Eight Philosophical Questions We’ll Never Solve?

Years back George Dvorsky wrote a popular article at io9 titled “8 Great Philosophical Questions We’ll Never Solve.” It’s interesting because all eight are triggers for the same cognitive biases sustaining irrational theistic belief. Is it true we’ll never solve them? What do we mean by “solve” anyway? Is being able to show an answer is very likely true “a solution”? How probable does that answer have to be, before we conclude it’s “solved”?

We do have a confusion on this point. Science is just philosophy with better data. Meaning, scientific conclusions, conclusions multiply replicated and strongly evidenced (and not just backed by a couple papers in journals), are conclusions we have sound reason to conclude are so probably correct we can assume they’ve been “solved.” But not so probable they can’t be overthrown someday. Although overthrowing a scientific conclusion of that caliber, happens a lot less often than people think; still, it’s not unheard of, and certainly not impossible. So “solved” really is just a relative term.

The most useful output of philosophy, is the reconstruction of a question about reality in a way science can someday get its teeth into. Hence philosophy of mind built the intellectual ramp that led to psychology and cognitive science. Just as in previous centuries it had done for biology and physics and every other thing. Philosophers should take seriously the effort to build that ramp for everything. They should ask the question, “How can we frame this problem in a way science could solve it someday?” What happens when we do that for all eight of Dvorsky’s “unsolvables”? And are they actually unsolved by every standard, or only that one?

1. Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Of course just as easily we can ask why should there be nothing rather than something. What makes “nothing” the default? Nothing. Really. So it isn’t. But still, it is correct to say this is an “unsolved” question in science. Why did the Big Bang “bang,” rather than just nothing stay nothing?…if ever there was nothing, which actually we’ve never established. There may well have always been something. As of yet, no scientific evidence has ever argued otherwise. But even if there has always been something, even then, why has there always been something? We don’t have to assume nothing is the default, to still ask that question. Is it unanswerable?

Theism doesn’t answer the question. Because it presumes something exists without explanation (God) to explain all the rest. That’s just kicking the can down the road. Worse, really, since there’s no evidence for God. So it amounts to positing something for which we have no evidence, to explain everything else, and then declaring victory. That’s bad science. Good science posits a hypothesis, and deduces things we would observe and not observe if that hypothesis is true. Ideally, things that we otherwise don’t expect. Science then looks to see if those unexpected things are indeed observed; or if those things we expect not to observe, we do observe, which then rules that hypothesis out. Even more ideally, both.

The best proof of a hypothesis, is a test that would surely prove it false if it is false, that then fails. Alas, God never passes this test. So much is entailed by God that we observe not to be the case, that we can scientifically rule out that hypothesis. Theists, desperate to deny reality, then retool their God hypothesis into some elaborately bizarre monster that gerrymanders its way through all the falsifications. But that’s no longer doing science. That’s fleeing science. The more shit you have to make up to “explain away” all its failures to predict reality, the less probable your theory gets. Not the other way around.

The simplest theory is actually the theory that requires assuming the fewest things that lack evidence directly confirming them. If that theory predicts all observations, then you have a viable theory. That doesn’t make it true. There could be competing theories that are true; but you need evidence to believe them. So you may be in a place where you don’t know for sure a given theory is “the” explanation; but you can still be certain God is far less likely an explanation. So you can say the problem is “solved” well enough to rule out theism, without concluding it’s “completely solved.”

And that’s even if God were a respectable hypothesis to begin with. And it’s not. As a cause to propose for anything, “God” is absurdly ridiculous, based in no known science, and unattested by any analog in the whole of science. “A really amazing ghost did it.” “Are there ghosts?” “Well…” There is a reason we never put “ghosts did it” at the top of any list of likely explanations of anything as yet unexplained. Because whenever we were in the same epistemic position before—and that’s been thousands of times now—it never turns out to be ghosts. Nor do we have any sound reason to believe ghosts even exist. So if you are still putting ghosts on your list of likely explanations of anything, you are rejecting the vast background knowledge science has acquired of what usually explains things. Odds are, it’s not going to be ghosts. Much less one giant mega-ghost.

Science will likely solve this problem eventually. I’ll show you why in a moment. But the short of it is, that what we mean by “something” is really just a structure. So when we understand why that structure exists instead of some other, we’ll likely have discovered why something exists at all. Because “nothing” is actually just some other possible structure. Being just one other possible structure, one other possible state of being, “nothing” would need as much reason to exist as any other structure, any other state.

This I think we already have a “solution” for in the lesser sense: the sense of a solution more likely than any other yet proposed. Which is not the more desirable sense, the sense of a solution almost certain to be correct. But it’s good enough. Good enough for escaping the God delusion. We don’t need to be certain of what’s true, to be certain it isn’t a god. “Whatever killed Alexander the Great, I’m certain it wasn’t Thor.” That’s a perfectly sound conclusion. And yet doesn’t require knowing what killed Alexander the Great.

I’ve already written up before what I think is most likely (in Merdae Fit). The short of it is: it is logically necessarily the case that either for no reason (a) there has just always been something or (b) there was once nothing; if (a), then there is something rather than nothing because there just always has been something and there is no reason why; but if (b), then there was a time when there was literally nothing, which means not even any rule or law governing what would happen existed, which means “from nothing, only comes nothing” is false (because that would be a rule, a law; but nothing means nothing exists, not even a rule like that one).

If no rule or law governs what will happen, then what will happen is literally random (that follows by definition: the logically inevitable opposite of any rule-driven outcome, is a random outcome). “Nothing” basically just means zero universes. But the options are not “zero or one.” There can be any number of “things” that can exist besides zero things. And if the number of things that will come to be is decided by no rule or law, and therefore decided at random, the probability that what will happen is the originating nothing continuing to be nothing is as near to zero as makes all odds. Because the probability of randomly picking one specific number (“zero”) out of infinitely many available numbers of things, none of which is more privileged by any rule or law than any other, is infinitesimally close to zero.

We therefore require no explanation for why there is something. Either there is something for no reason, because there always has been; or there is something because it was inevitable that there would be, because “nothing” is so inherently unstable by its own unavoidable definition, that it could never plausibly have stayed that way. Notably, neither explanation requires positing any unknown (just what follows necessarily from each theory’s own definition). This is therefore far more probable than any God explanation. We don’t need to observe anything else to know that nothing means no rules, and no rules means random outcomes, and random outcomes means effectively zero probability of a single outcome. Conversely, we don’t need to observe anything else to know that if there has always been something, there is no need to explain why there is something. Because it’s then just the coin flip we got (between nothing and something); and if the coin flipped the other way, there still wouldn’t remain nothing. Because for nothing to remain nothing would be maximally improbable.

And that’s not an empirical conclusion. It’s a logically necessary conclusion. Which is what philosophy is best at discovering. And eventually, science may well solve the question. Knowing where it all comes from and why it all exists is, after all, the ultimate goal of cosmology.

2. Is Our Universe Real?

Put simply, “How do we know that what we see around us is the real deal, and not some grand illusion perpetuated by an unseen force?” Like Descartes’ evil demon, or the modern version, an evil alien or AI running some equivalent to The Matrix. The Cartesian Demon argument has been around for a long time. It suffers from being far less probable than a more mundane scientific realism. Because it requires vastly more complex explanations…for which there is exactly zero evidence. In that sense, this argument is basically just a secular version of theism. “There is no evidence for the God you are proposing explains all reality.” “Well, of course not, he hides all the evidence. Because he’s super-amazing.” If you didn’t catch the fallacy there, let me walk you through it. The theory by itself contradicts vast amounts of observations, which ordinarily constitutes a decisive falsification of a theory. This is especially the case for the most basic version of this argument, which is solipsism (see my takedown of that hypothesis in my Critique of Rea; it performs extremely poorly as a predictive model). But the same problem obtains for external Simulators.

For instance, if reality is engineered by a conscious mind, we should expect reality to conform to its whims. Reality would then look like some externally controlled simulation. Including values-directed laws of physics, like “survival of the kindest,” or the appearance of helpful angels, or respawns after accidental deaths. Even if the Mind is evil or has goals uninterested in our welfare, we should see comparable manipulation and engineering of the universe in aid of those goals. Whereas a universe that isn’t being directed, should only exhibit the same mindless goal-directed behavior all mindless universes would (e.g. all naturally manifest evolutionary algorithms, the nucleosynthesis cascade, crystallization, autocatalysis, and so on), since such things are inevitable given the starting conditions, and require no engineer or external controller. To evade this falsification, defenders of God, er, I mean, The Simulator, invent a vast array of “excuses” to explain all the evidence away, and basically invent a Deity that conveniently, for some really weird reason, only designed the universe to look exactly like an undesigned universe.

The unavailability of this excuse for solipsism is what proves it false. But the availability of this excuse for God, er, I mean, external Simulators, still does not rescue them from being massively improbable. The immediate problem is that Simulationists don’t realize how vastly complex their theory is. They think “A Mind” is a really simple thing. When in fact it’s actually the most complicated thing in the universe. And if you are positing aliens or AI, you aren’t just positing A Mind. You are positing an entire additional universe, and a complex convenient history for that extra universe explaining the appearance of those aliens or AI and their development and running of this particular universe in it as a sim. Which collectively is actually more complex than this whole universe.

That’s right. Due to the laws of computation, a simulated universe must necessarily always be less complex than the mechanism simulating it. Ergo, the Simulation theory entails positing an extra universe more complex than the universe you are positing it to explain. In truth, the simplest possible way to simulate a universe, is to just create the universe. Simulation hardware is a waste of time and resources. No extra hardware or computational architecture is then required to store and process all the data. Much less “store and process” the aliens and whatever else must exist in their universe to explain how they exist at all, and have the resources to simulate our universe within theirs. And there will be no risk of bugs or errors.

Proposing an even more complex thing (on no basis of any evidence) to explain our already-absurdly-complex universe, is generally going in the wrong direction scientifically speaking. But even logically speaking, it entails positing something less probable than the random formation of our universe without the Simulator. Because you have to presume the random selection or formation of that other, more complicated universe, even to get to the possibility of it simulating ours. Of course, you then also have to presume an even more unusual collection of contingent events within that already-even-less-likely universe than ours, to explain why anyone in that universe would come to exist who would want to simulate our universe—by which I mean not just any universe, but our universe, in the form and function we observe it has (a crucial point I’ll get to in a moment). So the prior probability of any Simulation hypothesis is astronomically small. Indeed, beyond astronomically small. Origin theories like Chaotic Inflation are vastly simpler, and rely on posits that already have evidence supporting their existence or likelihood. That’s why they’re so much more likely. And science has a real shot of actually proving one of those theories some day. It’s not an “unsolvable.”

Another way to look at the Cartesian Demon problem is to force yourself to think through what it actually requires. And realize that each peculiar thing you have to imagine adding on, only reduces the prior probability of those features having ever come together. Cartesian Demons simpliciter entail all sorts of observable evidence for their existence; you have to make the thesis more and more complicated, to get more and more of that expected evidence explained away. I’ve discussed this before, where I concluded with this:

[The] weakest Cartesian Demon is your friends pranking you (a somewhat more convoluted and thus more complex explanation of what you are experiencing than that you are just experiencing the true state of the world right now); a much stronger but still weak Cartesian Demon is The Truman Show (which is far more complicated in [terms of] the system required to realize it); a far better Cartesian Demon is The Matrix (which is far more complicated still, in [terms of] the system required to realize it); so to get even better than that (even all the way to a perfect Cartesian Demon) requires a vastly more complex hypothesis than even that (necessarily, as discussed in The God Impossible). Just to construct and describe its powers and motives and how and why it has them and never fails at them. Worse, you then also have to still propose a whole extra universe on top of the Cartesian Demon anyway, in which the Cartesian Demon can exist and which makes its powers realizable. Just skipping the vast added complexity of the demon and sticking with [the only] universe you need in the explanation anyway is by definition far simpler.

So, Cartesian Demons are simply too improbable to credit on present undeniable evidence (particularly the undeniable present experience of all these logical facts). That’s epistemically improbable, of course. We may well be brains in vats. But we have no reason at all to believe that that’s in any way likely. Mediated perception of an external reality more or less accurately modeled by our brain is just a far simpler and thus epistemically more likely explanation of how these perception events are occurring as they are.

So we can be pretty sure we aren’t in a Simulation. It’s actually a fairly solid scientific conclusion that we are not. “We are in a Simulation” is pseudoscience, just like “Alien lizard people control all the world’s governments.” So, far from being “unsolvable,” this one is pretty well solved. Not solved in the sense of “we can be absolutely certain we aren’t in a Simulation,” but neither is anything else in science. “We can be absolutely certain water is made of hydrogen and oxygen” is also false. But no one concludes from that trivial truth that we haven’t solved the problem of what water is made of.

Such is the state of this question. But for one new development. In an effort to get around all the above problems, Nick Bostrom developed the Simulation Argument. Which relies on something new we’ve realized: there very likely are countless other universes; so positing them is not ad hoc anymore. But his argument from that to the conclusion we might be in a sim suffers from one fatal flaw: a hidden false premise. The Bostrom argument can be summarized fairly elegantly as:

A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

This statement is entirely correct and true. In fact it’s a really good example of analytical philosophy nailing a point. But note that, as stated, this does not declare (3) true or probable. It just says, the only way (3) can be false, is for either (1) or (2) to be true. Bostrom himself claims all three must be equally likely, so far as we know. But that’s not at all the case. We can show why (1) is likely to be false; civilizations are far harder to kill than the Bostroms of the world think. Existential threat worriers far too quickly conflate “collapsing civilization into a reset” with “wiping out the human race.” Civilization progresses no matter how often it gets reset. Rome fell. The West collapsed in ruin. But just over a thousand years later we were advancing beyond its every achievement. We just don’t have any way to kill civilization. We can collapse one. But that’s not the same thing. And we just saw why (3) is likely to be false (above). By contrast, we do not have any reason to believe (2) is unlikely at all.

This is an example of one of the most common mistakes philosophers make: not thinking things through. Bostrom argues that “if (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so.” What’s unlikely here is “individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations.” The desire to use a universe’s processing capacity to run games and paradises would always overwhelm that. There actually isn’t any use for “ancestor” sims; and they are unthinkable to any species ethical enough not to destroy itself before acquiring the ability to make them. In other words, unlike (1) and (3), (2) to be false requires an unlikely conjunction of events; (2) is therefore far more likely than (1) and (3).

Bostrom acknowledges that running ancestor sims is unethical. In fact, it’s so massively unethical it would require the most evil fuck imaginable even to contemplate running one. And we know a lot about evil fucks. They don’t do things they don’t benefit from. That’s why they’re evil. Why would Hitler, for example, run a sim he couldn’t live in and wouldn’t meddle with? Indeed, why would he run a sim filled with Jews? Remember the problem at top: designers have goals; they wouldn’t make universes that didn’t realize their goals; and if a universe they built started going off mission, they’d intervene and fix that. Designers far more likely will make universes that exhibit their goals. That problem iterates for every other conceivable Evil Villain. Until you get to Evil Villains so incredibly bizarre, the assumption that every universe would contain one starts to sound a lot less likely than that most universes never have sim-verse capable civilizations or that we’re already in The Matrix. The more so as this Evil Villain has to somehow also thwart The Rest of Intergalactic Civilization who would destroy them even for trying to create an ancestor-sim (which would require more processor space than one hundred billion galaxies…in case you didn’t realize the size of computer we were talking about, just to run a single ancestor sim).

Bostrom says “there are certainly many humans who would like to run ancestor-simulations if they could afford to do so.” But that’s not true. In fact, I don’t know anyone on this planet who really does. Not least because of that ethics thing. But not even Hitler would see any use in them. Indeed, Bostrom concedes “maybe the scientific value of ancestor-simulations to a posthuman civilization is negligible (which is not too implausible given its unfathomable intellectual superiority).” Right. A posthuman civ won’t have any use for replicating the Holocaust. Or the Plague. Or millions of years of animal disease and predation. Or Donald Trump. It would serve no scientific function to them. It wouldn’t answer any questions they’d need answered. It would just waste processor space they could more productively retask into games and paradises. And remember, you couldn’t discover anything about your own world’s past by running an ancestor sim; because beings within a universe can have no access to the exact initial conditions of their universe, or indeed the exact conditions at any point in their universe’s history, so they could never replicate their universe and history. But more importantly…if you already know how to sim a universe, there isn’t anything about the laws of that universe you need the sim for. You already know everything there is to know about it.

To answer this by saying “maybe aliens would have some reason to do the most immoral and useless thing imaginable, a reason so unusual you can’t think of it” is to do exactly what Christians do to argue evil is not evidence against God. It’s proposing a hypothesis-rescuing auxiliary assumption that is itself improbable. And therefore so is any theory that depends on it. Because unusual = infrequent = improbable. Unless you can show the “reason” you have in mind is probable. Until then, positing that hypothesis-rescuing excuse will always lower, not increase, the probability of the hypothesis. This is why all Christian and creationist apologetics fails logically. And it’s why you can’t get simverses back into being “probable” by positing things you have no evidence are even likely.

Does this mean the question of whether we are in a simulation remains unsolved? I’d say it’s as solved as its likely to get, absent some future evidence that alters the conclusion as to what’s more likely: that we are just in a universe—and not in a universe, inside another universe, built by complex aliens, who for some unfathomable and unconscionably evil reason want to run a sim of some other alien universe they already know everything about because they designed it. That’s not scientific certainty. Because we can’t quantify any of the parameters (yet). But it’s a reasonable philosophical certainty. We can be as certain that we aren’t the victims of a Simulator, as we can be certain we aren’t the victims of an equally-immoral God. And for pretty much all the same reasons. Excepting only that, on background evidence so far, alien engineers are vastly more likely than magical mega-ghosts.

3. Do We Have Free Will?

As Dvorsky puts it, “we do not know if our actions are controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (or by some other external influence), or if we’re truly free agents making decisions of our own volition.” This one actually has been solved by philosophy. It’s just that some philosophers won’t allow themselves to accept the solution. The solution consists in recognizing that Dvorsky’s statement is a false dichotomy. We know as a matter of scientific fact that “our actions are controlled by a causal chain of preceding events.” And this is true even if quantum events are truly indeterministic; because it’s a matter of scientific fact that our decisions are not quantum events. We also know as a matter of scientific fact that we can “make decisions of our own volition.” Psychology has well established that there is a difference between when we choose to do something, and when someone chooses for us (e.g. by pushing us or chaining us or deceiving us), and that not all our choices are of the latter kind. Therefore volitional choices exist. Autonomy and consent exist.

The confusion arises from a bullshit concept invented in the ivory tower of philosophers and theologians thousands of years ago: the idea that volition is free of prior causation. We know that’s false. Sociology, psychology, cognitive science, have all established the fact. So it’s not even an unsolved question anymore. But that idea doesn’t actually operate in any meaningful way in the real world. When courts of law and medical ethics boards talk about “free will,” they are never talking about an unobserved magical power to defy prior causation. They are talking about whether a person can choose the action they want to take; and, most of the time, they can even choose what they want. Which is true even on causal determinism. So there is no conundrum to solve. Agent determinism is a scientific fact. Agent volition is a scientific fact. Done and dusted. This is, of course, called compatibilism.

The easiest way to prove that compatibilism is the semantically correct description of what ordinary language means by free will in practice is to ask a single question:

  • Why do we all agree coercion violates free will?

Think about it. When a person is faced with a choice, to either act as they are coerced to do, or suffer the threat coercing them (say, being shot, or beaten, or fired), they could have chosen the punishment. So why do we say they had no choice? It’s not because they have a magical supernatural power that…what, prevents them choosing to be shot, beaten, or fired? That doesn’t make any sense. No. We call coercion a violation of free will not because it deterministically causes the victim to act one way and not another, as if pointing a gun at them physically causes them to be unable to choose to be shot by it. As history attests, many a human has chosen to be shot…and we don’t blame them for that choice, either.

This demonstrates “free will” in the real world is not a concept in physics. It’s a concept in axiology: it’s a description of what we value. We value a competent agent calculating on their own the merits of an action, and then taking the action they computed to have the most merit. We value a person acting in self-defense, more than we value punishing them for acting under coercion. And we seek to judge the character of a person, by how they act—precisely because we assume their character deterministically causes their choices. Ironically, the nonsensical ivory tower “defying causation” idea of free will would thus render the entire concept of judging people by their actions impossible. If people act absent prior causation, then we can no longer even say that their character caused their action. So there simply is no social utility to that concept. And when we test how people act (and not just what they “think”), they always act like compatibilists. They always assume character causes choices. They always assume knowledge and ignorance cause which choices we make. And they are right.

That’s why we don’t blame coerced people for the effects of their actions. Because their actions are not what they chose, but what someone else chose. And that requires us to accept a particular principle: that it’s okay to choose to do “that” (whatever it was) in order to avoid being killed, beaten, or fired. Which is not a statement about physics. It’s a statement about what we value. We value people being free. And we mean by being free not being free from physics. We mean being free from other people’s wills, or from forces that cannot be affected by our choices. Quite simply, being able to make our own choices; to choose what we want. And we judge people not based on whether they defied the laws of physics. We judge them based on whether the things they did, were the things they wanted, and chose to do, and not things someone else wanted and chose for them. Because what a person chooses, is evidence of their wishes and character. And their wishes and character are what we are trying to evaluate. Let someone else make choices for you, and we can no longer evaluate your character or wishes based on those choices—because those choices are no longer being caused by your character or your actual preferences, but someone else’s. That’s why we decide coercion eliminates free will. Not because of some weird physical power.

Similarly, we well know free will exists by degrees. A person who gets an education and learns how to question their cultural upbringing and its assumptions is more free than someone who never gets that skill and thus is never caused to question any of it but simply lets it cause them to conform to it. A person who faces humiliation lest they act is more free than a person who faces death lest they act. A person who has sex because they like to is more free than a person who has sex with their spouse because they want to save their marriage; and a person who has sex with their spouse because they want to save their marriage is more free than a person who is forced to at knife point; and a person who is forced to at knife point is more free than a person who is physically held down and can’t even choose to be killed in lieu of being raped. These differences in degree of free will really exist. As we all acknowledge. And something that exists by degrees, must necessarily exist. It therefore cannot be said that “someone who has sex because they like to” is exactly the same as “someone held down and raped,” that they have the same amount of free will in the matter…meaning zero. To the contrary, everyone in real life is a compatibilist. They know free will exists, and exists in degrees. Whether they know or admit that, or not.

That this is the case in the real world I’ve documented extensively (see, for a start, Free Will in American Law: From Accidental Thievery to Battered Woman Syndrome). And it’s been well tested (e.g. see  Murray & Nahmias, “Explaining Away Incompatibilist Intuitions,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 88 (2014): 434–467). People can become confused about it if you try tripping them up with concepts they haven’t thought through, and ask them to operate in an abstract metaphysical world divorced from reality; but when they act in the real world, or judge concrete scenarios, they always go back to acting like compatibilists, aware of it or not. If you still can’t accept the semantic reality that “free will” does not mean in practice “free from deterministic causation,” then you’ll just have to take my online course on free will the next time I offer it (which will be sometime this year), and try your best arguments there. Eventually you’ll learn it’s only an ivory tower concept that needs to die. You should want that, too. Because the concept only exists because of Christian theology’s stranglehold on your culture.

So is it true this hasn’t been solved and never will? Nope. It’s been solved. It’s already a scientific fact that choices are not free of prior causation. And it’s already a scientific fact that people can act autonomously and prefer to do so. Just as its false that “vitality” is a magical fluid yet nevertheless still exists as a deterministic chemical metabolism, so its false that “free will” is a magical power to defy the laws of causation yet nevertheless still exists as a varying degree of personal autonomy (for more on this point see Dennett vs. Harris on Free Will).

4. Does God Exist?

This one is pretty much solved. Dvorsky is wrong. We can know if God exists or not. Gods that make any predictions about reality, have all been falsified. And Gods that make no predictions about reality, are intrinsically improbable. Indeed, revisit the section above on Cartesian Demons. Because, after all, God is just another Cartesian Demon. Indeed, gods are the least likely of them; even less likely than alien engineers running us in a simulator. There is a reason barely 16% of professional philosophers even lean toward the possibility of a god anymore (notably, nearly exactly the same as still believe in the absurdity of contra-causal free will); and they are probably mostly fundamentalists playing at being philosophers.

5. Is There Life After Death?

This one has been as conclusively solved as anything in science. Dissolution of the brain is dissolution of the person it contained. Any claim to the contrary is now pseudoscience. The brain science establishing the total dependence and correlation between neural structure and the contents of a person (character, memories, abilities, skills, everything) is as well-established as anything in the field (see my survey in Sense and Goodness without God III.6.6, pp. 150-60). Even honest Christians have now conceded this. Only cranks, theists, fideists, and the uninformed still deny it. But for all sane, objective, and informed analysts, mind-brain physicalism is even more certain than atheism. All that’s left to be debated is the nature of this dependency and relationship (e.g. some philosophers still argue the brain generates nonphysical entities; but they still agree an intact brain is still required to do so). And those are scientific questions likely to be solved eventually.

Dvorsky’s claim that “there’s no reason to believe that we only have one shot at this thing called life” is simply false. There is a ton of evidence entailing that’s indeed extremely improbable; as improbable as there being immortal vampires, or a hidden faerie land. Mechanical resurrection is conceivable; but not available for most of us, and possibly not for any of us (yet). Dvorsky also incorrectly references the Many Worlds Hypothesis in quantum mechanics as entailing an afterlife, but “there may be other me’s somewhere else” is simply not what people mean by an afterlife. Nor is the MWH an unsolvable question. Science may well one day verify it’s a correct account of existence; or that it’s not. But its being the case, won’t help you with living forever.

6. Can You Really Experience Anything Objectively?

This actually has been conclusively solved already. The answer is no. It is not only a scientific fact that no one can ever “experience” anything “objectively,” it’s logically necessarily the case. Even a supernatural God could never be sure they were experiencing anything “objectively.” Because there is no logically possible way to check. But in our case, we know how dependent our perception (hence experience) is on chemical-computational mediation. Our experiences are models, constructs, invented by our brain, in an attempt to guess at what exists outside the construct. Even our construct of ourselves is not an objective access to our own minds; it’s a model, an attempt to guess, at what’s going on in our minds. And science has proven it’s often wrong.

Dvorsky is correct that “there’s a difference between understanding the world objectively…and experiencing it through an exclusively objective framework” (emphasis added). It’s certainly possible to approach objective understandings of the world, in some relevant sense of “objective.” We know for a scientific fact that we can have both more and less of an objective grasp on the reality external to our mind’s constructed models of it, depending on certain variables, many teachable or under our control. But experience, even the qualia of experience, is always subjective. Although it’s true, as Dvorsky says, “the subjective appreciation of the color red may vary from person to person,” that may be unlikely. The same causes, we have sufficient reason to expect, will consistently generate the same effects; otherwise even our own experience of the color red would constantly and randomly change. So we can understand objective facts about subjective experience; but we can never verify that directly. It will always be a hypothesis we test against circumstantial evidence. Like every other fact of science. Experience itself is always subjective.

But, Dvorsky asks, “should we continue to assume that [the world’s] true objective quality can never be observed or known?” (emphasis added). Yes. As he admits, “the only way you could possibly know” like that “is if you were to somehow observe the universe from the ‘conscious lens’ of another person in a sort of Being John Malkovich kind of way.” But actually, that’s logically impossible, in the sense he requires. It’s logically possible that you could see things through another person’s eyes, using your brain (not theirs) to process the information; but that’s not actually “you” seeing what “they” see. Because your brain will process that information differently. For example, if you know Arabic, when they look at an Arabic text, they will see unintelligible scribbles, but you will see coherent letters, words, and sentences. Thus, your subjective experience will still not match theirs.

The only way to share an identical experience with someone, is to be identical to them. But then you are simply them. No longer you. Again, you can have a justified belief in the commonality of your experience. The more your brain structure generating an experience is identical to theirs, the more we can justifiably believe they are experiencing it the same way you are—hence the point about the color red above. But that’s not experiencing what they experience. It’s inferring what they are experiencing. Which of course we do all the time. When someone is in pain, we have a good idea what they are experiencing; and the more they communicate the particulars, and the more it matches what we’ve experienced, the more sure we can be that their experience is the same as ours. But we still aren’t able to verify that directly. We can never share their experience in a literal sense.

We already know it’s logically impossible for a different person, to literally share an identical experience. Because experience is both local and a product of a person’s own neural construction. Which means, it exists for a person only where they are, not where we are; even if we share a cranium, our neural structures must still have a slightly different location than theirs, or else they would simply be their neural structures. And their neural structures are also always going to be different from ours insofar as they are a different person from us. Meanwhile, all other facts of the world, we can only access subjectively. As all our brains can do is construct a model of what’s real. It can never directly access the real, without itself being that reality. But our mind is what a brain does. It is not the brain as such. Hence we don’t experience being a collection of neurons; we experience what it is to be produced by the activity of a collection of neurons.

Bottom line is, no, we will never experience anything objectively.

7. What Is the Best Moral System?

This is actually solvable. Scientists just need to get off their bums and start building and running the requisite research program. And yes, I mean scientists. Philosophers can try to get at approximations of what science would find (basically, we are filling in, because scientists aren’t doing their job on this); but like the theory of mind before psychology and cognitive science were developed, moral theory is just a stopgap, and should actually be moved into and resolved by science. I discuss this extensively in Sense and Goodness without God (Part V), and even more compactly under peer review in The End of Christianity. Both of which you’ll get to read and challenge or ask questions about in my next online course on the science and philosophy of practical moral reasoning (which I’ll offer again sometime this year). You can get various parts of what I mean in my many blog articles on the subject, starting with maybe my most recent piece on Sam Harris. The bottom line is that moral facts are simply facts about people in the context of social systems; and as such, they are empirically discoverable. Dvorsky rightly points out that moral truths must be much more complicated than most people think; but that’s the case for every field of science. It is not an obstacle to gaining knowledge in those fields. Nor would it be in this.

8. What Are Numbers?

We can perhaps say science hasn’t bothered with this question yet. But philosophically, it’s totally solvable. And really, honestly, it’s been solved. Anyone still not on board with the obvious solution (which was discovered by Aristotle 2,300 years ago and hasn’t been refuted by any evidence since), is just lost in a maze of semantics. Read the second half of my latest article on the ontology of moral facts, starting at “But numbers can’t be made up!” Where I discuss the ontology of “numbers,” and of mathematics generally. “Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points,” Dvorsky says, “but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures?” Obviously the latter. The former is no more credible than claiming airplanes crash because of gremlins. When we well know it’s because of collisions, humans, or mechanical or pilot error. There is no use or evidence for “numbers” existing as “things” in any supernal sense, any more than anything else that just describes patterns in actuality or potentiality. Believing they “exist” in some other sense is simply a reification fallacy, the same cognitive error that leads us to believe design entails a designer, that a mind can exist without a brain, or that “love” is a supernatural force in the universe.


All eight of these questions have actually been reasonably well solved (in seven of eight cases), or are totally solvable if only we’d engage the necessary research (as in the question of determining true moral facts). Some have even been solved to scientific certainty (there is no afterlife; objective experiences are impossible; we don’t have contra-causal free will and do have causal free will). Others only to a philosophical certainty (there is no god; it’s not such a big mystery why there should be something rather than nothing; we’re probably not in a computer simulation; and numbers don’t exist outside human invention and the actual and potential patterns they describe), but that’s well enough. And it’s mostly only theists who won’t accept this. Or atheists who are tangled up in the confusion of semantics or aren’t applying evidence-based reasoning to the matter.


  1. In terms of 3 (Free Will) I have a comment on some underlying psychology, although there isn’t much disagreement here. This relates to a programme of research I am planning to work on. I am not sure that “volition is free of prior causation” is only a concept invented in the ivory tower. It seems to me to be part of a set of false intuitions tied with our punitive intuitions. This can seen more clearly by the oft-used metaphor in criminal justice and revenge discourse of “balancing the scales”. In that, if an actor causes suffering it seems morally right that they have suffering inflicted upon them. Importantly, this intuition can operate regardless of any positive outcomes (disincentive, pedagogy) or indeed even despite negative outcomes. Of course, we both agree this intuition is false, but as someone who defends consequentialism I am sure you have come across people arguing otherwise “because they deserve it!”.

    “We mean being free from other people’s wills, or from forces that cannot be affected by our choices. Quite simply, being able to make our own choices; to choose what we want.”

    If you imagine not that an actor’s will is being violated by another actor, but instead that their desires are (eg. by brainwashing, pharmaceuticals, psionics, any crazy fun sci-fi stuff!). Therefore, they act towards a desire that they hold but would otherwise not act if not for the “implanted” desire. If someone kills based on a desire implanted in them, we of course still do not hold them responsible, we hold the other actor responsible. Our punitive attention shifts, and we are less likely to want killer to suffer. But there need not be another actor as no one is the ultimate cause of their desires. And we have discovered the psychological reasons behind this bias, that when secondary actor is introduced, our attention shifts. This can happen even when it ought not shift if we were reasoning correctly (see Cushman 2008 on Moral Luck).

    Thus, the only recourse to defend wanting an agent to suffer “just because” is to defend fuzzy-bullshit libertarian free-will.

    There are of course evolutionary reasons why these intuitions are non-consequentialist. The computations are model-free and thus computationally less intensive than a consequentialist evaluation outcomes. In other words, desiring that an “evil-doer” should suffer is often a useful heuristic. Such actions generally do create disincentive and are supported by a pedagogical theory of punishment (teaching the group what is and is not permitted independent of intentions). This is generally called partner-choice and partner-control and in social psychology and animal behaviour i.e. choosing who is in your in-group and establishing impermissible behaviour within that group.

    That this error occurs and that we ought not want anyone’s suffering for its own sake seems to be a focus of hard-determinists. We SHOULD want to disincentivise harmful actions and protect people with the least amount of suffering possible. Something I am told is more strongly accepted in Norway and Sweden.

    This is not meant to be a refutation of compatibilism in favour of hard-determinism. Only that proponents of hard-determinism often talk about this error where compatibilists don’t. I most certainly do not hold you amongst them and in fact find your account of moral philosophy very persuasive, as we have discussed before.

    1. Good comment. It suffers only from the same flaw as all psychology: assuming WEIRDos are normal.

      “If an actor causes suffering it seems morally right that they have suffering inflicted upon them” — Indeed. Brain science has established that; it’s called the “tit-for-tat” module by some, one of the two moral judgment modules we have located in the brain (if I recall off hand, one judges motives, the other equity). But that thinking would exist even for a determinist. So it has no logical connection to contracausal free will. As the famous Supreme Court justice said, the criminal can claim they were destined to commit the crime, but the court can just as easily say they were therefore destined to be punished for it. Karmic determinism has been around for thousands of years.

      “The only recourse to defend wanting an agent to suffer “just because” is to defend fuzzy-bullshit libertarian free-will” — I don’t think that’s true. It’s just the tool Evangelical Christianity gives people, so it’s nearest to hand. In other cultures, a different tool is used, because a different tool is nearest to hand. For example, deterministic Calvinists, Muslims, Hindus, Marxists, have all come to the same conclusion, yet for deterministic and not contracausal freewill reasons. Punitive reasoning is irrational. It doesn’t even make sense on libertarian free will (since that entails character cannot cause an action, as that would be determinism; but if they didn’t do bad because they are a bad person, what sense is there in punishing them?). So there is no sense in which people “need” LFW to defend their vengeance kick. It doesn’t even defend vengeance in any logical way. It’s just a rhetoric people use to stop having to think about it. But determinism can be used the same way, e.g. karmic reasoning is deterministic, also defends punitive reasoning, and is just as illogical in that capacity. If you took LFW away, people would just go on defending punitive reasoning with some other tool, like deterministic karma, samsara, the beautiful plan of Allah, God’s election, the “scientifically inevitable” realization of the Marxist utopia. The options are endless.

      See my discussion with Tom Clark on this point.

      1. “So there is no sense in which people need LFW to defend their vengeance kick. It doesn’t even defend vengeance in any logical way. It’s just a rhetoric people use to stop having to think about it.”

        That’s the interesting part (for me anyway, psychologically speaking). I agree no coherent defence of vengeance follows from LFW. In fact I am not sure anything can follow from it because it is itself incoherent. So its strange that when it is defended, it kind-of-sort-of goes in that direction. Its hard even to say that as its usually a muddy conversation.

        Sam Harris discusses this subject with philosopher and defender of vengeance (for non-consequentialist reasons) Tamler Sommers on Very Bad Wizards. Its difficult me me to understand Tamler’s position (he is a Compatibalist but he seems to defend non-consequentialist morality while never offering anything other than consequences. Despite constantly disagreeing with what he says, he is always fun to listen to.

        Thanks for the link to the Tom Clark discussion, looking forward to reading it!

        By the way I don’t assume all WEIRDos are normal, they are just readily available and easily coerced into participating in our nefarious experiments for course credit!

      2. So I have a question regarding conversation with Tom (although I haven’t finished yet so hopefully this is not premature). I am not sure this is the place though as its starts to become less related to your article here. If it is not relevant here I am happy with it not making it through the moderation process and we can discuss it elsewhere or at some other time.

        What I want to say is, you make the point that even if some LFW convictions exist in those that might advocate for highly retributive criminal justice systems (for example conservatives who advocate for the death penalty for reasons of deservingness), even if LFW were true those arguments STILL do not logically follow and therefore LFW is a red herring.

        I agree here, nothing logical follows from LFW either way but there is a practical point to make. If you adequately appeal to someone’s deterministic (mechanistic) intuitions their retributive convictions are decreased (see work from from Shariff et al. 2014 at Josh Greene’s lab, although theres more work to be done here and some caveats to be made.)

        So the question is even though LWF is indeed a red herring, might talking about determinism in the way Tom Clark often does still have some practical value?

        1. Tom Clark’s approach simply triggers the equally problematically false conclusion of fatalism. The only correct position is compatibilism. So you should always educate people toward that. And this you will discover when you start to see how advancing determinism alone causes people to start making false fatalist assertions (like Sam Harris does, suggesting criminals aren’t guilty, that you never have a valid reason to be angry with anyone, and so on). The only way to correct that error is to explain what’s wrong with it. And when you find yourself doing that, you’ll notice that what you are doing is explaining compatibilism. So you may as well cut out the middle mistake-and-repair, and go straight to the conclusion: teaching people how compatibilism works. And do it by appealing to the intuitions they already have (as the scientific literature shows works).

  2. One thing that people don’t seem to get about the Big Bang:

    There is no “before”.

    As far as General Relativity goes — still the best theory we have, so far as I know — what we have is a singularity with a bunch of matter emerging from it. Asking what’s “before” the singularity is like asking what’s at 91°S latitude on Earth.

    .. the latter being a question you could try to interpret, sin() being a periodic function, after all, which then leads to an “answer” that 91°S is the same 66-mile-radius circle of ice and snow that comprises 89°S, but this really doesn’t tell us anything interesting, and if what the questioner is really after is the notion of there being “something beyond the South Pole”, it’s simply a meaningless question based on false premises.

    Similarly for the Big Bang: The spacetime manifold simply Doesn’t Go There.

    Also Einstein went to great pains to formulate a theory that does not depend on the manifold being embedded in some higher-dimensional space, so unlike with the South Pole example, there’s not even anything analogous to being able to go “up” (i.e., away from the center of the Earth).

    It’s like asking what’s “outside the Universe”, which is meaningless if the Universe is defined to be Everything.

    Similarly, it’s a tautology that the Universe has “always” existed because the Universe defines what “always” means. The only thing weird about the Friedmann cosmology is that the past has finite extent, i.e., tracing any world line backwards gets you to the singularity at minus n billion years. But there’s no question that the universe has existed for every one of those n billion years, hence “always” (i.e., for all legal/meaningful values of t).

    Now, what one COULD ask, and what GR theoretically allows for, is the existence of disconnected sheets of the spacetime manifold, which would essentially be pieces of the Universe that are by their very nature inherently unreachable — or rather, no evidence of their existence can ever reach us…. at which point we’re in Fantasy Land, contending with unfalsifiable propositions that have no effect on anything. So, again, while we can come up with an interpretation that makes the question answerable, the answer is not particularly interesting.

    Another possibility is that we’re not living inside a Friedmann cosmology — there being other viable cosmology-scale solutions to the GR equations — and that is something we could eventually get evidence for, possibly finding out that there are more legal/meaningful values of t than we originally thought. That would be interesting from a scientific point of view, though if such a discovery ends up not altering the overall framework of GR, I’m not sure the philosophers would have reason to care that much.

    1. Your first point is called the Hawking-Penrose Theorem. It was refuted forty years ago. By Hawking and Penrose. You’ll need to catch up on that one.

      In actual fact, time may indeed precede the Big Bang. Hawking proposed it loops back in on itself now; but he admits that’s just his theory. Most live theories today posit prior universes from which our Big Bang originated, in finite yet deep timelines or past eternal timelines. Only one Chaotic Inflation model-set imagines our universe as sharing a common origin in time to all others; and those models still not only don’t require that assumption, they entail the assumption is statistically unlikely.

      Your second point is not correct semantics. Philosophers do not mean by “always” only the observed timeline of the observable universe. That can only be true contingently (i.e. by observational accident). And so far, no evidence has verified it’s the case. So it remains an unknown.

      But you are correct at least, that even if the omniverse extends back to some first time point (even if it’s zillions of years before our Big Bang), it’s still the case that there has “always” been something and never been nothing. Unless the first unextended time-point was a nothing-state. Theologians can really only mean the latter; though it’s hard to get them to admit it. It’s the Problem of Non-Locality. If you define “nothing” as lacking even a location (e.g. not even time existed), then you are actually asserting there was never nothing. The only way to assert there was ever nothing, is to define nothing as the least that can exist and still not entail a logical contradiction. Which has to be an extensionless unidimensional point lacking all properties except the absence of all other properties except that and the inability to accommodate or manifest logical impossibilities. And an extensionless unidimensional point can count as the first point of time in any extended dimension of time that then emerges from it (e.g. traditional singularity theory).

      1. You are conflating different notions of singularity.

        I was using singularity in the original sense of the term, i.e., a place in our GR solution where the coordinate-system/theory that we’re using ceases to be meaningful for whatever reason (in this case because the required mass-energy density appears to be infinite and therefore well beyond the values where GR is known to be applicable).

        There’s also singularity in the sense of Actual Single Event with infinite mass-energy density,

        and yes, it was once thought that such an event had to exist somewhere/somewhen, this latter notion being the proposition that Hawking and Penrose backed off from, but that second notion of singularity has little to do with the question of what the overall shape of the manifold is once we get away from the singularity [in the first sense of the word], which (so far as we know, to the extent that GR has been tested) is determined by the rules of GR, i.e., in those realms where mass-energy density is sufficiently low, i.e. nearly everywhere/everywhen.

        So, basically, what we have is this hemisphere converging on the South Pole, and right at the South Pole there’s this little tiny bubble where quantum effects necessarily predominate and we don’t know exactly what’s going on inside it because we still don’t have an actual theory of quantum gravity.

        And yes, one can postulate the existence of other spacetime sheets being incident on that bubble, but given that the bubble is a sub-Planck-length entity where basically no actual information can get through because uncertainty principle (*), there really isn’t much difference between these sorts of sheets and sheets that are completely disjoint, meaning we’re back in non-disprovable fantasy land.

        (*) or, at least, until such time as somebody comes up with a mechanism for information to get through, and so far as I know, nobody has and nobody’s even close to this.

        Your second point is not correct semantics. Philosophers do not mean by “always” only the observed timeline of the observable universe.

        I wasn’t talking about the observable universe. Inflation theory, as I understand it, refers to a single manifold whose rate of expansion is sufficiently “fast” as to yield multiple regions of spacetime that are mutually unobservable, which so far as I know is the only rigorous notion of “multiple universes” out there.

        1. I was using singularity in the original sense of the term

          maybe another usage of this will clarify what I mean.

          If you’re using Schwarzchild coordinates, the event horizon of a black hole is also a singularity, because the Schwarzchild time coordinate goes to infinity there, giving us no way to meaningfully conclude anything about what happens there. In this case, we can switch to a different coordinate system (e.g., Kruskal-Szekeres), one where the coordinates are well-behaved at the event horizon, thus finding out that, in fact, nothing unusual is happening there at all — if the black hole is sufficiently large, you can ride your spaceship straight through and not even notice. So that singularity is merely a singularity due to stupid coordinates.

          What Hawking and Penrose proved is that there is no similar switch of coordinates that will make the singularity at the center of the hole go away, from which one might reasonably conclude that there’s Something Real happening there, even if we don’t know quite what.

          And the theorem has not been refuted; it remains a valid GR theorem. What H&P backed off from was the idea that it necessarily dictated a particular conclusion about the real universe, i.e., that there must be an infinite-density event in there. But we kind of already knew that because Quantum Foo (lack of similar Bad Things happening at the centers of hydrogen atoms, etc…)

        2. “Schwarzchild time coordinate goes to infinity [at the event horizon]” — That’s the wrong direction, though. Time there goes to the future infinity. Not the past. So you can’t be meaning that, in the context of explaining where or when the universe began. Whether anything is even inside that horizon is what we no longer know. And yet need to know, if we are to make assertions about when or whether time began. (Remember, at the Big Bang, there was no space or time outside anything you would call the event horizon.)

        3. No, I meant the same thing you did. The very idea that singularities exist at all was the Hawking-Penrose Theorem. That theorem is now gone. So there is no reason now to believe any singularities even exist. And that’s the problem. They might; or something like them; or they might not. No evidence.

          The “pole” analogy you give is Hawking’s nutshell theory. It’s his theory. It’s not popular. Most theorists propose something else. Including past eternality. Or an iterated finite past (our Big Bang starting late in cosmic time). Or something akin to a singularity theory. As I noted, all Chaotic Inflation models. Which may have caused you to say, “which so far as I know is the only rigorous notion of “multiple universes” out there.” It’s not. It’s just the most popular. Smolin selection theory is a rigorous peer reviewed multiverse theory. So is the ekpyriotic theory. And the Many Worlds Hypothesis of Quantum Mechanics (which is a more scientifically rigorous version of Tegmark’s theory that all logically possible universes must necessarily exist). And so on. There are lots of rigorously spelled-out multiverse theories. I agree Chaotic Inflation is the one with, so far, the best case. But it doesn’t answer whether our Big Bang reflects the first time event, or a later one; or whether, if the first-time event, it is a Hawking event or something else.

          We just don’t know.

  3. In answering the question “What is the best moral system?” science will first need to determine what the word “best” means.

    I don’t see how it can do that. It seems to me that we have to tell science what “best” means before we can ask it to answer the question.

    Does anyone have, including the author, have some thoughts on How science could determine what “best” means?


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