What would Einstein do?

Source: Aeon

Author: Thomas Levenson edited by Corey S Powell

Emphasis Mine

Albert Einstein understood the power of science and scientific metaphors, and their ability to provide perspective on everyday experiences. Here is his oft-retold description of his best-known idea: ‘When you sit with a nice girl, an hour seems like a minute. When you sit on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour. That’s relativity.’ The joke hardly captures the precise physics involved, but it brings home the reality that our experience of time is malleable. Particularly relevant today, his explanatory approach offers a lesson to journalists struggling to cover complicated topics in a polarised media world. Thinking like Einstein – thinking relativistically – can help to decode stories on topics as far removed from science as power, love or money.

Einstein’s relativity was born in 1905, often called his ‘miracle year’. The paper in which he lays out the theory is a rarity within the scientific literature, clear and citation-free. Some of Einstein’s celebrated thought experiments are there to help the reader grasp the deep ideas within the paper’s seeming simplicity. The most famous of these concerns his shocking redefinition of the idea of simultaneity. Einstein breaks down the old conception and introduces a new one, using the scenario of a train being struck by lightning, observed both on board and from track-side. From the start, he connected his relativistic thinking to the familiar world.

But there’s another important thought problem in Einstein’s paper, one that is mostly overlooked. It focuses on an oddity in the way that physics was understood at the time. Scientists knew well that if a magnet and a wire coil (or any conductor) move with respect to each other, a current flows through the wire. But Einstein noted that, in turn-of-the-century theory, the description of the event differed depending on whether the magnet moved and the coil remained at rest, or the coil moved and the magnet stayed. That duality, Einstein realised, shouldn’t be. Either way, the relative motion was the same, and the outcome was also the same – yet the way in which physicists grappled with the events was different. Einstein deduced that his colleagues were missing the broader, unifying context.

There is a direct correspondence between Einstein’s emphasis on the need to come up with a consistent picture of an event as seen by any observer (in this case, from the coil’s perspective and the magnet’s) and a critical demand for journalistic rigour. For example, consider the ruling made by President Barack Obama’s administration this May that made more than 4 million workers eligible for paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week. Peter O’Dowd, in a piece for the National Public Radio programme Here and Now, told listeners that the workers had just received ‘a raise’. Many other journalists offered the same interpretation. In one sense, that’s true: people earning overtime will take home more money than those who don’t. But it could also be said that there was no raise at all. A newly overtime-eligible employee receives the exact same base salary rate as before, but will now get paid for all the hours worked.

Here are two distinct and yet internally consistent descriptions of the same event. For a supervisor, spending more on wages feels like a raise. To subordinates, getting paid for all of their time on the job is just getting back to level. So how can a reporter get the story right? Think like Einstein, this time accounting for the categories of boss and worker instead of coil and magnet.

The special theory of relativity gives the physicist a tool that allows her to reconcile different descriptions of the same event. Einstein’s answer in his 1905 paper turns on the concept of reference frames, the coordinates and clock ticks that mark where and when each observer views a given event. Observers in separate reference frames that are in constant motion with respect to each other (the coil or the magnet, the train passenger or someone watching from the embankment) will make different measurements of the same event. In the latter half of the paper, Einstein supplies the mathematical framework that connects those two views, but even the conceptual version is enormously powerful. Relativity is a misleading name, one that Einstein himself didn’t love; the key to special relativity is that it reconciles the differing, ‘relative’ interpretations of a single, invariant event.

Moving from physics to daily life: here, again, special relativity accepts the critical importance of point of view, the way observers interpret what they’ve just seen. At the same time, it affirms the unique reality of the event being observed. For a journalist, that sense of a formal relationship between interpretation – even spin – and the underlying event or action is vital. Relativistic thinking is especially helpful in any area that has accumulated a dominant narrative frame. The economics beat, for instance, naturally lends itself to the corporate perspective. Relativisitic journalism would help to ensure that no story about a change in employment rules talked only about raises and not about work hours.

There is no mathematical transformation that can precisely align the boss’s view with that of her workers, but the idea of reference frames maps directly from physics on to the shop floor. It does so, too, for many other stories that hinge on disparities of power. It helps journalists to hear the silent ‘…as much as everyone else’s’, after the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, and hew more closely to Einstein’s own generous views on racial equality. It sharpens the reporting of medical stories; in the recent debate over different countries’ mammogram frequency recommendations, for instance, it clarifies that the issue is at least as much about communicating risk as it is about performing accurate diagnostics. Frames of reference certainly impinge on stories about politics and policy.

To be clear, I am not calling for mere ‘both-sides’ journalism. We already have too much of that. Not every fact has two distinct, equivalent meanings. Human-driven global warming and disease-reduction from vaccination are real, and the complaints of a handful of dissenters doesn’t alter that reality. But many more stories exist in which a commitment to one perspective blinds the reporter – and the audience – to the alternatives. Not every reporter can be as smart as Einstein. But it is possible, and a damn good idea, to think at least a little bit like him.

Thomas Levenson is is professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent book is The Hunt for Vulcan: … And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe (2015). He lives in Massachusetts.


9 Great Freethinkers and Religious Dissenters in History

From: AlterNet

By:Adam Lee

What kind of world would we have if a majority of the human race was atheist?

To hear religious apologists tell it, the triumph of atheism would mean a swift descent into selfishness and chaos. The defenders of the faith argue that atheism inevitably leads to selfishness and nihilism, and that only religion can justify charity or compassion, bind people together in community, or inspire a lively and flourishing culture. But this assertion can only be sustained by ignoring the accomplishments of famous nonreligious people throughout history, of which there have been many.

To dispel the myth that nonbelievers have never contributed anything of worth or value to human civilization, I want to highlight some who’ve left their mark in the arts, the sciences and the humanities. Demonstrating that the godless count distinguished members of the human race among our numbers is a way to fight back against this prejudice and to demonstrate that we, too, have a historical legacy we can be proud of.

Not all of the people profiled here were strict atheists, but all of them werefreethinkers, a broader umbrella term that embraces a rainbow of unorthodoxy, religious dissent, skepticism, and unconventional thinking. It’s no surprise that so many influential thinkers and creative types have come from the ranks of these intellectual revolutionaries. Organized religion tends to reward people not for thinking creatively or critically, but for reciting and defending the dogmas of the previous generation. Throughout human history, it has consistently been true that hidebound theocracies have been mired in poverty, backwardness and intellectual stagnation, whereas the most dramatic advances have come about in times and places where people had the freedom to think for themselves, to freely question and debate. The lives of the men and women recounted here bear testimony to this.

1. Albert Einstein. The archetypal scientific genius, Einstein inaugurated a revolution in physics that bears fruit to this day. His theories and equations undergird the 20th century: technologies from nuclear power to GPS satellites only exist because of his discoveries. But beyond his impressive scientific contributions, he was known as a peacemaker and civil-rights advocate: he was one of the first to warn the world of the dangers of Nazism, joined anti-lynching campaigns, publicly opposed McCarthyism, and called for nuclear disarmament worldwide. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of Israel but turned it down, saying that he was unqualified.

Einstein famously made statements like, “God does not play dice with the universe” that have inspired religious apologists to try to claim him as their own, but on other occasions, he made it clear that this was nothing but poetic metaphor. He made his views known in letters, writing, for example: “I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” On another occasion, he wrote, “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

2. Robert Ingersoll. One of the most famous Americans most people today have never heard of, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll, known in his lifetime as the “Great Agnostic,” once commanded national fame and renown. In an era before television and radio, public oratory was the leading form of entertainment, and Ingersoll set the gold standard. He was one of the most sought-after speakers in the country; he drew crowds of thousands, and on one occasion, after hearing him speak, Mark Twain observed, “What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!”

He was a staunch abolitionist who served honorably for the Union in the Civil War, and went on to advocate progressive causes like free speech, women’s rights, anti-racism and the abolition of corporal punishment. Though politicians repeatedly sought his endorsement and his rhetorical talents, the highest position that Ingersoll himself ever held was the attorney general of Illinois — due, no doubt, to his willingness to eloquently express his freethought views. In a eulogy, the New York Times observed that only his outspoken irreligious views kept him from taking “that place in the… public life of his country to which by his talents he would otherwise have been eminently entitled.” Not that Ingersoll himself would have wanted it any other way: as he declared, a truly spiritual man “attacks what he believes to be wrong, though defended by the many, and he is willing to stand for the right against the world.”

3. W.E.B. DuBoisContrary to popular impression, the black community in America has a long tradition of involvement with freethought and secularism, as exemplified by one of its most influential racial-justice activists, W.E.B. DuBois. One of the first black men to get a Ph.D. from Harvard, DuBois was one of the founders of the NAACP and a prolific and critically praised writer, educator and historian.

By DuBois’ own account, he was raised religious and attended an orthodox missionary college, but his doubts about religion blossomed while studying in Europe. When he returned to America, he taught at a black Methodist college, Wilberforce University, but drew the wrath of school administrators for refusing to lead students in prayer. As Susan Jacoby quotes him in her book Freethinkers, “I flatly refused again to join any church or sign any church creed. From my 30th year on I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.” He also said he wanted “to make the Negro church a place where colored men and women of education and energy can work for the best things regardless of their belief or disbelief in unimportant dogmas and ancient and outworn creeds.”

4. Zora Neale Hurston. Like DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston was an influential black freethinker and an acclaimed early 20th-century author. She attended Columbia University on a scholarship, and while living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, met scholars and artists like Margaret Mead and Langston Hughes. She herself wrote both fiction and anthropological works about the black community. Her masterwork, the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston makes her freethought views clear and denies that the prospect of nonexistence after death holds any fear for her:

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws… It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men?

5. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although no one person deserves sole credit for laying the groundwork for the 19th Amendment, Elizabeth Cady Stanton comes close. Stanton organized and shepherded one of the pivotal early events in the suffrage movement, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and she played a key role in issuing the famous Declaration of Sentiments that first called for women’s suffrage (against the wishes of other attendees, some of whom felt that demanding the vote was too radical even for them).

Despite a lifetime of organizing and lobbying for women’s suffrage, Stanton was often shunted aside by her own movement for her controversial, outspoken freethought views and her attacks on religion as a major justification for the continued oppression of women, including her scathing The Woman’s Bible. On one occasion, she wrote, “I have endeavoured to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at least that peace and comfort I could never find in the Bible and the church.”

Some of Stanton’s spiritual descendants in the feminist movement had similarly irreligious views. One of the most famous was Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood and a fearless crusader in the fight to make birth control available and legal to American women. Sanger’s motto was “No Gods, No Masters,” and her newsletter had the memorable title The Woman Rebel.

6. Asa Philip Randolph. The 20th-century American civil rights movement is often identified with Christianity, which is almost single-handedly due to the influence of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But secular humanists played almost as important a role. One of them was Asa Philip Randolph, a trailblazing labor organizer whose career spanned the 20th century and who was one of the pioneers of the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Randolph entered the civil-rights movement by way of the labor movement, beginning by organizing mainly black railroad workers. But he soon set his sights higher, especially as the country was drawn into World War II and the defense industry was booming. He took the lead in organizing civil-rights marches that convinced presidents Roosevelt and Truman to issue executive orders ending segregation in defense contractors and the armed services. As his star rose, he served as vice president of the AFL-CIO and helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In addition to all this, Randolph was a lifelong freethinker. He was the founder of a literary magazine, The Messenger, whose masthead declared that “Prayer is not one of our remedies... We consider prayer as nothing more than a fervent wish.” He was also one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto in 1970.

7. Robert Frost. New England’s most famous poet is justly immortalized for his poetic tributes to nature and rural life, but his religious skepticism is lesser known. Frost’s views on God are complex; for much of his life, he grappled with a deep-seated superstitious fear he could never fully shake. But after 20 years of marriage, his wife said that he was an atheist, and he didn’t deny it.

What’s interesting is that this comes through inadvertently in his poetry. When speaking of his fellow human beings and their relationships, Frost is warm, welcoming, thoroughly humanist. But when he turns to the subject of God, he more often than not becomes dark and terrifying, depicting the idea of a deity as a savage force of nature more than a worthy object of reverence. His famous poem “Design” calls the suffering and predation in nature a “design of darkness.” The poem “Once by the Pacific,” Frost’s vision of the apocalypse, has the poet looking out at crashing ocean waves and envisioning them as a harbinger of doomsday. The poem “A Loose Mountain” envisions God as a cosmic destroyer waiting to hurl a meteor at the Earth, like a stone thrown from a sling, biding his time so he can release it when it will cause the maximum amount of devastation.

8. Emma Lazarus. Like Robert Frost, Emma Lazarus was a poet whose words have defined the American experience. She may not have as many classics to her name, but her one crowning achievement may be even better known than any of his: her poem “The New Colossus,” best known as the words engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The statue was originally a symbol of republicanism, but Lazarus’ poem recast it as a beacon for immigrants from all over the world. Even when America has fallen short of this ideal, these words remind us that we can do better and inspire us to work for positive change.

Lazarus came from a Jewish background, but she was known as a freethinker. As the Jewish Virtual Library records, on one occasion she told a rabbi who asked her to contribute to a hymn book, “I shall always be loyal to my race, but I feel no religious fervor in my soul.”

9. Yip Harburg. E.Y. “Yip” Harburg isn’t a household name, but some of his works are. Harburg was the Broadway lyricist who wrote the words to some of America’s most memorable and culturally significant songs, including “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and all the music from The Wizard of Oz, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Harburg was known as “Broadway’s social conscience” for the progressive messages of his songs and musicals, including “Bloomer Girl” and “Hooray for What,” which advocated feminism and anti-war themes respectively. At one point he was blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, but kept working for the stage even as he was barred from television and film. He said in a biography, “The House of God never had much appeal for me. Anyhow, I found a substitute temple — the theater.”

For more famous historical freethinkers, see my series “The Contributions of Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, or Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History.

Emphasis Mine


The Consolation of Philosophy

From: Scientific American

By: Lawrence Krauss

“Recently, as a result of my most recent book, A Universe from Nothing, I participated in a wide-ranging and in-depth interview for The Atlantic on questions ranging from the nature of nothing to the best way to encourage people to learn about the fascinating new results in cosmology.  The interview was based on the transcript of a recorded conversation and was hard hitting (and, from my point of view, the interviewer was impressive in his depth), but my friend Dan Dennett recently wrote to me to say that it has been interpreted (probably because it included some verbal off-the-cuff remarks, rather than carefully crafted written responses) by a number of his colleagues and readers as implying a blanket condemnation of philosophy as a discipline, something I had not intended.

Out of respect for Dan and those whom I may have unjustly offended, and because the relationship between physics and philosophy seems to be an area which has drawn some attention of late, I thought I would take the opportunity to write down, as coherently as possible, my own views on several of these issues, as a physicist and cosmologist.  As I should also make clear (and as numerous individuals have not hesitated to comment upon already), I am not a philosopher, nor do I claim to be an expert on philosophy.   Because of a lifetime of activity in the field of theoretical physics, ranging from particle physics to general relativity to astrophysics, I do claim however to have some expertise in the impact of philosophy on my own field.  In any case, the level of my knowledge, and ignorance, will undoubtedly become clearer in what follows.

As both a general reader and as someone who is interested in ideas and culture, I have great respect for and have learned a great deal from a number of individuals who currently classify themselves as philosophers. Of course as a young person I read the classical philosophers, ranging from Plato to Descartes, but as an adult I have gained insights into the implications of brain functioning and developments inevolutionary psychology for understanding human behavior from colleagues such as Dan Dennett and Pat Churchland.  I have been forced to re-examine my own attitudes towards various ethical issues, from the treatment of animals to euthanasia, by the cogent and thoughtful writing of Peter Singer.   And reading the work of my friend A.C. Grayling has immeasurably heightened my understanding and appreciation of the human experience.

What I find common and so stimulating about the philosophical efforts of these intellectual colleagues is the way they thoughtfully reflect on human knowledge, amassed from empirical explorations in areas ranging from science to history, to clarify issues that are relevant to making decisions about how to function more effectively and happily as an individual, and as a member of a society.

As a practicing physicist however, the situation is somewhat different.  There, I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field.  Even in several areas associated with what one can rightfully call the philosophy of science I have found the reflections of physicists to be more useful.  For example, on the nature of science and the scientific method, I have found the insights offered by scientists who have chosen to write concretely about their experience and reflections, from Jacob Bronowski, to Richard Feynman, to Francis Crick, to Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Sir James Jeans, to have provided me with a better practical guide than the work of even the most significant philosophical writers of whom I am aware, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.  I admit that this could primarily reflect of my own philosophical limitations, but I suspect this experience is more common than not among my scientific colleagues.

The one area of physics that has probably sparked the most ‘philosophical’ interest in recent times is the ‘measurement’ problem in quantum mechanics.  How one moves from the remarkable and completely non-intuitive microscopic world where quantum mechanical indeterminacy reigns supreme and particles are doing many apparently inconsistent things at the same time, and are not localized in space or time, to the ordered classical world of our experience where baseballs and cannonballs have well-defined trajectories, is extremely subtle and complicated and the issues involved have probably not been resolved to the satisfaction of all practitioners in the field.   And when one tries to apply the rules of quantum mechanics to an entire universe, in which a separation between observer and observed is not possible, the situation becomes even murkier.

However, even here, the most useful progress has been made, again in my experience, by physicists.  The work of individuals such as Jim Hartle, and Murray Gell-Mann, Yakir Aharonov, Asher Peres, John Bell and others like them, who have done careful calculations associated with quantum measurement, has led to great progress in our appreciation of the subtle and confusing issues of translating an underlying quantum reality into the classical world we observe.   There have been people who one can classify as philosophers who have contributed usefully to this discussion, such as Abner Shimony, but when they have, they have been essentially doing physics, and have published in physics journals (Shimony’s work as a physicist is the work I am aware of).  As far as the physical universe is concerned, mathematics and experiment, the tools of theoretical and experimental physics appear to be the only effective ways to address questions of principle.

Which brings me full circle to the question of nothing, and my own comments regarding the progress of philosophy in that regard.   When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.  In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature.  Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.

As a scientist, the fascination normally associated with the classically phrased question “why is there something rather than nothing?”, is really contained in a specific operational question.  That question can be phrased as follows:  How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed?  Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space?  Why is there space at all?  There may be other ontological questions one can imagine but I think these are the ‘miracles’ of creation that are so non-intuitive and remarkable, and they are also the ‘miracles’ that physics has provided new insights about, and spurred by amazing discoveries, has changed the playing field of our knowledge.  That we can even have plausible answers to these questions is worth celebrating and sharing more broadly.

In this regard, there is a class of philosophers, some theologically inspired, who object to the very fact that scientists might presume to address any version of this fundamental ontological issue.  Recently one review of my book by such a philosopher, which I think motivated the questions in the Atlantic interview, argued not only that one particular version of the nothing described by modern physics was not relevant.  Even more surprisingly, this author claimed with apparent authority (surprising because the author apparently has some background in physics) something that is simply wrong:  that the laws of physics can never dynamically determine which particles and fields exist and whether space itself exists, or more generally what the nature of existence might be.  But that is precisely what ispossible in the context of modern quantum field theory in curved spacetime, where a phenomenon called ‘spontaneous symmetry breaking’ can determine dynamically which forces manifest themselves on large scales and which particles exist as stable states, and whether space itself can grow exponentially or not.  Within the context of quantum gravity the same is presumably true for which sorts of universes can appear and persist. Within the context of string theory, a similar phenomenon might ultimately determine (indeed if the theory is ever to become predictive, it must determine) why universes might spontaneously arise with 4 large spacetime dimensions and not 5 or 6.   One cannot tell from the review if the author actually read the book (since no mention of the relevant cosmology is made) or simply misunderstood it.

Theologians and both Christian and Muslim apologists have unfortunately since picked up on the ill-conceived claims of that review to argue that physics can therefore never really address the most profound ‘theological’ questions regarding our existence.   (To be fair, I regret sometimes lumping all philosophers in with theologians because theology, aside from those parts that involve true historical or linguistic scholarship, is not credible field of modern scholarship.)  It may be true that we can never fully resolved the infinite regression of ‘why questions’ that result whenever one assumes, a priori, that our universe must have some pre-ordained purpose.  Or, to frame things in a more theological fashion: ‘Why is our Universe necessary rather than contingent?’.

One answer to this latter question can come from physics.  If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something.  A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here.   It is in this sense that I argued that the seemingly profound question of why there is something rather than nothing might be actually no more profound than asking why some flowers are red or some are blue.    I was surprised that this very claim was turned around by the reviewer as if it somehow invalidated this possible physical resolution of the something versus nothing conundrum.

Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying.   If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.  It may be that even an eternal multiverse in which all universes and laws of nature arise dynamically will still leave open some ‘why’ questions, and therefore never fully satisfy theologians and some philosophers.   But focusing on that issue and ignoring the remarkable progress we can make toward answering perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the something from nothing question—understanding why there is ‘stuff’ and not empty space, why there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arise from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent, and useless.   It was in that sense—the classical ontological claim about the nature of some abstract nothing, compared to the physical insights about this subject that have developed—that I made the provocative, and perhaps inappropriately broad statement that this sort of philosophical speculation has not led to any progress over the centuries.

What I tried to do in my writing on this subject is carefully attempt to define precisely what scientists operationally mean by nothing, and to differentiate between what we know, and what is merely plausible, and what we might be able to probe in the future, and what we cannot.  The rest is, to me, just noise.

So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize.  I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.   To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.

Emphasis Mine


The Value of Evolution, and the Poverty of creationism

From: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/

By: Mark Trodden

“…In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.

“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.

It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise.  This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”

Emphasis Mine