Krista Tippett and physicist Leonard Mlodinow tie themselves up in knots trying to bridge the gap between free will and physical determinism. This is a tired topic, but it’s useful to see just how muddled the thinking is, even for someone as smart and thoughtful as Mlodinow is:
1. Tippett refers to the “scientific observation that free will is an illusion.” And Mlodinow implies that Laplacian determinism is a scientific theory. But I think it’s more appropriate to think of determinism as a key assumption of the physical sciences. In fact, it may even be part of what makes a scientist a scientist. A scientist is one who tries to explain physical phenomena in terms of other physical phenomena. He/she observes something about the physical world, and then tries to explain it as a result of something else in the physical world. So it’s not really a theory or an observation.
2. Mlodinow seems to want to claim the mantle of Laplace. But he’s not really a Laplacian determinist. If he was, then how could he hold up his father as an example of a Holocaust hero. How is his father any better than Hitler, if both of them are just a bunch of subatomic particles bouncing around as they were predestined to do at the Big Bang? He knows that Laplacian determinism is really just a thought experiment, an assumption, and that it has no relevance to our lives. In the end, he admits this: “Yes, I definitely think that my decisions matter.” How could he not? How could any of us not?
3. In the end, he wants science to be spiritual. And he realizes – while he strives to be rational – it’s not entirely possible. “I had an insight that I have beliefs that are not scientifically-based, too, and I believe them. “
From theoretical physicist Janna Levin during an episode of On Being:
“I will often look at what people think is very important and not identify with what they think is very important… I have a hard time becoming obsessed with internal social norms – how you’re supposed to dress or wear your tie. For me it’s so absurd, because it’s so small, and it’s this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge vast cosmos. So I think it’s hard for me to participate in certain values that other people have… If I try to look at that closely, the split is – Things that are totally constructed by human beings, I have a hard time taking seriously. And things that seem to be natural phenomena that happen universally, I take more seriously…. It doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing things as unimportant either. I take very seriously what’s going on in the world right now, and I’m really pained by what’s going on in the world. But my perspective is to look at it as animals acting out ruthless instincts and unable to control themselves, and other people think they’re being heady and intellectual.”
This is nonsense parading itself as scientific wisdom. Questions:
1. Isn’t science – exactly like fashion – just “this funny thing that this one species is acting out on this tiny planet in this huge vast cosmos”? If fashion is small, then isn’t science small too?
2. Isn’t it obviously true that people derive more joy from fashion than from theoretical physics? Is it wrong that a person would care more about how they present themselves to the world than about whether the universe is finite or infinite?
3. Isn’t Janna Levin herself just an animal “acting out ruthless instincts”? If that’s what she thinks that humans are, then how is she exempt from this description? If she isn’t exempt, then how can she claim that science puts her in a privileged position to make judgments about truth and meaning?
4. Isn’t science itself something “totally constructed by human beings”?
It’s no surprise that Janna Levin believes that Janna Levin’s interests are more important than other people’s interests. What’s wrong with this is that she’s using Science to belittle other people’s values. Science doesn’t value. From a scientific POV, Janna Levin’s worries about the finite/infinite universe are ridiculously small.
Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy highlights research showing that, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to believe that astrology is scientific.
This isn’t to pick on liberals. We all of us are magical thinkers. Some of us just hide it better than others.