Friday, December 20, 2013

Seven billion brains

Neil Turok is a theoretical physicist and campaigner for various progressive causes including his particular quest to promote mathematics and science education in Africa. A very worthy cause, you might say. And I agree.

But Turok's na├»ve enthusiasm – for this and other ideas – leads him to make extravagent claims and comparisons.

For example, his talk about a future "African Einstein" is pure hype and verges on the meaningless. For one thing, science in general and physics in particular have changed dramatically in the last hundred years such that individual scientists will never again play the prominent roles they once did.

Turok's most recent book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos* (based on his Massey Lectures given in late 2012), is a disorganized and confused mixture of popular science, social advocacy and mystical-sounding speculation.

I'll focus on a particularly vacuous section (pp. 199-201). Here Turok raises (for the third time in the book) the issue of the discrimination and prejudice once faced by European Jews. When eventually, in the latter part if the 19th century, they gained access to scientific and technical education they were (as he puts it) "hugely motivated to ... show that Jews could do every bit as well as anybody else."

It follows from this, apparently, that other excluded groups (such as Africans) hold the key to future scientific breakthroughs.

Turok is now really hitting his stride...

"Which brings me," he writes, "back to the question of unification, both of peoples across the planet and of our understanding of the world. [Don't you love this?] The search for a superunified theory is an extremely ambitious goal. A priori, it would seem to be hopeless: we are tiny, feeble creatures dwarfed by the universe around us. Our only tools are our minds and our ingenuity. But these have enabled us to come amazingly far. If we think of the world today, with seven billion minds, many in emerging economies and societies, it is clear there is a potential gold mine of talent... If opportunities are opened, we can anticipate waves of motivated, original young people capable of transformative discoveries.

Who are we in the end? As far as we know, we represent something very rare in the universe..."

Forgive me if I gloss over Turok's one hundred and fifty word summary of the cosmic and biological evolution which has brought us to "the threshold of a new phase of evolution". He continues:

"Great mysteries remain. Why did the universe emerge from the big bang with a set of physical laws that gave rise to heavy elements and allowed complex chemistry? Why did these laws allow for planets to form around stars, with water, organic molecules, an atmosphere and the other requirements for life? Why did the DNA-protein machinery, developed and selected for in the evolution of single-cell organisms, turn out to be able to code for complex creatures like ourselves? How and why did consciousness emerge?"

There is much more of this contentless verbiage. Like this gem (which reminds me of something an ousted Prime Minister with a particularly healthy ego said** when asked what he would be doing in the future):

"We cannot know what new technologies we will create, but if the past is any guide, they will be extraordinary."

Obviously, though, all these rhetorical questions and speculations are pointing in a particular direction, are leading up to something. "Might we be the means," asks Turok, "for the universe to gain a consciousness of itself?"

What he seems to be suggesting is that there is some kind of master plan. And this interpretation is reinforced by the attention given to the writings of (of all people) the Jesuit mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whom Turok insists on calling 'de Chardin' as if Teilhard was a given name).

The main lesson (and it is an important one) I take from The Universe Within is that scientific and mathematical expertise in no way guarantees that sense of critical awareness which is so necessary for sound judgement on broader intellectual and social matters. Theoretical physicists should be listened to only when they are talking about theoretical physics.

But even here we have to be careful, as many physicists – Turok amongst them – cannot resist trading on their scientific expertise to underscore broader philosophical and religious points which they wish (for non-scientific reasons) to make.

Turok claims, for example, that according to the laws of quantum physics, "... we are not irrelevant bystanders. On the contrary, what we see depends upon what we decide to observe. Unlike classical physics, quantum physics allows for, but does not yet explain, an element of free will." (The Universe Within, p. 168)

Apart from the fact that "free will" is a thoroughly theological concept which he just throws in here without any discussion or elaboration, Turok is glossing over very real controversies about the interpretation and implications of contemporary physics.

It may well be that consciousness does lie at the heart of reality (though on most recent interpretations quantum mechanics does not assume or imply this, at least to my knowledge). It may even be that the concept of free will can be rehabilitated.

But Turok's pronouncements on these sorts of issues are no more illuminating than most of his speculations and predictions about human progress.

* Allen & Unwin, 2013.

** He didn't know what he would be doing, but whatever it was it would be big!


  1. Quantum theorists are famous for saying the act of observation changes the object observed, but I've always thought that was premature to say, more the product of incomplete knowledge that does not yet account for what could be an illusion (light is a wave AND a particle, but WE dont change the state by observing it; we can observe only one at a time). So people who take that phase change as caused by consciousness are jumping off the conclusion cliff anyway, I think. On the way down, suddenly the human brain has magical powers to change the look of the entire universe. Hogwash to me.
    Even if we discard or ignore every use of free will made by theology (heavily central to Christianity I agree), there is still a large secular literature on it, and the question still remains (and still investigated by scientists) whether the individual is in control of its thoughts and decisions. So "free will" talk doesn't go out with the bathwater, in my opinion. Another area where illusions still reign.

  2. Your description of Turok (closer to the point of the post) reminds me of what one might say about Hegel. Soaring prose, idealism, and in the end, abundant vacuity.

  3. I concede that there are still lots of questions to be answered about the nature and extent of human freedom.

    And I'm still not entirely clear about Turok's positions with respect to religious and philosophical matters. But he certainly seems to draw on that nineteenth-century European tradition which emphasized 'becoming' over static 'being' (and which led in the 20th century to so-called process theology).

    But his cosmological ideas, I suspect, owe little to his philosophical predilections and are genuinely interesting. I have just read the transcript of a talk he gave for some years ago on his cyclic model. Very impressive actually.

  4. As far as I know, there is only one strong argument for determinism. It rests on the claim that very event is law-governed. If that claim is not upheld by the best current physics, then I think there is no good argument for determinism.

    Which is not to say that there is any good argument for free-will. There may be no good arguments on either side.

    Mark's notion that the idea of free-will is somehow theological seems to me a very dogmatic assertion. Belief in free-will comes naturally whenever we make (seemingly) unconstrained choices. It is a very naturalistic idea.

  5. I don't think you can effectively separate the idea (of free will) from the term, and I tend to look at this question historically. I was introduced to the term in a theological context – via Christian doctrines. And I have always assumed that its historical roots lay in medieval theology (specifically in the Late Latin expression liberum arbitrium), but I am happy to be corrected on this.

    My understanding is that the ancients had a very different understanding of human freedom – as depicted, for example, in Greek tragedies where fate plays a major role. And the ancient Romans didn't talk about liberum arbitrium, but rather of voluntas (will, desire) or libertas (liberty). I don't think they had an expression for 'free will' in our sense, which, as I say, I can only understand in the context of its medieval origins.

    I don't see how I am being dogmatic. In my reply to GC, I made it clear that I have an open mind on the nature and the extent of human freedom, and even in the original post I conceded that the concept of free will may be salvageable.

    One of the reasons I don't like the term is that – in line with its religious and metaphysical roots – it suggests an absolute thing which you've either got or you haven't. I prefer to think in terms of degrees of freedom – you know, the differences between young children and adults, addicts and non-addicts, etc.

  6. To me the idea of free will denotes the ability to make real choices. It may be illusory, but it operates in just about all our actions. Some actions are driven by addictions, impulses, obsessions, entrenched habits, and so on. But many are not, I think. These are what I think of as free, because it seems that in doing A I could also have done B, and I can't see any compelling reason to say that I could not have done B.

    Determinism does offer a compelling meta-reason: all events are the product of law-like causation. I don't have a good counter-argument to that.

    It may be that free-will is an invention of some stage in Western history, but so is determinism. So is the whole debate. I'd be surprised if Aristotle (say) could not quite quickly pick up the arguments we toss around. But I guess that's a counterfactual we can't test.

  7. For me the term 'free will' just carries a bit too much historical and metaphysical baggage. And it sits very uneasily with what some 19th-century thinkers intuited – and what we now know – about unconscious brain processes, for example.

    But, as you say (and I agree): "Some actions are driven by addictions, impulses, obsessions, entrenched habits, and so on. But many are not, I think. These are what I think of as free..."

    Yes. We make choices and we bear the responsibility and reap the consequences of those choices. They are 'real choices', but I suspect not in the sense in which you are using the phrase. And it makes sense to call them free if only to distinguish them from choices driven by factors like addiction.

    You explain the free will question in terms of the question of whether our choices are 'real'. But what does this mean exactly?

    If you are asking whether those apparently free choices are really free in the sense that most of us experience them (i.e. as the result of conscious thought processes over which 'I' exert complete control) the answer is clearly no, I would say.

    But if you are asking whether conscious deliberation plays any significant role at all, then this is a very different question, and one that might well be answered in the affirmative.

  8. My idea of freedom turns on the question of whether the agent could have done otherwise.

  9. I'm not sure what that means. Obviously we judge people on the assumption that they could have. Social life would break down if we didn't.

    But in reality every choice works out just one way, and it's unclear (to me at any rate) whether the choices which weren't made were actual possibilities (again, whatever this means exactly) before the event or not. In the latter case, the illusion of freedom derives in some sense from ignorance.

  10. Actually, I see the inability to predict the future in general (not just human choices, which are, it must be said, often all too predictable!) as the essential point. The 'program' has to run its course for the outcome to be known – there is no shortcut. And this, in my opinion, gives us all the freedom we need.

  11. I think you are mixing up epistemic and metaphysical issues. Non-actualised possibilities may be real even if we can't know about them. Which is not to say we don't know about them.

  12. Mixing epistemic and metaphysical issues? Difficult to separate them sometimes, but I don't see any confusion on that score in what I have written.

    "Non-actualised possibilities may be real even if we can't know about them."

    I did not claim otherwise. They may be real. I merely expressed doubts that they are.

    This all started with a suggestion I made in passing that the concept of 'free will' was 'thoroughly theological'.

    Strangely enough, there was a discussion of this topic the other day on Massimo Pigliucci's blog which I've just come across in which one commenter notes that freiwillig is an ordinary German word for voluntary or voluntarily. A point to you!