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Poor Television

I admit it. Every now and then, I enjoy watching an episode of Numb3rs - mainly because I am interested the presentation of applied mathematics, formal problem-solving. Occasionally, they picture this very well. In addition, to link the scientific element with the dramatic structure, they have the characters discuss worldview. A more scientific, empiricist worldview in the Character of Charlie Epps, the main character meets the worldview of his friend and fellow scientist Larry Fleinhardt, who has a need to find spiritual meaning in life.

Sometimes the interaction between these characters can be almost interesting - but sometimes, Fleinhardt's comments are too much to bear.

Two examples:
i)A while ago, I watched an episode where they were investigating a religious sect. First, Fleinhardt is very aggressive against their worldview because it rejects all science. But guess what, in the end he "comes to see" that he was so aggressive because the situation confronted him with his own struggle between scientific rationalism and religion - and he concludes that his behaviour was uncalled for, because while the specific ideological tenets of the sect in their rejection of rationality are deplorable, their religious conviction, their devotion to their religion - their faith is commendable.

A classic case of "belief in belief". Evidently, the eminent Dr. Fleinhardt is unable to apply critical reason to either his desire for spirituality or to the metaphysical, ontological, ethical and epistemic nonsense he's buying into.

But it all just got a whole lot worse with the latest episode:

ii) The makers of Numb3rs actually have Fleinhardt present a pseudo-scientific reason for belief in god. It's mind-bogglingly stupid, and I have one or two things to say about that. But let me invite those of you who have some knowledge of physics and cosmology to present their own deconstructions and rebuttals of this "argument" in the comments section:

"If the universe is as real as we think it is, Quantum Theory tells us that it has to have been brought into existence by an external observer - God.". I assume we could paraphrase the argument as follows:

Premise 1: We accept realism
Premise 2: We accept quantum-theory
Premise 2a: Quantum theory states that wave-functions collapse only under observation (Schroedinger's cat)
Premise 2b: Realism and Quantum-theory together entail that the wave-function(s) of everything in the universe that we deem real have collapsed
Conclusion: We have to accept that there exists a universal observer who "brought the universe into reality" - God.

Instead of criticising the inference of 2b, I will show why this argument has no weight whatsoever even if we grant 2b. This means I will leave the criticism of 2b to you, guys and gals.

Now, there are three faults with this argument that are just too blatant to be ignored. Two of these take the form of dubious or downright false hidden premises.

Hidden Premise I: The concept of "God" is not self-contradictory and not contradictory to established knowledge, including the corpus of accepted scientific theories.
Hidden Premise II: The concepts of existence, agency and observation do not necessitate a spatiotemporal framework.

I think I have shown conclusively (in various comments on RDnet, as well as in my private exchange with Dr. Steve Zara) that rationality demands that we reject these premises. So, the argument is already shot down. The third fault I noticed immediately is that in order for a wave-function to collapse on observation, information has to be exchanged between the observed system and the observer. That's what "observation" means. An observer is always also an information-receiver. Since information, while quantifiable, is interest-relative, the observer must be an information-processor(transducer) with interests (enter the program of biosemantics). Information always has a medium - it is never "disembodied" because it only and always consists of structural features of constituents. This means if there is nothing there, there is no information. So, for an observer to be an observer of the entire universe, this observer must be external to it. Now, there may be a multiverse, various branes in which different spatiotemporal frameworks may obtain, and these might even intersect - I don't know. But we cannot conceive coherently of information-exchange to a non-spatiotemporal realm - where and how would information be embodied. What would have the relevant structure? Again, we have to postulate something with extension and duration where this structure can obtain - ie another a spatiotemporal framework. But "God" is not supposed to be spatiotemporal. We cannot conceive of an information-processor or transducer that is not spatiotemporal. An information-processor is always a spatiotemporal structure. Various spatial and temporal structures intersecting, interacting, morphing so as to perform various functions.

Thankfully, Fleinhardt at least mentions something like this criticism: "But how can there be something "external" to an all-encompassing "universe?"".

Finally, toward the end of this episode, Don Epps (the person to whom Fleinhardt presented the above argument for belief in God) says to his father that he is missing something in his life ("meaning", although he doesn't say that) and that perhaps religion might be the answer.
I was disappointed that the makers of this show, which incorporates at least some scientific rationalism would treat this topic in that way. It's utterly ridiculous. You can get no more "real answers" to "deep questions" from religion than you can get from reading The Chronicles of Narnia. It might have some commendable ethical suggestions - but no epistemically acceptable answers to any questions - because the "answers" are not arrived at methodologically, rationally and minimally (Occam's Razor - our only line of defence against arbitrariness).

This show presents a false dichotomy: Either consider such questions meaningless from a position of rationalism or accept religious idiocy.

I find it sad that so many people disregard the third option - the only rational one in my opinion: We extend our scientific rationalism to such questions - through analytical philosophy. I don't have to remind you that philosophy was the mother of empirical science. So in fact, historically and methodologically, science is the extension and specification of philosophical thinking to various demaracated fields of inquiry. Philosophy gave birth to the sciences by demarcating the field and providing the underpinnings of the methodology (logical and methodological thinking applied to tangible problems - analyzing our understanding of the problem and thus subdividing the problem itself - or concluding that it is a pseudo-problem because our conceptions were wrong - thus again opening up new areas of study). The "deep" questions that now arise from the conjunction of all these fields of scientific inquiry and our "lifeworld", yet which these sciences cannot answer themselves - these can again be approached by philosophy. By strict, methodological thinking. We don't have to resort to denying the meaningfulness of all these questions out of hand or to religious mysticism - and we shouldn't. It's the dishonest and unproductive thing to do. We can be rational even here. And if we really want answers we have reason to accept - at least tentatively - we have to be.

Comments

(Anonymous)

usual crap

I thought the show was interesting until in one episode, they were having a chat during dinner and the rational guy says 'even Einstein thought that God was rational' or something similar. That pretty much killed my interest in the show.
Hi Phil,

Doesn't the argue get a little shaky on Premise 2a first?

"Quantum theory states that wave-functions collapse only under observation"

It sounds like they are just using the Copenhagen interpretation which is, an interpretation (the clue is in the title).

This has not been shown to be correct but is just a way for our evolved monkey brains to picture what the maths is showing us.

Don’t think there is anything in the equations that require consciousness from an observer. So isn’t it just special pleading?

I’ve not got onto 2b yet... do I have to after not liking 2a?

I will now try and understand what you wrote – far more interesting.

Lee