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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pinker's Fiery Manifesto Is Not So Enlightening

The new book by psychologist Steven Pinker is entitled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I greeted this title with some wariness, having noticed long ago that people who claim self-righteously to be arguing for wholesome things such as “reason” or “science” or “progress” will very often be people who try to sell dubious ideas by sneaking them under the banner of “reason” or “science” or “progress.” 
 
Pinker gives us a triumphalist account of scientific accomplishments, one filled with quite a few inaccuracies. He begins Chapter 2 very strangely by stating “The first keystone in understanding the human condition is the concept of entropy or disorder, which emerged from 19th century physics and was defined in its current form by the physicist Ludwig Bolzmann.” He refers here to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but this is not at all a keystone in understanding the human condition, and has basically nothing to do with the human condition. 

On page 17 Pinker claims, “One reason the cosmos is filled with such interesting stuff is a set of processes called self-organization, which allow circumscribed zones of order to emerge.” But no such process has been discovered, and Pinker doesn't specifically mention any such process. Theorists have been speculating about  theories of self-organization for quite a while, but no one has come up with any substantial theory of self-organization explaining impressive degrees of functional order (although the term "self-organization" is sometimes applied to minor things we already knew about such as crystallization). 

On page 18 Pinker makes the following claim:

Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like eyes, ears, hearts and stomachs which cry out for an explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the product of a divine designer....Darwin and Wallace made the designer unnecessary.

A claim like this has become an almost standard bromide in the books of a certain type of writer. Nowadays the writer of a certain type of book will not bother with giving us any reasons at all for thinking that Darwinism explains biological complexity. We will simply be told that Darwin took care of that by showing that a designer is unnecessary. Such a claim isn't merely a theological comment – it is a claim of enormous scientific accomplishment. Anyone claiming that someone showed that a designer of life is unnecessary is essentially making the claim that someone solved the riddle of biological complexity. What we have in such books is a simply an appeal to a dubious legend, like someone telling us that Woodrow Wilson made the world safe for democracy. There are several reasons why this claim about Darwin and Wallace does not stand up to scrutiny.

The first reason is that Darwin and Wallace did nothing at all to explain the origin of life itself. The first living thing must have been something of very high biological complexity and organization. But the theory of natural selection does nothing to explain the origin of life. Natural selection cannot occur until life already exists.

The second reason is that Darwin and Wallace never even learned about much of the most complex functionality in living things. Darwin knew nothing about the complexity of cells. We now know that cells are so complex they are like miniature cities. Darwin and Wallace also knew nothing about the intricacy of proteins – fantastically fine-tuned structures the origin of which is the most difficult unsolved problem. And Darwin and Wallace knew nothing at all about the genetic code, one of the hardest aspects of biology to explain. So how can any reasonable person claim that such things are explained by anything written by Darwin and Wallace back in the nineteenth century? That's like claiming that Aristotle and Plato explained the workings of digital computers.

The third reason is that Alfred Russel Wallace very explicitly stated that the theory of natural selection he helped pioneer was not adequate to explain the human brain. In an essay containing many similar comments, Wallace stated the following: "Natural Selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher." Clearly in light of the quote above, Pinker has no business citing Wallace as someone who “made the designer unnecessary.”

The fourth reason is that the theory of natural selection does not actually explain the origin of biological complexity or the origin of species. This is made clear in the book Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life by Cambridge University biology professor K. D. Bennett. Referring to speciation (the origin of species), this mainstream authority says on page 175, "Natural selection has been shown to have occurred (for example, among populations of Darwin's finches), but there is no evidence that it accumulates over longer periods of time to produce speciation in the Darwinian sense."

Pinker tries to give a Darwinian explanation for biological complexity by giving us this concise explanation on page 19:

Since no copying process is perfect – the Law of Entropy sees to that – errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that's more effective in replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition. As copying errors that enhance stability and replication accumulate over the generations, the replicating system – we call it an organism – will appear to have been engineered for survival and reproduction in the future, though it only preserved the copying errors that led to survival-of-the-fittest and reproduction in the past.

The “copying errors” he refers to may be more concisely referred to as typos. Pinker has tried to explain the mountainous levels of organization in biological systems by suggesting that they are merely an accumulation of typos. This is not a reasonable explanation. We cannot explain mountainous amounts of organization by merely using a theory of accumulation that is not a theory of organization. People who claim that accumulations of random changes can produce dazzling engineering effects are typically people who know nothing about engineering, and who have never accomplished any type of complex engineering.

A very important point is that Pinker is absolutely wrong when he says this about a random mutation: “occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that's more effective in replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition.” Visible biological innovations that improve an organism's chance of survival could only occur through mutations if very many mutations occurred in a way to achieve a coordinated effect. We would never expect that to happen by chance. A single lucky mutation (corresponding to a single nucleotide change in DNA) would never produce any complex visible innovation that improved an organism's survival value or chance of reproduction, just as a single typed letter would never upgrade a software program. Visible biological innovations that improve survival value require very large amounts of information as complex as some organized text consisting of thousands of letters; and the more complex the innovation, the more new functional information is required.  The visual below gives an example.


You can realize this point by considering a random text generator that appends random characters to some text. Could it be that there would be some random letter added to the text would make the text more likely to achieve functionality or excellence? Not at all. It requires coordinated combinations of letters to add functionality to some text. Each mutation would be merely like some random alphabetic letter added to a text -- not something leading to a greater chance of reproduction or survival.

As A.N. Wilson points out on page 253 on his recent biography on Darwin, “There has never been a coherent explanation of the emergence of highly complex life forms.” Wilson points out that most available copies of The Origin of Species are the first edition, rather than the sixth edition in which Darwin expressed many doubts and qualifications. We are thus hidden from the reality that “Darwin himself, doughty as a warrior for his theory, nevertheless had many moments of doubting it or (which is different) of not seeing how it could be defended,” as Wilson states on page 256.

Continuing his triumphalist tall tales, on page 21 Pinker makes this very untrue claim: “A momentous discovery of 20th-century theoretical neuroscience is that networks of neurons not only can preserve information but can transform it in ways that allow us to explain how brains can be intelligent.” To the contrary, there is no understanding at all of how a brain could possibly be generating intelligence, nor is there even any solid proof that neurons can store learned information.

We know the type of test that would be done to prove that learned information was stored in a neural system. One scientist might train some animals to learn something or receive some sensory input. Then some other scientist might dissect that animal's brain, trying to learn from the brain exactly what information was taught to the animal when it was alive. No such test has ever succeeded. It has absolutely not been proven that neurons have ever preserved information that was taught to any animal subject.

Pinker's triumphalist tall tales continue on page 385 where he quotes a bogus brag by physicist Sean Carroll, who claimed that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are “completely known.” Pinker says, “It's hard to disagree that this is 'one of the greatest triumphs in human intellectual history.'” But there is no basis other than egotism and hubris for claiming that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known. Future physicists will look back on such a statement with scorn. As discussed here, we don't even understand why the space surrounding us isn't vastly denser than steel as predicted by quantum field theory, which predicts a cosmological constant at least 1060 times greater than the one we observe. 

Very strangely, on page 356 Pinker tells us this: “Professing a belief in evolution is not a gift of scientific literacy, but an affirmation of loyalty to a liberal secular subculture as opposed to a conservative religious one.” He rather seems to be suggesting that being a good Darwinist is not mainly about the science, but about some sociological act of affirming your loyalty to a subculture. This does not help the case he is trying to make. 

On page 426 Pinker states, "Nor are the computational and neurological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling." But no one understands or can explain any neurological or computational explanation for consciousness.  Pinker again and again claims that he and and colleagues understand deep things that they do not at all understand.  

In his zeal to support an atheistic world view, Pinker sometimes gets his facts mangled. On page 438 he asks, “Why is the world losing its religion?” No such thing is currently happening (as the polling data here makes clear). In a comment that reminds us of the recent “s***holes” statement reportedly made by Donald Trump, Pinker states on page 438, “Many irreligious societies like Canada, Denmark and New Zealand are among the nicest places to live in the history of our kind....while many of the world's most religious societies are hellholes.” He has his facts very wrong in referring to Canada as an irreligious society, and the wikipedia article on Canada tells us that 67% of the people in that country are Christians. We also learn from wikipedia.org that only 41% of the people in New Zealand report having no religion. I may note the inhumanity of referring to anyone's country as either a “s***hole” or a hellhole.

This comment about religious societies being hellholes epitomizes Pinkers treatment of anyone believing anything religious. All such people are very darkly portrayed in Pinker's book as fools and stumbling blocks to progress – as people who believe purely on faith rather than evidence. Although he mentions some things that are very substantial reasons why someone might have a religious belief (the sudden origin of the universe in the Big Bang, cosmic fine-tuning and near-death experiences), Pinker seems absolutely incapable of realizing that people might actually believe something religious based on substantial evidence reasons.

Pinker claims this on page 394-395: “We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well being....By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.” These are very misleading statements. They imply that the laws of physics are indifferent to humans. This is not at all correct.

Instead, in recent decades many scientists have extensively discovered that our existence depends in many ways on such laws. For example, modify in a rather slight way the laws of nature involving the strong nuclear force binding the nucleus of an atom, and humans could not exist. Change the laws of electromagnetism a little bit and the chemistry allowing life could not exist. Change the electric charge on either the proton or the electron by a tiny bit, and there would no longer be an exact precise equality between the absolute magnitude of the proton charge and the electron charge. The result would be that the electromagnetic repulsion between particles would overwhelm the gravitational attraction between them, and planets could not hold together. It is just as if the laws of physics were specifically created with the eventual existence of humans in mind. See here for additional examples.

In recent decades, scientists have very widely acknowledged and discussed the fine-tuning in the laws of nature and the universe's fundamental constants – something that first came to public light because of the papers and books of scientists themselves. By claiming that science has exposed “the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe,” Pinker is simply making up a fairy tale that is pretty much the exact opposite of the truth. On page 423 Pinker himself says this about the universe's fundamental constants: If any of these constants were off by a minuscule iota, then matter would fly apart or collapse upon itself, and stars, galaxies, and planets, to say nothing of terrestrial life and Homo sapiens, could never have formed.”

Pinker states this on page 422:

Memoirs from oxygen-starved patients who experienced their souls leaving their bodies could contain verifiable details unavailable to their sense organs. The fact that these reports have all been exposed as tall tales, false memories, overinterpreted coincidences and cheap carny tricks undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls which could be subject to divine justice.

Pinker refers here to near-death experiences. The typical near-death experience does not involve oxygen deprivation. And the “fact” that Pinker refers to is no fact at all. It is certainly not true that all near-death experiences have been exposed as “all tall tales, false memories, overinterpreted coincidences and cheap carny tricks,” nor is it true that even a majority or a large fraction of such accounts have been shown to be such a thing. To the contrary, as discussed here there are many near-death experiences in which people reported medical resuscitation details that occurred while they were unconscious with stopped hearts -- details that were compared to what happened, and found to be true. Such corroborated accounts are indeed “verifiable details unavailable to their sense organs.” We may note the remarkable untruth of Pinker's claim that the set of such accounts (in which people often report their souls floating out of their bodies) “undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls.” Someone might as well claim that observations of bears mauling humans undermines the hypothesis that bears exist. 

In trying to shame and stigmatize those who have near-death experiences, Pinker is using the same type of tactic that would be used by a lawyer of a serial sex abuser -- try to cross out the large number of witnesses by claiming they're all confused or liars or people with "false memories."  In this case there are too many witnesses and too much corroboration for such a tactic to work. 

Obviously Pinker has made no serious study of paranormal phenomena, for on page 428 he ignorantly lists as an argument against the existence of a soul that it "falsely predicts the existence of paranormal phenomena." To the contrary, there is very strong evidence for a wide variety of paranormal phenomena, including extremely strong evidence gathered by psychologists at universities under laboratory conditions or by the US government (see here, here and here and here for examples).  

To try to account for the universe's fine-tuning, Pinker evokes the multiverse, the idea that there is some vast collection of universes. This actually does nothing to explain our universe's fine-tuning, for the reasons discussed here. But Pinker thinks that imagining some vast set of a billion trillion quadrillion quintillion universes is simpler. He says on page 425, “The multiverse is the simpler theory of reality, since if our universe is the only one in existence, we would need to complicate the elegant laws of physics with an arbitrary stipulation of the universe's parochial initial conditions and its parochial physical constants.”

Thus is the twisted “Bizzaro world” of Steven Pinker's logic. According to Pinker, since we find that there are all kinds of physical laws and physical constants extremely fine-tuned to allow the existence of living creatures such as us, this is something “exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe.” According to Pinker, if thousands of people all over the world report experiencing their souls drifting out of their bodies when their hearts stopped, in vivid near-death experiences, that is something that “undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls.” And according to Pinker, if we try to explain away cosmic-fine tuning by imagining that there is a multiverse of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other universes, such an assumption has the advantage of making things “simpler.” Such weird reasoning is baffling and topsy-turvy.