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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, January 16, 2017

The Professor's Bad Reasoning About "Bad Odds"

Our universe seems to be astonishingly fine-tuned to allow the existence of life. For example, if the absolute value of the proton charge and the electron charge were not exactly the same, gravitation would not be enough to hold planets together (since the electromagnetic force is roughly a trillion trillion trillion times stronger than the gravitational force, even a relatively tiny difference in the proton charge and the electron charge would cause repulsive effects exceeding the attractive effects of gravitation in large bodies such as planets, preventing their existence, as mentioned by Greenstein here). We know of no specific reason why such an equality between the proton charge and the electron charge should occur, and given that each proton has a mass 1836 times larger than each electron, it seems quite the amazing coincidence that the electron charge and the proton charge match exactly (experiments have shown they match to twenty decimal places, the only difference being that the signs are opposite). 

An even greater coincidence occurs in regard to the vacuum energy density, as discussed here. Straightforward calculations tell us that the quantum contributions to the vacuum should cause empty space to be extremely densely packed with mass-energy, but no such thing occurs. Somehow we have a cosmological constant or vacuum energy density more than 1060 times smaller than what quantum physics predicts, possibly because of an exact cancelling out of opposing effects. If it were not for such a coincidence, life would be totally impossible (no more possible than the evolution of life inside the sun). As discussed here, there are many similar coincidences involving the strong nuclear force, particle masses, the gravitational constant, and nuclear resonances. 

The visual below helps to illustrate the difference between the ratios of uninhabitable, barely habitable, moderately habitable, and abundantly habitable universes, although the actual ratios are almost certainly vastly greater than illustrated in this schematic visual.  I discuss these categories here, and argue that our universe must be in the rarest category (the "abundantly habitable" category shown in green).


habitable universes


Many have suggested that this cosmic fine-tuning suggests the likelihood of a cosmic fine-tuner. But Princeton philosophy professor Hans Halvorson disagrees. He came out yesterday with an essay entitled, “The Cosmos’ Fine-Tuning Does Not Imply a Fine-Tuner.”

Below is some of Halvorson's reasoning.

An analogy here might be apt. Suppose that you’re captured by an alien race whose intentions are unclear, and they make you play Russian roulette. Then suppose that you win, and survive the game. If you are convinced by the fine-tuning argument, then you might be tempted to conclude that your captors wanted you to live. But imagine that you discover the revolver had five of six chambers loaded, and you just happened to pull then [sic] trigger on the one empty chamber. The discovery of this second fact doesn’t confirm the benevolence of your captors. It disconfirms it. The most rational conclusion is that your captors were hostile, but you got lucky. Similarly, the fine-tuning argument rests on an interesting discovery of physical cosmology that the odds were strongly stacked against life. But if God exists, then the odds didn’t have to be stacked this way. These bad odds could themselves be taken as evidence against the existence of God.

Halvorson's reasoning in this essay is as careless as his proofreading.

The claim that “the odds didn't have to be stacked this way” is in error, if we are talking about the ratio between possible habitable universes and possible non-habitable universes. Regardless of whether any deity exists, it will inevitably be true that the class of all possible habitable universes is vastly outnumbered by the class of all possible universes. It is in general true that the number of ways in which one can arrange things so that a desirable functional end is achieved is vastly smaller than the number of ways in which you can arrange things so that no particular functional end is achieved.

For example, if I have a garage full of atoms, the number of ways in which I can arrange those atoms so that no functional end is achieved is always going to be 1,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the total number of ways in which the atoms can be arranged so that a working motor vehicle is created. Similarly, the total number of ways in which the physics and constants of a universe can be arranged so that nothing special will ever happen is always going to be vastly greatly than the total number of ways in which the physics and constants of a universe can be arranged so that the very many physical requirements of life (such as stable long-burning stars, stable planets, and stable atoms) are met.

So the odds in which “nothing-special” uninhabitable possible universes vastly outnumber possible habitable universes do indeed “have to be stacked this way,” contrary to what the professor claims. Such an odds ratio is simply a logical necessity, and not at all something that can be “taken as evidence against the existence of God.” The fact that possible uninhabitable universes vastly outnumber possible habitable universes is no more evidence against the existence of God than the fact that the set of all numbers is vastly greater than the set of all numbers with consecutive digits.

Now let's look at the professor's analogy about the gun. Here he gives us a case of a false analogy, because the situation he's describing bears no resemblance to any claim that anyone is actually making. The professor imagines a person who is forced to fire at himself a six-shooter loaded with five bullets. Here are the characteristics of a person who is forced to fire at himself a six-shooter loaded with five bullets, and then survives:

Characteristic 1: The person faces a danger point, with a strong likelihood of a disastrous result.
Characteristic 2: The person fares well from this danger point, purely as a matter of luck.

Such characteristics bear no resemblance to the assumptions of a person believing that the universe was deliberately fine-tuned for life. Suppose you imagine that a benevolent deity deliberately created the universe so that it would be habitable for life. Under such a scenario, there never is any danger point in which there is a likelihood of a disastrous result. So Characteristic 1 does not hold true. There is also no point at all in which a favorable result occurs, purely as a matter of luck. If you think that the universe was set up deliberately so that it would be habitable, you do not believe this was a matter of luck. So Characteristic 2 also does not hold true.

So with his Russian roulette analogy, Halvorson is imagining some situation that bears no resemblance to the claims made by those who think the universe was deliberately fine-tuned. Halvorson has therefore committed the fallacy of false analogy.

I can imagine using reasoning similar to Halvorson's in other situations. If someone built a nice home for you to live in, you would consider that the set of all possible unlivable or dangerous ways to arrange the bricks, nails, boards, and pipes is much greater than the set of all nice livable houses; and you would conclude from these “bad odds” either that no one built the house or that someone evil built the house. Such reasoning would be as erroneous as Halvorson's.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dubious Facets of the SETI Sales Pitch

SETI is the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence, primarily by using radio telescopes. When I went to the homepage of the SETI Institute (SETI.org) on January 2, 2017, the first thing I saw was a great big red “Donate Now” button. I have a rule about donating to organizations: I insist that they show no signs of being anything less than completely straightforward and candid. But does the SETI Institute meet such a criteria?

The crucial question you should consider before donating to the SETI Institute is: what are the chances that success will be achieved, and that some radio signals will be discovered from extraterrestrial civilizations? That depends on what the chances are of intelligent life existing elsewhere in our galaxy. The SETI Institute has a FAQ page, and one of the “frequently asked questions” is “Why do we think that life is out there?” This is the entire answer given in the FAQ.

Over the last half-century, scientists have developed a theory of cosmic evolution that predicts that life is a natural phenomenon likely to develop on planets with suitable environmental conditions. Scientific evidence shows that life arose on Earth relatively quickly (only 100 million years after life was even possible), suggesting that life will occur on any planets that have the requisite characteristics, such as liquid oceans (either on the surface or underground). With the recent discovery that the majority of stars have planets – the number of potential habitats for life has been greatly expanded.
In addition, exploration of our own solar system and analysis of the composition of other systems suggest that the chemical building blocks of life – such as amino acids – are naturally produced and very widespread. There are several hundred billion other stars in our Galaxy, and more than 100 billion other galaxies in the part of the universe we can see. It would be extraordinary if we were the only thinking beings in all these vast realms.

This answer is questionable. Let's start with the first sentence: “Over the last half-century, scientists have developed a theory of cosmic evolution that predicts that life is a natural phenomenon likely to develop on planets with suitable environmental conditions.” This strongly implies that during the past 50 years there has been some revolution in our understanding of the likelihood of life developing on a random planet the right distance from a star. But no such thing has occurred. Thinking on this matter is pretty much as it was 50 years ago.

Far from having any theory that predicts that life is likely to arise whenever there are suitable environmental conditions, we still have a set of facts that seem to suggest the opposite. We know that even the most primitive life would require self-replicating molecules, a genetic code that acts like a complex system of symbolic representations, and proteins that seem fantastically improbable to have arisen by chance. Then there's the difficulty of accounting for the origin of the very complex machinery in cells. The facts we have discovered are still quite consistent with the idea that the origin of life would be unlikely to occur on one planet in a trillion, because of the unlikelihood of these things all occurring because of lucky chemical accidents.

The second sentence in the FAQ answer is: “Scientific evidence shows that life arose on Earth relatively quickly (only 100 million years after life was even possible), suggesting that life will occur on any planets that have the requisite characteristics, such as liquid oceans (either on the surface or underground).” SETI enthusiasts have been making this claim for decades, but it is very dubious indeed, relying on two assumptions: (1) that the earth's oceans appeared about a billion years after the earth formed; (2) that life also originated about a billion years after the earth formed.

Our planet is 4.6 billion years old, and claims are made that there are geological signs of life dating back to 3.5 billion years. But such claims are doubtful, as they rely on what are called stromatolites, unusual-looking geological features which some claim were formed by bacteria. We see no cells or biological structures in the oldest stromatolites. The claim that very old stromatolites (older than 3 billions years) are signs of ancient life relies on a rather complicated and debatable line of reasoning. It's quite possible that they are not signs of early life, and that there are alternate geological explanations. This scientific paper says the evidence for life older than 2.5 billion years is “meager and difficult to read.”

Moreover, as discussed here, many scientists think that the earth's oceans are almost as old as the earth itself, having been brought here by comet bombardments. If that assumption is true, there may have been as much as a billion years between the time when life first had a chance to arise on our planet, and the time that it first did arise. If the shaky claims about the oldest stromatolites are in error, there may have been as much as 1.5 billion years between the time when life first had a chance to arise on our planet, and the time that it first did arise. So the claim long made by SETI enthusiasts that life arose here on our planet “almost at the first opportunity” is quite doubtful.

Even if it were true that life on Earth arose 100 million years after it first had the opportunity to arise, this would not be a strong reason for thinking that life in the universe is common. Consider this case. You open your new pastry shop one day, and within an hour someone comes in trying to order a pizza. The chance of this happening is very low. You would be mistaken if you reasoned that the chance of such a thing happening must have been high, or else it would not have occurred within the first hour of your shop being open. You are not entitled to draw such conclusions based on the timing of a single occurrence.

The article here states the following by MIT professor Joshua Winn (referring to this scientific paper):

There is a commonly heard argument that life must be common or else it would not have arisen so quickly after the surface of the Earth cooled," Winn said. "This argument seems persuasive on its face, but Spiegel and Turner have shown it doesn't stand up to a rigorous statistical examination — with a sample of only one life-bearing planet, one cannot even get a ballpark estimate of the abundance of life in the universe."

The next claim in the SETI FAQ answer is: “In addition, exploration of our own solar system and analysis of the composition of other systems suggest that the chemical building blocks of life – such as amino acids – are naturally produced and very widespread.” This is true, but ignores the fact that you can't estimate the probability of something complex arising merely from the availability of building blocks. A big auto parts store may have all the ingredients for a car, but the chance of such ingredients forming into a car when a tornado passes by is presumably very, very low.

The same type of misleading talk is served up by a recent book on SETI by astrobiologist David Grinspoon. On page 339 of his book Earth in Human Hands, he states this:

Much that we have learned in over a half century of space exploration seems to tell us that life and complexity are bound to be anything but rare. The basic ingredients and conditions that facilitated the origin and evolution of life here seem to be widespread throughout the universe.

The first sentence is not at all true, and does not follow from the second statement. Everything we have learned from space exploration is still completely consistent with the hypothesis that the appearance of life is a virtually miraculous event that we would not expect to occur on more than 1 planet in a trillion. You cannot make conclusions about the likelihood of great functional complexity arising from the mere availability of ingredients. There may be all the ingredients for a car in a large auto parts store, but that certainly does not allow us to conclude that is likely that one day such ingredients will randomly assemble into a car. 

It is true that there may be some kind of purposeful cosmic teleology that assures life is common in the universe, but our SETI experts seem to never appeal to such a possibility, relying on dubious kind of "the ingredients are there, so it will happen" reasoning. 

When asking for donations, SETI experts can gain an advantage if they make it look like searches for extraterrestrial intelligence are a fairly new undertaking. People are more likely to donate to a promising new project than some longstanding project that has failed so far. So if I tell you there is a promising new cancer drug called thorsmixadine, and that I need some money to fund initial research on it, you will be much more likely to donate to such a project than if I had told you, “They've spent 400 million dollars researching this drug, with no positive results; but I want to spend even more money, so can you can please help?”

In testimony before the US Congress in 2014, the leading SETI scientist Seth Shostak made these claims giving the impression SETI was some fairly fresh project:

We have only begun to search...The fact that we haven’t found anything means nothing. It’s like looking for megafauna in Africa and giving up after you have only examined one city block.

Such statements were misleading. By the year 2014 SETI had been going on for decades, and scientists had checked many thousands of stars for extraterrestrial radio signals. For example, there was Project Phoenix in the 1980's consisting of 2600 hours of observations, using the world's largest radio telescope. A similar project was the SERENDIP project. And when Shostak made his testimony in mid-2014, most of the work reported in this scientific paper had been done. The paper describes a negative search for radio signals coming from 9293 stars, consisting of 19000 hours of observations carried out between May 2009 and December 2015.

An appropriate theme song for SETI would not be the Carpenters' hit We've Only Just Begun but a song with the same tune but different lyrics:

We haven't just begun...to search
So many stars we've checked
But we keep getting nothing at all
We haven't just begun

If our SETI scientists were to be more candid and frank, they would put away their “it's almost a sure thing” talk and put away their “we've only just begun” talk. They would instead give a very candid pitch for donations like the one below. It would probably raise less funds, but at least it would be forthcoming. 

SETI
 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Pretzel Logic of the Multiverse Fantasists

Physicists who speculate about the multiverse (a vast collection of universes) are very good at math, but their essays are often shockingly poor at logic. An example is a recent essay by string theorist Tasneem Zehra Husain.

Husain states this early in the essay: “The same process that created our universe can also bring those other possibilities to life, creating an infinity of other universes where everything that can occur, does.” The origin of our universe in the supremely mysterious Big Bang is a total mystery. There is no understanding whatsoever of any natural or physical process that can create a universe or did create our universe. No physicist has any understanding whatsoever of a universe creation process. There is no evidence for any physical universe beyond our own. As for the notion of a universe-creating process creating not just one other universe but an infinity of them, that's just runaway speculation no more substantial than speculating about an infinity of unicorn kingdoms.

Husain spends most of her essay talking about how scientists “feel about the multiverse.” I guess that may be a good way to fill up a long essay when you have no evidence to back up your central claim (the idea of a multiverse, that there are countless other universes). Husain offers this reason for believing in the multiverse:

The multiverse explains how the constants in our equations acquire the values they do, without invoking either randomness or conscious design. If there are vast numbers of universes, embodying all possible laws of physics, we measure the values we do because that’s where our universe lies on the landscape. There’s no deeper explanation. That’s it. That’s the answer.

I give in this essay six reasons why the multiverse idea is quite worthless for explaining the fitness of our universe. To explain something means to discuss one or more causal factors that caused something or made that likely. You do not do any such thing if you say (as multiverse theorists do) “There are an infinity of universes, and our universe just got lucky.” It is also 100% superfluous to imagine the other universes in such a case, because you can just as easily say “Our universe just got lucky” when imagining that no more than one universe exists. You do not increase the likelihood of our particular universe getting lucky by imagining other universes (and, more generally, you do not increase the likelihood of success on any one particular random trial by imagining an increased number of random trials). So the fine-tuning of our universe (including its physical constants) does not provide any rationale for believing in a multiverse. The “why was our universe so lucky" question looms with equal weight, regardless of whether there is or is not a multiverse.

When used to explain cosmic fine-tuning, the multiverse idea therefore pulls quite the astonishing trick: it brings in infinite baggage, but with zero explanatory value. Imagine if some theorist were trying to explain the features of one rabbit by theorizing that there are an infinite number of rabbits. But suppose that such a theory did actually nothing to explain the features of that one rabbit. That would be kind of the ultimate “epic fail,” rather like some President paying all the money in his country to buy some contraption that didn't even work. Such is the epic fail of the multiverse theorist in this regard. 

Referring to some other thinker, Husain states the following:

The multiverse, he says, “could open up extremely satisfying, gratifying, and mind-opening possibilities.” Of all the pro-multiverse arguments I heard, this is the one that appeals to me the most.

Your reasoning is in very bad shape indeed if your best argument for the existence of something is that it opens up “satisfying” or “gratifying” possibilities. That reeks of some kind of wish-fulfillment fantasizing rather than hard thinking.

Husain also gives us this cringe-inducing howler: “Logically speaking, an infinity of universes is simpler than a single universe would be—there is less to explain.” No, very obviously an infinity of universes is infinitely less simple than a single universe, because it involves infinitely more to explain.

When our physicists give us this type of “black is white, squares are round” type of talk, this type of Orwellian doublespeak, I wonder whether we have ended up in some strange reality in which words may be used in exactly the opposite of their dictionary meaning. Faced with such absurdity, it is helpful to have a few reality checks such as the ones below.

  • There is no evidence for any physical universe beyond our own, nor can we can imagine any observations that we might ever have that would give us such evidence (anything we might observe would be part of our universe, not some other universe).
  • The idea that there are many universes beyond our own does nothing to explain the life-favorable characteristics of our universe.
  • The "cosmic inflation" theory of the exponential expansion of the universe during part of its first instant is not well supported by evidence, and does not intrinsically require any universe beyond our own.
  • We have no scientific understanding of what caused the beginning of our universe, nor is there any physical understanding of why the universe is so fine-tuned.
  • There is no evidence at all for string theory. String theory has thus far been pretty much a 35-year waste of time, the biggest flop in the history of modern physics. String theory is based on another theory called supersymmetry, which is rapidly dying, because experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider have all but closed the door on it (as discussed here).

From reading an essay such as Husain's, you might get the impression that the multiverse is some hot topic that is dominating the papers of theoretical physicists. But it isn't.

Below is a diagram from a scientific workshop. The line at the bottom represents the fraction of papers that have been written about the multiverse.

As we can see, it seems there are very few scientific papers actually being written about the multiverse.



There is a way for you to make your own graph similar to this graph, using the technique below.
  1. Go to the arXiv server for scientific papers, where copies of all physics and cosmology papers have been posted for the past twenty years.
  2. Click on the Advanced search link, taking you to this page.
  3. Type in a search topic, and limit the results to a particular year.
  4. Note how many papers appear in the search results, and add that number to a row on a spreadsheet.
  5. Graph the results.
Below is a graph I made using this technique. The number of papers on the supersymmetry theory (also called SUSY) should probably be twice as high, because I searched using only SUSY as a search string, without using “supersymmetry” as a search string. 

 

My graph above is consistent with the first graph. What we see is that the number of scientific papers written about a multiverse is only a tiny fraction of the papers written about other speculative topics such as string theory, cosmic inflation theory, and supersymmetry theory.

Here are some numbers from recent years.




2013 2014 2015 2016
String theory papers 365 419 377 295
Inflation theory papers 276 465 402 339
Multiverse papers 8 10 16 16
SUSY papers 105 104 114 71

Why are there so few papers written about the multiverse? Is it because physicists don't like to speculate? No, they love to speculate, as shown by the 1000+ speculative papers listed in the table above (string theory, cosmic inflation theory, and SUSY are all extremely speculative theories).

The reason so few papers have been written about the multiverse is pretty much that there's no factual basis on which to write a multiverse paper. There's no “there” there.

Don't let Husain fool you. The multiverse is just a “castle in the sky” that a few fantasist physicists are building, from a few gossamer threads of speculation.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Emergentism Cannot Explain Minds or Life

Contrary to the hype of some neuroscientists, we have no understanding of how the human mind could arise from the matter in the brain. We know exactly why a wet towel drips when we squeeze it, but we have no understanding of why something as marvelous as a human mind could arise from some mere arrangement of neurons in the brain.

But some philosophers have offered a simple explanation: the idea of emergence. The idea between emergence is that when matter is combined in certain ways, there can emerge new properties that could never be predicted. Some philosophers called emergentists claim that human consciousness can be explained as such a property.

In explaining the idea of emergence, an emergentist will typically give an example involving water. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, and neither has any such property as wetness. But when oxygen and hydrogen are combined to make water, then we have something with the property of wetness. It is claimed that such a property could never be predicted by just analyzing hydrogen or just analyzing oxygen.

According to the emergentist, this example shows that amazing new properties can arise when matter combines in different ways. The emergentist tells us that human consciousness is simply such a property, a property that just arises from certain complex combinations of matter.

But this reasoning is not sound. The human mind is not a property of the brain or a property of the body.

In general, a property is a simple intrinsic characteristic of something, which can be completely expressed by giving a single number. For example, the properties of a rock are hardness, weight, height, width, length, and depth. Each of these simple properties can be expressed by a single number. (You may not think hardness can be expressed by a number, but there is something called the Mohs scale used to express the hardness of rocks). We might also think of the color of the rock as being a property, although that requires a simplification (since the rock will actually be multiple colors). If one makes such a simplification, then that color can also be expressed as a single number, such as a number on a color scale. Even wetness can be expressed by a single number (we might, for example, create a wetness scale of 1 to 10, and reasonably assign liquid water a value of 10, and a thick soup a value of about 5).

But the human mind is not a simple characteristic that can be numerically expressed by a number. When we consider all of the facets of the human mind (memory, intelligence, personality, emotions, spirituality), we certainly do not have anything like a simple characteristic that can be expressed by a number. The human mind is also something mental, something much different from a physical property such as width, weight, or wetness.

In light of such facts, the argument of the emergentist falls apart. It may sound persuasive to make this shallow, sketchy comparison:

When we combine hydrogen and oxygen, we see the emergence of a new, unexpected property of “wetness.” This can help explain how our consciousness could suddenly arise from the combination of certain types of neurons.

But it does not at all sound convincing to make this deeper, more complete comparison.

When we combine hydrogen and oxygen, we see the emergence of a new, unexpected property of “wetness,” which is a simple, physical property that can be expressed by a single number. This can help explain how certain combinations of physical neurons could produce human mentality that is not physical, extremely complicated, and not capable of being expressed by a single number.

Obviously the latter argument does not work. Our minds are not at all a property. They are far too complicated, multifaceted, and functional to be a property, which is a simple physical thing, like a single facet of something.

An additional reason for rejecting "mind is a property" reasoning comes from near-death experiences. In these experiences a person will often report floating above his body, and looking down on it. A property is something that cannot be separated from the object with which it is associated. So it would be absolutely nonsensical to say something like, “The rock is on the left side of the room, but the length of the rock is on the right side of the room,” just as it would be nonsensical to say, “I have your bicycle in my garage, but I have the weight of your bicycle in my kitchen.” But judging from near-death experiences, it is possible for a human mind to be separated from the brain, at least briefly. Since properties can never be separated from their associated objects, such experiences supply an additional reason for thinking that the human mind cannot be considered a property of the brain.

Some thinkers try to use the concept of emergence to explain the origin of life. In such a case we have what is essentially an appeal to magic, similar to someone who wants you to believe that a living rabbit can be pulled out of a magician's empty hat.

If you doubt this, try this thought experiment. First imagine a thinker named John who believes that a nice livable log cabin has formed in the woods from fallen logs, through a complexity-producing process that he calls emergence (this is actually a more modest claim than the claim of life emerging from mere chemicals by a process of emergence, because even the simplest living thing is far more complex and functionally coherent than a log cabin). Then imagine a thinker named Jim who states that the log cabin has formed from fallen logs, not through emergence but simply through magic. Now, what is the difference between the idea of John and Jim? There isn't any. They both have the same idea, which they have expressed using different words.

The Edge.org web site has just released its annual question with responses by the usual cast of professors. In response to the question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” a physicist gives a quite vacuous statement of emergentism (emergence is not actually a scientific concept, but a philosophical concept). You can prove that his statement is just hocus-pocus talk without any real explanatory power, by simply noting that whenever he uses the word “emergent” it is just as if he is using the word “magical,” and whenever he is using the word “emergence” is it just as if he is using the word “magic.”

So, for example, the author states the following:

There is magic in our world, but it is not from external forces that act on us or through us. Our fates are not guided by mystical energies or the motions of the planets against the stars. We know better now. We know that the magic of life comes from emergence....It is the emergent qualities of this vast cosmos of interacting entities that make us us..The ladder of emergence precludes the necessity for any supernatural influence in our world; natural emergence is all it takes to create all the magic of life from building blocks of simple inanimate matter. Once we think we understand things at a high level in the hierarchy of emergence, we often ignore the ladder we used to get there from much lower levels. But we should never forget the ladder is there—that we and everything in our inner and outer world are emergent structures arising in many strata from a comprehensible scientific foundation.

If we substitute the word “magic” for “emergence” and “magical” for “emergent” (as in the boldface modification below), there is no real difference in the content of what is stated:

There is magic in our world, but it is not from external forces that act on us or through us. Our fates are not guided by mystical energies or the motions of the planets against the stars. We know better now. We know that the magic of life comes from magic....It is the magical qualities of this vast cosmos of interacting entities that make us us...The ladder of magic precludes the necessity for any supernatural influence in our world; natural magic is all it takes to create all the magic of life from building blocks of simple inanimate matter. Once we think we understand things at a high level in the hierarchy of magic, we often ignore the ladder we used to get there from much lower levels. But we should never forget the ladder is there—that we and everything in our inner and outer world are magical structures arising in many strata from a comprehensible scientific foundation.

Our physicist has simply given us abracadabra thinking masquerading as something more profound, because of the use of the words “emergent” and “emergence” rather than “magical” and “magic.” He discusses a “ladder of emergence” without saying anything about how one level of complexity could arise from the previous one; so it's just kind of “rabbit from the magic hat” type of talk.

Below is a visual showing the type of magic assumptions involved in this “ladder of emergence” depicted by the physicist:



Truth claims like this smell more like sorcery talk than science talk. To explain life and Mind, we need a lot more than Harry Potter hocus-pocus.

The basic mistake made by emergentists is to confuse a description with an explanation. Imagine you live on a planet where horses and cars suddenly appear out of thin air. You might formulate a “principle of sudden appearances” to describe such events. But you would be fooling yourself if you then tried to evoke this “principle of sudden appearances” as an explanation for these strange events. An explanation only occurs when we describe preceding causal factors that made the appearance of something likely. Similarly, an emergentist errs when he submits his “principle of emergence” as some kind of explanation. It may be correct to say that marvelous things suddenly appear in the history of the universe, and to generalize that into some “principle of emergence.” But you do nothing to explain why such things happen by evoking such a principle – doing that would be confusing a description with an explanation. 

Having mentioned magic, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to the following relevant vocal by the great Doris Day:

Postscript: It is possible that this idea of emergence could be the seed of an important insight or theory, if the idea was fleshed out quite a bit. So I don't mean to entirely dismiss the idea. But I do think that unless quite a bit is done to beef up such an idea, it's not much of an insight. You're not throwing much light on things if you merely keep describing improbable events in the universe's history, and use a common word such as "emergence" to describe such things.