Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci discuss The Limits Of Science @ Het Denkgelag


Welcome everyone to this very special edition of ‘Het Denkgelag’. Apologies for the delay. We won’t keep you waiting for longer. I’m very honoured to be your host and moderator tonight. For those of you who don’t know us: we started out last year with a couple of episodes, very informal discussions actually, about science, philosophy, critical thinking, etc. Maybe on a slightly smaller scale than today… But we decided to move up to the next level. We are a little more ambitious. And we even decided to call this episode a ‘Royale’ edition. If you have a look at our distinguished panel here tonight, I think you will understand why we chose this slightly pompous title. We thought that with this concentration of brainpower, we might as well tackle some of the big issues, you know. This could equally have been called an episode about ‘life, the universe, and everything’.
– Oh, I know the answer to that one! – Right… Well, just try not to reveal the secret until we have calculated it… So before we go down into that rabbit hole, let me very briefly introduce our guests. Maybe they hardly need any introduction, but I’m gonna do it anyway. On the far side, the gentleman there who seems to know the answer to ‘life, the universe and everything’ is Prof. Dr. Massimo Pigliucci. He is the Head of the Philosophy Department at the City University of New York. He is a biologist turned philosopher, and depending on your perspective, he has either seen the light, or strayed into darkness. He’s a very prolific writer, as all three of our guests are. He wrote numerous books on evolution and intelligent design, various sorts of pseudo-science, on skepticism, the meaning of life, etc. His latest book…
– …’cause I know the answer… – …is called ‘Answers for Aristotle’, in which he explores how an alliance of science and philosophy, not just science, but science and philosophy, can make our lives more meaningful. In the middle is Prof. Daniel Dennett. He is a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University near Boston. He is famous for being one of the ‘Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse’, together with his new atheist colleagues: the biologist Richard Dawkins, the philosopher Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. He is arguably the most friendly, most amiable, of the four atheists, I think I can say so… – The softest… – Dare I say cuddly?
– He is very cuddly! He also wrote numerous books on evolution, philosophy of mind, consciousness, free will. He has an oeuvre that spans more than four decades. His most important work is maybe… Well, what is your most important work, Prof. Dennett? You were about to walk into a trap!
– ‘Consciousness Explained’, yeah… – Sorry?
– Probably ‘Consciousness Explained’… Right, Consciousness Explained. I think that’s a very good choice. As you wrote it of course… Who am I ? – If you say so…
Anyhow. His latest book provides an overview of his work and is titled ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.’ It’s translated into Dutch as ‘De gereedschapskist van ons denken’. Next to me is Prof. Lawrence Krauss. He is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He is the director of ‘The Origins Project’ at Arizona State University. He has also written numerous books, among them ‘The Physics of Star Trek’, ‘Quintessence’ and his latest book ‘A Universe from Nothing. Why there is something rather than nothing.’ He is also one of the two stars in a film documentary called ‘The Unbelievers’, which follows professor Krauss, and his atheist colleague Richard Dawkins, whom you may remember as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, around the world, spreading… Can I use the word ‘gospel’ here? …the ‘message’ of science and reason. Apologies for that, not ‘gospel’.
Just to kick things off, I’m going to tell a little story from Greek mythology. According to the Greeks, there was a message written above the pillars of Gibraltar. It was written by the hero Hercules. It served as a warning to sailors and navigators not to venture beyond that point, which marked the edge of, at least the known world at that point. In Latin, the phrase is: “nec plus ultra” or “non plus ultra”. It translates roughly as “No further beyond. This is the end of the world”. – Those Greeks really knew their Latin…. Yeah right, I was looking for the Greek phrase, I don’t know. Blame it on Wikipedia. I haven’t written these notes myself. I have an autocue. Later on, the opposite of the phrase, ‘plus ultra’, again quite impressive for those Greeks, was adopted centuries later as the national motto of Spain. And it was actually, as you can tell, it was an invitation, in defiance of the ancient wisdom, to go further, to explore new territories, which was of course after the discovery of the New World.
– To boldly go…
– To boldly go where no man has gone before. Right, and you don’t have to be afraid of monsters and sea dragons. You don’t have to be afraid to be swallowed up into the pits of hell. Just go as far as you can and see where you end up. Charles V by the way actually was born here in Ghent, and this brings us right back to the debate. You probably know what I’m getting at, where this is going. So I’m going to put this open question to all of you. Do you think that there is a ‘nec plus ultra’ in science? Do you think that science has limits? Do you think it’s dangerous for science to venture beyond the point where it is not allowed to go? I don’t know who is willing to go first…
– Let the scientist go first, right?
– I was gonna say you go first. – All right, fine.
– We’ll go this way. You guys were introduced first. Sure. I hate the phrase ‘limits of science’ because it is so often misinterpreted. As if there were really a sign post saying “Sorry, you’re allowed to get here but not beyond.” But it depends on what you mean by the phrase, right? Clearly there are limits to science because science is a human activity, and human beings have limited epistemic capabilities. We can understand certain things, and I’m sure there are certain things we’re not going to be able to understand. Even if we were smart enough, there are certainly things we don’t have or we’re not going to have enough information to figure out. So in that sense, certainly there are limits to science. So that’s one sense in which it’s true. But it’s no comfort to, you know, theologians or mystics, or woo-woo thinkers of any sort. It’s not a sign post. The other sense in which I think there may be a limit to science, and that may be a little more controversial tonight, is that I think that science is a particular type of epistemic activity, a particular way of getting to know things. In particular, it’s the best way we figured out, to know about how the world works. But as such, as a human activity, it does have certain domains of applications, where it does very well. And it has domains of applications where it does a little less well, and it has domains of applications where it frankly doesn’t really matter that much.
– Now it gets interesting…
– Right… – So that is a limit of science? – In that sense. In the sense that it’s… You know, science is a set of tools, and since not all problems are amenable to the same kind of tools, then there are certain things that you really don’t want to do using a hammer because they are not nailed.
– Professor Krauss, do you agree? – Well, in many ways I agree. In fact, it’s sort of unfortunate it’s called a debate. I think people will be upset, because there won’t be so much disagreement. I was saying to Dan in the car…
– We’ll see about that.
– We’re just beginning! ….that we’re all reasonable. We’re all reasonable people on this stage, and how can any reasonable person disagree with me and Dan?
– Never happened before! But, certainly, there are limits to science. As an empiricist, which is what I am… Empirically there are limits to what science can do. In fact, in my own field cosmology, there are clearly limits because, we have one universe to observe. And most of us live in that universe, the Republican party in my country doesn’t, but therefore, because of that, there may be many universes, and therefore there is obviously, in some real physical sense, a limited domain over which we can explore. And that’s the key point. It’s not just tools. Every academic discipline uses tools, and in some ways they are not that different. But the key part of what makes science ‘science’, and what makes it work, is that it’s based on empirical evidence. So, rational thought applied to empirical evidence. And therefore, if you can’t measure it, even in principle… I mean there’s a lot of things we can’t measure that we can talk about. As a theoretical physicist, I think about things a lot, a lot of things we can’t measure right now. But, if you can’t ever measure it in principle, then science really has nothing to say about it. I would argue that anything else you tend to say about it, is not worth much either. But it’s certainly a fact that science generally can’t address it if you can’t measure it in principle. And that’s of fundamental importance, I think, and we forget that. So I think, the difference that I would say is that I don’t know what the ultimate limits of science are. There are limits now, and there are many areas where science has very little to say right now. But can I say that it will never have anything to say about it? Absolutely not, there is a huge difference between what’s unknowable and what’s not known. And so, the only way you can find out if science has anything to say about it, is try. And if it has something useful to say, that makes predictions, which agree with experiments, then you can make progress. But you could try it, and it might not work. An example might be sociology, where they tried to use the language of physics to apply to societies, and it was far too premature, too complex. And consciousness… as I was telling Dan, I did physics because it’s easy. If I wanted to do the hard stuff, I’d do consciousness. – Right. Am I right that… You say that even if there are limits to science, and we may never know, then that doesn’t provide any comfort to people advocating other ways of knowing. If science has limits, then maybe that’s a general limit… – Let me say something that Massimo may jump on, just for the purpose of entertainment: I don’t think there are other ways of knowing. If you talk about what knowing is: other ways of knowing are an illusion in my opinion.
– Right.
– That ultimately if you think about what you know, it doesn’t come by revelation. It ultimately comes from some empirical basis. And of course you can reflect on it, and think about it, and learn things based on that reflection. But it ultimately comes down to what you can measure. And therefore I don’t think there are other ways of knowing. – You’re an empiricist. – Professor Dennett, is it right that every knowledge is derived from empirical evidence? That this is the sole source of knowledge, or…?
– Well, I would say no because I think there’s a lot of mathematical knowledge. And I don’t think that mathematical knowledge is based on empirical facts. Formal systems… Mathematical knowledge is inspired by empirical issues. After all, just think what ‘geometry’ means. It means measuring the earth. But once you’ve got geometry, you have non-Euclidian geometries and other sorts of geometries. – But don’t you think… I mean a proof is an empirical piece of work, I mean. – No.
– It is… You can ask if it’s consistent with what you know already. There’s an important empirical side which I think is often underestimated. And this came out like a ton of bricks for me when I saw a wonderful documentary that was done on Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. And here were these number theorists trying to explain it to the general public, and to people like me, who are no number theorists. And what hit me was: oh, first of all, not only would I not know whether Wiles had proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Wiles wouldn’t know whether he had proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, until, and this is basically the sociological or social fact, until his peers, his fellow experts in mathematics, reluctantly, and contra their own interest – they would love to win the glory – say: he’s got it! And it’s only when the consensus among mathematicians is: ‘he did it’. That’s the first time anybody has any confidence that the proof is actually sound. That’s true, but I think that we should be careful here. I’m going to follow up on Dan’s comment on mathematics, which is one example. Logic of course is another one, and they’re closely related for obvious reasons. I think we need to be careful about how we use words like ‘science’, or empirical evidence and so forth. Because, yes, if you expand empirical evidence to, say, including the cross-checking of proofs, then pretty much everything that deals with language becomes empirical.
– Even theology would become empirical.
Yeah, exactly. But I think that that is in some sense cheating, because when people think of science, and even when most scientists think of science, that’s not what they’re thinking about. What you’re thinking about when you talk about science, we’re talking about the way in which normally physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and so on works. Systematic observations, controlled experiments, that sort of stuff. Now if you limit science to that kind of view, then it seems to me clear that mathematics has very little to do, or logic has very little to do with it. It certainly has implications for science, it certainly gets its inspirations occasionally from science, but a lot of mathematics and logic work is entirely independent. – It’s semantics! I think I agree with you that it’s semantic difference. For me, science is obviously much more expansive. Because ultimately mathematics, I mean mathematics is a language. It isn’t knowledge, by the way, it’s a language. And it doesn’t, it’s not the world, it’s a model of the world. And it doesn’t describe the world exactly. It’s a model of the world, it’s the best model we have, but there’s no mathematics that exactly describes the world at all levels. So even that, even if people think that somehow mathematics is an ultimate description of reality, it isn’t. There’s no mathematical formula that describes the universe at all scales. But nevertheless, when Wiles or his colleagues are trying to determine if it’s true, what they’re ultimately doing, is seeing if it’s consistent with things they know to be true, and ultimately those things come from a set of axioms which are in some sense empirical. My view is: science is really empiricism, and my view of empiricism is very broad. So we can disagree about whether my definition is your definition but I think when we deconstruct that, we’d probably agree.
– So it’s partly a semantic issue. But maybe, before we go any further, I had the idea of checking with the audience, now that they have a sense of your initial position, and also some semantic clarification. I think it’s time to ask the audience. If we phrase it like this: “Do you think that science is the sole source of knowing?” If there are philosophers in the room… – Abstain!
– … you have to ignore semantics for a while. In Dutch: “Wie denkt dat wetenschap de enige bron van kennis is?” Let’s just raise hands and see. Don’t be shy, even if you don’t really know what the question is about. Nobody’s gonna check if you really thought it through.
– Where’s the house lights? That’s empiricism! So, and who thinks that beside science, there are other ways of knowing? (in Dutch): “Wie denkt dat er naast wetenschap nog andere kenvormen zijn?” I think that a majority of people, if I’m correct, is in favor of the view that science rules supreme. So, do we have some work to do, Prof. Pigliucci?
– That’s too bad. Let’s get to work! – Just to get a little more specific, let’s jump to one of our…
– I’m sorry. Dan was about to comment on the last thing that Lawrence said about the expansive definition of science.
– Right. Do you have a short comment to make? – Yeah. I think that your definition as empiricism raises some semantic problems…
– Yeah, semantic problems…
So, for instance, I think you know that there is no largest prime, I think you know that two plus two is four, I think you know that interior angles of a Euclidean triangle add up to two right angles. – Those are based on empirical… No, I do on the basis of empirical evidence… I know there’s no largest prime because the proof of the largest primes relies on things I can see, work with and manipulate. – Then you see you ARE using the very point I was making about using basically social facts about what mathematicians agree on, and…
– It’s not… I don’t care who told me the facts. The numbers are there. It doesn’t matter whether they were white males or… – No, if there was a coven of mathematicians in… Utah,
– There probably is… – Yeah, there probably is… And they claim to have proved the ABC conjecture. You’d probably think: ‘Not likely’. – No, I tend to think ‘not likely’ whenever I read anything anyone says. My first response is: convince me. And I’m sure it’s your first response, I hope…
– Well… – Speaking of things that are not likely. Let’s talk about god… – Do we have to? Can’t we talk about knowledge, or reality, or something? – Just to get it over with. As soon as we have dealt with god we can move on to less frivolous matters, more weighty subjects. Let’s just…
– I’m sorry, you’re asking three atheists. You understand that? – Well, last time we checked, as you say, none of you have any religious faith. – This was before dinner…
– I think… – I don’t have faith in anything…
– The question is: do you think that science, no matter how you define it, or maybe it depends, has disproven or refuted god’s existence? Do you think that god is a scientific hypothesis?
– You can’t disprove an improvable hypothesis… – But you can render it, so preposterously unlikely, that anybody who still takes it seriously has a serious problem. – That’s really important, and science has definitely done that. But there are different levels, and you know, some people in the audience may be spiritual and say ‘Oh I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual’. I never know what that means. But there are people who would say: ‘I think there’s some purpose to the universe. I don’t believe in any world religion, but there’s some purpose. That, I think, is an overstatement, to say that there is none. What we can say is that there is absolutely no evidence of purpose to the universe. But what we can say, and what I think is really important, is that science is inconsistent with every religion in the world. That every organized religion based on scripture and doctrine is inconsistent with science. So they’re all garbage and nonsense. That you can say with definitive authority. I don’t like to use the word authority. But the idea of purpose… All I can say is: there is no evidence for it and every bit of evidence suggests that it isn’t there, but you know… – I’m gonna go even a little further, if possible… Dan did a perfectly good job in demolishing the whole thing, but you can go even further. I get nervous whenever I hear people talking about ‘the god hypothesis’. Because I think that’s conceding too much. – It’s a concept that Richard Dawkins uses…
– Well, it seems to me, in order to talk about a hypothesis, you really have to have something fairly well articulated, coherent, that makes predictions that are actually falsifiable. All that sort of stuff. And concepts of god, first of all, are heterogeneous. Let’s not forget, it’s not like all people on earth believe in a particular kind of god. There is all sorts of stuff out there. But all these concepts are incoherent, badly put together, if put together at all. So, to say that science defeats the god hypothesis is actually even to give too much to the concept of god. There is nothing to defeat there. It’s an incoherent, badly articulated concept. Why do you use a sledgehammer to demolish it?
– When you refuse to think, you call it god. – But that does bring me back, if you don’t mind, to the issue of semantics, because of course, it depends on what you mean by god. It’s part of the answer, right?
– Let me put it another way. Can you think of any empirical, scientific, solid evidence that would convince you of the existence of some supernatural creator we could call god? If he would just burst through the roof here, and point at the three of you and say: “Stop spreading this nonsense”.
– Now THAT I would think is the beer or the whisky talking… That wouldn’t do it. No, there’s plenty of things that would do it. We go out at night and all of a sudden the stars are rearranged and say: “You suckers, you better believe”. – In Aramaic, only in Aramaic, when I believe it…
– Yes. And everybody can see them, not just me. Then I go back to the whisky hypothesis. But actually there’s more interesting ways of doing it. I just read recently a sci-fi novel. I tend to think of good science fiction as thought experiments, like thought experiments in philosophy. And this one is called ‘Calculating God’. And it’s about an alien that comes down to earth and asks to see a palaeontologist. And the guy looks like an arachnid, so he’s invertebrate. The museum guard doesn’t get that it’s a natural alien. He thinks it’s a joke and plays along, and he says: “Well, would you like a vertebrate or an invertebrate paleontologist?” And the alien is puzzled and it says: “Well, I thought that the only paleontologists on earth were humans, so he must be a vertebrate”. So he gets to talk to the palaeontologist. It turns out that the alien has very very solid and very good empirical evidence across a bunch of different traces that there is in fact such a thing as an intelligent designer of the cosmos. So the rest of the novel explores how these scientists react to that thing. That situation is unlikely, but it is possible. – If there was nothing that could possibly convince you, maybe that’s worrisome, because if there’s nothing that can convince you, it almost sounds like faith.
– The thing that as a philosopher would bother you about that, I think, would be… – I’m curious.
– The fundamental problem with that picture is that intelligent design implies there’s an intelligent designer. Then of course that implies the intelligent designer is more complex than the thing the intelligent designer is designing. And then it becomes an infinite regression. Who designed the intelligent designer?
That’s the real logical problem.
– Although, to be honest I always found that question
a little bit disingenuous when it’s asked by atheists. Yes of course, that would be an obvious question, but so what? I mean, if we really had convincing evidence of intelligent design, then sure. – We could have convincing evidence…
– It wouldn’t be evidence for God. It would be evidence for really smart people in another galaxy that designed our stuff. It could be Francis Crick’s panspermia, but an organized panspermia, where you decide, like that awful movie ‘Prometheus’, where you want to see the earth with…
– Or the big programmer in the sky. We’re all part of a big simulation and somebody else has started the game.
– Professor Dennett, do you think that you can only think of evidence for a hyper intelligent alien race, and not so much for a god, a deity? Maybe you always have this thought in the back of your mind: ‘Wait a minute, there’s this thing about infinite regress”. – What do you mean by ‘god’? You mean someone who can suspend the laws of nature? – Somebody outside the universe, supernatural.
– The trouble is that if, by definition, god is not just an intelligent designer, but supernatural, then I don’t think we can ever have really… well. No, I’m gonna back off and say: I can conjure up bizarre fantasies which, if that happened, would impress me tremendously. Yeah, I’ll make one up on the spot, okay? Somebody shows up, I don’t care what he looks like, and he says: “If you drill down 2 miles deep into the mantle of such and such a place on earth, exactly this location, you will find down there a golden plate – I’m gonna borrow from…
– Mormons… – …from Joseph Smith. You’ll find a golden plate. And on it is written the genome of Craig Venter. First of all, we can not imagine a natural way that that gold plate could get down there, 2 miles under the earth, and sure enough we do it and it comes up. Something like that would shiver my timbers… – Well, you hit on a key point, and I think it’s really important. This is the reason that knowledge is empirical. You cannot imagine it. And we have to be very careful as scientists to say ‘we can not imagine something’. Because then when we observe it, we have to try and understand if there is any imaginable way… before we attribute it to the most exotic possibility. We have to see if there’s a far less exotic possibility that could explain it. And we are obligated to do that. It’s true not just for something that crazy. When we see a peak at the Large Hadron Collider, we are obligated to examine every more mundane possibility before we say we discovered a new elementary particle. And that’s the fact that you want to disprove the very hypothesis that you’re hoping for, is what makes science different than religion. One of the many things! – I don’t want to agree too much, but I’m going to bring in another sci-fi scenario in favour of what Lawrence just said. So I’m a Star Trek fan.
– Great, I get extra money for that… I read your book actually. One of the episodes of The Next Generation that is most pertinent to this discussion is called ‘The Devil’s Due’. And it’s a situation where The Enterprise happened to be orbiting a planet where people are scared out of their wits because the devil has come back to claim her due. It’s a female. Of course it’s a woman… Of course, Captain Picard doesn’t buy for a second that this woman really is the devil although apparently she can do miraculous things. She can conjure up earthquakes on a whim, she can appear and disappear from one side to another of the planet. Of course, by the end of the episode it turns out sure enough she was just a trickster. She’s using a series of highly technologically sophisticated tricks, but that’s what it is, right? And that is the problem: that, even though it’s conceivable that there can be an intelligent designer that is in fact truly supernatural, meaning that he or she can actually act outside or suspend the laws of nature. It’s much harder to imagine what set of circumstances would truly convince us of that, because you’ll always have the suspicion that “you know what, I just don’t know enough about the stuff”. It could be that it’s The Enterprise out there doing it.
– It’s very difficult to rule out alternative natural explanations… – Well, that takes us back to the subject, the limits of science. Because one of the biggest misunderstandings of science is that scientific revolutions do away with everything that went before. That’s not how science works. What has satisfied the test of experiment, will always work. Newton’s laws have been supplanted by general relativity. But if you want to throw a baseball, a million years from now, that ball will be described by Newton’s laws, because it survives the test of experiment. We’ll learn things that will change our fundamental understanding, the base of it, but they’ll never contradict Newton’s laws. So it is true that at the limits of our knowledge, anything may be possible. And we can’t presume, when we see something strange, to say it’s supernatural or natural. But if it violates things that have been tested over and over again, the basis of science, then it would be much more implausible that it’s new physics. If you let a ball go, and it fell up instead of down, that would be a much more… So it’s not the edges, it’s not the exotic stuff. It’s the really basic stuff that you can be pretty confident about. – Let’s move on to a different topic. Yeah, finally… Another possible limit of science is the idea that science can teach us about the empirical facts, as all of you agree, but not about what we ought to do. Not about how we should behave. Not about ethics. So, professor Krauss, let me start with you. Do you think that science, single-handedly, without the help of other ways of knowing, can tell us how we should behave?
– Yeah, I do. But I’m gonna use my expansive definition of science. The point is: we cannot even ask the question how we should behave until we know what the consequences of our actions are, very first. The only way to know the consequences of our actions is science, namely empirical observations so you can see the consequences. You know, if you hit someone with an axe on the head, are they gonna die? So before you can make any judgement, you have to know the consequences of their actions. So that’s the first step. Without science, you can’t possibly have an ethics or a morals. Morals is a word that I’m much less enthusiastic about.
– So that would be the weaker claim. – That’s the first level. But I would argue that after that…
– That’s already going too far, but anyway… – Ok, ok. After that, what we do, we ultimately make rational decisions. I know that we are governed by emotional responses, and all the rest. Although ultimately I think science will help us understand those emotional responses. Neuroscience will, it doesn’t yet. So I think ultimately most of the people who make ethical decisions, make ethical decisions based on a set of premises which are generally rational. So I think rational thought applied to empirical evidence, is what I call science. Certainly, you don’t get your ethics from a book of revelations. You get it either from some genetic predisposition, if there are evolutionary bases of certain responses. But science will help us understand those. Or from some rational decision making. Ultimately, the whole question of ethics comes down to scientific questions, yeah. – Right. Professor Pigliucci…
– I think that answer confuses several different things which need to be taken separately. We’re back to the “just semantics”. I hate it when people say “just the semantics”. Semantics is very important. Semantics is about language and meaning. If we don’t agree on the meaning, then we’re not having a discussion. Clearly you can come up with an expansive enough definition of science. If you say ‘science has to do with anything that has even remotely input from the empirical world’, and I define input from the empirical world, even the kind of things we were talking about earlier in terms of mathematics and logic, then of course everything is science. You sort of win by definition. But that seems like an empty pyrrhic victory. It’s like ‘now what are you saying then?’. Most people don’t think that is what science is. In fact, most scientists don’t think that is what science is. – Well, I don’t know how you could say that…
– The problem with that sort of expansive definition is that the two can play that game, right? I could say ‘Philosophy is about thinking, and since everything we do implies thinking, that we’re always philosophizing.’ I wouldn’t go that far because that becomes an empty statement. It’s like ‘so what?’. I’d like to hear Dan, and then I have a couple more things about the consequences to say… – Yeah, let Prof. Dennett chime in. Are we doing philosophy now, or are we doing science? – We’re ignoring an issue which I think actually gets to the heart of the question. And that is: should we count all of the normative wisdom that we have acquired over the years as science? Again, it’s a semantic issue, but there’s a lot of it. How to play good chess? Whether Bridge is a better game than Whist? There is, just to take some relatively trivial examples…
– So those are normative… – They are normative. Now, a lot of people would say: “Normative systems of thought are not science”. I think you would say: “Oh yes, they are”. – How can you know Bridge is better than Whist if you haven’t played either or know the rules? You can’t just close your mind and have a revelation.
– No, of course not. But still, what I’m getting at, is that the propositions include propositions which say: ‘This is better than that’, or ‘this is the right way of doing this.’ And those are normative. Normativity plays a role everywhere in science, but it does have a rather marked role. And I think that, if you think of, say, ethical issues and political issues, as in the end fundamentally normative, which is what philosophers have typically said… What counts as a good life? How ought we to live? If you think of questions of that sort, as close cousins to: ‘Which is a better game, Canasta or Bridge?’. How could you ever answer that question? It’s obviously going to be relative to what kind of players are playing the game. Human beings are such… I’m going to take an example, ok? Chess was ‘improved’ several times over the years. The castling rule was introduced, the ‘moving of the pawn’ to the en passant rule. Those were considered improvements and I think almost everybody agrees. That’s improvements by our lights. We’re impatient human beings. We just think the game is better playing a little faster. That’s all it is. But these are normative judgements. They have an empirical basis. You have to play the game. You never dream of making an evaluation without doing the empirical work. But once you’ve made the evaluation, it has a different logical standing. It’s different from just saying: “People of North America like this kind of chess….”
– Absolutely! But on the other hand it’s not… not only subjective, but it’s time-variant. So absolutely, it depends on… The word ‘better’, whether this is ‘better’ than that, depends on who you are, where you are, when you are. So it doesn’t have any independent reality. What’s ‘good’ doesn’t have an independent reality. And therefore, arguing about whether science determines that is just an irrelevant question.
– That’s a red herring. To call it an independent reality, that’s a straw man. – The question I want to ask is: do you agree that the answers to those kind of questions may not be universal? – Yeah.
– Ok. And to understand them you have to often understand not only the individual background, but the cultural experiences etc. – If we had a large group of people meeting together in a organized political debate, discussion, where they were going to vote, and try to settle on some rules for how to lead your life. That could be done rationally, that could be done well. And if it succeeded, we could all remark that this is one of the great achievements of human intelligence. BUT the question is: would it be science? And I would think no. It would be political action.
– But how do you know it succeeds? That’s the question. To determine if it succeeds, is a scientific question. You know if it succeeds by studying what happens based on those laws, and then asking people if they are happier, or… whatever your criteria are… So if it succeeds is a scientific question.
– But there is a lot there swept into the “whatever those criteria are”. There’s a lot of stuff going on there that is not actually empirical.
– Of course… – Here’s another way to put the problem. First of all, when you started talking about consequences, it’s kind of interesting because to a philosopher that immediately brings up: ‘Oh, so he has chosen a consequentialist frame of mind’. – Yeah, I’ve heard this consequentialism and all that stuff…
– Well, yeah, “all that stuff” is philosophy. Consequentialism is one way of looking at ethical problems. It’s by no means the universally agreed upon way. – No no, but it’s probably a component of every way, right? – No
– Hmmm, no. – You may not make your ultimate decision on what is the appropriate action. You might not be a consequentialist, but you probably have to at least address the issue of consequences when you are using other criteria to decide what’s the…
– Of course, of course… – In the game of chess, you could say that there are objective, normative rules, because you have a pre-established goal. You want to force the other one to checkmate. It’s only when you agree on that goal, that you can have an objective measure of success and you can see which moves are better than other ones. But the more fundamental question is of course: if we change the goal, and in chess there are opposite goals because we have a challenge, but in morality, don’t we have to find some way to agree on the goal first? – Well, yes, but the question is: is THAT a scientific question? Imagine… There was a great debate raging over how to play chess. Should you keep the ‘en passant’ rule, should you keep ‘castling’ or not? And it turned out there were heated debates. There were people who liked the old way, people who like the new way. And what are we going to do? Well, what we could do, hoping that it would work, is: have a conflict, get all the parties in who are interested and who cared, and see if one side can convince the other that their way was better. If they can’t, that’s an empirical discovery. It doesn’t work. But if they do, if everybody that cares, comes to see and agree, quite wholeheartedly: “Look, this is the right way to play chess”. A: that’s not just an empirical fact. It is an empirical fact, and you‘ve got to test it by, you know, you gotta count the votes and all the rest of that. But it also has a rather different standing. – Another way to put what I think Dan is getting at, is that nobody in his right mind, I think, no philosopher in his right mind, is saying that empirical facts, or even some scientific facts – as should be clear by now, I take a more restrictive definition of science or concept of science than Lawrence does – but even if we want to talk about empirical facts, broadly speaking, nobody is denying, or at least should be denying, and certainly not in this group, that empirical facts are relevant to ethical decisions. That’s not the question. The question is – another way to put what Dan was saying a minute ago – is that the empirical facts, most of the times, if not all the times, in ethical decision making, are going to underdetermine those decisions, those value judgments that we make. So the way I think of ethics is of essentially ‘applied rationality’. You start with certain general ideas. Are you adopting a utilitarian framework? Are you adopting a deontological framework, a virtue ethics framework, or whatever it is? And then that essentially plays the equivalent role of, sort of, general axioms, if you will, in mathematics or general assumptions in logic. And from there you incorporate knowledge, empirical knowledge, about, among other things, what kind of beings humans are. Ethics, let’s not forget, is about human beings. If we were not social animals, intelligent, conscious animals of a particular type, the whole point of ethics wouldn’t hold. – There’s also the issue of, sorry, you wanna add something? – Obviously, what you both said is reasonable in that sense, but it suggests in some sense that ethics has some existence. Take: someone’s pretty. Does ‘pretty’ have an objective… I would not say that science determines ‘pretty’. Science can determine why I may think, on the basis of my cultural experience or my gender, what’s pretty. And it could determine why someone else would determine that something very different is pretty. But it wouldn’t suggest that ‘pretty’ has any meaning beyond that. And so, I guess what I worry about… It’s absolutely true that when humans make ethical decisions… I don’t live my life every day, saying, well, what’s the rational… I act as a human because humans are not fully rational. I’m governed by emotion, and all of that, but to assign some reality to something which is just a construct that varies and depends upon circumstances is, I think, overdoing it, and I think ethics is that. – I don’t think we were doing that, and I think most ethicists would agree with that. – I think you’re conjuring up a ghost that isn’t really there. – Maybe
– But, let me get back… – Wait, is there a ghost that is there?
– Let me get back to a question that was asked earlier, and that was: ‘are there other ways of knowing?’. I would say: no, there aren’t other ways of knowing, but there’s other ways of doing things.
– Absolutely! I would agree with that. – And some of them are really good, and some of them are really important. They are just not ways of knowing. – We agree completely. Do you agree with that?
– Yes.
– Ok, well then. Can we go from here?
– We have 26 more topics to go. That’s ok? – Sure. That’s well put.
– The question I wanted to ask earlier was… You brought up the example of… you need science to know what the consequence is of… – Anything.
– You know, hitting someone on the head with an axe. There is sometimes this temptation to look at brain scanners for example, and to say: “See, this person is suffering!”, so this is objectively wrong. I’m always wondering: do we really need sophisticated scientific equipment to know that? We can tell…
– The answer is: no. – The answer depends on the question you’re asking. – Does it give us more confidence if we have a brain scanner? Because it seems like: now it has a scientific basis. – Dan is probably the biggest expert in this group here. Only if you understand what the signals mean. I think the big problem with neuroscience is that there are a lots of signals and some people think they have some deep understanding of what they mean, but they probably don’t… – No, but I think it’s worse than that. I think that what Maarten is getting at is different. There are some instances where science, actual science, what I would consider even in my restricted definition of science, actually is pertinent. Let’s say we are having a debate about abortion. And let’s say that because of a number of pieces of reasoning, we started with certain assumptions blablablah, we arrive at a conclusion that: ok, abortion is reasonable up until the moment in which the foetus begins to feel pain. Let’s assume for the sake of argument. I know, let’s assume… Well, if we get there, now at that point it really is the job of the developmental and neuro-biologists to tell us: what’s your best estimate of when that happens, right? So that’s a clear example where neurobiology or developmental biology really does… – What you realize is that their best estimate is probably garbage, at least at this point. – Maybe…
– Not garbage, it’s a better estimate than other people’s, but it’s uncertain.
– The point is: that is a clear case to me where science either does already or could very very likely in the future do that sort of stuff. What Maarten was getting at is, for instance: I can bring up my regular whipping boy, one of the other three horsemen. – You mean I’m not? I’m sorry, go on…
– Never, never… We’re friends, especially for drinking. No, Sam Harris, who you introduced as a philosopher, I would characterize mostly as a neuroscience based person. I think that he would do it that way. When I read his book, ‘The Moral Landscape’ which promised a scientific way of handling ethical questions. I got through the entire book and I didn’t learn anything at all, zero, new about ethics, right? – The main thesis of the book, for people who don’t know him, is that you can have a scientific basis for moral facts in the universe.

– And I think what Maarten was getting at: one of Sam’s examples is exactly that if you’re in the process of genital mutilation of a young girl, and you do a neuro-scan. You’ll see that girl is going through a lot of pain. You think? Do I really need that? Seriously? What does that add to the whole picture? The screaming will do it for me, thank you very much. Screaming is empirical evidence, but you can hardly call it scientific. – Yeah, and to pay deference to my philosopher friends… I’m not saying ethics is irrelevant, I’m just saying it’s contextual. There’s no doubt that people who think seriously about the implications of actions, our ethicists or philosophers… One doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. One can learn from the detailed, complex, logical, rational thinking that philosophers do in determining what ethics may be reasonable or not. And I think that’s an essential part. – Great, we agree again, we can move on to the next topic.
– This is getting too easy… – How can something arise out of nothing?
– Oh boy… – There is something, and before that, well… what was there? – I don’t understand why people are bothered by that at all. I mean I really don’t. It happens every day. The lights that are shining, the photons that are hitting my eyes, they were emitted by electrons that are jumping between states in the atom. Where was the photon before the electron emitted it? It didn’t exist! But it’s enough for me to see. – There was a lot of stuff around that maybe had provoked the photon. – So the key question. I’m glad you asked ‘how’ because, you know, that’s the way I like to ask the question. That’s all we can answer.
– He’s careful, he’s a philosopher. – I mean… science shows all the time how things… The reason I wrote the book is: it seems like a miracle that to get stuff, you get stuff from no stuff. And in fact, it’s easy. It’s required. Quantum mechanics requires it… …in our universe, but it also could suggest that space and time themselves could result from no universe. Now you can ask the deeper question :‘Was there anything else?’. Those are questions you can ask. But the miracle, that people seem to think as a miracle, is how you get a universe when there is no universe. And that is easy to imagine, without violating the known laws of physics. Now you can ask: “Ok, there was no universe, was there anything else?”. That’s a different question. It’s like saying: “I don’t care where the photon came from, I want to know where the atom was.”. But the simple question is: how did our universe come from nothing? That is remarkably and in principle answerable. And moreover, the reason I wrote the book is: if you ask “What would be the characteristics of a universe that arose from no universe by laws of physics without any supernatural shenanigans?”, it would have precisely the characteristics of the universe we see, and it didn’t have to be that way. It could have been something else! We could falsify that presumption. – Let me try a parallel that… I think that Lawrence may like it. We’ll see. – If it agrees with me, I’ll love it.
– Well, we’ll see. – It’s an empirical question. There are questions that philosophers have been asking for millennia, and every now and then, a scientist comes along and says: “Well, instead of answering exactly that question, let me suggest a substitute question which we can answer, and which, once we’ve answered it, we’ll sort of loose interest in the other question.” But let me choose an example where this was I think brilliant and comically failed to achieve its end. That was Turing in his classic paper. He said: “Well, everybody wants to know if computers can think, if robots can think. Let me ask an easier question. Let me ask one that we can answer.” – This is Alan Turing, the computer scientist.
Alan Turing, right. And he proposed the famous Turing test. He said: “Now here’s a good empirical question”. And I think everybody ought to be…. Look: if a computer can beat a human being in the Turing test…
– Can you briefly explain what the Turing test is, for the sake of…? – Ok, I wonder if there’s people here that don’t know. Probably there are. You have a judge or two. Let’s just say one judge, to keep it simple. And the judge is having a conversation with two different agents: A & B. One of them is a human being, and one of them is a robot or a computer. The identity is concealed, but the human judge’s job is to tell which is the human being, and which is the robot. And if the robot – or the computer, it doesn’t have to have a body – if the computer program can fool the judge more often than not over a half an hour test, we would all agree: that is one smart, one intelligent computer program. Turing thought that this was a nice conversation stopper. It would end an interminable philosophical wrangle which was not getting anywhere, and replace it with a question of some interest. Not one that he thought we should set about trying to answer empirically. But he just wanted to point out… ‘How about replacing that old chestnut with this more easily answerable question?’ Now I take it that that’s the sort of thing that Lawrence was doing in his book. He was saying: Yeah, yeah, yeah, there is a question about how you get something from nothing, or why is there a universe rather than nothing. We can wring changes on that ancient philosophical conundrum, but how about this: here is a question which is at least very closely related to that. And we can answer it! And once we answer it, who cares about the other question? – I think it takes more than that. What science can do is sometimes they… Sometimes the other question is simply not a good question. For example… no, no, this is very important! Because science can tell us that the kind of ways we’re framing things are wrong. Most of us would agree that the ‘why’ question is not a good question. – Of course, but what I want to add, just to drop the other shoe on this. Turing, I thought it was a brilliant move, but it failed miserably. Because people don’t want to settle for that question. They should want to, but they don’t want to. – People want to know the ‘why’ question, because they really want there to be some reason. – That’s right. – And there may be no reason and science has to recognize the fact that there may be no reason. But better than saying the ‘why’ question is not a good question – which it isn’t, because it makes a presumption of an answer that there must be a reason, and there may be none – but a better one is: it may say, for example, that our whole notions are wrong, which is why science – especially physics, but I imagine it’s happening in other fields – changes the playing field so much. For example, it can say: the question of “What happened before, where did it come from?” is not a good question, or may not be a good question. Because if space and time are related in general relativity – when space is created time is created – and the question “before” may not even have a meaning. “Before” may be something that arises when time arises. And time may not arise until after the big bang. So that whole human intuitive concept goes out the window, and it’s not the right way to ask the question. – Hold on a second! So sometimes that is definitely the case. You described exactly the process. Sometimes science shows that what we thought was a good question, turns out to be either badly put, or in fact completely meaningless. In other cases, I don’t actually think that the Turing example is going quite in that direction. It’s a good example in terms that, yes, Turing failed abysmally to convince everybody else, certainly in philosophy departments, that he figured out the answer to the question, or that he had a better question. But I don’t think that the other question is in fact meaningless or uninteresting or whatever. – Which question?
– The one that Turing did not want to answer. There are interesting issues…
– Well, then we’ve got a disagreement… I know, we do. But there are interesting issues about the nature of intelligence, the relationship between intelligence and consciousness, for instance, which are not at all the same thing. You can imagine a being, either biological or artificial, that is very intelligent but not…
– But that’s a side issue. Let’s get back to nothing.
– No no. The reason I wanted to get there is because sometimes I see my colleagues in the sciences, and remember I’m a scientist myself, so I’m talking to myself, which happens often. And usually when I argue with myself. – You have to be careful about that… – I know, it’s a disease. But when I argue with myself, actually, I get it right. I convince the other self. Anyway, one of the problems with the science/philosophy antagonism: I think it’s unfortunate that it’s seen by so many people, some philosophers and some scientists as well, as an antagonism. Because there are other ways to put what we just talked about. For instance, there is a model of progress, of philosophy making progress, that goes something along these lines. There are certain questions that philosophers are trying to clarify. Philosophy is mostly about clarifying things. It’s about thinking about ‘What does that mean?’, ‘What do we mean by this?’, ‘Let’s talk about this stuff’. Then at some point some of these questions become actually amenable to empirical answers. They go into the scientific arena. We have several examples of entire disciplines, including science itself of course, originally from philosophy. Now what happens at that point is interesting. We can mention several cases. Science itself came out of what used to be ‘natural philosophy’. People like Descartes and even Newton actually, thought of themselves as philosophers. And then it becomes science.
– But they also thought of themselves as theologians too, so… – Yeah, I agree. But what used to be called natural philosophy became science. What used to a branch of philosophy became eventually psychology, independently. And to some extent what is now philosophy of mind is turning into a combination of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and so on and so forth. Now, what happens at that point to philosophers? Are philosophers therefore out of business? No, what happens is that philosophers switch their interests to observing that newly spawned discipline from the outside. So now you have philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language, philosophy of psychology and so on. What happens is that… This is progress, I think. Because it’s philosophers coming up with certain questions, a question becomes amenable to empirical answers. The scientists take them over. Now there’s something else that is the problem, which is: ok, how is it exactly the scientists are doing? What are they doing? – The value of philosophy is actually the next topic. I just want to resolve this issue of nothingness. Because I have a quote from your book which I found interesting and provocative. It’s from an article maybe. I assume that you agree with professor Dennett that sometimes scientists can subtly change the issue and answer a more interesting question, and then find out that the old question was maybe not worth asking. We have this issue of ‘nothing’ and the standard philosophical definition of what nothing is.
– I don’t know. Nobody has given me a standard definition of ‘nothing’. – Let’s say that it is the absence of something.
– Well, that’s easy! Right. You have written that, before the advancements of science, there have been “abstract and useless debates about the nature of nothingness”, and you say that “to insist on this philosophical notion of ‘nothing’ is backward and annoying.” So we have a specific issue here. There’s this quantum mechanical notion of nothingness, which is not really nothing because it’s teeming with energy and particles. And then we have those philosophers and also theologians insisting on: “Yes, but it’s still something. You haven’t explained…” Well, my point was just simple, and I suspect again, well we’ll see, I suspect there will be more agreement, I mean obviously one provokes, but the point is that you can’t define ‘nothing’ without knowing what ‘something’ is. So as we are, as our scientific understanding evolves, the absence of something evolves, our understanding of that. So to require something without knowing very carefully what you mean by it – and what I mean by what you mean by it is what science has discovered about that – to do that in the absence of that, is a useless debate. And I think, it more or less agrees with what Massimo said, that in some sense philosophers try to understand the meaning of things by thinking about what the results of science does. And so to have a discussion and debate on what the absence of something is without talking about quantum mechanics or without talking about the vacuum or without talking about space and time and what they mean and all of that, is maybe enjoyable but it is not particularly informative. – There’s many cases that I think bear that out. A traditional metaphysical issue is the nature of causation. Well, there is one way of studying causation, and that is: look at the best science and see how science uses the idea and look at work by scientists, conceptual work on causation, people like Judea Pearl. Then you really get a topic. Otherwise what you’re talking about is the folk notion of causation and then you’re doing anthropology, which, I mean, not that that’s bootless, but it’s naive if you think that it’s getting at the truth, as opposed to simply getting at what some human populations think is an interesting way of defining causation. – And I think al lot of philosophy in that sense, not all philosophers but for example, holding to an Aristotelian notion and requiring and not all…
– Oh, come on. Nobody holds Aristotelian notions anymore. If you did hold to an Aristotelian notion of something and saying that is the thing that I want to describe, you are having an interesting conversation about a concept but that concept may not be related to reality. – But Lawrence, let me ask you a question. First of all, I actually disagree even in this particular case with Dan, I have to say, about causality. Yes, you’re right that certainly the early discussions about causality, beginning with Hume, which still is the starting point in philosophy for any discussion on causality. They definitely do refer to what you called the folk concept of causality. But I think that, you know, I’ve actually read recently some of that technical literature in philosophy of causality because I’m preparing to teach a seminar about this, that includes that sort of stuff. And actually the philosophers who are now working on that stuff, very much do what I just described a minute ago which is: they do take on board the best notions of science… – They have to!
– Well, of course. Well, they don’t have to. You are making a moral statement. Well, they are, so the point is that they are. But I do get nervous when I hear scientists – some scientists because I don’t want to make the generalization too broad. When I hear sometimes, well, that “most of philosophy does x or z or y”, I bet that most of those scientists have never actually read a technical paper in philosophy. So, that’s my empirical question: how can you make a generalization about what most philosophy does, if you don’t have it? – You hit the key point of what I was gonna get to, which may sound judgmental but it’s not. – Really?
– Yes and that is: your picture I would agree with, about how how philosophy proceeds, and it then is a simple empirical fact – I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing but it is a fact – that the reason that most scientists don’t read philosophy is it doesn’t have any impact on what they do. And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I don’t want you to suggest it’s bad. But the presumption that scientists would have to read philosophy of science is just not true. Scientists go about doing what they are doing, being ignorant about detailed questions that are not uninteresting from an intellectual perspective, but they’re irrelevant to the science. So it is a true statement that once philosophy generally gets to the point where the science is producing knowledge, and the philosophers are discussing the meaning of that knowledge, it’s interesting. And you can read about it if you are interested from an intellectual perspective, but it has no impact upon the science. – Let me give a different case though because I think there is a better job for philosophers and… – They are always looking for employment so…
– They’re not gonna be put out of work. – You can’t do science without doing philosophy. You can do it, seat-in-the-pants, informally, or you can do it reflectively. And some people are either brilliant or lucky and they never consult any philosophers and they don’t make any howlers philosophically, and so they’re pretty in good shape. And anybody like that, I think, is in a certain sense entitled to say: ‘I’m just going to ignore philosophy, I don’t seem to need this’. But the fact is that in the areas which are particularly controversial — everything to do with the mind, all of neuroscience, in particular in the life sciences. Maybe not physics, maybe…
– I think not physics but I think I agree with where you’re going. – But the fact is the scientists, really smart people, and they know their fields and very often they are asking questions that are just preposterous.
– Exactly, that is what philosophers… – …and what philosophers are really good at..
– …is framing the questions. – …is coming up with better questions.
– And I think in the field of the mind, anywhere where science is at the edge, it doesn’t really know yet how to define things, that’s where philosophy generally has had an impact. But after that point it doesn’t and that’s just… – I have a nice quote from professor Dennett’s book that is relevant to this discussion. Well, you already paraphrased the other quote that I had about “there is no such thing as a philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taking on board without examination”, but the other quote that I wanted to bring up is from your latest book. I am paraphrasing a little bit. You say that you derive some sort of guilty pleasure from watching eminent scientists who have expressed what you call withering contempt for philosophy, and to watch those scientists stumble embarrassingly in their own philosophical efforts. Can you give us any names, professor Dennett? Who are these scientists?
– Oh, sure! – Off the record!
– Yeah, off the record. Nobody’s gonna know. – No one here will talk about it.
– There are eminent people working on consciousness, working on neuroscience, who frame the issues in just bizarrely unsuccessful ways and they include some really heavy hitters. And I name them in the book so I can name them here. I mean Francis Crick had some really simpleminded ideas about consciousness.
– He was the guy who discovered the double helix. – You know, you can hardly pick a more eminent or ingenious, or more conceptually adroit scientist than Crick, and yet Crick had a real tin ear for some of these issues when he turned to neuroscience. And he sought out the help of Christof Koch, who is a wonderful neuroscientist, but he has not outlived his catholic upbringing. And he is still sort of hankering for a soul. I can point to the places in his work where you see, ‘look what he is missing here, look what he is missing here’ because he is still trying to save a haven for the soul. I can multiply that by twenty.
– So he doesn’t think that he needs to read philosophy.. He just brashly enters into philosophical territory and thinks that he can just solve… But notice that Francis Crick, Francis got better. He learned his lesson and he took on some philosophers, mainly Patty Churchland and Paul Churchland but also to some degree me and he began to take us seriously because he realized these were hard questions. What really gives me guilty pleasure is seeing the books, there’s been dozens of books about consciousness by eminent neuroscientists. Most of them are pretty dreadful and they sink like a stone and that is what they deserve. But very often their authors even come that close to acknowledging, if you look at the book carefully, that ‘oh oh’ they suddenly realize they are in philosophical hot water and they need help from a philosopher. And a few of them ask for help and I really appreciate it. – It hasn’t happened in seventy years of physics, but I absolutely agree in an area which is forming, where the questions need to be formed. Like philosophy of quantum mechanics, forgive me, but philosophy of quantum mechanics is a lot of philosophers who know something about quantum mechanics, but the progress in understanding quantum mechanics has not come… I mean there are incredibly interesting philosophical questions about quantum mechanics, but the progress doesn’t come from there. – What about Shimoni?
– But Shimoni is a physicist. – He is in the philosophy department.
– Yes, you can google it. – I think it’s my turn to say something presumptuous as Lawrence put it earlier. This is it, I want to go back to what Lawrence said about philosophy of science and the role between philosophy of science and the relationship between philosophy and science and science, because I’m both a scientist and a philosopher of science. I’m going to put forth – and this is the presumptuous part – that what you said a few minutes ago was both conceptually incorrect and empirically wrong. This is what I mean by that. So if you actually take a look at the philosophy of science literature, by the way there is no such thing as the philosophy of science literature. There is a philosophy of quantum mechanics, there is a philosophy of other parts of physics, there is a philosophy of biology and so on and so forth. So it is a bunch of different things. So what you find are two things, or at least two things, to simplify. First of all, most of philosophy of science is not at all about helping scientists answer questions. So it is no surprise that it doesn’t. So when people like your colleague Stephen Hawking – to name names – starts out a book and says that philosophy is dead because it hasn’t contributed anything to science, he literally does not know what he is talking about. That is not the point of philosophy of science, most of the time.
– Yeah, but philosophers get offended when some scientist says, or some philosophers do. It’s just a fact. It’s got other goals and aims and techniques and there is nothing wrong with that.
– Right, but when there’s nothing wrong with something, you don’t say ‘it’s a dead field’, you just say it is a different stuff. – Well, theology, you could say is a dead field..
– Yes, you can say that. Right! Well, so that was the conceptual part that I objected to. We need to realize that philosophy is largely in a different kind of business. And so, yes, it doesn’t contribute to science, just like science does not contribute to, you know, English literature. Or literary criticism, whatever you want to put it. But so what, no one is blaming the physicists for not coming up with something new about Jane Austen . The other part is the empirical part. When you say, you know, they don’t talk to each other, they have nothing to say to each other. I am not as familiar as Dan probably is with areas of philosophy of quantum mechanics for instance. But I’m certainly very familiar with philosophy of biology. And there are plenty of scientists that actually do work with philosophers to clarify conceptual issues that come out of live problems in evolutionary biology. So there are subfields of philosophy of science where knowledge and even interaction with philosophy does in fact help science. – Absolutely! In those areas where science is trying to form the questions. And an intelligent discussion with people who thought about those questions can never be a bad thing. And so I’m talking from a point view of the area of science that I work on. And that’s the area of physics. Absolutely, where science is at the edge of thinking about questions, then there is a very fruitful relationship. I think consciousness is probably the prototypical example. – One of the best examples, yes!
– …of where we’re just flailing about, I think, still… – But let me get straight about one thing you are saying, Lawrence. You are saying that cosmology is an area of physics where…
– …nothing useful is gonna come from philosophy, yes! – Does it bother you that there are many physicists who think cosmology is just bad philosophy? – Which is the ultimate insult of course!
– Because there are! – It used to be. No, the great thing about cosmology is that it is now a science. Thirty, forty years ago it wasn’t. That’s why I also wrote this book, because there’s been a revolution in our empirical understanding about the universe. So we can address questions that we could talk about before but it was just talk. We can now actually ask questions that we might be able to get empirical answers about and that is remarkable. But the fact that some scientists say something, I mean, some scientists are Republicans, it doesn’t say anything bad about science.
– Or good about republicans. – So what you’re saying is that a lot of physicists haven’t caught up with the progress in cosmology. – But the key question is: you can talk generalities, but the questions in cosmology, the fundamental questions are ones that basically have a huge amount of intellectual baggage that is scientific. That the questions are gonna only be resolved by understanding aspects of quantum gravity and measurements from the early universe. And so you can talk all about them all you want but the progress is gonna be made in very technical areas of science, be it either theoretical physics or experimental science. And there are conceptual questions that, I mean, the basic conceptual questions, the ones people… they are bland and general and we’ve had them for millennia and they are not new, they’re not gonna add anything to that, the really detailed questions that unfortunately may require a new language. I mean… – Now let me just name four physicists: Laughlin, Penrose, Smolin and you. – I am not sure I want to be in that list, but okay.
– Too late! – You’re at the end so…
– Two of them are philosophers. Anyway, go on. – Would you not agree that the reason you don’t like that company is because those are eminent physicists who are making, dare I say, philosophical claims that you don’t trust. That you don’t accept. – I would say that they’re making scientific claims that are beyond the domain of what science is now doing. – That in itself, I think, is a philosophical claim.
– Of course, fine, if you want to call it that. No, it is just dishonest… you can frame, you can dress it up in all that language, but the question is: are you saying something that you are justified in saying on the basis of what we know about the world or not. And if you’re not, you are not being intellectually honest. And that is something I disagree with, whether you call it philosophy or physics.
– Those four people. – No, I don’t think I apply it to all of them.
– I picked the names not quite out of the hat. The fact is, all four of you are very strongly opinionated, you are all brilliant and you don’t agree and… – No, we don’t agree. The question is, what don’t we agree about. We don’t agree about questions that are not central to cosmology. We all agree about what the data tells us about.. – I think those people would disagree about the centrality of those questions, but I also would like to caution: whenever we have these discussions, I think that we really should resist, unless we are talking about republicans or theologians, the word ‘intellectually dishonest’, because that really imputes motives to people. I think there is better reason to disagree with.
– You’re right, and I didn’t impute that motive to all of those people, maybe some subset so.. – And you’re not gonna to tell us who..
– No, absolutely not! – In fact, actually I should take that back also as far as republicans and theologians are concerned. – Professor Krauss, would you agree that there’s philosophy in your book? Because I have a quote here and I think.. – No look, Massimo could say any time you think you are doing philosophy. Of course philosophy is asking questions about the world like science is and so science was natural philosophy. But the key… those are, as you just said, if you expand the definition enough… it loses meaning. The question is, am I talking… I tried to talk specifically about the way we do science, what science has told us, what science hasn’t told us, what’s plausible, what’s implausible, what’s known, what’s likely, what’s unlikely… Those are scientific terms and of course they all impact on philosophical questions. Look at the title of my book, you could say it’s a philosophical question. – Can I give the example? – Don’t you think that we ought to inaugurate, initiate Lawrence into the band of philosophers who work in other departments? – Absolutely!
– No, no I have a doctorate in philosophy in fact. – Like anybody who has a PhD. That’s right.
– My PhD is a ‘doctor of philosophy’ so I am philosopher.. – There is a nice thought experiment in your book. It sounds almost philosophical. – Thought experiments are physics by the way.
– You probably know what I’m talking about, what I’m getting at. – Well, he wrote it.
– But Einstein’s thought experiments were physics, I should point out. – So you describe in your book a time in the distant future when all the evidence that we currently have for the big bang, our basic picture of the cosmos, will disappear beyond what is called the observational horizon. Very quickly, so all the traces that we now have of the origin of the universe will be erased. And so future scientists, maybe in a different galaxy, even when they are using the best available methods, will end up with a completely false picture of the universe. Just because they don’t have the evidence. This is a fascinating idea of course. It strikes me as quite philosophical. And it’s also a sobering thought because it raises the question, is it possible that we find ourselves in a similar predicament, in a similar situation? Could it be that some part of reality will be forever hidden for us just as it is for those future scientists? – I raised it for that reason. I raised it to provoke that question and to provoke some humility in the sense that to realize that we have a picture that holds together, but… all of science is based on a limited amount of data and there’s things that we haven’t measured and there maybe some things we’ll never be able to measure. And therefore there could be some questions which are ultimately, may ultimately – and I say ‘may’ because it’s not obvious – may ultimately be unanswerable. But it’s a leap… What worries me, and I don’t want to give the people the wrong impression. The reason people in the far future will get the wrong answer is that they don’t have access to information. So I am not saying that the big bang is gonna ever be wrong. It’s not. The big bang happened just like evolution happened. Because we have access to that data. Now, we don’t have access to the data right now to what happened with t (time) equal zero and our picture of that could change dramatically. We don’t have access to information about whether our universe is unique and what’s beyond the visible horizon. So that could change dramatically. It is just the fact that we don’t know everything, doesn’t mean we know nothing. And that’s a presumption that a lot of people make. They say ‘oh well, because science doesn’t know this, I can’t trust any of the basic science’ and that’s a real problem. – And that’s baloney.
– Yeah, we all agree on that, but it’s a common misunderstanding that people have about science.
– Professor Dennett, would you say, as an expert on evolutionary theory and cognition, that our brains, or the brains of future scientists for that matter in different galaxies, are evolved, or will have been evolved, to grasp the fundamental structure of the universe? Maybe our minds are just not equipped for that.
– Well, I’m glad you asked that question because it gets very close to what I consider the bad pseudo-biological argument for the limits of science. And that’s the ‘our brains are just finite brains and just as the fish cannot understand democracy and the dog cannot understand quantum mechanics so there must be all these realms that we cannot understand. Because after all we are just mammals with mammalian brains blablabla’. – Nice summary!
– The reason that that’s a pseudo… notice by the way that it has some rather eminent exponents. Noam Chomsky, Jerry Fodor, Colin McGinn, in order of eminence. – Increasing or decreasing? Nevermind. – You can figure that out. So what’s wrong with that argument? What’s wrong with that argument – in fact it’s sort of comical when you think of Chomsky and Fodor – is that the dog, the fish, the monkey, they can’t even understand the questions. We got language, we can understand the questions. What makes you think that there are questions that we can understand yet the answers to which are not available at any cost, at any price? Particularly what I think is important is that Chomsky rightly for decades has been heralding and praising the near infinity of the human mind. Why? Because of the generativity of language. Now if there are questions that are simply beyond our ken, that is: the questions we can understand, but the answers will stump us forever. Like a question as simple as: what is consciousness? Do we have free will? I think I understand those questions. The idea that we could not understand the answers, the true answers to those questions, has got to mean something quite bizarre. It’s gonna have to mean that there is no finite set of books in natural language which will gradually bring the reader of those books to an appreciation of the answers. Now that might be true. But nothing in biology tells us that that should be true. – Yes, it’s making a presumption about something you don’t know. Saying we’ll never understand something assumes you know all the things we can understand and… – Maybe it’s just a sign of humility. You say, well, maybe there’s a limit to the things that we are able to grasp. – Wait a minute. You have to appreciate, I think, that it’s not one brain at a time. It’s teams of brains in all of science. Look, I am sure without the benefit of thousands of scientists and philosophers who’ve worked over the eons I’d be unable to understand all sorts of really simple things. The fact is that I can benefit from all their hard-won understanding, it means that I can understand things. I like to point out that my grandchildren can easily understand concepts that my parents’ generation were baffled by. And now of course, there may be limits, but it’s not as if we’re facing a stone wall somewhere. The idea that there is somewhere, where there’s this stone wall and we’re just gonna hit blank incomprehension when we get there… It’s not biological. It’s mystical. It’s the idea that there is no trajectory through ‘book land’ and ‘science land’ that gets you there. But that has nothing to do with the limitations of neurons. – It also goes against the history of science. There haven’t been any brick walls yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t come up yet, but there is no evidence for that so far, so why should you make the presumption that there will be?
– Are you equally confident, professor Pigliucci? – No, I’m not. I mean, I tend to agree with most, with the gist of what Dan said. Certainly the evolutionary argument for human limitations is false on the face of it. We didn’t evolve to solve Fermat’s last theorem and we did. And there’s no way you can argue that natural selection somehow favored that kind of abstract level of mathematical understanding, what the hell. Mathematicians… do mathematicians have a lot of children? Well, I don’t know, but certainly not in the Pleistocene. – Most of them can meet women.
– Yes, exactly. – But they can multiply, right? They multiply all the time. – So I agree with Dan that the evolutionary argument for sort of the intrinsic limitations of the human brain is baloney. I also don’t think that the position, the so-called mysterian position, you mentioned Colin McGinn, the mysterian position about certain issues, like consciousness, you know, ‘Oh, I think there are reasons to think that we’ll never get there’. It’s utterly useless. It doesn’t tell me anything actionable. It says ‘Oh, maybe there is a limit’. Okay, well, if I get to the limit I will recognize it presumably, I’ll know. I will hit the wall and then I will figure it out. – Then I will go play tennis, but in the meantime…
– Exactly, or chess. But for all of that, in that sense I do agree. Now I do think however there are some interesting issues actually that science, certain areas of science, are actually facing right now in terms of a certain human ability to understand things. For instance, there has been a debate in the last few years about massive datasets, coming from molecular biology and now eventually from neuroscience. Neuroscience is not quite there yet. Molecular biology started out, for instance, a few years ago, not so many years ago, with the human genome project, sort of proposing things like ‘Oh well, we’re going to have the human genome on a cd and then you look at the cd and and then you’ll figure out how to make a human being.’ Well, clearly that didn’t happen. But not only that didn’t happen, things got much worse. We’ve gotten into genomics, as an entire discipline… And for a while it was kind of comical in biology; that every few days there was a new ‘-omics’ coming out: genomics, metabolomics, proteinomics, blabla. And finally phenomics, the entire phenotype. It’s like, what the hell are these people talking about? Just because they rebrand something they think they’re inventing something new. Anyway, the point is that we may have hit at least a temporary wall in some of those areas already. Because it was really interesting to me to see, as a member of the department of biology. We had at some point in Stony Brook university, a whole series of seminars about genomics. And these people were coming in telling us all these very fascinating things about gene-gene interactions and networks and all that sort of stuff. And then I realized that the data analysis that they were doing, the statistical techniques to analyzing that sort of stuff, were things along the lines of principal components analysis. I don’t know how many people here know what principal components analysis is. – I’m sure all of us.
– All of you, right? But it’s a complex, interesting, multivariate statistical analysis to deal with complex data sets. In other parts of biology, is what you do when you have no idea what you’re doing. Cos it’s an exploratory analysis that sort of tells you: ‘well, there is a cluster there over here, there is another cluster there over there. I don’t know what the hell that means, but it’s there’. – It’s exploring new territory, like ‘non plus ultra’.
– Right, so what I am saying is, the bottom line is that there may be areas where we are already hitting walls – they may be temporary walls. – But there are only walls because… In a sense you are validating what Dan said earlier. What you are really saying is that there’s some areas where you find you’re asking the wrong questions. And you find you’re asking the wrong questions by doing it and you find it doesn’t lead anywhere, so you move somewhere else. – I am not sure. That actually is a good example where there could be a difference. And I know a little bit about that, more certainly than I know about quantum mechanics, so let me elaborate for a second.
– Okay. – So the idea there is that the question is good, the question that we wanna know there, the fundamental question is how is it that gene-gene interactions and then interaction of genes with the environment during development create phenotypes, that is, the way organisms look, behave, and so on and so forth. That is a perfect valid question and we’ve been making progress in certain areas, you know, with that question. But we seem to be hitting a moment now, which as I said, could be temporary, but a moment where the data is becoming so complex and so variable that we do not seem to have a way through the maze. We just see a bunch of complexity there. There’s all sorts of interesting patterns. But we’re not able to extract the meaning.
– But that’s so great in physics! – It’s already getting late. I do wanna put up some questions that were asked by the audience. – I’ll let you go first and then I go.
– Here’s a downer of a hypothesis which comes out of the new data mining that people are doing. And that is: what if it turns out that we find that we can use data mining algorithms to get answers to all sorts of questions which we are very sure that they’re the right answers, but we can’t understand how the process works at all. But we can go ahead and do science sort of flying blind, relying on our algorithms to give us the right answers. And the funny thing is: but why… how does that work? Well..
– And that’s where we are. – That’s I think a very real possibility and at that point we will have… Scientific predictions will go right on and scientific fact finding will go right on but scientific understanding will sort of… it’s not that it will hit a wall so much as people will stop trying. – Well no. I think you guys are just experiencing the growth pains that physics has had. Point is: it has happened a lot of times.
– Isn’t that always the case… – No, no. I know it sounds patronizing. What will really happens is: it will stagnate for a while, but someone will come. If the experience of science is… You’ll have like what we call phenomenological models. An exactly similar thing happened in the 1960s. Accelerators were built, all these particles were discovered, and people just said ‘the more energy you have the more particles you have’. And they came up with these weird zen-like things called bootstrap models: every particle is made up of every other particle… You’ll never… It’s too complicated to ever really have a fundamental idea about. And we’ll just try and look for patterns, see things. And for a long time that’s what was done. But eventually someone had a good idea and it moved forward. And it could be that it forever is that way… I don’t think that it necessarily has to be. It may be that a different way of thinking is required and some young person here may come up with that way of thinking. And certainly that what’s happened in physics.
– Agree, my intention was definitely not to show that ‘haha’, we got it, we hit a wall. But I am a little less optimistic, I suppose, than you are because the kinds of problems that we’re talking about that physics faced in the 1960s is literally billions of orders of magnitude less than what we are talking here …. So yeah, it may be, or may be not. I don’t know. We’ll find out. – I agree, you’re absolutely right. That’s why I’m into physics cause it’s easy. These questions are much harder, and it’s taking a lot longer to do it. But I think it’s unlikely, and I could be wrong of course. They seem so daunting now that they don’t seem solvable. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few hundred years they’re be solvable. – Maybe not tonight. So, which reminds me, it’s getting late, so I want to… – But people are having fun, right? So what if we are all jetlagged here? – So one of those fun-having people out there in the audience has submitted this question through text message: – That’s fancy.
– “If politics were based more on proper science, how would it improve our society?”
– Yeah, well, I’ve written a lot about that. I mean public policy should be based on empirical evidence. And it’s that simple. If you gonna try to make a policy you should generally have some empirical basis for why that policy is reasonable. And if you don’t you should employ the policy and then second see if it is, and that’s a really simple thing. And if it were done more generally and used by most political parties, I think the world would be a better place. – But there is a downside to take very seriously and that’s this: what if the science in question is basically the science of spin doctoring? And political parties who were already using technology in novel and interesting ways… And what if they really discover that they can craft messages which have almost no content, but that will win votes… – As they have…
– …done. Yes; chuck. – …and the whole premise of democracy as an informed electorate is sort of out the window. Because instead of informing the populace, the populace is being manipulated by images that are scientifically honed. This worries me a lot.
– Well, I agree with you, and I wanna make something clear that may not be obvious. I am not saying that scientists have the answer to political questions. I’m saying that science should be the basis. So what we need to do, is not what the politicians want. It is the obligation of some scientists to inform the public of what we know and what we don’t know, how we learn, and how we ask questions. So that they can make informed decisions about what they are hearing from the politicians. But even having said that I’m not saying that scientific result should be the basis of public policy. For example, there are political questions. So you may… what you need to know is that global warming is happening, and you need to know that humans are impacting on climate. But you could easily say, ‘ok, I accept that scientific fact, but as a political decision, I need to burn coal’. And that’s a political decision. But to make the correct decision, you have to know and the public needs to know what the implications are. But that doesn’t mean that the scientific answer, which is ‘burning coal is bad for the environment’, is always going to be the correct political answer. That’s not the case. People have the right to make the vote based on informed decision that “you know what, I don’t give a damn, I want to burn coal.” Because that’s just the way democracies work. So we need to inform people so that they don’t buy the crap from politicians, that they learn the scientific process of how to be skeptical, how to ask questions.
– And in fact, that’s a point I want to underline, All the methods, all the propaganda methods are counteractable, actually quite straightforwardly, by simply informing people about those very methods and getting them tuned in to the fact that an attempt is being made to manipulate them.
– Everybody sign up for a critical thinking course. – Well, that’s what science should be. Or philosophy! Any good academic field should be based on… – True! That is correct. Now, I wanted to give a slightly different answer to the question that was posed, which is, again it’s a question of nuance. I thought it was interesting that Lawrence’s immediate answer was ‘policy ought to be informed by…’ Your first actions were not politics but policy. There’s a difference between politics and policy. Absolutely policy ought to be informed by the best empirical evidence that we have because otherwise you literally are blundering into nonsense, into bad notions. So yes if there is such a thing as climate change, antropogenic climate change, and there is, that has to be part of any policy decision. Now the other part, however, this is sort of analogous to the discussion we were having early on about the empirical imput into ethical decision making, into ethics. There definitely has to be empirical input into political decision, but part of political decision making also is concerned with people’s ways of looking at the world, their values, their judgments about what is important and what is less important. So for instance, you could say, if in fact you want to solve the problem of of poverty – let’s say in the US – then you need to enact certain redistribution of wealth measures and so on. And that is a fact, but it flies politically, only if we actually convince people that that ought to be a priority. If people say, well no, personal liberty or freedom of acting as an independent agent is more important than… in other words, that value is higher to me than the other one, then there is nothing you can do factually to convince those people. You have to argue about: ‘well, what do you mean by that?’, ‘have you thought about the implications from an ethical perspective’? What that means is that, in order to allow for some people to be obscenely rich, you are actually condemning a bunch more people to poverty. That sort of argument is clearly informed by the facts but it doesn’t stop at the facts. Again the facts in some sense underdetermine the answer. The answer has to imply value judgments, and therefore I would say ethics. – I agree with you. In some sense, the job of the politicians, if there is one, is to then say: here are my value judgments, do you agree with them? Elect me if you do. But not: here’s the facts. Here’s my facts. I’ve invented them. – You can argue values, you cannot argue facts.
– You say honestly, you say look: ‘I don’t want to solve the problem of poverty.’ I wanna ensure some people can be obscenely wealthy, whatever. Just put it out there and there’ll be people who agree. If democracy has any value, if you believe in it, then you say well, if more people like that value, then that’s the way we’re gonna live with it. – We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not entitled to our own facts. – Of course.
– Actually I think we’re not. – We’re not even entitled to our own opinions?
– No! – I agree.
– Not all opinions are created equal. There was a lovely paper by a philosopher whose name escapes me, a young philosopher from Australia, who challenged that idea that we are entitled to our opinions. And I thought: he’s right, we all pay lip service to that, and in fact: in what sense, if your opinions are ill-informed and incoherent, in what sense are you entitled to it? – Well, I think in the movie we produced, Ricky Gervais says everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I am entitled to find their opinion ridiculous. The point is: they can express it, but we should be able to ridicule it, and that’s why we should be allowed to ridicule religion like we do sex or politics. – What’s ridiculous about sex?
– All of you are entitled to your opinion about the following question, which goes as follows. Let me see.
– But only because we are informed. – Only cause we’re here.
– “Economics makes claims about what is beneficial, what is good for humanity. Is that a form of science, or will that eventually lead to a form of religion?” It is basically a question about the status of economics.
– We’re not economists, but I am very sceptical that economics… Economics is an attempt to make decisions about very complex systems, and obviously they’re so complex that those conclusions are not necessarely reproducable, if you look at the history of economics. I think that economics is fascinating because if you think of it broadly – and again we’re back to a sort of semantic issue – there’s lots of issues which actually are well addressed using the tools of economists that have nothing to do with money or standard economic topics at all. They have to do with organization and influence, and all sorts of other things. I think that, in fact, let’s have more of that. But what is also true is that economists, being under the gun to provide hard data and predictions that can be quantified, have this lamentable practice of operationalising everything in terms of money, and then as I think even very unreflective people recognize: is something really missing when economists reduce everything to monetary values? It’s not that there is some magic ingredient missing, it’s just that putting monetary values on everything (everything has a price) is just a very blunt tool.
– But so is putting an equation on everything when the equations are unjustified. The Noble prize in economics, the Nobel memorial prize (it’s not a Noble prize) this year… I was so amused because two people who won the prize have two completely different ideas about what the results of the same phenomena are, which to me represents economics. – Again, I like to make some distinctions again. So, first of all, there’s fundamental differences between macro- and micro-economics … certain areas of economic theory actually work pretty well. They produce reliable predictions in terms of empirical verification and so on, and other parts don’t. Also within, there’s different approaches to doing economics, right? There’s sort of a classical economist who might start with the assumption of a perfect rational agent who has perfect access to information, that sort of stuff, and do mathematical models that are pefectly fine as far as models go. They don’t match up with reality very well because, guess what, we don’t have perfect information and we are not perfect rational agents. There is another way of doing that sort of economics which is behavioral economics and that imports psychology and sociology into it. And it’s much more interesting and probably more likely to get things right.
– That’s why Daniel Kahneman is so fascinating. – Correct. Now, the other thing about economics, again we go back to ethics. Economists seem to have this idea that what they do is ethically neutral, and it’s not. Because a lot of stuff – the very fact that Dan pointed out that everything is measured in one particular currency, that is just one example. But a lot of assumptions that go into certain economical models actually sneak in a lot of… Dan will say philosophical baggage, I would say ethical baggage in particular. And it is simply not the case that economics is ethically neutral. There are these assumptions, they ought to be put out into the open, and say ‘wait, look!’ If you approach economic problems from this perspective – let’s say a libertarian perspective as opposed to a progressive perspective, whatever it is – this is what you’re sneaking in, you’re bringing in to the reasoning. The reasoning may be valid, it may be good reasoning; but you now have to expose these assumptions and then you’ll have to let people say: ‘well actually, I don’t think these assumptions are the ones I wanna have when I’m thinking of running an economy’. And so you may be formally correct in terms of your models but the assumptions you start with embed some kind of ethics that I don’t like. – To follow up about the last part of your question. It really is unfair to economics, to say it ends up being a religion. You can see if it’s wrong. And that’s the big difference.
– Maybe a final question, probably directed to Prof. Dennett: “Is conscioussness is a scientific fact? Does it exist? Can we measure it?” Because there has been a rumor (I’m adding this now) that you deny the existence of conscioussness. That you are a so called eliminativist. Is this rumor true?
– And you got two minutes to answer! – The trouble with the word or the concept of consciousness is that not only is there no agreed upon definition, people don’t WANT to agree on a definition, because a lot of people want consciousness to turn out to be whatever it is that is just so supercalifragilisticexpealidocious that it defies science. And anybody who puts forward a theory of consciousness which says: ‘oh and by the way it’s a biological phenomenon. It’s very wonderful but then so is reproduction, so is self-repair, so is blood clotting, so is metabolism.’ For a lot of people, if you take that view on consciousness, I often put it: it turns out that consciousness is not one big trick, it’s a bag of trick. It’s not something that sunders the universe universe into the things that have it and the thing that don’t. The question: ‘gee I wonder if star fish are conscious or maybe mice, or maybe how about ants or cockroaches?’ And they think there’s this magic dividing line somewhere between the oak tree and the human being where bingo the consciousness starts. I think that very idea, which is deeply engrained in the thinking of many people, who think that consciousness divides the universe into two. Either you got it or you don’t.
– The idea suddenly the light goes on. – That idea is an artifact of bad imagining right there and we have to get rid of that idea, we have to get people to recognize: as long as you insist on that as a sort of a defining characteristic of consciousness, then you get your wish: we’ll never have a theory of consciousness. But abandon that idea and start looking at what different kinds of consciousness or so-called consciousness or hemi-semi-demi consciousness, as soon as you start getting out of that essentialist mode and looking for the dividing line, then consciousness is a very real family of phenomena, not a single phenomenon, a family of phenomena.
– Right, do you have any short final statements about consciousness or maybe in general?
– Yeah, I think I am agreeing, if I hear correctly Dan, with what he said but I might be about to just step into a really bad situation. – It’s about to end, so you have to beware…
– So I look at it as biologist… – Ok, I’m ready…
– …not as a philosopher of mind, because I am not a philosopher of mind. So I agree completely that there is this fallacy of: ‘there is a dividing line’. This essentialist idea, that is bizarre to me. If consciousness is a biological phenomenon, and I think we agreed it is a biological phenomenon, unless we are talking about something completely different, then it ought to come gradually, or that doesn’t mean exactly gradually – there may be jumps here and there – but it must be in degrees and therefore it makes no sense to say: well, here’s the dividing line, these things have it and these things don’t have it. Of course there is another dividing line. There is an entire universe that is inanimate as far as we can tell. And that one I’m gonna bet pretty strongly that doesn’t have consciousness. Rocks don’t have consciousness. But if we’re talking about the biological world, clearly it is a question of degrees and not a question of yes or no. That said I really never understood – I agree again with Dan before stepping into the problem here, the self inflicted problem – I also agree with Dan, yes there’s plenty of people who seem to equivocate almost on purpose on the term, to make it more fuzzy, more mysterian, more whatever it is. But honestly everytime that I read a paper about, you know, definitions of consciousness, I don’t get why the thing is so damn complicated. I don’t mean the answer to how it works, that is complicated. But the thing itself. To me consciousness is the ability, that is shared pretty much as far as we know by at least all animals, of experiencing, having phenomenal experiences, things like heat, cold, color, that sort of stuff. This is the ability… – That’s something that robots do if they have heat sensors.
– Well, fine of course, well maybe. – It depends on what you mean by ‘experiencing’ of course. You mean a dial goes up? Of course it does. But what I’m saying is, if you look at your own ability of doing the kinds of thing we’re doing right now, now that’s consciousness. Now in the case of human beings, and possibly of other organisms, you have a significantly more interesting, additional level, which is the ability to reflect on those experiences, of having this consciousness that you really are having those kinds of experiences. Now, there is nothing mysterious about it, it seems to me that that goes down to biology. We don’t have the answer, but it’s gonna be some combination of, well, certain materials interact in certain ways, and they create that sort of capacity, just like materials interacting in certain ways create all sorts of biological phenomena.
– The one trouble with that definition, simple as it is, is that it flies in the face of many people’s intuitions. Maybe just you’re happy with this, because it turns out that on that definition Athlete’s Foot is conscious. – It’s like the definition of life. It’s very hard. Many people could say that life is something that organises, takes energy, but then fire is life. So as a physicist, the good thing is, it is far too complicated an issue for me and I plan to continue drink this tonight until I lose conscioussness. – Prof. Dennett once wrote, I think, that nothing that is complicated enough to be interesting could have an essence. Or something along those lines. Maybe that’s a good way to bring things to a close. An open ending… – That’s the essential message of this debate. – So I want to thank all of you, you have been a great audience, it has been terribly exciting. Unfortunately we have to stop at some point, we could go on and on forever of course. I wanna thank all of our volunteers of Het Denkgelag for their tremendous support and help in making this possible. I want to thank Ghent University for hosting this event, all the people that have been handling the technical equipment, and of course the three of you Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss. Subtitles by the Amara.org community

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