Calling all Quantum Theorists and Cosmologists who can be patient with innumerate humanists and theists…

Hi, gentle readers. I’m moving another comment thread up onto my front page where it belongs. Please jump into the conversation — just as long as you can be very respectful to science, and very respectful to both humanism and theism, okay? All right then. Ready? Set? Go!

Thank you so much for joining in here, Maria! Welcome to the discussion.

Now Gavin, be patient here with all of us, and don’t take yield to the temptation to take these questionings that non-physicists have as simply some kind of New Age occultism, okay? Continue to be your tolerant and patient self, okay? (If you don’t, I will have to remind you that YOU lean toward many-worlds (gasp!) as the best interpretation of wave collapse — and that sounds extremely “New Agey” to most people, even though it is strictly mathematical, right?)

Maria, I am better at responding when I’ve had time to ponder, so I’ll get back to you later on, except to say that many very good minds (including scientific ones) have seen quantum indeterminacy as opening up a universe that is much more open to freedom and spontaneity than was thought in Newtonian times. And eventually, when we know more about QM, I think it may shed some brand new light on very old metaphysical questions. (BTW, I was just wondering this morning some questions along the lines of what you are saying.) So I will get back to you. Instead, I am now going to ask Gavin the quantum physicist some questions that have come to the forefront for me lately.

[Still, let me recommend to theists the epilogue to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, in which he talks about nature in a way that shows he had been talking with the physicists at Cambridge and Oxford about Copenhagen QM (quantum mechanics) and the way that many manifest processes in nature seem to depend on resources lying elsewhere. It is so strange to me that many scientists are very comfortable talking about all of this stuff — just as long as no one uses the words “God” or “spiritual,” because these words have very unwelcome connotations (and I’m not sure theists aren’t responsible for many of these bad connotations). Theists, be sure to look, too, at what Richard Dawkins, the bad man hisself, said in an interview discussed in my earlier post, “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily…”]

In the meantime, let me ask Gavin and other physicists/cosmologists/molecular biologists and so forth, these questions that have finally crystalized for me, questions that may in the long run prove to be related to Maria’s thoughts.


1) My son took a GE course in astronomy/cosmology at Penn last spring and came home for the summer and repeated to me something I’ve heard before about quantum indeterminacy. I want to know if you agree. He said that if you throw a ball at a solid wall a billion billion times, one time it might not bounce back, but continue right on through the wall. I understand why this is said (I think) but it is up-to-date in your view?

2) Here’s another question, one that has been driving me crazy. If you shot a rifle that was not accurately lined up or had looseness in its design where it shouldn’t, isn’t it the case that you would end up with a haphazard spray of bullet holes around the center of the target, and they would be randomly distributed and you couldn’t say where each bullet would be except roughly within a certain tolerance?

Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists, given that the particles are bound to appear within the range of the wave function and you can even specify the probability of where any given particle might appear on the screen. Setting aside the wave/particle duality itself (if we can), why is it so problematic that we can’t say where each particle itself will land, in a strict deterministic fashion? Aren’t there many things in nature that operate this way? When water is splashing along in a stream, it doesn’t splash exactly the same way twice, but it is certainly determined within certain limits. (?)

In the humanities and social sciences, we talk about norms applying “with a certain degree of determinacy.” In other words, the manifestation is always within a certain range, but the degree to which the normative outcome applies may be very loose or somewhat loose or may apply with very little indeterminacy, but it does not have to strictly every time to be a true normative pattern. Does there really have to be a deterministic mechanism underlying everything in science? If so, what about the water splashing…. (Or Brownian motion? It is random, isn’t it? “Random” within a certain shaping description.)

3) Finally, I remember that you said that Roger Penrose was waaay off in suggesting that a new theory of quantum gravity may eventually provide an underlying mechanism for the wave/particle enigma. (And he connects this with the quantum nature of consciousness, too, which Maria has heard of and that it is in the collective psyche of our culture right now.)

So Gavin, can you clarify what is the exact nature of your disapproval of Penrose, here? Is it the gravity part of the theory that you object to, or is it the very idea that physics will discover an underlying mechanism that is currently unknown, for wave collapse? That you are convinced in sticking with the current maths like Copenhagen does and not looking for anything further?

It seems to me that the general course of scientific progress indicates that an anomaly like wave/particle collapse will eventually be resolved by a new and deeper underlying theory, as in the case of earlier anomalies like black body radiation and the Michelson-Morley experiments. Yet it seems that you like the current maths enough to invest in the “other” explanation: that the current anomaly is explained by the particle being in every possible location but in different universes. But doesn’t this interpretation mean that “we” are in all those different universes too, but each of “us” doesn’t know the others exist? That SOUNDS, at least, pretty far out. I don’t say this to provoke you, Gavin, because I understand how compelling the mathematics are said to be. But what of the “metaphysical” implications? Don’t those give you pause? And why are you so opposed to a more “traditional” way out: that a new theory will provide a new mechanism for a more deterministic explanation?

4) Oh, sorry, one more question. I’ve been reading a philosopher of science James Cushing who describes the de Broglie/Bohm theory of quantum collapse, which Bohm developed after the acceptance of the Copenhagen approach as the standard theory. Cushing says Bohm’s iis a deterministic theory, and that it explains the phenomenon as well as Copenhagen does, and he contends that it is merely historical contingency that the Copenhagen hit the scene first and became orthodoxy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would expect that physicists would opt for a deterministic theory if it really held water for them, even if another theory got there first….?

Sorry to load all of this questions onto poor Gavin. Any other physicists or others out there who care to comment on any of these questions? Or innumerate humanists and/or theists?


25 Responses to “Calling all Quantum Theorists and Cosmologists who can be patient with innumerate humanists and theists…”

  1. Janet Says:

    Whoops! Gavin has already commented. You’ve got to see this over on the “conversation continues” comment thread! It’s hi-lar-i-ous….

  2. Gavin Says:

    I can’t play ask-a-physicist without setting some limits, or I won’t have time for anything else in my life. Here are some rules:

    1. I don’t discuss theories outside the main-steam of science. Science is a huge search. Vast regions of possible truth have been searched and have produced nothing. Small regions are proving fertile, and we are concentrating our attention there. I cannot go over every barren region again with newcomers. Faith healing, the realm of Platonic forms, a spiritual plane, Penrose’s link between quantum gravity and wave function collapse, and Bohm’s theory are all in the vast barren region. Sorry, we’ve moved on.

    I do make some exception for widely held or forcefully promoted ideas: creationism and intelligent design, and quantum woo. I will not, however, be polite. There’s nothing useful to be said about these concepts while remaining polite.

    2. First priority is always going to the issues that are directly related to the faith issues that we eventually want to reach. The quantum nature of the universe is at the wrong energy scale for addressing questions of God or a soul. The issues surrounding John McCain are far more relevant.

    Now for Janet’s remaining questions.

    1) No, the ball will not go through the wall. I know what they are trying to say, but this is the wrong way to say it.

    2) This question contained seven questions, so I’m going to pick one: “Now why is it that the collapse of the wave function is so worrisome to theorists[?]” The problem is that quantum mechanics obeys one rule between measurements, and another when a measurement occurs. This would be fine if somebody could tell me what a measurement is. So, there are two different rules and no sure way to know which one should be used. That is the problem.

    You seem to think the problem is that we lost determinism. It is not. We don’t like randomness, and we don’t like many-worlds either, but we understand that nature doesn’t care what we like. We can cope with randomness, if we have clear rules for when to use it. We know how to use it for water splashing and rifle shots.

  3. Janet Says:

    Uh huh. Okay!

    Yeah, I get your rules. I’m very sympthetic to the time constraint, which I feel when trying to explain semiotic theory. So maybe others will help out. Even very short answers help me a lot with the issues that come up in my own field that I can’t explain to the physicists exactly.

    After all, aren’t we learning that we can’t become experts in one another’s fields. So we have to be willing to talk at each other in this hafl-frustrating and half-very-valuable manner? Those who simply say, study the books are giving up on the conversation. Because I am studying the textbooks and I still have questions that only those much more informed than I am can clarify. And those clarifications are more to help me think from my own vantage point and training than to think as a physicst…(and vice-versa).

    But I must say that I’m surprised Roger Penrose is in “the vast barren region” with all those others Gavin names. There’s no indication he is either thinking about God (a hidden agenda, so to speak) or that he’s in the “quantum woo” camp that uses Bohm a lot, is there? So Gavin just reports that quantum gravity is unfruitful? Or is it the brain-and-QM connection in general that seems unfruitful? (Gavin, isn’t that question inevitable given the centrality of defining measurement?)

    Moving on. Gavin says: “We can cope with randomness, if we have clear rules for when to use it. We know how to use it for water splashing and rifle shots.” And he says: “The problem is that quantum mechanics obeys one rule between measurements, and another when a measurement occurs.”

    Okay, that helps me much.

    Then Gavin says: “This would be fine if somebody could tell me what a measurement is. So, there are two different rules and no sure way to know which one should be used. That is the problem.”

    This helps me too. But, then, why don’t you expect an underlying mechanism to be found that will explain both behaviors in one theory? Or is it just that every avenue for finding that has proven fruitless, so you are sticking with the current enigma as being more true to the data?

    Gavin, are there measurements made in nature without any intentional observer or measurer or a measuring machine made by such, or is that precisely what we cannot know because we’d have to measure to find out? Like a photon hitting an eyeball. Is that a measurement? (The electromagnetic wave acts like a particle?)

    Finally, this is really fascinating! Gavin says: “The quantum nature of the universe is at the wrong energy scale for addressing questions of God or a soul. The issues surrounding John McCain are far more relevant.”

    What??? This is so surprising to me. In the West, starting with the Greeks, the divine has always been sought at the most fundamental level of the material universe. We look to the most underlying element(s) to find the “causes” of the abundant orders and the coherent emergences we see all around us. But that is “causes” in the explanatory sense, not necessarily the mechanical sense that science has focused on from the beginning.

    Can you say why the meaning structures surrounding “John McCain” seem more fruitful for you? Is it simply that you think that for God to exist, God must have a physical kernel of reference, like the physical body of John McCain? But that is absolutely ruled out by the very definition of “God” in the West.

    (This btw is why the notion of the Incarnation is so entirely scandalous. To localize the non-local in a physical body? To assume finiteness and vulnerability (and even death) by what is infinite and omnipotent? These are supposed to be utterly mind-blowing and very offensive contradictions. Something that is “a foolishness to the Greeks, and to the Jews, a stumbling block.”)

    The Schrodinger equation gives you probabilities. Why is it worrisome to physicists that each wave can only collapse in ONE of those probable locations. Isn’t that what happens in every statistically probable future? What ACTUALLY happens is only one of the several likely results that WOULD or COULD happen?

    I know a lot of you are following this conversation (thank heavens for blog stats!) so someone else should try to relieve Gavin once in awhile. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a lot of prior conversation to get the point where you have covered enough common ground to communicate across these barriers of disciplinary background….

  4. Janet Says:

    Or is Roger Penrose “the mathematician” that Maria mentions? (In comments on “The conversation continues”)

  5. HI Says:

    Poor Gavin, indeed. I will try to comment on Janet’s questions 3) and 4), even though I don’t have credentials of a working physicist.

    3) Regarding Penrose:

    It was a long time ago when I read “The Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose. It didn’t make much sense to me even when I tried to read it carefully then and it is even more difficult to follow his argument as I try to skim through it now. So, I cannot give too detailed comments but will give you my impressions from reading it a long time ago.

    As I understand, Penrose is trying to somehow connect three poorly understood subjects, quantum gravity, quantum measurement and consciousness. Since we don’t understand much about any of these, we cannot say outright that Penrose is wrong. When we are ignorant, there is more room for speculations, as I think Gavin wrote before. But that doesn’t mean that there is high probability that any such speculation is right. And Penrose didn’t make a very convincing case that his particular speculation is right. In fact, I think many people have reasons to think that Penrose is likely to be wrong on this.

    Do we need to take gravity into account in order to understand quantum measurement? We can ignore gravity to understand most quantum phenomena, because the effect of gravity is negligibly weak. So, it doesn’t make much sense that when we think about the measurement, quantum gravity suddenly becomes fundamental. Even if he is right, how helpful is his speculation when there is no successful theory of quantum gravity yet? Penrose may be thought-provoking, but he is not providing any thing very substantial, unlike EPR paradox and Bell’s theorem that lead to better understanding of quantum measurement. I think that the right way to progress is to try better understanding of each subject. If there indeed is a fundamental connection between these subjects of the kind Penrose proposes, it is bound to be found. But there is not a convincing reason to believe in such connection now.

    Is quantum effects important for consciousness? Again, it seems to me that quantum effects don’t play significant role in most of basic neurobiological processes, such as firing of neurons and synaptic transmissions. And while neuroscientists may have yet to explain consciousness, they have learned great deal about how the neurons and our brains work. Penrose, as brilliant man as he is, is not an expert of neuroscience. Don’t you think it is a bit arrogant of him to claim that he knows better than the neuroscientists, especially when he is not making a good argument about the connection between quantum effects and neurobiological phenomena? You have to realize that the revolutions of quantum mechanics and relativity are very exceptional events in the history of science. The problem is rarely that we don’t have adequate fundamental laws. Often the difficult part is to understand the more complex higher order phenomena from the simple laws and the basic processes. Classical physics is sufficient to predict the weather, but it remain difficult to forecast the weather. Taking quantum mechanics and relativity into account won’t help it. Suppose that the string theorists are successful in coming up with the so-called “theory of everything” that unite quantum mechanics and general relativity. It is not going to affect biologists, chemists, nor even condensed-matter physicists. You don’t even need quarks to explain the structure of DNA, or chemical bonds, or superconductivity.

    I might add that I don’t find it very fruitful to connect quantum measurement to consciousness (like Wigner did, for example). (And it is interesting that Penrose doesn’t like Wigner’s interpretation, either.) It is difficult enough to quantum mechanically describe a measuring apparatus. Consciousness is even more poorly defined. To think that consciousness somehow does something magical seems like baseless speculation and wishful thinking to me.

    4) Regarding Bohm’s theory:

    I have never studied Bohm’s theory, so all I know is based on what other people wrote about it.

    My understanding is that Bohm’s theory is a variation of hidden variables theories. These are deterministic theories of quantum mechanics and the probabilistic nature is explained as a consequence of our ignorance on hidden variables. Most straightforward hidden variables theories are ruled out. Apparently Bohm’s theory is not ruled out unlike other hidden variables theories, but it comes with a great cost. It includes non-local interactions that are weird and complicated. It may be deterministic alright, but it looks too contrived and not appealing to many physicists. They’d rather take probabilistic quantum mechanics that may not be entirely satisfactory, but is simpler.

  6. Gavin Says:

    I said there are two rules in quantum mechanics, one for use between measurements and one for measurements. The one to use between measurements is the Schrödinger equation, which is deterministic. The Schrödinger equation does not give probabilities. You tell it what wave function or density operator you have at the start and it tells you exactly what wave function or density operator you will have at the end. There’s nothing random about it; it’s totally deterministic.

    The rule for measurements is wave function collapse. You tell it what wave function or density operator you have and it gives you the probabilities for a bunch of different wave functions or density operators that you might get out, with their associated measurement results. This is a random, non-deterministic process, but the probabilities are predictable.

    Janet asks “But, then, why don’t you expect an underlying mechanism to be found that will explain both behaviors in one theory?” In fact, the underlying mechanism has already been found. There is one theory that explains both the Schrödinger equation and wave function collapse. That theory is the Schrödinger equation. If you just use the Schrödinger equation all the time, even when you do a measurement, then you can predict all of the features of wave function collapse. What should we call this new theory? We call it quantum mechanics, which is exactly what we called the old theory, so I can understand why people get confused. The process of wave function collapse is called “decoherence.”

    Note that it doesn’t work the other way. You can’t use wave function collapse to explain the Schrödinger equation. It just doesn’t work. So, the reason we got rid of the non-deterministic random aspect of quantum mechanics isn’t because we don’t like randomness (although we don’t like randomness, so we’re pretty happy about this), it is because wave function collapse was a useless and ill defined part of the theory.

    All of this is well understood and accepted by the experts in the field. We can use the Schrödinger equation to understand measurement in great detail. In particular, we can answer with confidence all of the questions you ask about measurement:

    1) “Gavin, are there measurements made in nature without any intentional observer or measurer or a measuring machine made by such…?” Yes, all the time. In fact, natural measurements happen at an absolutely staggering rate. This is the main reason that the macroscopic world does not look quantum mechanical (and why the ball won’t go through the wall).

    2) “Like a photon hitting an eyeball. Is that a measurement?” Yes. The photon hitting a tree or a rock is a measurement too. A photon hitting a mirror is not.

    3) “The electromagnetic wave acts like a particle?” Yes, mostly. It retains enough of its wave characteristic for us to see color (approximately).

    Not only can we understand what is an isn’t a measurement, we can perform partial measurements. This isn’t just a crazy theory, partial measurements are used in modern atomic clocks. The state of excited atoms is partially measured in one stage, and the measurement is finished in another much later stage. The long duration of the measurement allows a much more accurate measurement of the frequency of the atoms’ oscillations, in accordance with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Also, The field of quantum computing is base on understanding the details of measurements, including partial measurements.

    Now, I said that all of this is well understood and accepted by the experts. That is not a terribly large population, and it certainly doesn’t include all physicists. I can back up everything I’ve said, but the math is difficult, even by physicist’s standards. Furthermore, the some of the implications are startling and not fully understood, causing some concern. None the less, the people who actually have to earn a living doing quantum measurements are on board because it is the only approach that makes sense and works.

    Roger Penrose does not have to earn a living doing quantum measurements. Quantum gravity is a worthy pursuit (it is what I do), Prof. Penrose is a good physicist, and wave function collapse is an interesting (solved) problem. Prof. Penrose’s link between quantum gravity and wave function collapse didn’t pan out. The quantum woo community’s link between consciousness and wave function collapse also failed. (Penrose promoted this connection in The Emperor’s New Mind, so his record on wave function collapse is not good. He’s very good at relativity.) Decoherence is the winner.

    Perhaps I jumped the gun with my comment about God and souls. If you could tell me one thing that God or a soul does, that would be very helpful.

    Roger Penrose is not “the mathematician” that Maria mentions. I think she is talking about compact extra dimensions, which are common in string theory and are explained in several popular books about string theory, including Lisa Randal’s ,Warped Passages.

  7. Maria Kirby Says:

    God gives life. God creates. God predicts the future. Souls live eternally. Souls might be considered the life force of bodies. -Not particularly testable actions.

    I was speaking of Lisa Randal and Raman Sundrum, whose theories elaborated in their papers RS1 and RS2 will hopefully be tested next year at CERN.

    I do think its very interesting that we create a reality or form like Hamlet or the Saint Paul Cathedral (before it was constructed) and then proceed to create an instance of the form as an actual building. (Some persons take on the role or character of a literary form, thus giving them an instance, maybe for the duration of the play, maybe for a life time. An actor who does this brings the character to ‘life’ for the audience.

    It seems like mathematics/physics does a similar process, albeit some times in reverse. We observe certain phenomenon or instances. We then try to create a form (mathematical equations) which we can use to reproduce an equivalent instance to the one observed. The form is validated when it can not only predict an equivalent instance but can be used to predict other observable instances. The laws of motion work for dropping balls from the tower of Pisa as well as the movement of the planets.

    It seems to me that when it comes to spiritual things we’re kind of like blind people trying to understand color. I think its very interesting that churches report more miracles in locales where persons are more prone to believe in demons and magic. While I think psychology is an important factor, I don’t think it explains everything. It seems that there is some connection between what we believe/think (its form) and what is observed to occur in the physical realm (its instance). And I don’t necessarily think that quantum mechanics can explain the phenomenon.

    (I personally think that a number of people have hijacked quantum theories to make them support certain philosophical ideas, instead of letting quantum theories speak for themselves. But there does seem to be implied corrolaries, I’ve heard the laws of motion used in connection with human interaction.)

    If mathematicians/physicists can prove that there are more that three dimensions, then it seems that the obvious next question is what is in those dimensions? Does what is observed in three dimensions project at all into any of those other dimensions? If something like gravity can project from a fourth dimension into our three, then can the strong, weak, or electro-magnetic force project into the forth? And what would that look like?

    I may be naive, but I still believe in angels. It seems to me that angels are spiritual beings, who at times, have a physical presence. (Unlike ourselves who are physical beings with a spiritual presence.) Why would it be so unreasonable to say that what we attribute to spirit is not a force of another dimension?

  8. Janet Says:

    I’ll respond to Hi, then Gavin, and then Maria.

    Thanks so much! I’m really interested to hear that Wigner tried to make a QM-consciousness connection, too, and your judicious comments about Penrose and the different areas of his work were very helpful and clarifying too. (I want to look at Wigner — do you happen to know where he published this?) Eugene Wigner, remember folks, wrote the elegant essay on “The Unreasonable Success of Mathematics in Physics” that we discussed earlier under Part 4 of my lit theory lectures….

    On Bohm and non-locality, I’ve been wanting to prod Hi and Gavin to say something about EPR and Bell’s theorum…. Gavin, would you rule out from a physics standpoint any connection between non-locality in QM and the idea that deep reality might be non-local? (At one point I read Bell’s entire book, Speakable and Unspeakable in QM, so I have a right to ask this, I think! But it’s not right for H & G to have to answer it. But how can you science-guys blame us innumerate humanists for getting stirred up by this stuff. It is downright IN-EV-IT-A-BLE.)

    As for Gavin, Gavin, I don’t think you realized how new-style you are (as opposed to old-style scientific thought). You grew up with paradigm shift and an indefinite future for physics to evolve into and so you always are surprised that I am concerned with determinism or old-style locality in space and time. But speaking HISTORICALLY, it was precisely that emphasis of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton on “reality” being a natural world of empirical time and space (and Newton did try for an absolute time and space against which to measure relativistic space and motion) that led to the general incapacity of modern Westerners to imagine as “real” anything that is not something you could rest your coffee cup on (or kick).

    Yet, the thoughtful or philosophical among Christians have always been uncomfortable with the modern notion that God or the soul are supposed to be “immaterial” entities that are divorced from the natural world. Yes, modern theists often do think of them this way, but this is because Descartes cut the mind or soul out of the material world and made it into a non-material thing, and created the “ghost” in the machine.

    Now Maria, you are brave and straight-forward and obviously doing some reading and thinking here, and I’m glad you joined us. Knowing Gavin and Hi, though, as I do, do you mind if I echo your remarks in a somewhat different manner?

    Also, may I say in passing — and this may be only my view and not Maria’s — that I think we theists would get further if we made it clear that in saying that “God creates” or “the soul is immortal” are not meant as naturalistic knowledge-claims. Theists bear witness to what they have come to believe on the basis of other disciplines and practices. These are things we say we “know” in the sense of having intimately experienced and/or of being committed to as a grounding hope. (The soul’s immortality, for example, is to me one of the most speculative of religious beliefs. The Jews in OT times generally didn’t have an afterlife in view. They worshipped Yahweh but in THIS life. It didn’t make them any less theistic. But the VALUE and PRECIOUSNESS of the soul is not speculative, because it is not about the unknowable future. It is experienced as a present reality, and as an ethical and esthetic commitment that is imposed upon anyone who desires to “imitate” God.)

    Okay, so Gavin asks, “name something God or a soul DOES.” But you mean, “Name something God or the soul does that I cannot account for in other ways, scientifically.”

    Remember, Gavin, that a scientific account is just that. It is a naturalistic account of something physically detectable in the world, according to the standards and methods of science.” You want physical causes or physical effects. But there are other causes and other accounts, depending on the discipline or the way of knowing you are working in.

    I want to say that God “does” everything that happens in nature and physics and chemistry and biology, but not as a physical cause-and-effect. That would make God either a mere part of the physical world, and else an absolute determiner of the physical world, so that it would have no independent life or being. Instead, God “does” it all, in the sense of giving to the world the capacities and potencies to unfold as it therefore can, and to do all the kinds of things that it therefore can do.

    And as it says in Genesis, or as Plato and Aristotle realized, the higher living creatures and especially this strange “speaking” and “thinking” creature that we are is “most like” that underlying immanence called potentiality or capacity, because we are capable of recognizing and thinking about and naming and re-enacting those unfolding laws and principles and kinds of things.

    In other words, I am thinking of the world as something that can move into the future on its own, based on inherent potentialities that shape what is possible but do not absolutely determine it. God is the name we use to refer to the nature of those potentialities as potentialities, and therefore the name of their source and their direction, even if those are internal to universe itself.

    Perhaps I should simply say that theists and pre-scientific thinkers all tend to see the universe as dynamic, not inert. And whatever it is in the cosmos and in living things and in history that keeps the patterned changes going and the developments developing and the processes processing and the “inert” elements being formed and the exploitations of every possibility for higher-order complexities exploited and evolution evolving, that is the indwelling divinity of the universe. And yet this divinity comes to us somehow as itself and not merely as the sum of all the separate processes. This is the fundamental human reaction to nature, and even the non-theistic scientists share it, as long as it isn’t called “God.”

    By the way, no matter how “personal” a God one worships, I think in our day something is missing if one does not have the god of the philosophers included in the notion of God. (Perhaps this is why the early and medieval Christian church was so much more profound in its thought than the modern churches tend to be.)

    So when Maria answers, “God creates.” And “a soul is the life-force of the body.” Then I want to say….

    … that Maria doesn’t mean that God creates in the sense of a physical cause or a physical law or mechanism “creating” a certain physical state. It is not a push-pull cause and effect like in Newtonian mechanics. It is something far more philosophical, and yet felt by people on a daily level. Sometimes it is said that God is the “condition of possibility” for these natural mechanisms to exist and operate, and that God is the “reason” that there is something rather than nothing. Science is getting waaay beyond its sphere of expertise when anyone in science claims that science speaks to these questions or is able to speak to them.

    Suppose that a mechanism for the Big Bang is found and we come to know that it occurred because of a whole series of other and preceding factors or suppose we come to find that it makes no sense to talk of a “before” the Big Bang (which was Augustine’s position) or some other scientific insight is arrived at 10 years or 1000 years from now. This will not do away with the basic philosophical questions and their cogency for human beings. It is wishful thinking for scientists to try to say that science will or science does do away with these questions. They are rational and inevitable. And I’m not going to be here in 1000 years and maybe not in 10. So I have to go with looking at all of the arts and sciences and all of my life journey and doing the best I honestly can to arrive at a worldview that I can keep faith with and that accords with my deepest knowing.

    Now part of my deepest knowing is the model of the scientific, and science is so beautiful to me that I don’t want any of those laws to be abridged or changed by any interventions. (I hate the idea of miracles, if you want to know the truth!!) But what I cannot get away from is the way those beautiful coherencies and those intricate emergences of higher-order complexities depend upon potentialities that lie within the natural world itself. What is im-manent — what “abides in” those empirical things — and at the same time “lies beyond” those things, is the most fundamental meaning of the term “God” for me, and in our Western tradition of thought.

    In other words, our cosmos has had the potentiality within itself from the beginning to bring forth all that it has brought forth and will bring forth, and that potentiality ITSELF is exactly what Aristotle meant by the word “form.” The potentiality is something separate from every single instance of it. There is something in this universe of which the universe is an instance and yet that is not the same as this universe itself. There is something unfolded in the history of this universe of which this universe’s history is only an instance, and that is not the same as the history of this universe.

    Folks, this is highly philosophical, what I just said. Only human beings (as far as we know) of living creatures in our universe can observe the “existence” of what I what just speaking about. I think this is why Heidegger said that we are the kind of being that “raises the question of the being of beings,” and by so doing, identify ourselves as the kind of being that we uniquely are.

    So I love Maria’s the soul is the life-force of the body. And the life-force of the body is clearly something different from the “stuff” that is left as the “body” without its life, because we have all seen the life leave the body, and the body is no longer a real and living body without it. (That doesn’t mean that the life-force exists forever, by the way, or even that the life can be life without its body. It is interesting that before Descartes, Westerners believed that angels, like all created beings, HAD to have bodies, even if the bodies were made of “ether” or some other more perfect composition. And all self-directing “bodies” had to have an indwelling formal element that held them together.)

    Now I am one of those who thinks that every single thing that happens in our consciousness has to be related to brain chemistry. The soul or mind or personality for me is not something detached from the brain. It is instead an emergent phenomenon that is entirely based on chemistry and physics but that has a complex “being” and an organization on its own level of being.

    One hundred years ago (Gavin) to say that everything in our minds was based on brain chemistry would have been to say that our minds are strictly determined by rigid laws of cause-and-effect. Scientific determinism raised those questions of free will that so occupied people in the Newtonian period. But now, as Dennett says, we see that, scientifically and naturalisticly speaking, “freedom evolves.” The more highly developed the consciousness of the kind of creature turns out to be, the more room for freedom has evolved in its mental determinations, beginning with moving away from danger and twoard prey and so forth.

    Maria, I think the notion of “dimensions” is quite different for a mathematician or a physicist than for most of the rest of us. Extra dimensions beyond the ones we normally perceive do not necessarily imply a mysteriously “other” world of being in nature. Perhaps I should apply this advice to myself too, as regards EPR non-locality. But I don’t want to find a mysterious other realm of being. I just want to be able to say that much of our cosmos is alive, and that what is not alive is nonetheless potently capable of exploiting the conditions for life. It may take 4 billion years, but the amino acids will get it together! And the hydrogen molecules had to have already condensed.

    I don’t see how science threatens the overwhelming reality of a universe that contains within itself potentialities such as we have seen and such as we have resulted from. To reduce this universe to a purely mechanistic model will not work any more, even if it seemed to (for some) in the 18th and 19th centuries. This universe has had direction from the beginning in the “form” of certain inherent potentialities, and it has evolved not only life but freedom and conscience. The anthropic principle cannot prove or disprove a creator God, or that our universe is a purposeful universe in a strictly religious sense. But it illustrates that we can no longer view this universe as an inert machine (as Dawkins knows).

    So like good little liberal arts students we move back-and-forth between these new-style physical sciences to the other disciplines for a renewed conversation between all of them about the most basic metaphysical issues. I think we are verging toward naming an indwelling determinacy that is neither a law of strict necessity nor a chaos of pure chance, but that leaps into a future from a presence that came out of the past. Aristotle called it a coherent wholeness, one that is based on “that which is possible, according either to probability or necessity.”

  9. Janet Says:

    Maria says: “We observe certain phenomenon or instances. We then try to create a form (mathematical equations) which we can use to reproduce an equivalent instance to the one observed. The form is validated when it can not only predict an equivalent instance but can be used to predict other observable instances. The laws of motion work for dropping balls from the tower of Pisa as well as the movement of the planets.”

    Yes. In my own work (off-line) I am trying to formalize what Maria is focusing on here in a way that works for all the ways of knowing. We often don’t see the importance of this form-al mediation because we tend to reduce it to our modern notion of “abstraction.” (Very 18th century!) In an earlier post, I tried talking about this instead under the name of “rehearsal.” (As soon as I get the software working, I’m going back to explaining the semiotic codes or normative principles we encounter with language and structures of language, by the way.)

    Hume changed everything in the West when he questioned “induction.” He pointed out that no matter how many instances we encounter, we cannot be SURE and CERTAIN that the next instance won’t be a counter-instance and destroy the general principle. So Hume realized that when we go from empirical instances to form-ality we are moving away from Descartes’ ABSOLUTE certainty. This required Kant to go to work to save induction and cause-and-effect, the other big formalization that Hume demolished.

    But look at how this Humean thinking is based on the requirement of absolute certainty. The very definition of “Knowledge” became after Hume “what we can know with absolute certainty.” None of our science today would survive this requirement, because we realize today that our knowing is always “open to the future.” In the future, we may revise or re-understand what we know today. (notice that the empirical is always something that is slipping away into the past. We are left thinking about its significance for the future!

    But Plato & Aristotle rightly thought that induction was a dynamic part of everyday life and every human learning, beginning with language. We wouldn’t know what a word meant if we had to be absolutely certain or if the word was tied down to a static one-to-one relationship to a “closed” meaning. Instead we develop a theoretical construct open to the future, for every word we learn. This is why poststructuralists are always talking about how problematic imposed closures (associated with the absolutism of the 18th century) are for the well-being of our knowing and being.

    Aistotle thought, contra Hume, that on occasion, even ONE instance could be enough for a form-al interpretation. (like the way we judge the other person on a date?) And most of the time, and in relation to most of the things we really, really need to know, we have to go with likelihood and probability and the hopes of acheiving a high degree of confidence, but not “absolute knowledge.” So why not just go back to the notion of ike (techne or episteme) of the Greeks, where an ike is an attempt to come to know better the formal characteristics of a kind of thing (or kind of process)? It will have exactly as much likelihood as the kind of thing itself allows, but it will still be a valid discipline of that kind of thing. (MAJOR assumption of Western education before the laws of motion installed absolute certainty as the norm for a real “science.”)

    And let’s particularly notice the role of time — and “the future” — here. When the Newtonian laws of motion became the BIG cultural paradigm for knowledge, it appeared that the future could be predicted absolutely by laws, and hence was determined. This didn’t hold up, even for the physical sciences, and Hi talks about this above. Atmospheric science uses deterministic laws and you cannot predict the weather with more than certain varying degrees of probability.

    For the Newtonian worldview (which of course is not the same as Newton), it looked like the future was only the current “actuality” all over again, repeating itself. But Aristotle — esp. in his literary theory but everywhere else as well — looked at it in this way. First, the past is no longer open. Once it has happened, it’s determined in the sense that it can’t be changed.

    But only a part of what happened (actuality) was because of ordered principles of causation. A lot of it was accidental or contingent “stuff” because various causations happened to intersect in a random manner. So Aristotle thought of predicting the future as taking what was coherently causal in the past and formalizing it and then projecting that formality into the possible future, knowing that we can’t be certain because of all the different causal processes and their random interferences. And because some causal processes are simply less deterministic than others by nature.

    THIS IS WHY EPISTEME IS FUNDAMENTAL TO KNOWING. Each kind of causation needs its own disciplinary community. We cannot know the whole world directly. We need to find coherent parts of the world (kinds of things) to formalize and we need to learn about formalization itself, first.

    But where do we step back and put all the ikes together and think about the whole of life and the whole of where everything is going? (It’s called “First Philosophy” or metaphysics and there is a discipline for it. Theologies are also inherently a kind of first philosophy.)

    There’s an existential core to each of our lives and we have a drive to achieve an integrated worldview and make some sense of things and also determine what kind of person we should be and how we should act (and how we get so we can act like that when we know we want to — the biggest problem of all).

    There’s no absolute certainty is THESE areas, the ones that finally matter the most. And you don’t make any progress by simply accepting a ready-made worldview or ideology or religion either, especially if it’s Christianity, because this faith is so counter-intuitive and demands so much thought work and so much willingness to ALWAYS scrutinize and overturn one’s assumptions. (You can try to resist this, but it always gets done for you, anyway.)

    Being a Christian is being called to a continuous inward revolution and requires the activity of the full mind and the whole person. Christianity is based upon the paradox that there is a fullness of truth toward which we aim our passion and we do experience it from time to time and try to chart our course by it, but we can never have in our finite and limited selves an adequate conception of the truth or what it means. The more we try to cling to and insist upon certainty, the more likely that the shells of our certainties will be overthrown to get us to a deeper truth.

  10. Janet Says:

    Let’s get back to the questions of the “existence” of:

    Hamlet (the character — but consider the play)
    John McCain
    the electron

    Note that with regard to “electron” the difference between “an electron” and “the electron.” Here’s that Form-al awareness Maria was talking about, entering into the picture. (Bertrand Russell had to spend 100+ pages on the meaning of “the” in his Principia Mathematica!)

    “An electron” usually refers to a particular instance of the electron, whereas “the electron” refers to the formal mode of being of the electron, as a theoretical construct (what Plato & Aristotle called a “logos,” a formal definition or account), the electron as a topic or a subject matter for formal inquiry. (The “eidetic,” as I am calling it in my off-line work, after Plato’s eidos or “Form” or Idea.)

    Sooo…. Let’s not dismiss Plato’s Forms too quickly to the barren wilderness or the realm of quantum woo…. Too often, they have been interpreted to suggest an otherworldly realm of pure Ideality, but in practice, in the dialogues Plato wrote 2400 years ago, they emerge as tentative or provisional idea(l)s of the topic, and then the Form is used, paradoxically (or dialectically), to critique or to call into question all of the current (received) ideas about the topic. (Experimental and reflective testing is built in to the notion of the eidetic or the Form-al. The naming of the kind of thing within a philosophical inquiry opens the space of inquiry by opposing the Form as the ideal reality to the theory so far, or to whatever we unreflectively may have supposed.)

    So, I’d like to say that the Form or the eidos is “The Putative Reality, As It Might Get To Be Known in the Future”! It is the practical and servicable goal of our quest, though we never reach it. It is the Ideal Answer that we strive toward but do not yet have in its entirety. And there’s no sense, with Plato or Aristotle, that our disciplinary knowing is useless unless or until we do arrive at ultimate knowledge. The search is substantial and makes progress, and that gives us the experiential contact with reality that we need as human beings. It seasons us and makes us committed to the search for truth.

    By the way, guess where the word “future” comes from? It comes from the Greek word physis, from which we get “physics.” It’s that active ending -sis added to the verb phuo that means to grow, bring forth, or give rise to. So again we see that what any discipline does is attend to what can be observed to have already happened and to be happening, in regard to a certain formal kind of thing and its process of coming-to-be, and then weed out the irrelevant noise and accidents and incidentals, and then formalize the potentialities that might have been in action there. Then, we will have the kind of episteme that enables us to make predictions about the future that are better than those of persons who do not have the episteme.

    It’s not the predicting itself that matters here, though it is fundamental to scientific method. Episteme is not so that we gain “control” of the future per se. Knowing, instead, is about assimilating the know-how or expertise or deeper understanding that gives the member of the ike the “power to know” — the power to know “how to do” certain things, and that involves being able to gauge what most likely might or will or would happen. The important thing here is that the knower is trying to follow something that has produced a pattern in the past — and follow it into the future.

    Remember Paul on how hard it is to dream up experiments to test new ideas? Harder than coming up with the ideas themselves? Science is inventive and creative, working along lines already laid down, and projecting them into a “future” that we MIGHT get to FROM HERE. This means that the Present must be viewed as being structured by formal organizations that can be hypothetically discerned from the past and projected into the future along the same principles. We are trying to move from the past into the future by assuming something that operated in the past (we think) and in the present (we think) will continue to operate (more or less, apart from accidental interferences and incidental complexities) in the future. We project our knowing as an expectation about the future that comes FROM the formal principles upon which we’ve come to think some of the stuff in the present and the past were based.

    All of this requires the use of what we moderns tend to call “imagination,” but Aristotle called “poietike,” a kind of “making” of a “fictive future” of what “would” happen, in the sense of what “might” happen IF, as we suppose, our analysis in (of) the past has indeed been moving in a fruitful direction. The Possible, or The Possible-Probable, of Aristotle is not confined to the worlds of art. (P.S. The imagination is a Romantic concept only 200 years old and a bit too free-wheeling to pull together science and the arts as ways of knowing, in my judgment.)

    Now, I want to remind us all that I insisted on adding to Gavin’s list of “things that exist” a couple more items (with a view to eventually discussing God and faith issues, as well as the liberal arts).

    So let’s add:
    John McCain
    the market (as in “the market sets the prices)

    “Summer” differs from the first three “things” because, unlike Hamlet, it is based more im-mediately upon empirical or physical observations and sensations and measurements of “it,” like “John McCain,” but we can’t just point to a “summer” sitting there as an entity in the empirical world. So it is like an “electron,” in that we have a theoretical construct to define something we have detected empirically, but it is unlike an electron in that it doesn’t have the same coherent wholeness or entity-ship.

    “Summer” has edges that are blurry, and different cultures may divide up the seasons somewhat differently, so it may be a local construct. On the other hand, there is certainly in nature a fairly regular recurrence and patterning in the swinging around and repetition of the seasons. Yet you cannot simply identify “summer” with its empirical measurements, as I’ll show, in part because what constitutes a summer (actual temperatures, weather) may be different in Alaska than in Maylasia, and yet we still speak of a summer in both cases. (This is exactly like the identity of phonemes or morphemes in language.)

    We CAN identify summer MOST coherently IN DIFFERENTIAL RELATIONSHIP TO THE OTHER SEASONS. “Seasons” is the fruitful category here, like a genus, and then we need the differentia that make the seasons differ from one another in each case….

    So finally “summer” as a “thing” is a theoretical construct that “exists” for us because we have defined it in relationship to other closely related things within a certain coherent context (the cycle of seasons). But is the existence of this “summer” out there in the actual empirical world? If there is no one to observe the patterns in the weather and compare and contrast them from year to year and name them in the common language so little toddlers begin to learn about “summer” and “winter” as theoretical constructs, then does “summer” exist empirically in the natural world? This is NOT a yes/no question!

    We can even say things like: “This was a very cool summer, hardly like a summer at all. More like late winter.” We are talking about and interacting with the natural world in these sentences, and we are also using the culturally prevalent constructions of all of that empirical data into the particular units or wholes that in our language and culture enable us to talk about the data on this more powerful formal level in meaningful terms.

    But when we say that the cool summer was not really a “summer” at all, what exactly do we mean by summer? The cool summer is an actual instance. The summer that it is not, is our idealized or typical summer in our minds (Plato’s Form), against which we measure each actual occurrence.

    So why don’t we just call this summer a winter if it “more like” a winter than a summer. You know why. We have a whole theoretically precise set of constructs in place, and as a result, just because the specific manifestations of this particular summer don’t resemble the formal identity of summer, it is still a summer. For us, in terms of interpreting the data…

    The identity of many “things” does not depend on their physical make-up so much as on the normative structures (based on physical instances) that we bring to evaluating them. (John McCain is a man, a senator, a POW….) With regard to linguistic units, this is so much the case that Saussure compares it to a game of chess, in which the formal rules remain and make the various “pieces” what they are. So you can replace a pawn or a rook with anything you want, a coin, say, and it is still a pawn or a rook so long as it differs from the other pieces enough for us to keep its identity straight.

    The “being a Pawn” — or the mode of being called a pawn — does not depend on any physical substance the pawn is made out of. But this is NOT saying that the identities of pawns or of summers are merely socially constructed. It is simply the case that we aren’t done defining them if we designate a piece of polished wood of a certain shape or a set of temperature ranges and weather patterns. Physical structures are involved at every level, but the identities are formal and relational (differential) identities. As every structuralist knows, a relationship is always also a contrast and an identity is also always a difference, because identities as regonized by human knowers are always defined within a coherence context and with reference to one another.

    Then, of course, Shakespeare’s Richard III says, “This is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York….” These are metaphors, not references to a “real” summer or “winter” at all, it would seem, and yet of course they are references to real summers! We wouldn’t even understand the metaphors if we didn’t have a form-al notion of “summer” based on many actual summers, in contrast to many actual winters, experienced and named by our speech community.

    For the Greeks, that hypothetical or normative Idea is the “Real” and the actual summer is merely one actual instance of that real thing…. It’s a very, very helpful contrast for us, this contrast between the empirically actual, which is always gone (into the past), and the Real-ity of the formal theoretical constructs which we human knowers come up with, to use as we seek a deeper understanding.

    But how in the world are we going to talk about the existence of “the market”? Where is it? (Like the Internet. It’s in our heads, and it’s Real, and it’s actual.) Here we have to start talking about invisible codes of “behavior” that connect all of the members of the economic community and “information” and “market forces” and these are not occult. They exist, if we can rely on observations, but the mode of their existence? I heard Alan Greenspan’s replacement say that if we could only figure out what causes “confidence” we could predict the market absolutely, but we can’t….

    These “names” are technical vocabulary and refer to things going on in the world. Their existence is clearly in the mode of the “Real” or Form-al or ideal “things” we’ve talked about, like “being a pawn,” and not the merely actual or physical objects, only these constructs are removed from the first-hand data by more layers of theoretical construct. (We don’t even know what the data we want is until we have some kind of theory going.)

    The big question in American academia the last 30 years or so has been, are the theoretical constructs in our heads also out there in the physical world? This is such a naive question. Only English speakers with our own tradition of reductive empiricism, from our “scientific” philosophy that valiantly struggled to model itself “logically” upon geometry, would think that if a thing is a construct that cannot be simply equated with a physical object, then “the construct” is “just socially constructed.”

    All human knowing is “constructed” knowing, esepcially in the sciences, with those constructions always, always based upon constant interaction with the world. The reason we don’t see this as self-evident is that we have forgotten that there is a difference between an actual “thing” and a “kind of thing,” even though we never ever perceive and know any actual thing without the theory of the kind of thing and the theory of its difference from and relationship to other kinds of things mediating our knowing of it.

    The very words in the lexicon of our language that we learn as we emerge as human persons in early childhood refer to the formal kindness of things, as we have learned to name them in the past (langue), and because they are formal constructs of that sort, therefore we can in the future use those form-al words to make specific references to instances of those kinds of things in the world, and in memory, in dream, in literature…. The formality of their identity enables us to transpose them into various realms that are realms of projected formal being….

  11. Gavin Says:


    I’m just going to pick one thing as an example. You say:

    God is the name we use to refer to the nature of those potentialities as potentialities, and therefore the name of their source and their direction, even if those are internal to universe itself.

    I am inclined to say, “Fine.” I personally don’t see any reason to personify those things, but if want to, that’s great.

    However, I run into trouble. My friend, Brent agrees with you but adds that God thinks homosexuality is an abomination. Then there’s Andrey who agrees with you and Brent, but also thinks that God has asked him to intimidate gays with physical violence, to the point of death.

    How can I be respectful of non-empirical knowledge in some cases, and then oppose these other ways of knowing in other cases. As an elder in the Presbyterian church I spent considerable time watching men and women argue about what God wanted us to be doing in bed. It was typically a He said He said debate with everyone quoting and interpreting passages from the bible. It had no connection, that I could see, to the world because it wasn’t based on anything empirical, and they got nowhere. If we had decided to work with empirical evidence, then the issue would have been rather easily resolved.

    Asking everyone to stick to empirical evidence seems to be the best way to make progress in debates about practically anything, which make me reluctant to say “fine” if you claim to have personal knowledge of some deity whose every action is undetectable.

  12. HI Says:

    Janet wrote:
    “I want to say that God “does” everything that happens in nature and physics and chemistry and biology, but not as a physical cause-and-effect.”
    “God is the name we use to refer to the nature of those potentialities as potentialities, and therefore the name of their source and their direction, even if those are internal to universe itself.”
    “This is the fundamental human reaction to nature, and even the non-theistic scientists share it, as long as it isn’t called “God.””

    But don’t you see exactly where non-theists have a problem with? Here you are talking as if God only means such “potentialities.” But of course that is not all what the God is to you and most theists. Don’t Christians use the words such as loving and caring to describe their god? And didn’t you confess how real that kind of God is to you? Why would you worship “potentialities” anyway? But the problem is that it is not self-evident that God that is loving and caring and God of “potentialities” or “the condition of possibility” are one and the same. (And I suspect that God of “potentialities” is not the primary motivation for the faith of most theists.)

    John McCain is a senator and a former POW at the same time. But a senator is not necessarily a former POW. We only know that John McCain is both a senator and a former POW, because we know that John McCain is a senator and we know that John McCain was a POW and we know that John McCain the senator and John McCain the former POW is the same person. Can you make a similar connection for God? It is more convenient to just to talk about the more philosophical concept of God, but that is not going to be enough.

    And even if we forget about your personal God of love and focus on the philosophical God, there still remains a question of how meaningful such a concept of God is. Read what Sean Carroll wrote.

    (Also, in a different thread on Cosmicvariance, someone called Ali made a following comment. I’m not sure if this is the same Ali who also comments on the thread above.
    “Speaking as a religious scholar, I think you’ll have to be careful about that first one, since in order to put forth any argument at all, you’ll have to very precisely define which conception of “God” you’ll be defending (there are so many, after all, not merely the American Protestant version). Some early Christian apologists, in an attempt to defend the existence of God according the principles of the Greek philosophical tradition with which they were familiar, ended up identifying “God” with existence itself. It would difficult to make a case against existence existing, after all. On the other hand, what you end up with is a tautology, albeit an interesting one.”

    This sounds similar to what you are attempting. Do you care to comment on that?)

    Regarding Wigner, I really don’t know much anything beyond what was written in popular science books or what you can find on internet. Among other things, Wigner proposed a thought experiment called “Wigner’s friend”, which is a variation of Schroedinger’s cat that essentially replaced the cat with a human (and the human doesn’t have to die unlike Schroedinger’s cat). It was supposed to illustrate the importance of a conscious observer in the measurement, but it seems to illustrate the flaw in his thinking to me.

  13. Maria Kirby Says:

    You said ‘that I think we theists would get further if we made it clear that in saying that “God creates” or “the soul is immortal” are not meant as naturalistic knowledge-claims’.

    Isn’t that exactly what Christians are claiming? The soul is immortal because we have empirical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, in a new eternal body?

    And we also know the Form of God because we know the Jesus who is the Word become flesh, the Form became an empirical experience?

  14. Janet Says:

    All of you are keeping ME on my toes!

    Maria, you point out something I badly need to clarify, and it is connected with all of our impasses about empirical and semiotic and so forth.

    I’m drafting a reply to everyone. Thanks!

  15. Janet Says:

    By the way, Hi, those links aren’t working for me. To Sean Carrol and Ali. Can you offer them again or name the posts to see at cosmicvariance? Thanks!

    Gavin, your links are truly horrifying. Thanks for alerting us.

  16. HI Says:


    Here are the links.

    Sean Carroll:
    “Please Tell Me What “God” Means”

    Comment #12 to “The Best Arguments for Things I Don’t Believe”

  17. Gavin Says:

    I was also going to recommend the post by Sean. It is at:

    I agree with him except for his use of the word “dishonest.”

  18. Janet Says:

    I just read Sean’s post and I am surprised at him — I think he is being incredibly reductive and narrow-minded. (His review of Dawkins was much better, imho.) And Ali, there is so much more to the discussion of “existence” than what this “religious scholar” refers to.

    If you scientific folks think that MY grasp of QM is not adequate, and I’ve done a lot of work there, then I have to say that to me these accounts of the theological, philosophical, and logical issues at stake surrounding “God” are not even kindergarten-level. And yet they don’t seem to recognize that they don’t know anything about what they are dismissing with their knock-down arguments; that there are intellectual worlds there of which they have no knowledge whatsoever, not to mention cultural, ethical, and daily worlds of which they apparently know nothing. It is as though they are color-blind or tone-deaf. Only what their own way of knowing illuminates, can “exist” or make a difference. Anything that other people might perceive or treasure simply doesn’t exist, because their little elite group has the only way of knowing, and anything else would complicate things too much. They are bound and determined in advance to know about nothing except what they want to know about.

    And I don’t buy this demonizing of the Christian rank-and-file as having no theological or philosophical sophistication. You can’t have a genuine experience of God without having those profound philosophical ramifications entering into your new experience of life. (It should go without saying that there are of course “Christians” who have had no genuine experience of God, and non-Christians who have had. The Bible is full of this — remember the Pharisees?)

    I will try again and reread that post tomorrow, but I am very sad. Sean speaks of a single world with a single way of knowing what’s what, and you guys agree with him? So what have we been talking about all this time? The very idea that so many people seem to think it is okay for Dawkins or anyone else to dismiss the very question of God as stupidity, without knowing any theology, makes me want to weep. If all YOU happen to know is the straw man that Dawkins attacks, then you simply are as uninformed as he is. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to reduce the whole thing to what you’ve encountered. This is prejudice and bigotry. Fanaticism always works like this.

    How is this insistence that there’s no content to faith in God any different from narrow-minded and fanatical Christians saying that evolution is wrong and blasphemous, when they don’t know the science or understand or credit the scientific method on its own terms?

    This kind of reductive and fanatical insistence that one way of knowing is the single obvious monolithic truth and that it speaks for itself and that everyone else is just dead wrong is just appalling. Asking other ways of knowing to justify themselves by the standards of your own field is deadly to thought and to any prospects for human peace and advancement.

    You cannot base an argument on ignorance. You may decide you don’t like religion and that YOU don’t WANT to know anything about it, but you can’t then dismiss it and claim to be able to close it off and dispose of it in advance as empty and void of truth or reality for anyone. That is simply fanaticism, and Dawkins is in this respect as simple-minded and fanatical as they come. He is blindingly ignorant of what it is that he is dismissing. He even says that his atheism is “a victimless crime” — that it hurts no one. (Not being an atheist, but his militant attacks on all religions and religious people.) He is living in a dream world. He is fomenting hatred and aggression against what many human beings hold to be their most precious possession. That isn’t hurting anyone? Militant attacks always hurt people. The militants themselves above all.

    Look, no one can tell me anything about the evils of religion that I don’t know first hand. But if you don’t know anything about its treasures and its depth and its meaningfulness and the daily goodness it has also supported, then how can you begin to make an evaluation of it? I don’t mind Dawkins disliking religion and he is entitled to his opinions. It is his claim that an entire rich dimension of human exploration and experience is worthless and empty and can be known to be worthless from outside, that qualifies him as a bigot. You cannot ignore the voices of human beings with other backgrounds and think that you don’t need to value their experiences and their insights — just because you know better than they do, in advance.

    What if we asked artists to “name one thing that art has done that makes a difference.” Or, “How would the universe be different without art?” Or music?

    What if we made it harder and asked, how would the universe be any different without government and politics? Just look at all the terrible things governments have done. Look at how destructive political fanaticism or ideologies have been? Let’s stop believing in it and it will go away.

    Everyone is trying to make the universe much simpler than it is. For a person to dismiss as nonsense something like the “condition of possibility” is simply ignorance. It’s pitiful, to anyone in those fields. Dawkins’ arguments do make you cringe, just like Terry Eagleton says, they are so sophomoric. It’s exactly like a Fundamentalist getting an easy laugh from the audience by ridiculing the idea that humans descended from apes. It is a pitiful spectacle to watch supposedly liberally educated people indulge themselves in demeaning and demonizing whole segments of the human race instead of attempting to understand them and hear them on their own terms.

    Depth experiences of God occur in all cultures, and in the biblical faiths, the experience of a “personal” God is simultaneous with the experience of an ultimate reality and with “the ground of existence” and the condition of possibility. These aren’t empty phrases pointing to nothing at all. Does me not knowing and understanding advanced elements of a field of science make that science empty and meaningless? Only if I think I can dismiss the work of other human beings in an arduous common enterprise, just because I haven’t been drawn to it or trained in it.

    Does that mean we accept everything that claims a religious basis (like gay-bashing) or a scientific basis (like experiments that cause unconscionable suffering to helpless dogs and cats and other higher animals) just because they claim to be religious or scientific? No. We have to keep on struggling to interpet and distinguish. It’s never easy.

    Gavin says we’re better off to simply “stick with the empirical,” and then we could settle things more easily, without the ambiguities of religion. It’s a nice hope, but I think that everything including science is pretty ambiguous ethically, and we are stuck in the middle of the whole mess having to struggle constantly with interpretations and decisions, individual and collective. We’re all in this together and demonizing each other isn’t helping. (Talk about “dishonest.” All these knee-jerk reactions and wholesale dismissals and sweeping assumptions that what is self-evident to me is therefore universally applicable to everyone, without even checking with the others first?)

    I hate it when Christians are self-righteous and reductive and judgmental, but it isn’t really any nicer to see it in atheists, either.

    If you “believe in God,” it is either because you have accepted a form of religion passed down to you, or because God has become unmistakably manifest to you, or both. In the latter cases, you don’t add up the “arguments” pro and con. You try to integrate the continuing reality of God with everything else you know, and that usually means finding a tradition that is capable of helping you to grow in your relationship with God.

    Because you feel incredible gratitude to God, and a profound sense of the sacredness and goodness of the sacred dimension in your life, religion can become a powerful force for good or evil, and it is just as liable to become distorted and destructive as a marriage or a family or a community or any other human institution is. One feels of course that God is on the side of health and fruitfulness in all of these cases. But for us to know the good, and then to do the good? That is always the problem. But we have an evolving tradition that is very rich and profound to guide us.

    I think that one of the differences that God makes is deeply inward. Genuine experience of God moves one into a journey of discovery in which you are just as foolish and intolerant as anyone else, but you aren’t left to your own resources. There’s an inexorable pressure to see through your own excuses eventually and become more humane. And there’s knowing and loving this incredibly suffering and loving presence…. I could say so much more, but I would have to do it by speaking of my own tradition and not so generally about the religious dimension in general.

    What does God see when God looks at the world — imagine this, as a thought experiment if you will. The Christian tradition says that God sees the spiritual suffering and struggle of the world, because God values that above all else. (The Jewish tradition, also.) And that the spiritual is not separated from the yearnings of the natural and the animal world as well. God looks inwardly and sees the inward heart of things and God values even the smallest increase in the kingdom of love. And God is broken by every violence that breaks any one of us. God suffers with us and in us and for us. There’s nothing easy here. Nothing snappy. Just something unbearably relevant and real.

  19. Janet Says:

    Gavin says: “How can I be respectful of non-empirical knowledge in some cases, and then oppose these other ways of knowing in other cases.”

    But you have to. You have to try to distinguish genuine ways of knowing from ones you cannot accept as genuine. You have to distinguish the Christian tradition from gay-bashing, for instance. You have to distinguish scientific knowing from the hideous torture of animals. You have to do the best you can, as thoughtfully as you can, and take your stand as best you can, but you can’t just throw out whole ways of knowing because they change, disagree, and sponsor terrible things.

    And here you are saying “non-empirical” again…. Anything that requires human observation over time is no longer strictly empirical, but a weaving together of empirical observations at different times into a construct that is both empirically based and that “exists” in human consciousness, language, and history. You are talking about a way of knowing that has as its ultimate arbiter the conformity of these constructions to experimental testing.

    Such a way of knowing cannot do ethics and perform in many other vital areas. It can help inform ethical decision-making, but it cannot make the decisions, because it isn’t designed to do that. How would empirical considerations settle the Presbyterian elders’ debates about what people should do in bed? It could inform the debate, but you would still need to make larger ethical arguments for how to interpret the scientific data in an ethical framework.

    The science on homosexuality did settle my own stance as a Christian on homosexuality, but that is only because I have a larger context of religious and ethical theory, i.e. that the Cross shows that nothing trumps divine love. Therefore, if people are born with different sexual orientations, and have no choice in the matter, as we now believe based on science, then I don’t believe Christ would condemn non-heterosexual persons to live without intimacy and physical love. But I’m not allowed to condemn and hate Christians who cannot, in good faith, come to this view of the matter. (I know some of them for whom this is tearing them apart. Great suffering here on all sides.) To me, we are in another period of historical change. We’ve gone through this with abolition of slavery, with Christians on both sides, and then again with women in ministry, and now we are going through it again with homosexuality. But I do have to oppose any hating and persecuting of other persons because of homosexuality (or for any other reason).

    The whole church will come around on this as it has on the other issues. We’re a species that is now evolving culturally as well as (or more than) genetically, but we still resist at every step the manifestations of a transcendent love and compassion that we also prize and adore above all else.

  20. Janet Says:

    I know many, many of the Greek Orthodox here in Seattle quite personally, because my Episcopal parish shared our building with a Greek Orthodox mission congregation until they were big enough to have their own building, but we are still very close, and I went to their larger gatherings, and more gentle and loving people you would never hope to meet. They took care of their elderly and adored their children and reached out to everyone — they were on fire with love. I can’t put it any other way. Their children would come home crying from second grade because little Evangelical children had told them they “weren’t really Christians.” When their tradition goes straight back to the early church. There isn’t much limit to our human pettiness and iniquity. And there isn’t much limit to those people’s love and the good that they do and are.
    Aren’t the sociological reasons for those Russian men’s looking for scapegoats pretty obvious? Sean Carroll’s review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is a sophisticated discussion of why we can’t attribute all evil by religious persons to religious factors.

    Also, folks, I’d like to add to the list of questions we’ve been building.

    What difference does innocence make?
    What difference does forgiveness make?
    What difference does vicarious sacrifice make?
    What does the figure of God on the Cross mean to the mothers of those who’ve been “disappeared” in South America, and does it make a difference for them that God’s son too was put to death as a criminal?

    This narrow rationalism is as thin as water. God takes on our flesh and our blood and speaks to us in our deepest sufferings and rebukes all our iniquities by taking them all on personally. (But I can also see how people who have been suffocated by the perversions of religion can find in science freedom and space and fresh air, while for me the scientific attitude was the source of great harm. This is where we need semiotic theory. Things take on their identity in large part from the surrounding system of associations and the rules we have in place, like summer from the other seasons and a pawn in chess. The “Christ-event” for one person might be a forest and for another romantic love and for another science itself. Maybe we should read Dante together here….)

    Don’t let the distortions fool you. The most powerful goods can be turned into the most powerful evils quite easily and it happens all the time. Humans are deeply irrational creatures, as well as deeply rational creatures, and we are in desperate need interventions on all levels of our being. Wow. This is turning into a lead-in to discussing Shusako Endo’s _Silence_! Starts tomorrow… on All Saints Day, in fact, as it happens.

  21. Gavin Says:


    As I said before, I agree with Sean except for his use of the word “dishonest.” You respond:

    If all YOU happen to know is the straw man that Dawkins attacks, then you simply are as uninformed as he is. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to reduce the whole thing to what you’ve encountered. This is prejudice and bigotry. Fanaticism always works like this.

    This passage stands out for its clarity, but mischaracterizations and insults continue throughout. I will not participate in a conversation like this.

    Good luck,

  22. Janet Says:

    I am very sad. You have been a wonderful conversation partner, Gavin.

    I was fresh from the lacerations I had just received from reading Sean’s piece and some of the comment thread. I should have waited until I was calmer.

    I wasn’t talking about you and Sean personally, Gavin. I was talking about this militant attack on religion as a way of thinking and viewing the world. I still believe it is as tragically narrow as the fundamentalist biblical literalists who are crusading against Darwin is.

    What about all of us in the middle? I hope you reconsider, but in any case, I’ll always treasure the conversation — and reread the QM parts!

    (Looks like I need to learn some spiritual lessons in humility from Shusaku Endo.)

  23. Maria Kirby Says:

    I would like to go back to your example of the reality of Hamlet as an example of semiotic knowledge and empirical knowledge. Hamlet as a play, as words written down, expresses certain ideas and concepts embedded in the character of Hamlet. When an actor performs Hamlet, he converts the semiotic knowledge into empirical knowledge. To the extent that the actor’s representation or characterization reflects accurately the semiotic knowledge of Hamlet, that semiotic knowledge becomes empirical to the actor and his audience.

    I believe the same is true for religious concepts, particularly our knowing God through Jesus. To the extent that we understand the semiotic knowledge expressed in the Bible about Jesus, to the extent that our semiotic knowledge is developed through philosophy, nature, or other means, we can convert that knowledge into empirical knowledge through how we behave towards others, through how we embody Christ, or Love, or forgiveness.

    It seems to me that one of the major themes in the Bible is that of transformation. God transforms evil into good. Forgiveness transforms enemies into friends. God’s love transforms us from dying or dead into living and alive. The resurrection transforms death into life. I see a similar phenomenon occurring in biological systems where DNA is torn apart, replicated, and restored. And in the process a new set of DNA is created and life is duplicated. Evil and death tear apart the present life. Forgiveness and love restores life, but its not a restoration to the previous conditions, its a restoration to new life, eternal life as seen (witnessed, empirically experienced) in the resurrection of Jesus.

    Because the new life that Jesus lived after the resurrection had a physical form, an empirical form, and because when we forgive each other we are converting the semiotic form that Jesus represents into an empirical form of earthly experience, I would like to think that we are also creating an eternal empirical form of an eternal life. It seems that many passages in the NT indicate that eternal life is something that we receive not only because God forgives us, but because we forgive others.

  24. Janet Says:

    Thanks, Maria. I have been working on a response to your emails which I’ll be able to post soon.

    And I’m posting on Shusaku Endo later today. Thanks everyone.

  25. Janet Says:

    That image of the DNA being torn apart and re-united with another “torn” DNA is a powerful image.

    “Except a seed fall into the ground and die,” right?

    Semiotics, word theory, is filled with deaths and rebirths within words, sustaining them. It is like Heidegger’s unconcealment (truth) and re-concealment being dialectically related.

    I think from a semiotics standpoint, I want to comment on the nature of both what you call semiotic knowledge and what you call empirical knowledge, though I certainly see what you mean. The two are much more inter-related than usually appears on the surface. It’s fascinating to remember that the “word” sustains even what we think of as empirical being. More on this soon. (I keep saying soon, but truly….)

    As for forgiveness, it’s forgiving oneself that is often most difficult, isn’t it? The intricate interrelationship between the present and the future is something I’ll be hitting on too, I hope. Thanks. More soon.

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