an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 14, Fall 2017, ISSN 1552-5112
God’s Casino, or Faith in Physics at the Chelsea Hotel II
“There is no universe.”
David Bowie (1947 –2016)
A philosopher and philosopher/artist get together for a fireside chat about astrobiology, quantum entanglement, spirituality and faith in physics, art and philosophy. (Part II)
KCS: Hello Kritikosians! Since I am stepping into this conversation in the middle, I won't try to cover all possible bases. Instead, I'll just begin as philosophers are wont to do: confrontationally. So here are some things I suspect will be interestingly controversial concerning what I found interestingly wrong about the previous discussion:
1) I am not really all that convinced that there is nothing universal to aesthetic experience. Now, I am no aesthetician, but the basic facts seem to be a) that we all have an aesthetic sense (which alone is suggestive), b) this sense is triggered in very similar ways under most circumstances - who thinks flowers are ugly?, for example (even more suggestive), but c) there is significant variation about what some find beautiful, and this is more true the more detailed one is about the possible aesthetic triggers. I don't see anything here to suggest there is no universal sense of aesthetics, just that it's not naively universal - that is, determined in every facet. But nobody with any sense has ever claimed that it was and this kind of universality with variation in the details is quite common. My guess is it comes down to the level at which you want to describe the phenomena and thus what aspects of the triggers you focus on. It may well be, not only that an aesthetic sense is universal to humans, but also to other rational beings out there in the universe (a possibility I think about a lot since I do work in astrobiology).
2) There is nothing "arrogant" about saying we should accept the gravitational evidence for dark matter, even though we are not sure whether it's ultimately misleading. This is how science works: just as in evolution, what scientists do is choose between available explanations on the basis of fit with data. No careful scientist would deny, about ANY scientific claim, that it could always be wrong. As I put it to my students, "I could be wrong but will reassess in light of new evidence." - a universal footnote applicable to any scientific claim. But until someone comes up with an alternate explanation for the data which works better, no scientist will abandon what they have. Nor should they. So you can say we should be looking for better explanations (not news), or you could say we should not lose sight of the fact that we might be wrong (also not news).
3) I don’t like comparing quantum weirdness to mysticism. For one thing, it’s a very imprecise comparison – I’m not sure exactly what is being said or how to evaluate it, which is unsurprising given the nature of mysticism. What quantum mechanics (QM) and mysticism share is an inability to articulate in an intuitive way the insights involved. However, one huge difference is that QM actually has insights and, at least to some extent, they can be conveyed mathematically even if they are highly counterintuitive. Mysticism, on the other hand, is indistinguishable from nonsense. Note that I do not say it is nonsense, just that I have no idea how to tell whether the vague sentences uttered by a mystic are true. Any analysis of a mystic's pronouncements for its logical content will be blocked by the claim that language is just not a good way to convey the truths he sees. While he could be 100% right for all I know, I can't know much if I can't use logic or evidence, so this comes down to an appeal to ignorance - he could be right because I can't prove he's wrong.
4) To say “often we cannot understand much of what we observe” is seriously misleading. First of all, it’s not that often - scientists can now explain the vast majority of what we observe, but these are not interesting cases to talk about because, well, they are easily explicable. It's a bit like in an ethics class where students talk about how ethical questions have no answers. Actually, we can easily get consensus on most ethical questions, but these are boring so we gravitate to discussions of complex questions without ready consensus. That's fine, but it's kinda’ perverse then to turn around and say, "Gosh, look at how hard it is to reach consensus on all of these ethical issues - there must be no ethical truth." Second, there is nothing weird about this at all – science is about, a) asking questions to which we do NOT know the answer, b) assuming there is a naturalistic one if we look hard enough, - and then, c) looking really hard for the answer. Once we answer the question, it’s no longer science really, but technology, which most people confuse at a deep level. Science is about questions, not answers.
NRIII: You bring many interesting ideas to the table! Let’s begin with your ideas about aesthetics and astrobiology. Maybe you could tell us a bit more about astrobiology for a moment, as you see it? If we take a preliminary source as our initial starting point, say from a scientific authority like the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), we see that such authorities are concerned with a very rudimentary basic science approach with regard to any epistemological basis that may exist for the concept of astrobiology. For example, NASA’s Astrobiology: Life in the Universe website shows a concern with simple ideas like the measurement of free oxygen on exoplanets, or planet Earth-based studies in ancient biology, as well as concerns regarding the origin of life here on Earth, vis-à-vis microbial organisms like LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor), etc. and their relationship with geothermal vents that exist deep in the seas, on our planet and purportedly on other planets.
How do you see concerns like these interacting with subjects like philosophy and aesthetics?
KCS: Astrobiology is clearly a scientific discipline in formation. The basic concepts and approaches are still being worked out, which makes it very fertile ground for philosophers of science. So, for example, the exact nature of “life” is something we have had the luxury of being unclear about for the last 2 thousand years, but once we are formally challenged with finding life on other worlds very different from our own, we can’t be so complacent. And there are really interesting epistemic problems as well – is life on Earth an example of a single datum or a complex data set and to what extent does it allow us to make generalizations about the way biology would work elsewhere? So the science alone offers interesting places for philosophers to contribute.
It’s true that most of the literature on astrobiology is focused on basic science – partly because of a sensitivity to charges that it’s not a “real science,” since it has no study organism yet. Nevertheless, it is pretty obvious that if NASA does discover evidence of life within the next 20 years (as they predict), this will immediately count as one of the greatest discoveries in human history, with massive implications for human society and our conception of our place in the universe. And this opens the door to all kinds of questions which quickly exhaust the training of the average scientist. If we discover microbes on Mars, for example, what are our ethical responsibilities to them? Should we “leave Mars to the Martians” as Carl Sagan famously claimed or can we use the planet for our own purposes? What if the only way to do science on extraterrestrial life involves a significant risk to the indigenous life there (as is almost certainly the case on ocean worlds like Europa)? What does it say about the value of human life (and terrestrial life in general) if life turns out to be common in the universe (as we predict)? What if we are wrong and life is very rare? What if, to take the extreme option, we are in fact alone in the universe? A colleague got me to admit once that, if we truly are alone in the universe, this would be one of the very few situations where I would be forced to seriously consider a supernatural explanation for our existence.
As for aesthetics, there is no direct link (that I have thought of yet anyway). But in both ethics and aesthetics, one encounters the temptation to talk about universal standards, which are typically considered old fashioned and unwarranted in modern debates (though they were commonly accepted for many hundreds of years). One of my projects is to investigate whether it makes sense to argue for a universal kind of ethics based on evolutionary convergence. If we restrict ourselves to considering aliens with whom we could debate the nature of ethics, then we actually have a lot in common with them, I argue. First, we are both rational beings with a technological civilization (otherwise, they would not have radio telescopes to hear us, etc.). We both will have evolved from other forms of life via a process that combines competition with cooperation and it seems likely, given the nature of culture and science in particular, that we will both be social beings. It seems a good bet that such creatures would share certain basic prosocial emotions and the ethical principles associated with them. For example, they will almost certainly have strong moral rules against killing conspecifics, because no social system would be stable if its members were free to kill each other whenever they please. To be sure, there will be a lot of variation over details – Earthly ethics allows killing under certain “special circumstances” and it’s much less clear how much convergence we will get at this level, but aliens will almost certainly sympathize with a general injunction like “Thou shalt not kill.” They will also almost certainly view rational, social creatures like themselves (and us) as being ethically “special.” In other words, I argue that we have good grounds to expect aliens will be more like us in their mores than is generally supposed (though of course this does not mean they might not be hostile, etc., since humans routinely kill each other despite sharing 100% of their basic dispositions).
NRIII: It seems to me that we are very alone in the universe. If techno-savvy intelligent life existed relatively near Earth, we probably would have already detected its technology; if extraterrestrial (ET) life is far, far away – well then, their technological footprint may be less robust than ours, because it is not perceptible in our neck of the woods, at least by our technological measures. Microbes would certainly fall into that category. Neither scenario seems likely, however, given the lack of empirical evidence. Now there may be more advanced life utilizing stealth technology, but why would they do that? Such a thought conjures ideas of extraterrestrial conspiracy, intergalactic warfare and political strife, which would seem like a reasonable possibility, if the species in question were of a hominid variety; nevertheless, reliable evidence of abiogenesis outside of Earth simply does not exist. And films like Arrival (2016), where Earth is visited by benevolent ET life, only to face ignorant, defensive, hostile and even paranoid Earthly governments and leaders, or in another example, Life (2017), where an ET life form is extracted from Mars via a soil sample, only to quickly grow much larger, and become aggressive and threatening towards the crew of astronauts that retrieved it, however intriguing, do not seem to portray what the science has to say about the possibility of ET life.
Spiegel and Turner’s statistical study of abiogenetic probability is philosophically compelling and indicates that our inherent bias for the somewhat optimistic ‘idea’ of life’s emergence elsewhere belies the certifiable probability of ET abiogenesis, which is, given the available evidence, quite low.
Utilizing Earth, as an abiogenetic example and assumption, figuratively speaking, may be akin to frivolous crime drama and murder scenarios, where evidence of murder does not exist, and yet investigations proceed, and false probabilities are determined. For example, given Homo sapiens, and any cultural milieu a priori, murder cannot simply be assumed, even if one posits that sociopolitical conditions are ‘ripe’ for murder. However, given time, and an accumulation of murders, it’s only then, a posteriori, that relevant scenarios are amassed, sometimes repeated, and then probabilities and speculations of reasonable import begin to show merit.
Since Earth has no reference point of comparison, Spiegel and Turner show that it’s the assumptions being made about Earth’s purportedly ‘easy’ abiogenetic history, that make it seem likely that ET abiogenesis may occur, say for example, on a ‘ripe’ exoplanet. Given Spiegel and Turner’s work, it seems such events are mathematically, and empirically, rare. And such work serves to verify the current reality which is: life has not been found elsewhere. Yet.
However, I wonder where our imaginations, and the evidence of strange brew in the stars, might take us? There is evidence of quantum entanglement. What do you make of quantum entanglement, philosophically speaking?
KCS: It seems to me (and many others who study this question) that we really don’t know about the prevalence of life beyond Earth in general, and not much more about the prevalence of intelligent life. But this is not, by itself, an argument against extraterrestrial life. There’s an enormous cottage industry of work on the Fermi paradox, which asks basically, “If life is so prevalent, why haven’t we found it?” – the Wikipedia article on the Fermi paradox does a decent job of surveying some of this literature for anyone interested. What we know is that we have not found evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth, but it’s unclear what to make of that. People tend to make a lot of the fact that SETI has yet to find anything, but they typically don’t appreciate how difficult a task the creation of a comprehensive survey is: the universe is a very, very big place and we are not trying very hard to look for life elsewhere (the current budget for SETI is on the order of only $2.5 million annually). There are also all kinds of assumptions built into SETI that are debatable: aliens want to communicate with us, they are using EM transmissions similar to what we currently use, etc., etc. We don’t exactly know, but we have good reasons to believe, that life should be pretty common. It’s a bit more controversial, but not hard to argue based on general evolutionary considerations that where there is life for a very long period of time, you will likely also get intelligence. Since the universe is a very old place, this means we should expect there to be other intelligent life out there (though as I note above, we could well be wrong about this).
Of course, these discussions are necessarily a bit speculative until we have real data – but this applies to those who argue against extraterrestrial life just as much as to those who argue for it. What Spiegel and Turner don’t really account for, to my mind, is projections from evolutionary biology. They simply ask how likely it is that there is life, given that it evolved on Earth. But we know that the conditions for life’s evolution are far more common than previously believed – you can’t swing a good-sized stick in our universe without hitting sources rich in organic molecules, for example – they have been found pretty much everywhere we look, including on comets and other bodies in the “dead” of space. If we think the evolution of life from these beginnings was not a miraculous occurrence (which almost all biologists would allow), the question is really, “How likely is it, given the right conditions, would we get life?” And we can estimate how unlikely life would have to be for us to be truly alone. A recent study by Frank and Woodruff found that, “The probability of a civilization developing on a potentially habitable alien planet would have to be less than one in 10 billion trillion — or one part in 10 to the 22nd power — for humanity to be the first technologically advanced species the cosmos has ever known, according to the study.”  That’s pretty long odds, to put it mildly – so long, in fact, that humans have no intuitive grasp of the sheer unlikeliness of this possibility, which biases how we assess our current data. It also means that portrayals of aliens in popular culture are not terribly accurate, which in turn makes their use as a critique of scientific investigations of extraterrestrial life rather unfair.
Now of course, life could be spectacularly unlikely, but to assume that is to venture into the realm of miraculous thinking, which science shuns. It’s at least an excellent working hypothesis that, when you first see a natural phenomenon, it’s the result of prosaic natural circumstances which are not stupendously unlikely (e.g., the mediocrity principle). As Spiegel and Turner allow, if we find life beyond Earth (intelligent or not), the probability of finding intelligent life would go up by many orders of magnitude.
I don’t know enough about quantum entanglement to make intelligible comments on that specifically, but I can offer some potentially interesting thoughts on quantum indeterminacy in general. The Copenhagen interpretation posits that the probabilities we see in quantum phenomena cannot, in principle, be interpreted as a result of our ignorance (of unobserved, but entirely deterministic factors, for example). In other words, the universe is just, at its most basic level, random. I think it’s important to point out that the Copenhagen interpretation is just that – an interpretation of the evidence. Granted, it’s a spectacularly successful interpretation that the vast majority of physicists accept, but it could well be wrong. And it’s not the only interpretation either – there is also the de Broglie–Bohm or pilot wave theory, which offers a purely deterministic account of the exact same phenomena. My philosophical suspicion here (I can’t honestly say it’s more than that) aligns with Einstein – it’s philosophically suspect to believe that the universe is inherently indeterministic. It could be, but this is a conclusion we should fight as hard as we can, particularly as scientists. Why? Because if this is the case, then we simply can’t explain many events in the universe, at least on most accounts of what scientific explanation means. Science, at its most basic, makes the ineliminable assumption (and it is an assumption, despite all the success of science) that the universe is intelligible.
NRIII: Why would it be “philosophically suspect” to fathom the universe as non- deterministic? Einstein may turn out to be the Isaac Newton of the 21st century, so goes the cliché! When we head in the other direction, away from a non-deterministic reality and toward absolute certainty – we do find relationships that may point to a deterministic reality, as in experiments that attempt to dispute the linkage of particles via quantum entanglement by questioning the assumptions of Bell’s theorem (the theorem which validates that entanglement is ‘real’ given its current assumptions). But recent work in that regard apparently ends in aporia via ‘superdeterminism’.
If science purveys truth regarding one subject or another, becoming useful, too, because of it (e.g. medical science, etc.) – unfortunately, that does not prove the philosophical validity of science as applied to all potential cases of study, I imagine. The fundamental ‘faith’ principle, if you will, of science as philosophy is the idea that one can ascertain everything one sets out to discover, and that there is a method to do so. The science as faith principle also holds that if no such method currently exists, then it too, only remains to be discovered as well. It’s a faith-based epistemological claim, and as such is essentially unverifiable, since it has no empirical basis, and therefore will never have a valid experimental control or reference point (i.e. another planet Earth where science has been proven to answer every question without exception until the end of time).
Some philosophers of religion may use such criticism to cast off science in favor of alternative faith-based answers to interesting human questions, although such a turn, often provides answers as unverifiable as the example of superdeterminism. Like a computer, science (and religion) are just tools, and neither is the best tool for every purpose.
I think here is where we enter the arena of ‘comparative human thought’, as a sort of metadiscipline, which might construe human thought as necessarily creative in its variety of practices. Though the representation of science to the world at large is that it is entirely factual, and that of art being somewhere in the neighborhood of its polar opposite, these two different enterprises are arguably philosophical as much as pragmatic, and they probably share some creative dispositions and liberties. Of course, their objectives may be somewhat different, so the illusion persists that they are diametrically opposed. Moreover, once and where ‘scientists’ start dispensing with appropriate controls, fudging assumptions, and ignoring contradictory and inconvenient variables, etc., even where expedient or necessary to proceed; or when ‘artists’ start producing fascist (or anti-fascist) graphic art, biotech art and software war game simulators, etc., however meritoriously high-brow and ‘artistic’ the work may be (rather than banally political, scientific or meticulously engineered work) – some serious and provincial lines are being blurred.
What can we think? Should we trust science can reveal everything we’d like to know? Can we trust art to show only how and why we really feel, and nothing at all that could be understood as ‘factual’? May we trust religion to define, schedule and historicize, and even politicize, the ineffable?
TO BE CONTINUED…
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 14, Fall 2017, ISSN 1552-5112
 Spiegel and Turner, “Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth” PNAS, Vol. 109, No. 2, (2012)
 See a readable discussion here: https://www.space.com/32793-intelligent-alien-life-probability-high.html
 Natalie Wolchover, “The Universe is as Spooky as Einstein Thought” The Atlantic, 2/10/17