body," that the soul be reunited with matter (not necessarily the self-same atoms.) 

An argument can also be made for the existence of the disembodied intellect and volition, the rational part of the soul.  Since it is immaterial and time is the measure of change in material being, it would have to exist in an eternal sense, rather than a time-bound sense.  (Remember, "eternity" is a lack of time due to a lack of materiality; it is not "a really really long time.") 

(*) Another way.  An organ must lack the thing it apprehends.  An ear apprehends sound; so the ear itself must lack sound.  If the ear were making sounds itself, we would be unable to hear things.  Cf. tinnitus.  The eye apprehends light (photons bouncing off surfaces, say); but if the eye produced light of itself, it would be unable to apprehend light.  So, if the mind's proper object is to apprehend the material world, it cannot be material itself. 


  1. "In fact, by supposing that the laws of nature pre-existed nature itself, he was saying in effect "In the beginning was the Word...""

    Just so.

    And in similar wise, when Ayn Rand tries to get past God by saying "Existence exists," all she's really saying is "God IS."

  2. The item about someone lacking most of his brain reminded me of "Angerhelm" by Cordwainer Smith: "It's sort of funny funny funny to think without a brain."


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