Ken Armstrong writes
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  Your post below is a real tour de force. Not commenting on the Ig Nobel, it seems fair to say that Hawking represents the side of the materialists in Eliot's statement (from memory) that ultimately there are two and only two tenable hypotheses about life, the catholic and the materialist. If I'm reading your argument right and other commentators such as Stephen Barr, the rising spin of activity of the "new atheists" (materialists) likely corresponds to the end of the phase of materialism they represent, "scientism." As any student of McLuhan knows, things only gain force and names when they have become obsolete, and it appears that is is science that is undercutting scientism.
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I don't see the failure of physics as a specific refutation of scientific materialism but as a refutation of scientific reductionism.  However I think that you are quite correct in stating that modern science is undercutting "scientism". Many important concepts are outside of the scope of science.

Contra this form of reductionism, which is espoused by Hawkings, Dawkins, Dennett and other members of the Bright movement, not all things in the universe can be fully explainable by the interactions of the basic subatomic particles. Even Dawkins himself argues this but does not realize that he is arguing it. He contends that all things in nature can be explained by the behavior of "selfish genes" and that the competition between genes in evolution defines the state of nature that we see. Dawkins does not seem to realize that genes are not fundamental. The are combinations of base pairs which are combinations of elements which are combinations of baryons and leptons with the baryons themselves not being fundamental but combinations of quarks with the structure below that of quarks and leptons being unknown to us. Perhaps quarks and leptons are fundamental. Perhaps they are not. The current state of physics cannot teach us that.  Dawkins states that genes compete and so what he is saying that certain combinations of quarks and leptons can out compete other combinations of quarks and leptons. Quarks and leptons are quarks and leptons and nothing else so the properties of quarks and leptons cannot explain the competitive edge that one gene has over another. So Dawkins argues against reductionism and states that the competition happens at the level of the genes.  If the high level concept of genes is fundamental then why cannot concepts at even higher levels be fundamental. I have never heard a Bright discuss that.

However genes do not compete. Phenotypes which exist in the world compete and phenotypes are necessarily combinations of genes. So it is not individual genes that are competing but phenotypes which are groups of instantiated survival strategies.. The individual species and the individual animals  of a species are more specific combinations of these strategies.  There are strategies for the placement of eyes. They can be placed at the side of the head or the front. Eyes to the front allow a predator to concentrate on its prey. Eyes to the side of the head allow a prey herbivore to bend its head down to feed while at the same time having a wide view of its surroundings to be on the alert for predators. So the predator strategy has adopted the eyes to the front strategy and the herbivore strategy has adopted the eyes to the side. Contrary to the rhetoric of ardent evolutionists, evolution is not a competition between genes but a competition between higher level strategies in which the strategies compete with each other at phenotype and higher levels. Evolution is a learning process in which the phenotype learns how to select the proper genes to better express itself. For me, this is directly implied by what I read of the evo-devo analysis being done in modern evolutionary theory. Species are designed to be evolvable so as to be successful in changing conditions.. In essence, evolution is a learning strategy which selects genes most suited to successful strategies. Strategies which compete with other strategies both directly at the species level and at the genetic level in being evolvable to meet specific conditions. 

Fundamental concepts do not end at the level of quarks or leptons. They exist at all levels higher and higher. So if the fundamental essence of  or order to the upper levels can be identified as some overriding principle or personified into a supernatural being then I see nothing very wrong with that. Efforts to understand these concepts through philosophy, poetry etc are not derivative.  






On 6/30/2012 8:03 AM, Tom Gray wrote:
If the Ig Nobel is meant as a spoof of academic arrogance then it is  serving as a very useful purpose.  However that is not how it is portrayed in the press. 

I've just watched a documentary in which the physicist Stephen Hawking explains the meaning of life. You see it is really quite simple, Everything exists in nature and therefore is a result of the laws of physics and the science of physics is able to extract the basic laws of nature that define everything including the meaning of life. Philosophy is dead and only physics remains. Our lives come from our brains which are just complex systems whose behavior, while seemingly complicated and unpredictable, is just the result of physical interactions which can be explained by reference to the basic laws of the science of physics. The science of physics provides the explanation for all things. There are a set of basic laws which are necessary and immutable and the science of physics can discover them. Everything else comes from that. The poetry of T.S. Eliot is simply an expression of these basic laws and nothing more

Sounds pretty good doesn't it. Everything is derivative form the necessary laws of physics. Well, maybe things are not so good after all. It turns out the physics models that Hawking touts depend on the values given to 23 basic constant ( the charge on the electron, gravitational constant etc.).  The odd thing about this is that if these constants were not tightly constrained to very precise values (to parts in 10 to the 20th or more) then the universe as we know it could not exist. Why is it a fundamental necessity that the values be what they are and not something else? String theory was one of the attempts to devise the laws that would explain these values. However current string theory shows not one solution but 10 to 100th solutions to the basic values. It offers no explanation why the specific set of constraints that our physics measures are the only one of this beyond vast number to be the correct and necessary ones.

So perhaps what we are seeing is not the death of philosophy but the death of physics. If what string theory and similar theories  predicts is true then our universe is the way it is because it is the way it is.  The basic laws and constants do not define the structure of the universe but the structure of the universe constrain and define what these laws and constants must be. With string theory, it can be seen that universe with any set of fundamental constants and laws may be created. However only those universes which give rise to intelligent life can create the science of physics. So the science of physics does not discover the laws that created intelligent life but the laws that intelligent life defines and compels. The basic physical constants and he laws that they define are the result of an evolutionary selection process that is driven by the necessity of intelligent life.

So physics is dead is as a means of discovering the  necessary and fundamental laws. The necessary and fundamental laws are defined not in the basic interactions of fundamental particles but in the high level interactions that define and compel them. So Hawkings is quite wrong. It is not physics that can explain the meaning of our lives but that the meaning of our lives defines and compels the laws of physics and that the science of physics is derivative of that.  Basic physics has come to an end. Its conceit and the conceit of tis academic practitioners was that it could discover the one basic truth. It turns out that there is no one basic truth but an essentially infinite number of basic truths. So any attempt of physics to go beyond string theory (or one of its rivals) will fail. It can explain nothing since it can never select between any of an infinite number of possibilities.

Physics is dead and the conceit of physicists has been shown to be hollow. Philosophy is fundamental. Physicists should not attempt to explain philosophical questions in which they have no expertise. 

If the Ig Nobel is a way of telling physicists and others that they too are mortal then it is a very good thing. However I do not see that this is the point that is presented to the public.