Thursday, 8 March 2018

Circular Arguments

A couple of months ago I was caught up by a statement S.D.’s chum Professor Brian Cox made on the radio when being challenged to give pithy answers to scientific questions. Is there life after death? someone asked. ‘No’, Prof Cox answered definitely, ‘the rules of physics mean there can’t be.’ Now I am no scientist, but that struck me as such a sweeping statement that I wondered which rules of physics he could be referring to. The others in the studio clearly boggled a bit as well, because he stretched the parameters of the game to refer to some recently-published research or something.

Googling ‘afterlife scientifically impossible’ or somesuch phrase revealed that there was indeed a flurry of publicity in the autumn of last year about the comments of Sean Carroll of the California Institute of Technology about this subject, although I can’t find any reason to think what he said was very recent. The press reports all state that his comments appeared in Scientific American, but I can’t find any articles on the blog or in the magazine that would fit this subject published within the last few years. This dates from 2011, but I think it must be the one referred to. Why it should suddenly acquire such publicity I don’t know; perhaps the reports actually refer to his book from 2016, garbled into a Scientific American article. The Metro alleged that Dr Carroll had arrived at his conclusions ‘after extensive studies’ and one would hope he had, though it’s hard to know what those studies, as applied to this particular field, might consist of.

Dr Carroll’s argument goes back much further than 2011, however. It is that there is no form of consciousness we know of which is not linked to physical processes, whether you think of biology or more fundamentally the interactions of atoms and forces. Without those, there is nothing to bear consciousness; therefore once a living being dies and disintegrates, consciousness becomes impossible. This is called materialism, and it is not exactly a new idea. Arguably it goes back to ancient Greece. You may or may not think it very convincing to argue that a ‘soul’ by its very nature would be immaterial and that’s the point of it, but it’s a debate that has been had before.

Conversely a couple of days ago I was copied in on an extract from The Atheist Delusion, a 2016 movie compiled by US evangelist Ray Comfort to have a go at that rationalist easy target, Professor Richard Dawkins. The first bit interviews a variety of self-described atheists – mainly students – and then bamboozles them by trying to prove they are being irrational in believing that ‘something can come out of nothing’. The coup de grace in the segment is a scene of a debate in which Prof Dawkins is made to look ever so silly by claiming just that. In fact, Mr Comfort runs together the Argument from Design (how can all the complexity of existence come into being without an intelligence directing it?) and the Argument from First Cause (how can something come out of nothing?) in a series of rhetorical tricks which ignore a) that natural selection over geological time is quite sufficient to account for the biological complexity we observe and b) that although it is true that physics cannot explain the existence of the universe, there is no reason to assume that such a putative ‘First Cause’ is God. Among the things Mr Comfort’s film does prove are that Professor Dawkins can be amusingly manoeuvred into saying things that sound daft, and that most atheists aren’t actually that good at picking the holes in other people’s arguments; and neither of these things is a surprise. At least he shouldn’t be quite so pleased with himself at coming up with some ‘new’ knock-down argument against atheism: his case goes back a long way, too, just like Dr Carroll's.

And I suppose the more basic conclusion to draw is that very few people really know what they’re talking about.

1 comment:

  1. Whatever one's beliefs about an afterlife/no afterlife, I think Prof Cox was unwise. I'd always understood that scientists don't deal in absolutes,but in hypotheses they then demonstrate as valid until overthrown, or partially overthrown - Newton - Einstein, etc. Even Dawkins wrote that there is "almost certainly" no afterlife. And - does an afterlife necessarily involve continuity of consciousness after death? And -
    You're right. Very few of us "know" what we're talkin about.
    Stuart Kauffman seeks to show that the emergent properties of dynamic systems make events in the biosphere impossible accurately to predict. And not just the biosphere, perhaps.