A strange perspective on the practice of science: response to Peter Vickers



A more complete, revised and final version of the essay originally published here is now available at:

 https://iai.tv/articles/a-strange-perspective-on-the-practice-of-science-auid-1712?_auid=2020 

Vickers portrays the practice of science as a subjective exercise driven by majority opinions, prejudices and vulgar associations. It is almost embarrassing to have to respond to such a piece, but here it is, nonetheless.

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The anti-establishment sentiment


Very few things in the cultural dynamics of our civilization these days are clear. But one of them is this: the anti-establishment sentiment that manifests itself in many different ways, but most notably in politics, is not a passing fad; it's not a blip or a temporary aberration; it reflects, instead, a more fundamental movement in the collective human psyche that is here to stay.

As a nominal member of the intellectual establishment who, nonetheless, has been fighting—for over a decade—against what is perhaps the most entrenched position of that establishment, I am not surprised by this movement. To speak only of metaphysics, which is my main area of expertise, it is patently obvious to me that militant, self-appointed intellectual elites often display an appalling combination of prejudice and hubris, ignorance and condescension. Although their understanding of the relevant issues is often shockingly limited, they behave as though they were the authorities everybody else is supposed to blindingly follow. How long could this last before people saw through the charade?

We've come to a point where a significant portion of the intellectual establishment sincerely regards what is effectively a prejudiced manipulation of the masses as education; a point where otherwise legitimate and important social values—such as intellectual authority and political correctness—have been hijacked and weaponized for the sake of preserving an outdated status quo. For these reasons, the attitude of "trust me, I am an authority and I know better than you" has taken on overtones of deceit and conceit. How could anyone be surprised by this?

There are broadly legitimate grounds for anti-establishment sentiment. Decades—if not centuries—of hubris, condescension, prejudice and manipulation don't go unnoticed. However, as is the case in any major movement of the collective psyche, this sentiment carries with it both an opportunity for betterment and a potential for disaster. I've written about this before:

Neo-skepticism and post-truth: a call to reason

Dismantling idols: the current cultural inflection point

I do feel, however, the need to repeat what I believe to be some of the most critical points. If you share in the anti-establishment sentiment I described above, please keep in mind, as you read what follows, that I am coming from the same place you are coming from.

Like you, I look with disdain upon noisy pseudo-authorities, the self-appointed police of pseudo-reason, the pseudo-philosophers who see themselves as guardians of science and truth, the pompous mouth-pieces of scientism, etc. But I do not disregard science itself. That some science is visibly bad, that scientific conclusions can be—and often are—reversed, that some scientists are plain idiots: none of this entails or implies that science itself isn't valid or critically important. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Science is extremely valuable and indispensable to our survival. Without it, we won't be able to live on this planet once our population plateaus at around 11 billion people mid-century. Indeed, science is perhaps the most important human development of the past five centuries. We owe much to it, and depend on it for our very lives. My own work is largely based on science, often the science done by my opponents.

It goes without saying that some scientific results are unreliable (science is done by humans and, as such, just as imperfect as we all are), but there are scientific conclusions so robust that they command broad consensus: human activity is changing our climate in ways that threaten our survival; vaccines work and have saved countless millions of lives; COVID19 is vastly more dangerous than the flu; face masks and social distancing help contain the spread of respiratory diseases; etc.

Human-induced climate change poses perhaps the single greatest existential threat our civilization has ever faced. We—or worse, our children—will pay an unimaginably steep price for inaction in this regard. We must get our act together at a global scale to adapt some of our way of life, limit emissions, preserve what is left of our planet's natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and ultimately save ourselves. It is flat-out criminal to ignore this, or use it for short-term political gain.

We must also be mindful of what I call multi-level deceptions: those in which the deceiver points with dissimulated indignation to an actual deception carried out by someone else—thereby deliberately riding the wave of our outrage—merely to pass his own deception for the alternative. Astute bigots and con artists the world over have realized that this is a fantastically effective way to disarm and manipulate people so to push their self-centered agendas: it preys precisely on the justifiable anti-establishment sentiment emerging in the collective psyche. What a tragedy it would be to see through old lies and manipulation just to fall—uncritically—for another, more up-to-date form of manipulation.

Let us not allow bigots and con artists to use our hard-earned skepticism to deceive us. Let us not allow the naked paranoia of beyond-implausible conspiracy theories to turn our anti-establishment sentiment into a bad joke that delegitimizes it and disenfranchises us. Let us honor the realization that our idols are hollow, their message deceitful, manipulative and condescending, but not lose our bearings by swinging to the opposite extreme of unreason. No previous generation has faced threats of the magnitude we are now facing. If we are to have a chance to survive as a civilization, we must exercise our discernment very carefully: the truth is always more nuanced and multifaceted than what any tweet or Facebook post can capture.

Above all, let us never forget that those who are the targets of our most severe value judgments are also human beings, struggling, suffering and afraid like we all are, despite possible appearances to the contrary. After all, we have, by necessity, become experts at putting up a brave face—towards others and towards the mirror—even when our soul is dissolving into tears that flow inwards. May the common humanity of these invisible tears somehow unite us and see us through the storm ahead.

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Open letter to Bill Gates


Dear Bill,

On this day in 1955 humanity welcomed you to this weird but wonderful world of ours. Since then, you have been a tremendous force, leaving your mark in our civilization in many different ways. You are one of a very few people who have been taken into history already in their lifetimes, which speaks volumes to your capacity to exert change. So, before anything else, let me wish you a happy birthday and many, many more productive years.

Although it is your birthday and you are the one to make a wish, I shall dare to make a wish for you: may you be more vocal and assertive in your drive to restore nuclear power as a safe—certainly much safer than e.g. coal-burning plants, as far as human health is concerned—extremely cheap, clean and readily available source of energy for humanity. As I've discussed elsewhere not long ago, if we are to save our environment and make our civilization sustainable on the long run, passive-safety reactors, which you are familiar with and investing in, are an obvious choice with no comparable alternatives.

Indeed, if we are to recycle our refuse on a grand scale, we need ridiculously cheap, readily available energy, for recycling consumes huge amounts of it. If we are to implement vertical and urban farming—our best option to achieve sustainable food production on the long run—the enormous energy demands of 24/7 artificial lighting are only plausibly met by cheap nuclear power. If we are to survive the imminent drinking water crisis, we need desalination plants everywhere, whose enormous energy demands can, arguably, only be met by nuclear power plants. The list goes on. A green sustainability revolution can only be enabled by clean nuclear power, for which the technology options are available. I wish environmentalists and governments would understand that.

So this is my appeal to you: please dedicate more effort and resources to making people—particularly environmentalists—aware that the nuclear technology we have today is entirely different from the dirty, unsafe nuclear reactors of the 50s and 60s. With passive-safety technologies available today, a defective nuclear reactor is one that simply shuts down by itself, and never melts down. With technologies we have today, nuclear reactors consume nuclear waste, as opposed to producing it. I don't have kids, but if I did, I would be quite happy to live right next door to a nuclear power plant built on these new technologies. And these technologies are—at least as far as I can see—the only game in town to enable a truly green sustainability revolution; our only plausible option to save our environment and, frankly, ourselves.

I do not have the platform required to raise awareness of this; but you do. The vast majority of people won't have the understanding of technology and science to conclude, by themselves, that we have the technologies to clean up our act, if only we deployed them. What the vast majority of people do have is prejudice; prejudice  evoked by Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island; disasters caused by ridiculously primitive and dangerous nuclear reactors, for which we have vastly better and safer alternatives today. Even governments—pressured by popular prejudices that drive voting patterns—surrender to what they know is a flawed position; just look at Germany. Only someone like you, with your means and visibility, can help raise awareness of this critically urgent issue. We can save ourselves and the planet, if we only are brave enough to apply the science and technology we already have.

Solar and wind power—which have, arguably, worse environmental impact than modern nuclear technology would have—are certainly good, but they will never meet the extraordinary energy demands of a green sustainability revolution. Please engage with governments and environmentalists to raise awareness of this; and if you are already doing so, please do more. Nothing is more critical or more urgent.

Sincerely,

Bernardo Kastrup, 28 October 2020.

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The Phenomenon: A brief review




In the next few hours a new documentary film about unidentified aerial phenomena—a.k.a. UFOs—and close encounters is going to be released. It's called The Phenomenon, by director James Fox. I have had the privilege of watching it a few days before launch, so I could share my views on it with you. What follows are my unbiased opinions. I am under no contractual obligation to issue a review and have no financial stake at all in the film or this review.




James Fox has clearly been working on this film for years, following his previous documentary on the subject, Out of the Blue (2003). As we have come to expect from him, The Phenomenon is a serious, cautious, level-headed work. James's strength is not so much in breaking news on the subject, but in thoroughly examining—under the light of reason and evidence—what is already known, filtering out the abundance of garbage, gullibility, hysteria and nonsense that, unfortunately, prevails in this field. Just like before, he serves us a distilled summary of what is reliable and significant—yet no less astounding—about the phenomenon.





In addition, James has once again proven himself able to dig one layer deeper than the rest, exploring the subject from more telling—albeit non-traditional—angles. His revisitation of the 1966 Westall school incident in Australia, and the 1994 Ariel school event in Zimbabwe, are cases in point. Both are examples of close encounters involving dozens of witnesses. In both cases, the narrative clearly transcends the common storyline of aliens from another solar system dropping by for some kind of research purpose. James has managed to bring back the direct witnesses of these events, decades later, and re-interview them with the insights of today. This was just about what I had wished someone would do; and he did it.

The most significant part of the movie is—without a doubt, in my mind—the examination, at the Stanford School of Medicine, of metal samples collected from alleged UFO visitation sites by respected researcher Dr. Jacques Vallée, over decades of investigation. This is the much hoped-for hard evidence. An analysis of the atomic structure of these samples was conducted with a state-of-the-art ion beam microscope, which yielded surprising results: the isotope ratios in these samples are unlike anything known to occur on Earth. Such a finding may sound too highbrow to be significant—especially in light of the much more incredible claims routinely made in this field by suspicious characters—but it certainly is. In fact, my only criticism against the film is that James—perhaps in a concession to mainstream tastes and expectations—hardly explores the finding in the final cut. The subject was left behind just as I thought we were warming up to it. Perhaps we will read more about it in academic publications, but I confess to have been annoyed at the brevity of the coverage of what was perhaps the one truly new news in this film.





If your interest lies in new UFO and close encounter cases never before reported, this film is going to disappoint you. Breaking news is not what James is trying to achieve here. But if, instead, you are looking for a more thoughtful review of previously reported cases, then this is for you. More than probably any other subject of general public interest, the UFO field is fraught with nonsense, charlatanism, fraud, gullibility, wishful thinking, and in-your-face idiocy. Although I have always been interested in the subject, I very quickly become nauseated by what I find each time I dare dip a toe in it. James's movies, however, are refreshing; they represent a breath of fresh air in a foul-smelling mad house. This is the great value of his and Vallée's efforts: a welcome injection of reason and honesty in an otherwise toxic space.

In this context, The Phenomenon subtly and unpretentiously distills what is credible and significant in the long history of unidentified aerial phenomena and close encounters, serving the viewer a clean platter, freed from trash and nonsense. James has left out not only the nonsensical or questionable cases, but also the nonsensical or questionable elements of the cases he does cover. Parasitic claims and 'witnesses' that feed on otherwise credible events are, to my relief, nowhere to be seen. This judicious filtering clearly involved a lot of care and thought, having been accomplished discretely, elegantly, without furor. Indeed, it is delightful the see the film's narrative steer clear of every mine in the field. What is left may not be as spectacular as the vivid imagination of charlatans, but it remains extraordinarily interesting for the more discerning and levelheaded tastes. The value of this documentary thus resides as much in what it doesn't say as in what it does say. Such discernment makes it rather unique.

As a matter of fact, although UFO and close encounter cases have obvious scientific significance, I believe they have even more metaphysical significance. I say this because the phenomenon seems to defy not only the limits of our technology, but also the laws of physics and—even more significantly—the laws of logic. Many of these reports are absurd, their very absurdity speaking to the sincerity of the witnesses and the courage of those who are now making the hard evidence available, as well as acknowledging the bewilderment of the highest instances of government. The Phenomenon does include what many of you will consider headline-making new admissions by well-known, high-ranking government officials and politicians. But for me this is not the cream; the cream is how the cases reported consistently instantiate the seemingly absurd features I discussed in my book, Meaning in Absurdity, where I cover the UFO and contact phenomena from an angle you are certainly not used to: nonsensical flight paths and movements, weird angles of attack in flight, alleged telepathic communications more akin to spiritual experiences than encounters with explorers from another planet, illogical behavior on the part of the 'visitors,' etc. There is much food for thought in there.




It is this absurdity of behavior so often seen in the phenomenon that makes me believe that its relevance is as much metaphysical as it is scientific. Here we have nature behaving in a way that defies its own known laws and our very logic. The phenomenon is telling us something important about the nature of reality and ourselves, rather than the exploratory interests of aliens from another star system. And it is under this light that I invite you to check out The Phenomenon. For the more significant hints about the nature of reality are to be found not in the headlines, but the subtle aspects of what is, most definitely, a very strange phenomenon indeed.
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Reason or covetousness? On academic philosophy


I have a Google Alert calibrated for more-or-less relevant occurrences of my name in Internet traffic. The idea is to remain aware of what people may be saying about my work, so I can adjust my communication strategy accordingly. Every now and then, however, some pearls pop up in that alert; things that aren't really relevant in and of themselves, but which betray the ways in which I am impacting different segments of society and culture at large.

Yesterday I got an alert about a 5-month-old philosophy thread on Reddit, which probably came up again because of some recently-added comment; I don't know, I didn't see it 5 months ago, but it doesn't matter anyway. The point is that someone had originally posted there asking whether there were proper rebuttals to my arguments and positions. I didn't read through the thread, but the first words of the first response caught my eye. I quote:

There are no rebuttals of his work specifically not because he can't be refuted, but because he's not considered in academic circles, and not even amateurs care to do so.

Despite being blatantly false, this is very interesting: it betrays a telling kind of frustration. The original poster and some others didn't seem convinced by such a demonstrably wrong answer, and pointed to my many academic papers and thesis, as well as the attempts to rebut me—in print—in the academic literature. They then got the following answer:

You seem to be under a strange illusion that acquiring a PhD is itself something making one relevant to anyone, and that publishing articles in no name journals is considered of any relevance. Publishing books is also of no relevance. Nobody is engaging with him. He's not part of the currently popular topic spaces and their discussions.

Apparently nothing at all is of any relevance, except the opinion of this particular poster. The frustration this paragraph exudes betrays so clearly what the actual feeling and motivation here are. Indeed, if I were to point out that I've published in heavy-weight journals—such as the Journal of Consciousness Studies and SAGE Open—or remind the poster of the fact that well-known academic philosophers—such as David Chalmers—have cited my work in print, or that others—such as Philip Goff—have gone out of their way to engage me multiple times in public, or that yet other academics—such as Keith Frankish and Michael Graziano—have had heated exchanges with me also in print, or that I've been invited to debate well-known philosophers and public intellectuals—such as Suzan Blackmore, Michael Shermer, Leonard Mlodinow, Tim Crane, Nancy Cartwright, Peter Atkins, etc.—or that I am constantly on demand for interviews in all kinds of media, including television, etc., I am sure the poster would simply move to the next fallback 'argument': that none of these people are relevant in academic philosophy. Of course, for what is actually aggravating the poster is precisely the fact that I am a very visible and thus far undefeated philosopher, despite not being an academic. How dare I be influential without holding an academic job? What does this suggest about academic philosophy today? How dare I, doing philosophy as—until very recently—a hobby, accomplish so much while many 'real' philosophers labour in utter obscurity? Though human and understandable, these feelings are certainly counterproductive.

Indeed, that some seem to react to what I have accomplished with covetousness—as opposed to the objectivity that academics are expected to embody—is both a serious problem and a missed opportunity for desperately-needed change. As I discussed in the professional blog of the American Philosophical Association recently (so much for invisibility in academic circles), many academic philosophers have abandoned reality and now spend their time playing entirely abstract conceptual games of no relevance to you and me. But they still insist that what they do is 'real' philosophy. Again: this is a problem; it is regrettable, lamentable, and needs urgent correction. Academic philosophy is funded by public money paid out of our taxes. As such, it must be relevant to us. But is this really the case today?



History isn't encouraging either: most of the most influential philosophers weren't academics, and some were even overtly critical of academia, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (I am tempted to mention Kierkegaard here too, but will refrain from it so to be conservative with my examples). Moreover, as discussed in my latest book, Decoding Schopenhauer's Metaphysics, when academic philosophers venture to interpret what their 'amateur' but influential counterparts were trying to say, the result is often a catastrophe of misrepresentation. When you've become disconnected from reality, it's hard to see what those struggling with reality are saying.

I can't change academia. What I can and am doing is starting and heading a foundation that will try to do some of what academic philosophy has been failing to do. And I bet we will be largely successful. Once that becomes clear, my hope is that the example will encourage academic philosophers to be more connected to life and reality, therefore becoming more relevant to you and me.

The risk, however, is that it may trigger the infantile mentality displayed by this Reddit poster, thereby leading academic philosophy to drift even farther away from social relevance, so as to defend whatever status it perceives itself as having. This is, in fact, my fear: that attempts to stimulate academic philosophy—from the outside—to return to the real and relevant may backfire, triggering academics to try and differentiate themselves even further from those that are actually doing relevant work. This will end up in further entrenchment, isolation and irrelevance.

I pray things won't unfold this way.

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GUEST ESSAY: Philip Goff’s error: A review of his book, 'Galileo's Error'

By Stephen Davies 

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, where it was extensively reviewed and critically commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in it are those of its author.) 

Galileo Galilei. Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
British philosopher Philip Goff describes how early Italian scientist Galileo Galilei sought to explain the whole world quantitatively, and so decided to take the qualia associated with the world—such as the colors we see, the flavors we taste, the aromas we smell, the textures we feel, etc—and place it within consciousness, away from the matter where it was previously believed to be.

Before Galileo, redness was thought to be in the object perceived as red; sweetness was thought to lie within sugar. Galileo decided that these experiences of the qualities of the physical world, such as sweetness and redness, were instead to be found within the mind of the experiencer, leaving matter to be home for quantitative properties only, such as mass, momentum, velocity and the like.

What Galileo didn’t do was create a new form of consciousness dedicated to the perceptual qualities associated with the physical world. Instead, he took those qualities and placed them within our preexisting understanding of consciousness; the same consciousness where we experience emotions, thoughts, imagination, and other endogenous experiences. He simply moved into the mental domain something that had hitherto been assumed to reside in matter.

This way, sensory qualities associated with the physical world—such as redness and sweetness—were assumed to originate in the circle of mind, not that of matter. The intersection of the circles—the experiential perception of the physical world—was where these then came together.

In the overlap of the circles of mind and matter we, for example, see and taste a sweet red apple. The apple belongs in the physical world and can be described completely quantitatively in terms of size and shape and weight etc. In turn, the experience of redness and sweetness belongs in mind and can be described qualitatively by the experiencer, but not reduced to numbers.

The point here is that the circle of mind was already assumed to be there and the sensory qualities of the physical world were merely added to it. As such, the circle of mind was made bigger.

Goff’s error is to then create a metaphysical explanation for mind and matter that is based upon just this one particular intersection of mind and matter; that of the physical world and the qualities of sensory experience associated with it. He ignores altogether the rest of the contents of mind—such as thoughts, emotions, imagination, etc.—that do not arise from sensory perception.

Goff’s theory is that matter, as described in purely quantitive terms, is the entirety of consciousness in action; consciousness is nothing more than the intrinsic nature of these physical quantities and matter is what consciousness does; it is the extrinsic appearance of consciousness.

This is a huge and costly error, for he has conflated Galileo’s one addition to the contents of consciousness with the whole of consciousness. Maybe the experienced qualities of sensory perception are the inherent nature of the physical world, but there is no reason whatsoever to restrict the whole of consciousness to such a limited role. There is a whole host of other contents of consciousness that has little to do with sensory perception. Goff seems to lose all of this in his account of reality.

Idealism does not. Idealism correctly sees the experience of physicality as what it is: a particular type of the many possible experiences within consciousness (in Kastrup’s Analytic Idealism, this arises as a result of dissociated aspects of consciousness).

Consciousness is not exhaustively described or understood in terms of sensory experience—there is so much more to it! Goff’s panpsychist metaphysics in Galileo's Error is meant to account for all of matter and all of consciousness but is based on—and therefore can only account for—sensory experiences of physicality.

When setting up his theory, Goff uses the word 'consciousness' when he is actually referring to just a particular type of conscious experiences. He then says that his theory explains the role of consciousness and says it is the intrinsic nature of matter. But now he suddenly means consciousness as the whole contents of consciousness and the conscious subject.

We are not just beings that have experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. On what grounds can you coherently argue that all conscious experiences are just the intrinsic nature of the material aspects of these five senses?

In Idealism, consciousness can exist without matter, without an experience of physicality; these are optional extras. For Goff, reality is one coin with one side that is matter and the other side is consciousness; they are inextricably linked as two aspects of one thing. Matter has no intrinsic nature without consciousness and consciousness has no extrinsic expression without matter. There is no possibility in Goff’s metaphysics for consciousness without matter; it is tied to and limited by the physical world.

Goff’s panpsychism is borne out of materialism. He uses consciousness to fill a gap in materialism, the gap of the intrinsic nature of matter. Idealism puts consciousness first and foremost and matter is wholly subservient to it. For Goff, matter is still in the forefront, still limiting what consciousness can be. This is why he fails to provide a metaphysics that truly accounts for consciousness beyond mere sensory perception.

Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Davies. Published with permission.
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Various open-ended meditations: storms, hope and renewal


It's not really my style to write a post about multiple subjects that have only tenuous connections with one another. I tend to prefer focused, coherent meditations about a given topic of importance to me, which lead to clear conclusions. Yet, the last time I defied my own instincts and wrote a rather open-ended, 'mixed bag' post, it somehow shot straight to the position of most popular essay in my blog; ever. Clearly, you found value in my spontaneous meditations, so here is another one, for what it's worth.
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