Monday, October 1, 2012

New Atheists, Neo-Atheists, the Once and Twice Born and the Will to Believe: An Extended Discussion (Part I)

In The Wall Street Journal article, ‘The Once Born and the Twice Born’ (Sept. 29-30, p. C5), author Gertrude Himmelfarb takes on “New Atheists”, Philosopher William James, Neo-Atheists, The “Once Born” and the “Twice Born” with confusing and often contradictory results. Indeed, it is difficult to find a single coherent conclusion other than that:

In the debate between religion and science, between believers and non-believers, the terrible simplifiers on both sides tend to dominate the discourse.”

However, this needs serious qualification and explication which will be done over multiple blogs..We begin by looking at her assorted definitions, and also how she approaches William James, author of  The Will to Believe.

In the case of the New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens and I’d also reckon in physicist Victor Stenger, religion is an insupportable intellectual province if predicated on the supernatural. This is because supernatural adherents haven’t fulfilled the most basic criteria to claim its existence. These have been rigorously defined by Pascal Boyer (Ch. 2, ‘What Supernatural Concepts are like’, p. 51, in ‘Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought’, Basic Books) whereby:

“the information contained in key tags of the statement or concept must contradict information provided by the ontological category”.

Therefore all terms used via supernatural extension, i.e. “force”, “thought”, “knowledge”, “act” etc. must be set out so as to contradict the tag in a known (physical) ontological category.  Thus, “supernatural force” must be shown to specifically contradict physical force (as given by Newton’s 2nd law, F = ma) and be explained in depth to show its workability in a supernatural domain. If this can’t be done satisfactorily, there’s no reason whatsoever to try to set up an independent supernatural domain. If this be the case then supernatural religion falls of its own weight. People can choose to believe or accept it if they desire, but there’s no more benefit than accepting two inch fairies or leprechauns. Less, because at least the latter have physical dimensions, properties.

A common misunderstanding of the New Atheist position is the insinuation that they declare all Gods logically eliminated. In fact, Victor Stenger has conceded some god concepts cannot be ruled out ipso facto (HuffPost, ‘Religion’ Blog, Aug. 23, 2012). As Stenger puts it:

“Certainly the deist god who does not interfere in the world is difficult to rule out. However, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, whom I identify with an uppercase G, is believed to play such an active role in the universe that his actions should have been detected, thus confirming his existence.”

Thus, a non-interfering deity certainly isn’t disclaimed by the New Atheists, and even Dawkins in his “God Delusion” has conceded one cannot rule out every deity with total certainty.  I would add to this that any holistic, physically-based and impersonal deity construct – say along the lines of David Bohm’s Holomovement- cannot be ruled out. In fact, quantum nonlocality appears to point to it in certain ways, though the confirming experiments (which Bohm himself proposed over twenty years ago) still haven’t been done. These would show the existence of physically real de Broglie waves (and hence that the quantum wave function is not merely a statistical artifact as first proposed by Max Born).

Where I most disagree with Himmelfarb is in her claim that the New Atheists – like Stenger- are as “monolithic in their devotion to science as religious fundamentalists are in their monotheism

This isn’t so at all. According to Stenger, the application of quantum mechanics to brain function isn’t needed because: “for a system to be described quantum mechanically its typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant, h.” (Where h is 6.6 x 10-34  J-s). Stenger in his book, The Unconscious Quantum, argues that simple computation of the product mvd discloses this standard isn’t met. But this is exactly the error Alan Chalmers exposes as being too strong a falsification criterion. As Chalmers observes (Science and Its Fabrication, 1990, Univ. of Minnesota Press, p. 16,):

"...if we make our falsificationist criteria too strong then many of our most admired theories within physics fail to quality as good science while if we  make them too weak few areas fail to qualify."

In the case of Stenger’s “mvd” product criterion, it’s obviously too strict as regards falsification (though as I'll show below it's also impossible to prove on purely physical grounds - based on the Uncertainty principle). A much more realistic criterion is the one used, for example, by Henry Stapp in ascertaining that calcium Ca++ ions in the brain display a scale that is amenable to quantum description. Also that the synaptic cleft’s dimension (200- 300nm) is of a scale to admit application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Stenger’s argument is that (from computation of his mvd for the requisite parameters), the mass of neuro-transmitter molecules and their speed across the synaptic cleft are two orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. The problem is that if the dimension of the synapse itself is 200nm -300nm or within Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle dimensions, the computation is meaningless – since simultaneous,  indefinitely accurate values cannot be obtained. Hence, Stenger would not be able to calculate accurate v and x, or d (position in relation to v) at the same time.
Hence, if the synaptic cleft distance d is known to perfect accuracy (delta d = 0) then clearly mv = oo, since:

delta p =  m(delta v) = h/ (delta d) = h/ 0

N.B. If 'less than perfect' accuracy is used, say for d, e.g. delta d ~ 10 nm, the original complaint still applies of too strong a falsification criterion. We then revert to Henry Stapp's "Heisenberg Ontology", op. cit. pp. 153-55)

My point, which I also noted in my book The Atheist’s Handbook to Modern Materialism, is that one cannot claim to be in the domain of modern Scientific Materialism without incorporating quantum mechanics into brain function as Physicist Henry Stapp has shown (cf. Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics). Moreover, Stenger’s failure to take faithful account of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in his mvd computation shows clearly he’s not any “monolithic” follower of science. Instead, we see his own biases and personal preferences can get in the way of science.

This also extends to his rejection of nonlocality and quantum reality and with it the basis for the Aspect experiment.In his book, Physics and Psychics Stenger insists:

“If simultaneous holistic connections between separated events exist, then either the whole foundation of twentieth century physics must be destroyed, or these connections must be supernatural.”

But this is hogwash. Stenger makes the erroneous assumption that quantum holism  (nonlocality) presumes a signal transfer concept. It does not. Nor do Aspect's experiments (or any others) show a "faster-than-light" signal concept! What holism (or quantum nonlocality) shows is not superluminal transfer of information, but rather pre-existing connections in a higher dimensionality! This is totally different.(See also Bohm's detailed explanation: 'Quantum Theory As An Indication of a Multi-Dimensional Implicate Order', in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980, p. 186).

The point is that the two photons detected by the analyzers A1, A2 in the Aspect experiment are already connected in a higher dimensionality, not readily accessible to us. The experimental results unequivocally show this, but we insist on using fragmentary language to refer to 'two photons’. What Stenger perceives as some kind of relativistic cheating, is merely the normal behavior of an already integrated, existing entity.

As Aspect et al explicate it from their paper (Physical Review Letters, Vol. 47, No. 7, p. 460.):

No energy can be exchanged between the photons in å o , so that no causal anomaly results from this particular action at a distance”.

This is known as “causal covariant action at a distance’. It is easily represented by two end to end wave forms (like the tops of sine waves) but with their bases continuous as opposed to cut off. Thus, two photons A and B are apparently displaced from each other by some distance, L, measured between their maxima, but which are actually connected at low levels of field intensity, φ. It is only at high levels of this intensity we observe them as separate (“singlet”) photons. It is in that displaced condition Stenger is considering “superluminal” transfers – say of energy- but in reality it’s not needed because the two photons are already bound.

Again, my point here is to show Himmelfarb’s claim of New Atheists as single-minded, monolithic  followers of science as spurious. In this light, one also needs to distinguish carefully between a dogmatic scientism and actual science.

Physicist Bernard d’Espagnat puts it perhaps best (‘In Search of Reality’, Springer-Verlag, p. 56),.

“If scientism were correct, or more precisely, if the view of the world it proposes so forcefully, that of a world ultimately consisting of myriads of small localized objects merely endowed with quasi-local properties were correct, then such an evolution of our mentality would admittedly be excellent. It is always good for man to know the truth! But on the other hand, if the ultimate vision of the world which scientism proposes is false, if its conceptual bases are mistaken, then this development is – on the contrary –quite unfortunate.”

The careful discrimination between science and scientism is crucial to our continued discussion of Himmelfarb’s article, and her examination of William James, because it sets the contexts more clearly. In this sense, as George Santayana once noted (Reason in Religion, p. 157) just as one can have a false religion, one can have a false physics. He posed the two as symmetric coin faces of a kind of abiding unreality.

The tragedy is not that pervasive human uncertainty allows for religions of the “once born” or “twice born” but that humans – given their finite neural capacities- too often fall prey for religions or theologies that really amount to a false physics. As Santayana puts it (ibid.):

“It does not require much experience or shrewdness to discover that supernatural beings and laws are without the efficacy which was attributed to them. True physics and true history must always tend, in enlightened minds, to supplant those misinterpreted religious traditions”

This will be important as we continue examination of Himmelfarb’s discourse in the next instalments.
Meanwhile, let me give Himmelfarb’s definition of the Neo-Atheists: they “are aware of the psychological and spiritual deficiencies of Atheism and are eager to import into secular society some of the enduring ‘goods’ of traditional religions”.

My argument is that these “goods” are as marginal and irrelevant as the Neo-Atheists (embodied by Alain de Botton, in his ‘Religion for Atheists’) if they do not somehow eliminate the need for a false religion –false physics.

Next: William James, The Will To Believe and the Once-Born and Twice-Born

No comments: