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September 10, 2022


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“I have found that many people reflexively reject the possibility that human consciousness arises from interactions of the many particles in their brain. They seem wedded to the idea that somehow something must be different about consciousness.
And while the scientifically minded among them do not call it a soul, it is what they mean. They are looking for the mysterious, the unexplainable, the Extra that would make their existence special.”

The continual discoveries of science (as above)are always a breath of fresh air. Consciousness became one of the go-to resorts of those clinging to some sort of spirituality as science (and common sense) inevitably erodes outdated beliefs.

As millions of people across the world seem to need something of a supernatural element to believe in they have little choice other than ignore the findings of science or find something like consciousness, quantum physics, dark matter or dark energy that science is struggling with (at the moment).

I guess the problem with us is that (as in Brian's previous blog) life can be a problem. And for far too many existing in intolerable conditions that's all it is. Even so, for those of us who are reasonably comfortably off, life can still be quite a problem – and we also look to many avenues of escape.

It seems to me that our main problem is to do with our thinking, basically the contents of our minds that habitually revolve around 'me' and 'not me' which effectively keeps us living in a conceptual, thought dominated world at the expense of living in realty.

Okay, so reality can be a bit harsh, but perhaps we create even more mischief and suffering by dressing life up in beliefs that effectively drive wedges between people – and perhaps even more pertinent, creating discord throughout our whole mind/body organism by denying who and what we really are.

Thanks for this post, Brian. This clearly spells out Sabine Hossenfelder’s position; and very clearly she’s no woo-enabler, exactly the opposite.

I’m very sure that, if we had a discussion on actual issues, specifics, then in every case we’d agree. Clearly she does not mind clearly calling out bull shit when she sees it, as she makes clear in the excerpts you’ve presented here.

But, however. I do take issue with one part of what she says. The last paragraph in your post, where she says, “It is as unnecessary as the hypothesis of God. Not wrong, but ascientific.” Especially when that is read with that earlier excerpt from her book, that “…demarcating the current limits of science doesn't only destroy illusions; it also helps us recognize which beliefs are still compatible with scientific fact. Such beliefs should maybe not be called unscientific but rather ascientific … The idea that the universe itself is conscious, I have found to my surprise, is difficult to rule out entirely (chapter 8).”

Again, I realize Sabine Hossenfelder is no Deepak Chopra, nor some charlatan televangelist or fraud. She’s a bona fide physicist, who clearly knows far more about the actual *content* of science than I will ever know, and who may well have actually contributed personally towards arriving at some of that knowledge herself for all I know. Like I said, I’m guessing, basis her views here, that when it comes to discussing actual specifics, she will call out BS every time. But, that said, I take issue with her saying things like the parts I’ve reproduced in the preceding paragraph, first because that sort of thing can be misused by others to propagate woo (much like people try to co-opt Einstein’s words to try to further their obscurantism, most conspicuously people like Deepak Chopra but many others on a lesser scale); but more fundamentally because I believe she’s plain wrong in saying this. And I say this despite she being who she is, and me being …well, just me. She’s wrong as far as that much.

Wild conjectures about the origin of the universe, or for that matter the God question, these are NOT outside the purview of science. No, wild beliefs about and around them are not “ascientific”, and to say that is a cop-out I’m afraid; because it is plain that such beliefs would be squarely “unscientific”.

To me, “ascientific” would be things like, do I like this piece of music? Do I love that girl? Do I like this artwork? What are my values, what are my morals, my ideas on ethics, on esthetics, both in general as well as when it comes to specifics? These are questions that might, certainly, be *informed* by science, that might be made consistent with science, that might be better understood by using science, and that might benefit from science; but that are at heart outside the purview of science, and so are “ascientific”.

However, to believe in a hypothesis that is not borne out by science, that isn’t, like Hossenfelder claims, an “ascientific” belief. Yes, if you propose a null hypothesis, and your research invalidates that hypothesis, then to continue to believe in that disproved null hypothesis is “unscientific”. But equally, to believe in random hypotheses that, in her words, are “unnecessary”, are, yes UNSCIENTIFIC --- not just “ascientific”, but unscientific. To believe such hypotheses is WRONG --- not just “ascientific”, but plain wrong. I’m afraid Hossenfelder is plain mistaken about how she discusses this very important issue.

This takes us back to the soft-atheism-hard-atheism discussion. I’d touched on it in my comment the other day, so I won’t repeat it now, except to emphasize that both routes lead to exactly the same outcome, which is rejection of the God hypothesis. (And that goes for all other kinds of woo, obviously.)

I mean, look at the implications of what Hossenfelder suggests here. Is Thor (or, if you like, Indra) losing his temper and lashing out, why lightning happens? Science has explained the mechanism of lightning, but who is to say it isn’t actually Thor (or, if you like, Indra) who uses that mechanism to make lightning happen? How did we humans come to be? Evolution explains how we came to be, but might it be that crazy bearded jealous demented Yahweh-God used that mechanism to, yes, *create* us? Do fairies and leprechauns exist? Does Santa Claus? Does Xenu? Do I have an invisible undetectable unicorn living in my garage? By her reasoning all of these questions are “ascientific”. Not “unscientific”, merely “ascientific”. Not “wrong”, merely “ascientific”. And that opens the floodgates to classifying all manner of craziness as “not wrong”, as “not unscientific”, but as merely “ascientific”, that is to say outside the purview of science.

No, I disagree, and in the strongest possible terms. (Disagree, I mean to say, with that specific argument of hers. Obviously there’s no question of disagreement with all the rest of what she says. But as far as that much, I do disagree, absolutely. No matter that she’s a bona fide physicist, but she’s wrong, squarely mistaken.)

What she’s doing is misusing the term “ascientific”. Ethics and esthetics are, at heart, “ascientific”. But hypotheses that, while not tested and squarely disproved by science, are nevertheless not borne out by science, and are, as she says, “unnecessary”, are not just a-scientific (as she claims they are), not outside the purview of science, but are actually un-scientific.

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