Monday, December 12, 2005

Susskind on Science

Just picked up a copy of The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, by Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind. I've only read the preface so far, but if the following passage is typical of the rest of the book I think I'm going to like it:


Let me be up front and state my own prejudices right here. I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents. I believe that the eye evolved by Darwinian mechanisms. Furthermore, I believe that physicists and cosmologists must also find a natural explanation of our world, including the amazing lucky accidents that conspired to make our own existence possible. I believe that when people substitute magic for rational explanation, they are not doing science no matter how loudly they claim otherwise.


My kind of guy!

10 Comments:

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Mark Nutter said...

"I thoroughly believe that real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents."

While I agree in spirit, I think it's an unfortuitous way to express what is basically a valid point, since it invites religious people to miss the real point here. It's not that science is biased against the supernatural, it's that science is biased against the unverifiable.

Someone will attribute something to a cause that science cannot verify. When asked why science cannot verify it, they will claim that this cause is supernatural, and that is why it is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. Thus it is a prerequisite for the supernatural that it lie outside the domain of science, because nobody will call it supernatural if science manages to study it.

It is rather dishonest, IMHO, for ID proponents to take this inevitable reality and twist it into a statement that "science is biased against the supernatural," and when well-meaning scientists come along and say things like "real science requires explanations that do not involve supernatural agents," it only reinforces the false impression. Science's true bias is against the unverifiable, and the alleged bias against the supernatural is a mere artifact of our tendency to associate the supernatural with that which cannot be verified.

We ought to be expressing more clearly that our only opposition to the supernatural is as a consequence of its unverifiability, and not just an a priori prejudice against the possibility of certain ideas being true. Why should we create a false impression of being more biased than we really are?

 
At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm guessing you'll be less pleased with later sections.

Peter Woit has an interesting review of this book on his blog

Steven S

 
At 6:56 PM, Blogger David said...

I think Susskind's book is absolutely fantastic.

 
At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

Mark Nutter:
"We ought to be expressing more clearly that our only opposition to the supernatural is as a consequence of its unverifiability, and not just an a priori prejudice against the possibility of certain ideas being true. Why should we create a false impression of being more biased than we really are?"

Exactly. Why use terms like "supernatural" and "methodological naturalism" at all? If we mean verifiability (or observability or testability), we should use those words, and not confuse the issue by substituting the word "naturalism".

 
At 9:45 AM, Anonymous darthWilliam said...

Jason if you care to post a review of this book when you are finished I would love to see what you think of it. I thought Brian Greene's books on string theory explained it pretty well for the layman, have you read those (Elegant Universe, Fabric of the Cosmos)

 
At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

I think this mincing of phrases (which to scientists generally mean the same thing) is somewhat akin to the line from Michael Bolton in Office Space: "Why should I change my name? He's the one who sucks...".

Science (and scientists) shouldn't have to change its preferred and certainly applicable vocabulary simply to cope with the emotional hangups of non-scientists.

Its akin to science having to come up with a new word to replace "theory" in order to cater to the "theory not fact" nay-sayers.

 
At 2:31 PM, Blogger Jason said...

mark nutter-

Your points are well-taken, but I think generally scientists do a good job of making clear that it is testability that is important. As you also note, however, it is the ID folks who insist on talking about the supernatural. Scientists are just replying in kind. Some people need it spelled out for them that hypotheses based on the supernatural are precisely the ones that can't be tested.

anonymous-

Thanks for the link. Mr. Woit's review certainly raises some red flags.

david-

Glad you liked the book. You might want to take it up with Mr. Woit...

richard wein-

As I said to Mark, I think scientists do make it clear that it's verifiability that is at issue. Generally, I think people use the term supernatural as a synonym for unverifiable. The term methodological naturalism was coined by Robert Pennock in the course of replying to Phillip Johnson. Pennock used the term, as I recall, because Johnson had talked about metaphysical naturalism.

Ultimately, I think the term supernatural is just a synonym for untestable or unverifiable. But I take your point that it can sound like an unreasonable bias against religious ideas.

darthwilliam-

I'm glad you have such confidence in my confidence in my reviewing skills! I'll let you know what I think after I read it, but that might be a little while yet. I tend to accumulate books faster than I can read them. I also liked Brian Greene's books quite a lot.

joe shelby-

I agree completely.

 
At 7:43 PM, Blogger Mark Nutter said...

But what, precisely, does "supernatural" mean in a scientific context? How do you give a scientific definition for "natural" or "material" that doesn't just boil down to "verifiable"?

 
At 11:47 AM, Blogger Mark Nutter said...

Sorry, my last comment was directed at Joe, should have quoted. :)

 
At 8:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As you also note, however, it is the ID folks who insist on talking about the supernatural. "

Funny...in all the ID sites I've checked out, not a single one EVER states that the design hallmarks found in nature necessarily have to come from a supernatural source (a fact you're quite aware of, tho you will deny it as your entire blog here is one name-calling fest against anyone who disagrees with you.)

Never have I seen any of the big names in ID say anything of the designer at all in regards to the theory.

I do love in another post how you think "who designed the designer" is a great question. So, then you believe the world was started, and life within it was started, all by accident on its own, yes? Well, what accident caused the first accident...and what accident caused that first first accident? See how absurd the logic is? At one point in time, the universe either came about without any guidance, a cosmic accident...or else a designer created the universe in some fashion, and an a finite universe, we can only go back so far to a point where it all started, not a neverending chain. That neverending chain bits you in the behind, because you need to explain what accident caused the accident that caused the universe, and the accident before those 2, and the accident before that one...You can't have your cake and eat it too.

 

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