Science, Fantasy and Religion

by Mark English

Maybe I have read just one too many articles promoting the so-called simulation hypothesis. Maybe I have seen just one too many populist videos purportedly dealing with scientific topics but which, in order to maximize audience numbers, manage to leave all the hard and interesting stuff out and focus instead on presentational style (including colorful and virtually meaningless graphics) and half-baked ideas. In my opinion too much attention is given in the communication of science to a wider public to science-fictiony ideas and outlandish possibilities like mind-uploading or time travel and not enough to what we actually know about time, the brain, the sense of self, etc.. The lack of advanced mathematical training or theoretical knowledge in a potential audience does not mean that they don’t have a genuine and serious interest in big scientific questions, nor that they need to be motivated by gimmicks and popular culture references.

Not that there’s anything wrong with science fiction and fantasy, of course. But these are literary or cinematic genres and have (for the most part) zero or minimal hard science content. In other words – like general fiction – they tell us more about the state of our culture and (at their best) our moral preoccupations than about the nature of the world beyond these preoccupations.

Those who are interested in the sciences may have various motivations. At one extreme are those (often on the autism spectrum) who lack any deep sense of social reality but who are gifted in technical and sometimes mathematical matters. Typically they take a piecemeal, pragmatic and problem-solving approach to scientific questions. Those who have a strong sense of social and cultural realities may also take a pragmatic and problem-solving approach to scientific questions, effectively compartmentalizing various aspects of their lives and  not really looking to or expecting their scientific knowledge to influence in any significant way their general view of the world. And then there are those who, motivated by what has traditionally been referred to as a philosophical spirit, are driven in varying degrees to try to understand our place in nature and the human implications of what we know about the natural world.

Once such questions were dealt with mainly via theology and religious modes of understanding but progressively theological answers have lost credibility. Theological studies in the West incorporated secular disciplines like logic which eventually regained the freedom and independence they had had in the classical world. Empirical research, by contrast, was not encouraged, but technological and mathematical advances in the early modern era led to opportunities for observation and measurement which in turn allowed empirical science to progress rapidly and totally eclipse anything the Greeks had been able to achieve in this area.

Most educated people now accept without question that the sciences, which are typically driven by a melding of empirical and formal methods, represent the only solid body of knowledge that we have about fundamental, extra-cultural reality. But it is also widely accepted that the sciences are ill-equipped to answer many of the questions which religions traditionally addressed. Questions concerning cosmic purpose, for example, or transcendent values seem to be outside of science’s scope. Some see this as a mark of the limitations or even of the inadequacy of our science; others as suggestive of the fact that ultimate ‘why’ questions are ill-conceived and that transcendent values are a figment of our imaginations.

The simulation hypothesis got a significant boost in terms of its media profile and respectability by Nick Bostrom’s work. Bostrom is an author and futurist who has a PhD in philosophy and a background in a range of scientific disciplines. His probability-based philosophical argument about the simulation hypothesis was picked up by the mainstream media. I am not going to address the argument here except to point out that Bostrom makes at least two crucial assumptions. One of these assumptions relates to beliefs about the sorts of things which may be conscious. The argument does not get off the ground unless a particular position or orientation within the philosophy of mind is seen to be correct. Also, the argument does not take sufficient account (in my view) of the physical limits of computation and data storage.

The idea that what we see and experience is illusory has a long and distinguished history. It is also appealing in some ways, even comforting. If the world we know and experience is not the real world, then we may be led to take it less seriously. A burden of anxiety may be lifted. But at what cost? Any psychological benefits must be balanced against possible negative effects on our thought and behavior. Moreover, the truth or plausibility of the claims also need to be taken into account (unless you are a thoroughgoing pragmatist, of course).

The notion that we are living in a simulated world is barely comprehensible to me, and to the extent that it is comprehensible, it seems both clearly wrong and morally deleterious. I am more than open to the idea that the workings of nature can be seen in terms of computation and the cosmos as a quantum computer. But such a view does not entail the view that the realities we encounter are somehow not real, or less real than some other reality which lies (in some sense) behind them.

My main target is not the simulation hypothesis which I see as just one of many signs of a long-term cultural trend. I see the popularity of this idea as a symptom of a broader (and ultimately catastrophic) social, cultural and intellectual failure. The belief that we are living in a simulation seems to me to be in the same general category as, for example, the belief (very popular in the 1980’s) that aliens are amongst us. Both ideas belong to the science fiction genre; both found expression in iconic Hollywood movies; both ideas could be seen to operate in many ways as substitutes for religious beliefs; and both incorporate powerful god-figures. Both notions are also, I would say, pure fantasy without any compelling scientific justification or content.

My basic point is that we are seeing a drift to fantasy, not in the sense of the literature of fantasy and science fiction (which is as wholesome a product as any genre of literature), but in the sense of a growing tendency to believe that the world in which we live is more amenable to our thoughts and wishes than in fact it is. Institutions – such as traditional religions or mainstream science – which push against this trend and promote the idea that the scheme of things in which we find ourselves just is a certain way are increasingly being called into question. I see this general tendency to believe that one may somehow remold the world in one’s own image or as one sees fit as a symptom of a progressive infantilization of adult society. We have become infantilized just as, paradoxically, our children have come to behave as precocious and petulant little adults.

These are not the sorts of claims that could ever be definitively demonstrated but nor are they particularly eccentric. There have been suggestions by many others that a “new infantilism” has taken hold not only amongst millennials but also amongst writers, intellectuals and academics in the humanities and social sciences. Identity politics is closely associated with this phenomenon. Brian Leiter has talked about these matters in relation to trends in philosophy, for example. My point is in line with these critiques but my focus is a longer-term trend.

The relative eclipse of scientific ways of seeing things is a difficult phenomenon to pin down. The perceived status of science varies from time to time and from place to place. Though I am no defender of religion, I think we need to recognize the not-entirely-negative influence institutional religion has had on our ways of thinking, including attitudes to science; to recognize that, over the last several centuries at least, mainstream and traditional religious views have been less antagonistic to science than is popularly believed. Not only were the mainstream churches incubators of some of the most important intellectual tools and practices of Western science (logic in particular), as science progressed and made its mark on Western culture, the churches generally came to terms with – and even in some cases contributed significantly to (Jesuit astronomers, Gregor Mendel, etc.) – this new cultural force. It’s also worth noting here that one profoundly important form of scholarship which is closely aligned to scientific methods and modes of thinking, namely textual criticism, has long been embraced by religious scholars working on Biblical texts.

Government bureaucracies, the media and the education system clearly play crucial roles in determining a particular population’s attitudes to the arts and the sciences, and it is arguable that the strong emphasis on the importance of the arts (relative to science) which C.P. Snow famously identified and described in mid-20th-century England still manifests itself at elite levels of the general culture and in certain government and educational contexts.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Artistic and creative activities are an intrinsic part of human life. But this is not to say that an artistic focus cannot be distorted or overdone. The devil is in the detail.

Bearing in mind the various axes along which artistic matters may be approached (critically, or in terms of practice) or judged (self-indulgence versus rigor and discipline), and the various ends (political and other) to which artistic works may be put, the very notion of “the arts” as this term is used today could be seen as somewhat problematic. What  constitutes the arts, exactly? Anything and everything that claims to be?

And does a love of or an emphasis on the arts (however defined) entail a negative view of science and scientific ways of knowing? Of course not. Yet, as the arts have become increasingly organized, bureaucratized and politicized, anti-science sentiments within the arts and humanities seem to have become more pronounced. (Hardly a surprise when the issue is the notoriously zero-sum game of maximizing government funding.)

Although I can no longer embrace a Romantic aesthetic or the (basically Platonist) metaphysical assumptions underlying it, I understand and respect that point of view. But there are many forms and manifestations of Romanticism, and what we see today – more often than not – are hollowed out and debased forms incorporating various elements of contemporary popular culture, including faddish psychological and educational ideas. For one thing, the focus seems usually to be on the well-being and personal satisfaction of practitioners rather than on the quality of the product. The high ideals and convictions which drove the original Romantics are generally absent.

A while ago I came across an episode of an old Canadian TV panel discussion program called Fighting Words which seemed to me to represent a fascinating time capsule in a number of ways. For one thing, of the four panelists, two were philosophers – albeit very different kinds of philosopher. Max Black, who taught at Cornell and was at one point involved in anti-Vietnam War activities, had a background in the philosophy of mathematics and logic and was sympathetic to logical positivism. George Grant was, unlike Black, a deeply religious man and a political philosopher with conservative and idealist tendencies.

A clearly heartfelt claim by Grant about the noxious nature of the book, Peter Pan, the fantasy by J.M. Barrie about a boy who wouldn’t grow up, led to a brief but fascinating exchange. (It runs from the 3 minute mark in the linked video to about 4:30.) Twice Grant used the word ‘revolting’. Grant’s strong reaction puzzled me somewhat, but I think I understand now what was driving him: a sense that such fantasies both reflect and, to the extent that they are popular and influential, encourage a certain kind of childish, Romantic solipsism and undermine certain traditional assumptions about the essential (and basically positive) nature of civilization to which he was strongly committed.

One reason I mention the case of George Grant is to bring out the fact that a religious view of the world does not necessarily lead to the sort of infantilism to which I am drawing attention. Grant’s views are deeply rooted in classical and Christian traditions and so are very different from the sort of culturally shallow, ‘smorgasbord’ approaches to religion which are predominant today and which (in my opinion) feed into both the sentimentalization of social and political questions and the demonization of science.

Whereas modern spirituality is largely hostile to science, many mainstream religious traditions have evolved to the extent that they are entirely compatible with a scientific view of the natural world and also with a scientific approach to psychological, social and cultural phenomena.

I don’t want to play definitional games here, but just as ‘science’ can be understood in a narrow or (as I prefer) in a broader sense, so the word ‘religion’ can be used to signify very different things. Grant’s Christian-Platonism is very different from fundamentalist forms of religion. The former, of course, is far more sophisticated than the latter. But both are undoubtedly serious forms of religion.

Very different again are the sorts of historically and culturally untethered forms of spirituality which I alluded to above and which I see as symptomatic not only of social fragmentation but also – at least to the extent that they feed into a relativistic and anti-scientific outlook – of cultural decline.

27 Comments »

  1. I know this is just a blog post. but I would like some semblance of a quantitative argument. Where I come from, my lifestyle is dependent on technology of a high scientific order. The proportion of US jobs involving STEM ~20%. Is that less than 1957? Now I guess it is possible to be a technological barbarian say indulging a rich fantasy life on MMORPGs, but in my experience, scientists are keen consumers of such things, as also seems to the case for philosophers (consider just the SFnal thought experiments eg experience machines rather than lotos eating). And at the blue collar level, those who like hotted up cars often seem just as knowledgeable about overclocking.

    It’s true that hard SF seems to have fallen away compared to, say, urban fantasy in terms of book sales. But again the writers I like have always written both eg Heinlein from a couple of posts ago. And when I see Musk’s car on solar orbit, the fact is we live in that 1940’s science fictional future. If one peruses children’s TV, it is densely SFnal – seeming to cleave to the Soviet view of SF as an important children’s literature to inculcate an enthusiasm for science, as well as, since the 50s, to warn against technology-caused disaster. .

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  2. I’m 71 and I don’t recall the golden age of culture, from which we are declining. There is a natural tendency of course to see the time one was young, innocent, and full of promise as golden, but when I correct for that bias, I don’t see decline, though such things are almost impossible to measure.

    Most people have always believed a lot of rubbish. When I was young in the 50’s, almost everyone, except a couple of beatniks, believed more or less the same rubbish, which they got from pre-cable TV, AM radio (no FM back then) and the rather provincial local papers (no national circulation for the New York Times back then).

    Since then we’ve been bombarded with new sources of information and disinformation, internet, cable TV, international cable TV, increasing levels of education, more people traveling, etc. More people “think for themselves” then they did when I was a child, and as they say, “a little learning is a dangerous thing”. That is, when people begin to “think for themselves”, they tend to make a lot of mistakes, but one might hope that those with a little learning (or their children) will keep on educating themselves and finally, we’ll have a much more educated population.
    It probably takes at least a generation to form an educated person.

    The social fragmentation which you becry is simply the result of more people thinking for themselves, making lots of mistakes, but as I said above, the result might well be a mass with more ability to think critically than when I was a child.

    Yes, I know that they elected Trump, who is horrid, but aside from aesthetic considerations, is he any worse than Nixon as a president?

    Finally, I live in Chile and not the U.S., but every time I converse with young people (under 25), I am struck with how thoughtful (much more thoughtful than I and my friends were at that age) they are. So I don’t see cultural decline at all.

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  3. davidlduffy

    “… I would like some semblance of a quantitative argument.”

    To support which claim? Some of my historical claims and implicit claims about the nature or intrinsic value of civilization and of scientific knowledge are not amenable to quantitative treatment. Other claims – about anti-science attitudes – are based on my own experience and reading, but many others have made similar points. Most notably and most recently, perhaps, Steven Pinker.

    I did not reference Pinker’s latest book because I find much of his recent work vitiated by a kind of relentless, almost dogmatic optimism and some very dubious judgments. He seems to be tone deaf in respect of certain values-related issues. (Will elaborate if necessary.) His earlier, popular science writing (on language and the brain) was much better than his more recent pontifications and prescriptions, in my opinion.

    “Where I come from, my lifestyle is dependent on technology of a high scientific order. The proportion of US jobs involving STEM ~20%. Is that less than 1957?”

    I don’t know, but I am talking about attitudes. I mentioned C.P. Snow who was complaining about the bias against science amongst the British elite of the time. And, like Pinker (but note my disclaimer above), I am claiming that something similar still manifests itself at elite levels of the general culture and in certain government and educational contexts.

    “Now I guess it is possible to be a technological barbarian say indulging a rich fantasy life on MMORPGs, but in my experience, scientists are keen consumers of such things, as also seems to the case for philosophers (consider just the SFnal thought experiments eg experience machines rather than lotos eating). And at the blue collar level, those who like hotted up cars often seem just as knowledgeable about overclocking.”

    Nothing I said conflicts with your observations regarding scientists and SF and MMORPGs. On philosophers and philosophy, I must confess that I am not in sympathy with many of the SF-inspired thought experiments precisely because they are too detached from actual science.

    A number of your observations (e.g. the point about the way a knowledge of computing is spreading through certain segments of the “blue collar” population) are designed to challenge my view that as a culture we seem to be moving away from mainstream science. I say that in some respects we are. You say that in some respects we are not. We are both right.

    “It’s true that hard SF seems to have fallen away compared to, say, urban fantasy in terms of book sales.”

    And maybe this is telling us something about our culture.

    “… when I see Musk’s car on solar orbit, the fact is we live in that 1940’s science fictional future.”

    Not sure of the point you are making here. That much 1940s SF was scientifically informed? I don’t deny that much SF was/is attuned to technological trends etc..

    “If one peruses children’s TV, it is densely SFnal – seeming to cleave to the Soviet view of SF as an important children’s literature to inculcate an enthusiasm for science, as well as, since the 50s, to warn against technology-caused disaster…”

    As I said myself, at its best science fiction has a moral dimension. As to encouraging an enthusiasm for science, this is something I did not mention but I agree it has been a positive feature of much SF.

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  4. Mark: The idea that there is any kind of substantial, effective “bias against science” in our civilization is wildly off base. Our society is science-dominated, science-obsessed, science-worshiping, science-every-fucking-thing. Your invocation of CP Snow actually works against you, for Snow’s Rede lecture marks the point at which the decline of the liberal arts and humanities and the ascendancy of science, not just within the Academy, but across the society at large, began, the devastating legacy of which we are witnessing now.

    Also weird is the critique of science fiction, which, when considered in light of the work of its most prominent writers — Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov — also indicates a lack of familiarity or else a perspective sufficiently eccentric as to require explanation.

    That said, I think the essay is very good. The critique of pop-science fads like “mind uploading” and “the simulation hypothesis (sic)” is spot-on, as is the concern with the increasingly fantastical view of things that seems to be creeping into the public consciousness and exercising a silent takeover. As always, however, the attitude towards fine arts and the persistent, strange concern with “romanticism” strikes me as just being askew and indicative almost entirely of your predilections, with little connection to anything actually to do with arts as they are made or engaged with by most people.

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  5. Mark,
    well written essay, one with which I largely agree. However, I also am skeptical of claims of “cultural decline.” Cultural transitions – and what we are living through may be the most profound since WWI – can be said to constitute ‘decline’ or ‘progress’ only from a given perspective. I don’t like much of what is going on around me, but this may be eventually recognized as a necessary passage to some improvement. As the Doctor remarks at the end of Genesis of the Daleks, “I know also that out of their evil must come something good.”

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  6. I have had reason to wonder what it is about physicists and the simulation hypothesis, after watching a parade of celebrity physicists and cosmologists on television saying that, for all we know, we might be a simulation.

    It struck me as strange that a group so proud of the fact that their job is to describe reality are so ready to believe that they are not describing reality at all.

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  7. Hi Mark.

    https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/22427/ssoar-2008-1-allum_et_al-science_knowledge_and_attitudes_across.pdf;jsessionid=AAE227A15B09EC119BABD627A79BC552?sequence=1

    In this [“two cultures”] view, the shift from industrial to post-industrial society (Inglehart, 1990) is accompanied by changes in the relation between science, society and the public. At the industrial stage of development, science is idealized as the preferred route to economic expansion and social emancipation and the more citizens know about science, the more their attitudes conform to this stereotype. In post-industrial societies, science is taken for granted, knowledge becomes more specialized and a more skeptical and questioning public views science with greater suspicion, while expecting it to continue to deliver prosperity. In this situation, more knowledge can equally lead to greater skepticism as to optimism, due to the lack of a positive cultural stereotype for science. Operationalizing these concepts, Bauer et al. [1994] find a curvilinear relationship between the strength of the knowledge–attitude correlation at the country level, with a measure of gross domestic product (GDP). The correlation is lowest in countries that are most economically advanced and also in those countries that are least developed. High correlations are found for an intermediate group of European countries.

    I think this model is pretty close to what you are espousing. Allum et al then immediately undermine this saying the nonlinear relationship with GDP was only supported within Europe.

    As to the simulation hypothesis, it is “crazyist” in the terminology of Eric Schwitzgebel (who seems willing to put 1% credence onto the basket of all bizarre skeptical hypotheses, about the same, IIRC, that Dawkins assigns to religious hypotheses). And yet it is a different style from older metaphysical speculation in that it takes the tools of science and futurism to existing trends – more like a Drake equation, and with just as rubbery numbers.

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  8. s.wallerstein

    I value cultural continuity. We have lost a common culture which had survived more than 2000 years and the sense of historical perspective that inevitably went with it. How many high school children are learning the old languages from which their language derived? How many are being exposed to the writings of their cultural forebears, even relatively recent ones? How many children today are familiar with Greek myths or Aesop’s fables or the folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm? Something good has been lost, something that bound communities and generations and nations together.

    I don’t want to overemphasize the importance of these things but there was something there and it was basically good.

    Times change. I know you can’t turn the clock back. I too look to the future.

    You write: “I’m 71 and I don’t recall the golden age of culture, from which we are declining.”

    I spoke of decline. I did not speak of a golden age. And, by the way, my timeline is longer than the one you seem to be assuming. Peter Pan goes back over a hundred years.

    Yes, the information landscape has changed dramatically but an overabundance of information/misinformation does not necessarily lead to a better educated or more critical population.

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  9. Mark,

    I enjoy reading your wide ranging surveys of our dizzying culture. Inevitably, these are forays into the uncertain. Yet, you and I come from very different (Nietzschean) perspectives.

    I would caution against summarily discarding the simulation hypothesis, even though it is shrouded in hype and confusion. When it comes to describing reality I prefer to take the most parsimonious and coherent approach which, IMHO, boils down to a radical type of materialism or realism or physicalism or whatever other name can be applied to this approach ( – I think history is on my side in so far as it seems to suggest that all the fancy theories of the past are succumbing to new physical evidence).

    If materialism is correct, it necessarily follows that all of the supposedly nonmaterial aspects of our mind are ‘just’ simulations or representations. We are not close to an explanation of exactly how this works (i.e. it’s ineffable) but there is definite progress on all fronts. (See Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” and Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “How Emotions Are Made”)

    Culture would then be the ultimate simulation of simulations. And what a simulation, all happening inside my little 3 pound brain!

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  10. Mark English,

    How many high school kids really learned those subjects you mention back when they were taught in high school?

    I studied Latin (which you mention above) in high school for a few years. I cannot read a word of it today.

    Several years later, with a dictionary I taught myself to read French. Granted my scarce previous knowledge of Latin and my better knowledge of Spanish helped, but since I was motivated to learn French, I still read literature in French today 50 years later.

    My son Pablo got interested in Greek mythology (which you mention) as a boy. He didn’t learn it in school; quite the contrary, the liberating, subversive quality of Greek mythology attracted him. We bought some books on the subject and read them together. That was before internet, but today with a click you can find enough information on Greek mythology to keep you busy for the next 10 years.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. That is, back in the days when people were forced to study stuff they had no interest in in high school, they learned almost nothing. I recall nothing, absolutely nothing, of the chemistry or trigonometry I had to study. My time would have been better utilized starting the study of subjects that interested me and that still interest me today: philosophy, history, politics, etc.

    I grew up during the so-called Cold War. We were fed cliches by the media about how the Russians were bad and the Red Chinese were worse and we (the USA) were good and had God on our side and always defended Freedom. There were no other sources of information. Today they say we are beginning a second Cold War. However, with a click I can see Russian TV (in English) to see their side of the story, with another click I can see what the Europeans have to say, and while they all lie (including the U.S. media), little by little I can fill in the picture and have some vague idea of what is really going on, which I couldn’t have had in 1958. There are conflicting geopolitical interests (often disguised as ideological conflicts), there may be some genuine ideological conflicts, there are problems of confused signals between differing cultures, etc., etc. Naturally, with so much information and disinformation available, we all are going to make lots of mistakes, but isn’t that better than one political cultural in each nation blind to the realties of the other nations?

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  11. The thing is, I can’t see any distinction between the craziness status of Everettian Quantum Mechanics and the simulation hypothesis.

    The figures seem to be similarly rubbery when you probe for details, Carroll’s explanation of how the Born rule applies for example, and the answers you get when you ask whether there are infinitely many or finitely meany universes.

    Are there really universes in which I lean against a wall and tunnel into it? Are there universes where any combination of atoms that you can imagine happen, like one where the Moon really is made of cheese as Hawking suggests and insists he is being quite serious?

    Is the idea that there is a universe where the Moon is made of cheese really less crazy than the simulation idea? Certainly I don’t find it so.

    If we are to take this seriously then we should take the simulation hypothesis seriously. There is no computation problem with it because the kind of simulation required doesn’t need to be an entire universe simulation, only the bits that get observed. And it does not need to be a fine grained simulation, individual particles only need be modelled when they are directly observed. 99.99…% of the time we don’t.

    And the consciousness problem? Well we know that there is a physical system which can produce a conscious experience of an ostensible universe, so it does not matter that computationalism is false, the thing is physically feasible.

    So if there is a superposition of every possible multiverse, then there will certainly be such simulators and no possible probability calculation to tell us which one we are likely to be.

    So if you take the one crazy theory seriously, you have to take the other crazy theory seriously.

    If you don’t take the second crazy hypothesis seriously then you can’t take the first one seriously either.

    And yet we are expected to take the first one seriously on the basis that we shouldn’t expect our universe to make intuitive sense to us. Same goes for the second.

    Me, I don’t take either of them seriously.

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  12. Recall that Sean Carroll touted “Interstellar” as the most scientifically accurate SF movie ever made.

    This movie where little spaceships land and take off from planets like the shuttles in Star Trek, where a man falls into a black hole and his space ship breaks apart but he is just fine and floats around and finds an ingenious … well some may not have seen it yet, but suffice to say it is about as scientifically accurate as the Wizard of Oz.

    But Sean Carroll writes text books and is teaching some of the next generation of scientists.

    We have had this melding of science, celebrity and science fiction for a while but it has reached a stage where maybe infantilism is inevitable.

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  13. Hi Mark:

    A supplementary comment: I’d say our society is dominated by quasi-science. Not pseudo-science, but quasi-science, because everywhere we are trying to measure stuff as if that is the only way to get at the truth and we do so without stopping to ask whether the measurement is done well or badly. Jerry Z. Muller has a new book called “The Tyranny of Metrics” that spells out the argument.

    Universities now measure “performance” as if quantity trumps quality automatically. We all know it doesn’t, but we continue to act as if it does. Some other examples: cholesterol levels in health; CO2 emissions in ppm; global sea level rises in mms; daily Dow Jones index movements; Gini coefficients to measure “inequality”. No doubt these “metrics” are better than sheer opinion, but their significance is still a matter of good judgment.

    Thanks for the link to Leiter. I was led to read his interesting essay on “bourgeois Marxism” (“Why Marxism still does not need normative theory”). It contained this wonderful footnote quoting R.P. Wolff against Jon Elster:

    “A little reflection will remind us that all of the productive activities of human beings are collective in character, even those of the fabled Robinson Crusoe. All kinship interactions, sexual liaisons, all our activities of eating and warring, almost all religious activities and activities of artistic creation, reproduction, and appreciation, are collective in character. Voting, strikes, military campaigns, riots, cocktail parties, family vacations –all of these, on Elster’s view, are so improbable that we can barely understand how they might, on rare occasions, actually happen. Clearly, there is something badly wrong with a theory of society that concludes that the norm is so abnormal that it is almost never likely to occur!”

    Alan

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  14. Dan

    “The idea that there is any kind of substantial, effective “bias against science” in our civilization is wildly off base. Our society is science-dominated, science-obsessed, science-worshiping, science-every-fucking-thing.”

    As I said, the perceived nature and status of science varies from time to time and from place to place and is a difficult matter to pin down. The Enlightenment was followed by a whole series of reactions against technology and to some extent science, many of them explicitly associated with or obviously indebted to Romantic writers and Romantic ideas. But the story is complicated. I guess Comte was the first to try to make science into an actual religion with churches and hymns and rituals (église positiviste or Religion of Humanity). In France and elsewhere there was in the latter part of the 19th century a curious Enlightenment revival which rejected the facile political optimism of the philosophes and incorporated Romantic and Hegelian elements (e.g. Renan). Science as religion again, but without the churches and the rituals which Comte promoted. In England you had Herbert Spencer and others, and in Germany Ernst Haeckel’s ideas had a huge impact. This kind of ‘science’ is ideological, and so not really science. And it continues to this day in various forms. So what I see you as attacking (quite rightly) is an overreaching form of science, ideological science, science-as-religion rather than science itself.

    “Your invocation of CP Snow actually works against you, for Snow’s Rede lecture marks the point at which the decline of the liberal arts and humanities and the ascendancy of science, not just within the Academy, but across the society at large, began, the devastating legacy of which we are witnessing now.”

    Snow was basically talking about the old British educational system, I think, and its inordinate focus on the classics and on literature, contrasting it unfavorably with the German and US systems. But my point is that within certain influential social groups – especially those involved in the arts and education (including practitioners, teachers and bureaucrats) – negative, even slightly scornful, attitudes to a scientific outlook are still in evidence.

    “Also weird is the critique of science fiction, which, when considered in light of the work of its most prominent writers — Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov — also indicates a lack of familiarity or else a perspective sufficiently eccentric as to require explanation.”

    My knowledge of SF is mainly based on older books, movies and TV. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (via various media) were an essential part of my childhood.

    I was familiar with Clarke from the film 2001 and also from newspaper articles and interviews. I didn’t read his fiction. Heinlein I’ve never read. Nor Asimov’s fiction, though I no doubt saw some of his stories on the big and small screens. I read some of his non-fiction, and a novelization he wrote (a potboiler) of the film Fantastic Voyage.

    The sorts of things which impressed me most were SF films or stories which involved biological horrors: the original Alien movie, The Fly, or the flawed but fascinating 1977 film (based on the 1896 H.G. Wells novel) The Island of Dr Moreau. Also The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (book and film), and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil. Or for that matter Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (not normally classed as SF but in the same general space) which I knew and loved as a (short) novel and in various film versions.

    “That said, I think the essay is very good. The critique of pop-science fads like “mind uploading” and “the simulation hypothesis…” is spot-on, as is the concern with the increasingly fantastical view of things that seems to be creeping into the public consciousness and exercising a silent takeover.”

    Thanks. Our views on this are similar, I think.

    “As always, however, the attitude towards fine arts and the persistent, strange concern with “romanticism” strikes me as just being askew and indicative almost entirely of your predilections, with little connection to anything actually to do with arts as they are made or engaged with by most people.”

    I can’t help seeing ideas and attitudes in historical terms (i.e. in relation to their cultural origins and to the various changes and modifications which have occurred over time). And many assumptions about the arts and artists and more general topics which characterized the Romantic period are still alive and well. I am thinking particularly of Wordsworth’s belief that we are born with spiritual knowledge which fades as we grow up. Peter Pan derives from this. (Civilization as prison house.)

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  15. The simulation hypothesis is “backwards”, as is the mathematical universe hypothesis. (See Jeremy Butterfield’s rebuttal[1] to Tegmark). To be diabolical, one could claim that we are not simulations, but are assemblies, like those of “matter assembler” SF stories[2]. (I tried to write one of these SF stories a few years ago, but it’s very bad.)

    [1] https://plus.maths.org/content/world-made-maths
    [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_assembler#In_fiction

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  16. As far as Bostrom’s question (Do we live in a computer simulation?) is concerned, I think it misses the point.

    We actually do live in a physiological simulation. Consciousness is the result of matter becoming aware of itself (life). 4 Billion years later matter can now write about it. This is actually pretty mainstream human biology, albeit stated in a quirky way.

    The mistake that these philosophically minded mathematicians and engineers make is that they grossly underestimate the subtlety and beauty of living organisms.

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  17. ejwinner

    Thanks for the generally positive comment.

    “Cultural transitions – and what we are living through may be the most profound since WWI – can be said to constitute ‘decline’ or ‘progress’ only from a given perspective.”

    Agreed. These are *value-based* judgments.

    “I don’t like much of what is going on around me, but this may be eventually recognized as a necessary passage to some improvement. As the Doctor remarks at the end of Genesis of the Daleks, “I know also that out of their evil must come something good.” ”

    I was going to compare this kind of thinking to certain forms of theological (e.g. felix culpa) and even political thinking, but this, I realize, would be to misread the spirit and context of your remarks.

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  18. Liam

    Thanks.

    “I would caution against summarily discarding the simulation hypothesis, even though it is shrouded in hype and confusion. When it comes to describing reality I prefer to take the most parsimonious and coherent approach which, IMHO, boils down to a radical type of materialism or realism or physicalism or whatever other name can be applied to this approach ( – I think history is on my side in so far as it seems to suggest that all the fancy theories of the past are succumbing to new physical evidence).”

    Not sure what you are driving at here.

    “If materialism is correct, it necessarily follows that all of the supposedly nonmaterial aspects of our mind are ‘just’ simulations or representations. We are not close to an explanation of exactly how this works (i.e. it’s ineffable) but there is definite progress on all fronts. (See Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” and Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “How Emotions Are Made”).”

    I will have a look at these books.

    “Culture would then be the ultimate simulation of simulations. And what a simulation, all happening inside my little 3 pound brain!”

    I agree that culture is central in many ways and that its crucial role in human evolution and development has not always been fully appreciated.

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  19. s.wallerstein

    “… today with a click you can find enough information on Greek mythology to keep you busy for the next 10 years.”

    Yes but what matters is what people actually know, actually internalize. You encouraged your son to explore the Greek myths. If you don’t pick up the literary and historical elements of the culture in the home or at school, chances are you won’t pick them up at all.

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  20. Robin Herbert

    “Is the idea that there is a universe where the Moon is made of cheese really less crazy than the simulation idea? Certainly I don’t find it so.”

    I agree with you. But I don’t think serious versions of an Everettian many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics would entail a cheesy moon. I tend to be skeptical of an Everettian approach, but still have an open mind about it.

    My introduction to all this was via David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality. I was half-convinced at the time, but I thought (and still think) that his philosophizing about morality in the context of a multiverse was very unconvincing.

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