Friday, March 09, 2007

Paul Davies: Levitating Superturtles

I now enter Weekend 7 in my series on the presentations at Beyond Belief 2006.

Session 5 in this series began with a presentation from Paul Davies from Arizona State University. Davies is interested in finding the ultimate meaning and purpose in the universe. More specifically, he wanted to know why the laws of physics are what they are, and why they are friendly to the development of intelligent life.

To analyze this problem, he called forth an ancient belief that the Earth stood on the back of a giant elephant. That elephant, in turn, stood on the back of a giant turtle – at least in the version that Davies used.

What did the turtle stand on?

Davis mentioned two options: (1) "turtles all the way down" (to what?), or (2) a giant levitating turtle that did not need to stand on anything.

He then described three cosmological theories by using this levitating turtle metaphor.

(a) The universe comes from God, where God is the giant levitating superturtle that depends on nothing else for its existence. God made the universe friendly to human life because it fulfilled His desires to do so.

(b) The universe itself is the giant levitating turtle that depends on nothing else for its existence. It is just by chance that the universe is friendly to human life.

(c) The universe is a part of a multiverse. Each universe in the multiverse has its own natural laws. Of course, we would come into existence in a universe suitable for life and, of all the universes that exist, it is not surprising that at least one has laws suitable for life. However, on this model, the multiverse is the levitating superturtle. We are fortunate to live in a multiverse that allows for a wide variety of universes where some are friendly to human life.

As advocates of these different schools defend their favorite theories, Davies complains that the debate ultimately ends up being a set of assertions, “My levitating superturtle is better than your levitating superturtle.” Or, as he puts it, one person’s levitating superturtle is another person’s laughing stock.

To avoid the problem of needing a levitating superturtle, Davies proposes the option that the universe itself is the reason for its own existence. The problem, according to Davies, is that we keep looking for something outside of the universe to explain the universe, when we should be looking for something inside the universe to explain it.

The Value of Levitating Superturtles

Actually, I am not going to pretend that I have the capacity to determine what quantum physics has to say about the possibility of a self-justifying universe. I have studied some metaphysics and even some physics, but not enough to offer an intelligent opinion on the merits of Davies’ claims. Davies topic is a matter for PhD physicists to discuss, not a matter for the man on the street (or on the blog).

However, I do have some experience in value theory. This allows me to ask about the value of these particular findings. What does it matter that the universe is a levitating superturtle or obtains its reason for existence in itself rather than in something external?

One thing that I do not think that Davies has any capacity to find (because it does not exist) is any type of value other than relationships between states of affairs and desires. We may desire that the universe be a particular way. Insofar as we have desires, we are motivated to make the world a particular way (to the degree that we have the power to do so). However, we will never find meaning or purpose (or value) written into the universe independent of our desires. That type of value simply does not exist.

So, certain physicists may desire to know the answers to these questions. They may even come to desire that a particular answer be true. However, none of this disproves the thesis that value is ever anything but that which fulfills the relevant desires. The value of a God existing comes from desires that would be fulfilled in a universe where God exists.

Assuming that your average driver, secretary, and retail store clerk does not have a PhD in quantum physics, what is the value of the universe being a particular way, and where did that value come from?

Many people desire a universe with God. However, that is only because they were manipulated (through social forces) to acquire such a desire. By eliminating the desire that God exists and that one is serving God, and one eliminates the psychological dependence on serving God – a psychological dependence on a fiction. There is just as little reason to argue for a psychological dependence on any of these levitating superturtles, or on the ‘internalist’ system that Davies defends. It need not matter – except in the sense of who wins the Superbowl matters, as a private interest of no overwhelming importance.

In short, what I am talking about is adopting a set of desires such that one simply has an aversion to living in a universe that is not grounded on levitating superturtle T - when the odds are increadibly low that levitating superturtle T exists. This aversion to living in any other universe is an aversion that is learned, and learning an aversion to reality is somewhat problematic at best.

To understand the question of valuing different options, I would like to use a different metaphor. Instead of elephants standing on turtles, I would like to ask you to picture in your mind a scene in which there are a group of actors on a stage. Some objects around them are illuminated, but there is darkness heading off in all directions. There may be things out there in the darkness, but they cannot be seen.

Our agents speculate what might be out there. However, they have no evidence to draw upon. They can only guess.

Because they have no evidence, any guess they make will almost certainly be wrong.

What is wrong with peering out into the darkness and, when asked, “What’s out there?” answering, “I have no idea. It’s dark. I will describe as well as possible anything I can see, but I see no reason to describe what I cannot see.”

If we mix our metaphors – if we can see the elephant, we say that there is an elephant. If we can see the turtle, we say that there is a turtle. If asked what the turtle is standing on, and we cannot see that far, we do not postulate God or a levitating superturtle or turtles all the way down. We simply say, “I do not know.”


This may be thought of as a recipe for agnosticism, but it is not.

To see that, imagine a super deck of cards. This deck has one billion suits, each with one billion and thee cards (cards numbered 1 (ace) though 1,000,000,000 plus the jack, queen, and king of each suit.

A card is drawn from the deck.

I ask you, “Can you prove that the card drawn is not the king of hearts?”

You will answer that you cannot prove that.

Okay, now, the next question. Do you believe that the drawn card is the king of hearts?

A rational person would be able to answer, “Almost certainly not.” In fact, the chance that the drawn card is the King of Hearts is less than a great many things that you gamble on every day. Its chances are low enough that it is reasonable to call oneself an atheist - to hold that the existence of a God is so unlikely (not false, but tremendously unlikely) so as to defy serious consideration.

As it turns out, those who argue that the drawn card is the King of Hearts, and defend it on faith, then go and say, “Because the drawn card is the king of hearts, we may legitimately rob the following people of life, liberty, and/or happiness.” They use a premise that is almost certainly false to justify real-world harms.

Pascal’s Wager

This discussion then leads us into Pascal’s Wager. This argument states that, if you compare the huge costs of being wrong (if God condemns to eternal suffering those who do not believe in Him) to the small costs of being right, it is rational to do what one can to believe in God.

Unfortunately, Pascal’s Wager assumes that there are only two options; (1) eternal hell for not believing in God, or (2) entrance into heaven.

With our huge deck of metaphorical cards, we must consider other options.

We must consider the possibility that there is a God. However, this God gave us a brain and wanted us to use it. The faith-based thinker hears God tell him, “I saw these religions come up and sweep the land. I could have stepped forward and say, ‘Don’t believe them.’ However, if I had done that, you would never have learned to think for yourselves. This was my ultimate test – to see if you would follow self-professed prophets uttering nonsense, or whether you will use reason to see through this religious nonsense and come to me with a thinking mind, or whether you would shut off and throw away this gift of a brain that I gave you. These people have devoted their lives to reason. They used the brain that I gave them. You, however, have not. I have no use for you.”

Now, if apply Pascal’s Wager to this interpretation of God, we get a situation where it is rational to abandon God and take up reason. Taking up reason saves the individual from eternal damnation – a fate that one gets thrown into if one commits the mortal sin of taking the existence of God on faith value.

This, then, is the problem. With an infinite number of options available when we peer into the darkness, there is no compelling reason to assert one option over any other. There is an honest answer – and that honest answer is simply to report that we cannot see that far.

The Philosopher’s Quest

This does not imply that there is anything wrong with people like Paul Davies pursuing answers to this question. There is nothing wrong with wanting to know the answer. There is, however, something wrong with fixing an emotional attachment to a particular answer, particularly when it stands such a tremendously high chance of being wrong.

First, false beliefs stand in the way of an agent fulfilling her desires (she will waste resources doing things that will not bring about the desired states of affairs).

Second, if one is wrong, then a desire that the universe be a particular way will be thwarted. We do not have the power to actually cause God to exist. We only have the power to deceive ourselves into thinking that such a desire has been fulfilled. When there are things in the universe that cannot be changed, we are better off accepting them as they are over pretending that they are different.


Anonymous said...

This may be thought of as a recipe for agnosticism, but it is not.

To see that, imagine a super deck of cards...

When people say they are agnostics, it is usually in response to the question "What religion are you". If asked if a certain well-defined, limited God exists in the absence of evidence, most agnostics will answer along the lines of "I don't know, but probably not." The problem is, the set of potential beings that one could call "gods" is enormous, and many of these cannot be ruled out by existing evidence; therefore, the agnostic finds it difficult to rule out the existence of all potential gods without any evidence.

To parallel your analogy, it's like asking someone "Is this card the king of hearts?" without the person asked knowing how many cards are in the deck or how many king of hearts are in the deck. It's a blind question that we are unsuited to answer, so the only legitamate answer is "I don't know." On the other hand, if you show the agnostic an impossibly large deck of cards and ask if you drew the one and only king of hearts in the entire deck, even most agnostics will say "Probably not."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I find your interpretation to involve something of a word game.

First, the answer to both questions, "Is this the king of hearts?" and "Did I draw the one and only king of hearts" is, in both cases, "almost certainly not."

The answer to the claim made by others that, "It is the king of hearts," is, "Your statement is almost certainly false."

If you look at the way people actually use the word 'know', it is never means "believed with absolute certainty where there is no possibility of error". If it did, then nothing can ever be known, and we would never use the term in discussing real-world events. Even mathematical truths cannot be known because any honest speaker will report that there is always some chance, however small, that he has misunderstood what he learned, or that some cartesian demon is deceiving him.

People routinely use the term 'know' to refer to thinks that are far less certain than pulling the King of Hearts out of such a deck.

"I know that I am having chicken for supper." This is a perfectly reasonable statement even though there are many things that can happen between now and this evening that could prevent me from having chicken for supper.

This pun . . . this equivocation on the word 'know' . . . is used to generate confusion more than to help discussion. The tactic is to use a stricter definition of 'know' than that which people normally use, get them to admit, "I do not know that no God exists", then shift the definition back to its original meaning to get the person to adopt the attitude, "There is a reasonably good chance that God exists."

I know that God exists - in the sense that the proposition "God exists" is so unlikely, and there are contradictory claims that are at least just as likely - that it is not rational to base any part of one's life on the possibility that "God exists" is true.