Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another case of magical thinking: Albert Einstein

Having recently noted that Kurt Gödel's general outlook (especially his conviction that everything happened for a reason) fits Matthew Hutson's notion of magical thinking, I want to suggest that Gödel's friend, Albert Einstein, may in fact have had very similar ideas.

The general view is that Einstein was a model of scientific objectivity, perhaps a little stubborn in following his scientific intuitions and perhaps a little naive politically, but in no way prone to superstition or to conventional modes of religious thinking. He talked about 'God' (or 'the old one') but made it clear that his God was nothing like the personal God of the Bible, but rather was an impersonal entity, like Spinoza's deus sive natura.

In his final years Einstein was very close to Gödel and the two spent many hours walking together and talking. Einstein said at one stage that he only went to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study so he could have the pleasure of walking home with Gödel. They were clearly on the same wavelength.

The best assessment I know of what Einstein believed is an essay by Gerald Holton. Holton – a physicist with an intimate knowledge of Einstein's writings, including his correspondence – argues that his beliefs in later life were deeply influenced by early religious experiences as well as by Spinoza's Ethics.

Einstein's commitment to determinism (and rejection of the indeterminism of quantum mechanics) is well known, but it is not generally thought that this conviction had a religious source. But Holton thinks it has, and his view is very plausible.

In fact, Einstein's determinism could be seen as having much in common with Gödel's idea that everything happens for a reason. And though Einstein didn't apply the principle – which Matthew Hutson sees as a keynote of magical thinking – to mundane events (as Gödel did), he believed in it no less passionately than his friend.

Admittedly, determinism has often been associated with a non-religious perspective, but one can see how even a scientifically-informed determinism might also be the expression of a broadly religious point of view. From the time of Augustine, a particular form of determinism was a powerful strand in Christian thinking, for example.

It is difficult to come to clear conclusions and I have some sympathy with the point of view of Karl Popper in this matter. Popper was actually very respectful of religion and was a Cartesian dualist (putting him clearly in Matthew Hutson's 'magical thinking' camp), but even he was put off by Einstein's theological modes of thought and expression. Holton writes:

Karl Popper remarked that in conversations with Einstein, "I learned nothing . . . . he tended to express things in theological terms, and this was often the only way to argue with him. I found it finally quite uninteresting."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Gödel's magical mind

Kurt Gödel is one of the key figures in the intellectual history of the 20th century, but, like many people who are highly gifted in domains like logic and mathematics, he struggled to cope with mundane reality. He also had paranoid tendencies in his later years and suspected that people were trying to poison him. In the end he just stopped eating.

I was reminded of Gödel when I recently came across this paragraph in an article by Matthew Hutson about our deep-rooted tendency to think in terms of magical rather than scientific logic:

Another law of magic is “everything happens for a reason” — there is no such thing as randomness or happenstance. This is so-called teleological reasoning, which assumes intentions and goals behind even evidently purposeless entities like hurricanes. As social creatures, we may be biologically tuned to seek evidence of intentionality in the world, so that we can combat or collaborate with whoever did what’s been done. When lacking a visible author, we end up crediting an invisible one — God, karma, destiny, whatever.

Interestingly, Gödel took his teleological convictions as being simply and comprehensively true. His belief that everything happened for a reason led to some very odd conclusions and was a source of some amusement and no little concern to his friends.*

Gödel was a deeply religious man who believed in a spiritual realm and life after death. Hutson's article mentions our inability to accept - or even to conceive of in a deep sense - our own mortality as another example of magical thinking. (Gödel himself, as I recall, justified his own belief in an afterlife on teleological grounds.)

The paradox of this pioneer of mathematical logic being, in ordinary life, completely under the sway of magical thinking calls for some kind of explanation or comment. Was it that he sought to impose the strict and clear logic of his professional work onto a world which works in more complex (and random) ways? Was it that he put too much faith in the ability of his mind to intuit reality, seeing the mind as a spiritual thing rather than something arising from a bodily organ carrying the marks of a long evolutionary history?

Hutson's main point is that magical thinking is natural to us and can enhance our lives. On the other hand, he sees it (quite rightly I believe) as misrepresenting objective reality and as potentially dangerous. Gödel's case illustrates some of the dangers, but clearly he had specific psychiatric problems in his later years, and it would be simplistic to attempt some kind of comprehensive explanation of his fate as being occasioned by extreme teleological thinking or whatever.

Gödel remains a great thinker and was a man with many appealing qualities, not the least of which were gentleness and reticence. His later years, after the death of his best friend, Albert Einstein, were sad and ultimately tragic.

His religious - or magical - convictions were an integral part of the man and no doubt contributed to his greatness. And, one hopes, provided some comfort in the darkness of his final years.

* I recommend Rebecca Goldstein's concise and accessible account of his life and thought, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (Norton, 2005).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Matthew Hutson and magical thinking

Massimo Pigliucci recently wrote a critique of an article by Matthew Hutson in which Hutson previews his forthcoming book on superstition and magical thinking. Hutson checks in in the comments section to respond to Pigliucci's criticisms, and I am much impressed by what he has to say (and the charming way he says it).

In particular I am interested in his comments about our inability fully to comprehend our mortality.

Here is the paragraph in question:

[Y]ou ... take issue with my claim that "without [magical thinking], the existential angst of realizing we're just impermanent clusters of molecules with no ultimate purpose would overwhelm us." We cannot fully grasp our material, temporary nature. If you try to picture what it will be like to be dead, for example, you're still picturing something that it is like to be. Further, we are intuitively Cartesian dualists. And so we have this sense that our consciousness (or "soul") continues beyond death. Granted, no one can be sure how we would feel if we *could* fully grasp death, but there's plenty of research showing that we have strong defense mechanisms to deny our mortality--by believing we are creating transcendent meaning with our lives, for example. I see the denial of death as a form of magical thinking.

The pugnacious Pigliucci claims, by the way, that he can conceive of his future non-existence perfectly well! But I find Hutson's account both of how the brain works and of how we might reasonably deal with our ingrained irrationality to be more plausible than Pigliucci's.

In contrast to Pigliucci, Hutson sees value in 'magical thinking' on pragmatic grounds. But his pragmatism is not the semi-religious Pragmatism of (for example) William James but rather (it seems) just a recognition that our brains have certain quirks which, though irrational, can help us get through life more successfully, and simply recognizing this reality and going with the flow to some extent is not such a bad thing.

He seems to be quite as non-religious as Pigliucci, but has a more nuanced response to the irrational elements in our nature.

Hutson's general approach may point to a satisfactory way of answering some of the questions I have been addressing lately on this site.

I have been wanting to come to some sort of conclusion about whether there is any value in (the more sophisticated) religious points of view, and about the implications of limited knowledge. My default position is to reject all religious claims but, given the limitations of our scientific knowledge, it seems sensible to acknowledge that mysteries abound.

But can we, I wonder, make any progress at all in coming to terms with this realm of mystery? Are the sorts of approaches that, say, someone like Martin Heidegger made to questions of existence and being (taking inspiration from the pre-Socratics) of any value at all? Or is this sort of thing just self-indulgent, pseudo-religious rambling?

My provisional answer is that Heidegger was struggling with real and important issues – like facing mortality – but he got carried away with his own rhetoric and a belief in the power of his own intuition (his fanciful etymologies are a good example of this).

There are, of course, many styles of 'doing philosophy', but I think it safe to say that most philosophers place too much credence in the power of our unaided minds to see the truth of things.

I'm not sure that we need the likes of Heidegger or Sandel (to whom Pigliucci appeals) or Pigliucci himself. Too often, in my view, philosophers are driven by a hidden religious, semi-religious or political agenda.

In fairness, though, if that (say) religious agenda reflected important aspects of reality, then any philosophizing based upon it would have to be taken seriously.

But, in the absence (as I see it) of any good reason to accept any particular religious or moral-metaphysical doctrine or point of view, one must find knowledge and wisdom where one can.

And, fortunately, there is little doubt that the perspectives put forward by scientifically-grounded writers like Matthew Hutson can be very valuable in helping us resolve problems once deemed exclusively philosophical or religious.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Berlinski believes

In my previous post I speculated on David Berlinski's fundamental beliefs, suggesting that his particular version of agnosticism incorporates elements of a religious view of the world. I know this sort of speculation is usually futile and inconclusive, but I have been somewhat beguiled by his authorial persona and feel the need to come to a personal conclusion about his - well, his seriousness. So here are a few more thoughts.

The problem is that this very clever, cultured, worldly and sophisticated writer (who has a philosophy PhD from Princeton and a strong background in mathematics and logic) has become a darling of the 'intelligent design' movement. There have been unsubstantiated accusations that he has written anti-Darwinian tracts and courted Christian conservatives for financial gain, and that he doesn't really believe much of what he writes in this area.

Who knows? It's a hard world and people have to earn a living, and it's a fact of contemporary life that high-minded scholarly values have lost their foothold, and a commitment to truth for its own sake is widely viewed (quite rightly perhaps) as being based on self-delusion.

Actually, though, Berlinski studiously avoids endorsing religious or 'intelligent design' explanations and restricts himself to criticizing standard scientific explanations.

Is he just being a professional contrarian or is he sincere? Not always very sincere, I would suggest.

It is clear, however, that when Berlinski writes on mathematics and logic he is writing from the heart. And it's also clear that he is a mathematical Platonist. Platonism is, of course, a very respectable (and quite common) position in the philosophy of mathematics.

Indications of a dualism of mind and matter are evident in Berlinski's writings which remind me of the views of Karl Popper (who openly espoused Cartesian dualism).

Popper also suggested at one time, like Berlinski, that the notion of natural selection was vacuous. But, to his credit, Popper changed his mind on this.

I am certainly uncomfortable with Berlinski's links with the 'intelligent design' movement. I don't think he does himself any credit by associating with, allowing himself to be used by and directly and indirectly profiting from those whose religious understanding is rather less sophisticated than his own.

I am not accusing him of intellectual dishonesty. My best guess however is that he is guilty of - how shall I put it? - a certain intellectual recklessness and love of debate for its own sake. Or perhaps he is driven in these matters merely by the pleasure of baiting certain notable atheists.

The obituary he wrote for Christopher Hitchens is a gem. The picture of the two of them - Hitchens gravely ill - having a cigarette and a philosophical chat on "a forlorn hotel loading ramp" in Birmingham, Alabama will stay with me.

Does Berlinski have a hidden religious agenda? He is a mysterian like Ludwig Wittgenstein (on whom he wrote his PhD thesis), like Popper, and like Roger Penrose (to whom he refers and whose general attitude to human consciousness he shares).

Martin Gardner also comes to mind in this context. Though he lacked the academic credentials of the others I have mentioned, he, like Berlinski, was a popularizer of mathematics and a professional skeptic who wrote for a living. He was also an arch-mysterian.

Some people want answers to the big questions, and feel unsatisfied and incomplete if plausible answers are not forthcoming. Others, and Berlinski is among them, don't really want to know at all. They are exhilarated by mystery. Berlinski once observed:

"I mean, deep down we all have a sense that the world is a more mysterious or stranger place not only than we imagine it, but than we can possibly imagine."

If I'm not mistaken, Berlinski's ultimate mystery is equivalent to what medieval thinkers called deus absconditus, the hidden God.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Richard Dawkins on David Berlinski

I may have more to say on the strange case of David Berlinski and his religious beliefs or lack thereof in the future, not just because he is a fascinating character but also because such cases – highly intelligent people who seem to espouse a heterodox religious outlook – can sometimes challenge those of us who see ourselves as physicalists in a way more mundane believers cannot.

By way of background, this piece includes some interesting quotes from Berlinski and from Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins had asserted that anyone who claims not to believe in evolution is ignorant, stupid, insane – or wicked.

'Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category? I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane. He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments).'

Dawkins then proceeds to tell of a curious – and amusing – incident which made him 'wonder about Berlinski's motives.'

Dawkins, Berlinski, John Maynard Smith (the highly respected evolutionary biologist) and others were guest speakers at a debate. Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and made fun of his arguments. As the audience laughed, Berlinski stood up and raised a hand and reproached the audience, saying something like (Dawkins couldn't remember the exact words): "No, no! Don't laugh. Let Maynard Smith have his say! It's only fair!"

I love Berlinski's writings on the history of mathematics and logic; I have not yet had a close look at his comments or claims about evolution. Of course, Dawkins's talk of wickedness is silly, but I must admit that I share some of his uneasiness about the man. What does Berlinski believe?

He calls himself an agnostic but his antipathy to evolutionary theory as well as his very high regard for the Jewish scriptures and the strange presence (as imaginary characters) of cardinals and Jesuits in his historical works suggests to me that he is a believer of sorts, though a self-consciously enigmatic one.