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Cross-Check: A Free Journal

This journal is free in two senses: you can read it for free, and I am free to say whatever I like.

Grizzled Veteran’s Advice to Aspiring Science Writers: Think Like Chomsky!

Noam Chomsky challenges authorities in all realms, including science.


This column is an updated version of one published on ScientificAmerican.com in 2014. It feels even more timely today.—John Horgan


I'm about to resume teaching my science-writing seminar at Stevens Institute of Technology, and I'm reflecting on my profession. What is the point of science journalism? The point, I'd say, is to assess, not merely report, claims involving science, including technology and medicine. And what should young, would-be science writers know to become smart judges of scientific claims? Some thoughts:


*Science generates lots of bullshit. Researchers competing for grants, glory and tenure often make poorly supported claims, which scientific journals and other media vying for readers eagerly disseminate; high-profile, potentially lucrative fields are especially likely to produce claims that cannot be replicated. These are the disturbing conclusions of analyses carried out for decades by Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, author of the blockbuster 2005 paper "Why Most Published Research Findings Are Wrong." Ironically, Ioannidis has been accused of carrying out shoddy research on the Covid-19 epidemic, but his critiques of the scientific literature have been broadly corroborated. Recent studies also suggest that science, in spite of increasing investments, is generating diminishing returns.


*Postmodernists are right, sort of. Many philosophers are postmodernists, who agree with Thomas Kuhn that science cannot achieve truth, or "truth," as they put it. Postmodernists are wrong about the unattainability of truth; science, in spite of its unreliability, has discovered many truths about nature, from the germ theory of infectious disease to the big bang theory of cosmic expansion. But postmodernists are right that science often reflects the prejudices and interests—economic, political, ideological--of powerful groups, as exemplified by science's sexist, racist history. Science journalists should consider the social context of scientific claims. They should ask, as good political and business journalists do, Whose interests are served by this claim? Sometimes that comes down to following the money.


*Marx was right, sort of. Communism turned out to be a bad idea, but Marx's critiques of capitalism remain sound. He warned that capitalism produces relentless innovation, which invariably benefits haves over have-nots. In our era, digital technologies have become a major driver of economic inequality, according to a 2022 report in The New York Times. Economists argue that "computerized machines and software, with a hand from policymakers, have contributed significantly to the yawning gaps in incomes" in the U.S. One economist found that "half or more of the increasing gap in wages among American workers over the last 40 years is attributable to the automation of tasks formerly done by human workers." This perspective should temper journalists' enthusiasm for alleged advances in artificial intelligence and other fields.


*Capitalism subverts health care. U.S. health care stinks, especially considering how much we spend on it. The website Our World in Data notes that the U.S. spends "far more" on health care per capita than any other country, and yet life expectancy in the U.S. is "shorter than in other countries that spend far less." The U.S. spends more than five times what Chile spends per capita on health care, and yet Chileans live longer. Cancer and mental-health care highlight the flaws of American medicine. The costs of cancer research, tests and treatment keep rising, and yet mortality rates have barely budged; declines in mortality since the 1990s stem primarily from declines in smoking. Similarly, over the past several decades, prescriptions for psychiatric drugs have surged, and yet so have severe mental disabilities, a correlation that could be at least partially causative. Profit-driven health care, in other words, benefits providers more than patients. Marx wouldn't have been surprised.


*Militarism subverts science. In his 1961 farewell speech, President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the "unwarranted influence" of "the military-industrial complex" on science: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present--and is gravely to be regarded." Talk about prescience! Roughly half of the U.S. budget for research and development, which now totals $160 billion, is allocated to military agencies, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Pentagon invests heavily in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and neuroscience, among other fields. Scientists I admire take military money, and they insist it does not distort their research. Yeah, right. Scientists I admire also promote the bogus notion that war stems from deep-rooted male urges. This claim implicitly, and conveniently, excuses U.S. militarism; if war is innate, it must be inevitable, and we need a huge military to win wars when they break out.


*What would Noam Chomsky think? Science yields immense benefits, from knowledge about nature to smart phones that let us tap that knowledge instantly. And science has opponents, from global-warming deniers to anti-evolution creationists. But science is an enormously potent force in our culture, with legions of promoters. Given the problems I've mentioned above, science doesn't need more public-relations flaks. It needs tough, informed critics, who seek to distinguish bogus from legitimate claims, who ask, Who benefits from this idea or innovation?


When contemplating an advance, like optogenetics, I like to temper my enthusiasm by imagining the reaction of Noam Chomsky, the legendary linguist and ferocious critic of U.S. imperialism, capitalism and militarism. I admire the immense intelligence and courage with which Chomsky, now 94, challenges the status quo. See my 2018 Q&A with him, in which he calls Trump and his Republican allies "criminally Insane."


Chomsky, a scientist himself, is hardly a kneejerk critic of science. When I asked what could be done to make science more trustworthy, he replied: "Sometimes failure of replication has to do with complexity of what is being studied and with inadequate tools and ideas.  The intense pressure to publish and sometimes ugly competitiveness are other factors.  As compared with other domains, the scientific culture is quite admirable, I think, though hardly without flaws that can and should be corrected."


My final advice for my students is this: doubt all authorities, including your professor.

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Huge New Study Confirms Science Ending! (Sort Of)

Uh oh. A new study by Russell Funk et al shows a sharp decline in "disruptive" science over the past 60 years. 

I've always been obsessed with the limits of science. How far can science go? Can it keep giving us deep insights into nature forever, or will it eventually run into a wall? In my 1996 book The End of Science, I argued that we're already hitting a wall. The era of profound discoveries is over.


My claim that science is ending seems nutty if you look at the sheer quantity of science. More scientists are churning out more research papers than ever. But what about the quality of these papers? How many reveal anything truly consequential?


A big new study in Nature addresses this question by examining 45 million papers published over the past six decades. Three scholars, led by economist Russell Funk of the University of Minnesota, find sharp declines in so-called "disruptive" research in biology, physics, social science and technology. The authors distinguish "disruptive" papers from those that merely build upon or "consolidate" previous knowledge. Citations of disruptive papers are less likely to cite earlier research, presumably because they render it obsolete.


An analysis of 3.9 million patents produced similar results. Papers and patents "are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions," the authors conclude. This study corroborates others showing declines in science's productivity (see graph below).


The End of Science focuses on "pure" science, which yields insights into nature, rather than applied science, which gives us new technologies and medicine. The Nature authors do not distinguish pure from applied science. But their distinction between "disruptive" and consolidating science is useful. It reminds me of Thomas Kuhn's distinction between revolutionary and normal science. Revolutionary science challenges the prevailing paradigm, or status quo, whereas normal merely extends it.


In The End of Science, I argue that science has entered a period of permanent normality; there will be no more insights into nature as revolutionary as the theory of evolution, the double helix, quantum mechanics, relativity and the big bang. Why not? Because these profound discoveries are true. Put them together, and they form a map of reality that, like our maps of the Earth, is unlikely to undergo significant changes. Science, in other words, is a victim of its own success.


The Nature authors cite The End of Science but reject its thesis. They note that "science and technology do not appear to have reached the end of the 'endless frontier.'" Science still produces disruptive advances, they argue, albeit at a diminished rate compared to total research. As examples of "highly disruptive work," they cite the detection of gravitational waves seven years ago and the recent development of covid vaccines.


But these examples support my argument that science is no longer revolutionary. Einstein predicted gravitational waves a century ago. And while I'm grateful for covid vaccines, they are an application of work in molecular biology dating back to the discovery of the double helix in 1953. In other words, neither example is remotely revolutionary.


A news story on the new Nature study says "no one knows" why disruptive science has "plummeted over the last half century." Actually, the Nature scholars cautiously blame the decline of disruptive science on the increasing competitiveness of science, which is leading to an emphasis on quantity over quality. To counter this trend, universities and funding agencies should give researchers more time to "step outside the fray, inoculate themselves from the publish or perish culture, and produce more truly consequential work." Admirable goals, but do they have any chance of being implemented?


Ironically, I'm less pessimistic than I used to be about science's future, mainly because I've spent the last two-plus years studying quantum mechanics. The more I learn about the theory, the less sense it makes. The vast edifice of modern physics, which rests on quantum physics, seems wobbly, unstable, ripe for a revolution. Perhaps quantum computing will catalyze this revolution.  


Or not. The bursting of the tech bubble might take quantum computing down with it. I guess I'm still a pessimist at heart.


Updates: Commentary on the "disruptive science" study keeps rolling in. See "What Happened to All of Science's Big Breakthroughs?" by William Broad of The New York Times; "Are we living in the last days of the scientific age?" by Mark Sumner of Daily Kos; and "Science Is Losing its Ability to Disrupt" by Anjana Ahuja of Financial Times. Ahuja writes:


The US science writer John Horgan, who penned The End of Science in 1996, believes the era of blockbuster discoveries is over. "[he Nature study] dovetails with my analysis that science is hitting a wall," he tells me, adding that he finds no pleasure in vindication. "I want to see revelation after revelation — forever! But sadly, that's not the way scientific discovery works." Horgan argues there are only so many truths to uncover, only so many paradigms to shift — and thus a finite pot of disruption to exhaust.


Below: Graph from 2020 paper "Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?" by economists Nicholas Bloom et al.



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Is the Schrödinger Equation True? Nah.

First of all, "the" Schrödinger equation actually comes in many forms, like this one. Are all true, or none? I'm going with none.

Given interest in my last column, "Is Ultimate Truth an Equation? Nah", I'm liberating a paywalled column on the same topic that I wrote two years ago for Scientific American. This version is slightly abridged. John Horgan


I take inspiration where I can get it. My girlfriend recently alerted me to a viral video in which a teenage girl complains about mathematics. "I was just doing my makeup for work," Gracie Cunningham says while dabbing makeup on her face, "and I just wanted to tell you guys how I don't think math is real."


Some of the math she's learning in school, Cunningham suggests, has little to do with the world in which she lives. "I get addition, like, if I take two apples and add three it's five. But how would you come up with the concept of algebra?" While some geeks mocked Cunningham, others came to her defense, pointing out that she's raising questions that have troubled scientific heavyweights.


Gracie's complaints struck a chord in me. As part of my ongoing effort to learn quantum mechanics, I've been struggling to grasp eigenvectors, complex conjugates and other esoterica. Wolfgang Pauli dismissed some ideas as so off base that they're "not even wrong." I'm so confused that I'm not even confused. I keep wondering, as Cunningham put it, "Who came up with this concept?"


Reality, great sages have assured us, is essentially mathematical. Plato held that we and other things of this world are mere shadows of the sublime geometric forms that constitute reality. Galileo declared that "the great book of nature is written in mathematics." We're part of nature, aren't we? So why does mathematics, once we get past real numbers and basic arithmetic, feel so alien to most of us? More to Gracie's point, how real are the equations with which we represent nature? As real as or even more real than nature itself, as Plato insisted? Were quantum mechanics and general relativity waiting for us to discover them in the same way that gold, gravity and galaxies were waiting?


Physicists' theories work. They predict the arc of planets and the flutter of electrons, and they have spawned smartphones, H-bombs and—well, what more do we need? But scientists, and especially physicists, aren't just seeking practical advances. They're after Truth. They want to believe that their theories are correct—exclusively correct—representations of nature. Physicists share this craving with religious folk, who need to believe that their path to salvation is the One True Path.


But can you call a theory true if no one understands it? A century after inventing quantum mechanics, physicists still squabble over what, exactly, it tells us about reality. Consider the Schrödinger equation, which allows you to compute the "wave function" of an electron. The wave function, in turn, yields a "probability amplitude," which, when squared, yields the likelihood that you'll find the electron in a certain spot.


The wave function has embedded within it imaginary numbers, which consist of the square roots of negative numbers. You can't find imaginary numbers among the so-called real numbers. Although it gives you the answer you want, the wave function doesn't correspond to anything in the real world. It works, but no one knows why. The same can be said of the Schrödinger equation.


Maybe we should look at the Schrödinger equation not as a discovery but as an invention, an arbitrary, contingent, historical accident, as much so as the Greek and Arabic symbols with which we represent functions and numbers. After all, physicists arrived at the Schrödinger equation and other canonical quantum formulas only haltingly, after many false steps.


Moreover, the Schrödinger equation is far from all-powerful. Although it does a great job modeling a hydrogen atom, the Schrödinger equation can't yield an exact description of a helium atom. Helium, which consists of a positively charged nucleus and two electrons, is an example of a three-body problem, which can be solved, if at all, only through extra mathematical sleights of hand.


And three-body problems are just a subset of the vastly larger set of N-body problems, which riddle classical as well as quantum physics. Physicists exalt the beauty and elegance of Newton's law of gravitational attraction and of the Schrödinger equation. But the formulas match experimental data only with the help of hideously complex patches and approximations.


When I contemplate quantum mechanics, with all its hedges and qualifications, I keep thinking of poor old Ptolemy. We look back at his geocentric model of the solar system, with its baroque circles within circles within circles, as hopelessly kludgy and ad hoc. But Ptolemy's geocentric model worked. It accurately predicted the motions of planets and solar and lunar eclipses.

Quantum mechanics also works, better, arguably, than any other scientific theory. But perhaps its relationship to reality—to what's really out there—is as tenuous as Ptolemy's geocentric model. Perhaps our descendants will look back on quantum mechanics a century from now and think, "Those old physicists didn't have a clue."


Some authorities have suggested as much. I recently took a course at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, called "PEP553: Quantum Mechanics for Engineering Applications." In the last line of our textbook, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, David Griffiths and a co-author speculate that future physicists will look back on our era and "wonder how we could have been so gullible."


The implication is that one day we will find the correct mathematical theory of reality, one that actually makes sense, like the heliocentric model of the solar system. But maybe the best we can say of any mathematical theory is that it works in a particular context. That is the subversive takeaway of Eugene Wigner's famous 1960 essay "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences."


Wigner, a prominent quantum theorist, notes that the equations embedded in Newton's laws of motion, quantum mechanics and general relativity are extraordinarily, even unreasonably effective. Why do they work so well? No one knows, Wigner admits. But just because these models work, he emphasizes, does not mean they are "uniquely" true.


Wigner points out several problems with this assumption. First, theories of physics are limited in their scope. They apply only to specific, highly circumscribed aspects of nature, and they leave lots of stuff out. Second, quantum mechanics and general relativity, the foundational theories of modern physics, are mathematically incompatible.


"All physicists believe that a union of the two theories is inherently possible and that we shall find it," Wigner writes. "Nevertheless, it is possible also to imagine that no union of the two theories can be found." Sixty years after Wigner wrote his essay, quantum mechanics and relativity remain unreconciled. Doesn't that imply that one or both are in some sense incorrect?


The "laws" of physics, Wigner adds, have little or nothing to say about biology, and especially about consciousness, the most baffling of all biological phenomena. When we understand life and consciousness better, he suggests, inconsistencies might arise between biology and physics. These conflicts, like the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity, might imply that physics is incomplete or wrong. Here again Wigner has proven prescient. Prominent scientists and philosophers are questioning whether physics and indeed the basic paradigm of materialism can account for life and consciousness.


Wigner is questioning the Gospel of Physics, which decrees, "In the beginning was the Number…." He is urging his colleagues not to confuse their mathematical models with reality. That's also the position of Scott Beaver, one of the commenters on Gracie Cunningham's math video. "Here's my simple answer about whether math is real: No," said Beaver, a chemical engineer. "Math is just a way to describe patterns. Patterns are real, but not math. Nonetheless, math is really, really useful stuff!"


I like the pragmatism of Beaver's view, which reflects, I'm guessing, his background in engineering. Compared to physicists, engineers are humble. When trying to solve a problem—such as building a new car or drone—engineers don't ask whether a given solution is true; they would see that terminology as a category error. They ask whether the solution works, whether it solves the problem at hand.

Mathematical models such as quantum mechanics and general relativity work, extraordinarily well. But they aren't real in the same sense that neutrons and neurons are real, and we shouldn't confer upon them the status of "truth" or "laws of nature."


If physicists adopt this humble mindset, and resist their craving for certitude, they are more likely to seek and hence to find more even more effective theories, perhaps ones that work even better than quantum mechanics. The catch is that they must abandon hope of finding a final formula that demystifies, once and for all, our weird, weird world.

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Is Ultimate Truth an Equation? Nah.

If I believed ultimate truth is mathematical, I would convey that idea with this groovy image, the Ulam spiral, which plots prime numbers.

I have a friend, Richard Gaylord, a curmudgeonly chemist/physicist, whom I've never met. Our relationship consists of him emailing me science-y essays, videos and screen shots that he finds online, to which I react with cheers, hoots or growls. Richard loves making the point that if you don't understand something mathematically, you don't understand it. This claim, perhaps because I studied literature in college and teach humanities courses now, bugs me. My rebuttal follows.


Richard is in fancy company when he contends that the deepest truths are mathematical. Pythagoras and Plato both implied as much, and Galileo famously wrote that you can only read "the grand book of the universe" if you understand the language in which the book is written, that is, mathematics. In 1931 James Jeans, a British physicist, expressed the math-is-truth idea in especially adamant terms. "The final truth about a phenomenon resides in the mathematical description of it," Jeans wrote. He speculated that "the Great Architect," that is, God, "seems to be a mathematician."


Richard passed the Jeans quote along to me, as well as similar comments from Richard Feynman: "To those who do not know mathematics," Feynman wrote in The Character of Physical Law, "it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature." But here's an irony: Feynman's comments on quantum physics contradict the claim that mathematics illuminates nature.


In a book on quantum electrodynamics, which he helped formulate, Feynman reiterates that you can't comprehend quantum theory without the math. But he adds that you can't understand it with the math either. "I don't understand" quantum physics, Feynman confesses. "Nobody does." He suggests that physicists' advanced mathematical "tricks," although they make calculations easier, can obscure what is actually happening in nature.


Also, if God is a mathematician, in what dialect does She/He/They/It speak? Quantum phenomena are described with differential equations, matrices and path integrals, a method invented by Feynman. Each of these dialects employs imaginary numbers, which are constructed from the square roots of negative numbers.


You can also represent quantum events without differential equations, matrices, integrals and imaginary numbers, as physicist Terry Rudolph demonstrates in his wonderful little book Q Is for Quantum. Rudolph models superposition, entanglement and other quantum puzzles with arithmetic and a little algebra.


Another problem: quantum theory accounts for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, and general relativity describes gravity. Quantum theory and general relativity are conveyed in radically different lingos, which are hard to translate into each other. Some physicists still dream of a unified theory, possibly embodied in a single formula, that describes reality. That is the theme of Michio Kaku's recent bestseller The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything.


Kaku's vision of a mathematical theory of everything seems increasingly quaint, given all we've learned about the limits of mathematics. In the 1930s, Kurt Gödel proved that all but the simplest mathematical systems are inconsistent, posing problems that cannot be solved within the axioms of that system. Extending the work of Gödel, mathematician Gregory Chaitin points out that mathematics, rather than being a unified, logically consistent whole, is riddled with randomness, contradictions and paradoxes.


Chaitin even questions whether real numbers are, well, real. Real numbers, which correspond to points on a line running from negative infinity to positive infinity, are mathematical beasts of burden; they help us model things like neurons, rainbow trout and missiles. But whereas most scientific measurements are approximations, which come with error bars, real numbers are impossibly precise. Between any two integers lies an infinite number of real numbers, most of which must be specified with an infinite number of digits.


Physicist Nicolas Gisin makes similar points in a recent essay in Nature. If you model time with real numbers, the present moment becomes infinitesimal, and time ceases to exist. Models based on real numbers, Gisin argues, commit us to a rigid determinism that rules out the possibility of creativity. Like Chaitin, Gisin emphasizes that real numbers are "marvelous tools." But just because real numbers help us solve problems, he proposes, does not mean they reflect reality.


The philosopher Bertrand Russell, early in his career, revered mathematics. "Too often it is said that there is no absolute truth, but only opinion and private judgement," Russell wrote over a century ago. "Of such skepticism mathematics is a perpetual reproof." Toward the end of his life, perhaps because of the influence of Gödel and the ultra-skeptic Ludwig Wittgenstein, Russell arrived at a darker view of mathematics. "I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power," he wrote, "the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal."


That's far too bleak a view. If mathematics reduces to a tautology, 1 = 1, it is a fantastically fecund tautology. Mathematics has led to countless intellectual, aesthetic and material advances, on which our civilization depends. But mathematics, like ordinary language, is a human invention, a powerful but limited tool, not a divine gift. Many mysteries resist mathematical analysis, especially those related to the human mind. As physicist Sabine Hossenfelder says in her provocative book Existential Physics, it is "presumptuous" to assume that "humans have already discovered the language in which nature speaks, basically on the first try."


And let's not forget that some of science's greatest advances have been non-mathematical. Take the theory of evolution by natural selection, which philosopher Daniel Dennett has called "the single best idea anyone has ever had." Darwin, who never liked math, spelled out the theory in On the Origin of Species. That monumental work does not include a single equation.


For all these reasons, we should doubt physicists who say that truth must be expressed in equations. Physicists would say that, wouldn't they? That's like a poet saying that truth can only be expressed in meter and rhyme, or an economist saying that everything comes down to money.


Alec Wilkinson, author of A Divine Language, a lovely memoir about his attempt to learn calculus in his 60s, says mathematics, rather than giving him answers, has deepened his sense of the mystery of things. "None of what I studied," he writes in The New Yorker, "illuminated anything for me so much as the idea that I don't know, that there is more to life than I think." Studying mathematics related to quantum mechanics makes me feel the same way.


Back for a moment to my pal Richard Gaylord. Although a math-o-phile, Richard does not share the belief of many physicists that there is—must be!--a single, true mathematical description of the world. He adheres to a position called theoretical pluralism. There can be many ways to model nature and to solve a scientific problem, Richard says, and insisting that there must be one correct way can impede scientific progress. On this point, Richard and I agree.


Further Reading:

My book Mind-Body Problems makes the case for theoretical pluralism, as does my column "Pluralism: Beyond the One and Only Truth," which was inspired by Richard Gaylord. See also my followup post: "Is the Schrodiner Equation True? Nah," which was previously behind a paywall.


Comment from physicist Peter Woit of "Not Even Wrong": About the math/reality business, my point of view is very different. Pretty conventionally, I'd argue that you need an appropriate language for talking about physics. Natural language just isn't up to it, for instance the fact that "string theory" "multiverse" "wormhole", now don't now refer to anything specific has made much discussion of fundamental physics just incoherent streams of bullshit. There are many different mathematical idioms, you can describe quantum mechanics in very different mathematical languages. Less conventionally, it seems to me that the fact that some mathematical idioms work better in describing fundamental physics means they capture something fundamental about the real world. And the fact that these specific idioms turn out to be the ones that best express the deepest ideas about number theory is more evidence that there's some fundamental congruence between the physical world and some specific mathematics. But I should acknowledge that even my mathematical colleagues aren't convinced by this argument. And it does sound too much like Michio Kaku's God Equation, and if Kaku believes something, that's a good reason to be skeptical...


Comment from physicist Nigel Goldenfeld: Richard Gaylord sent my column to Nigel Goldenfeld, who replied with the following message: "I believe John Horgan is wrong when he says (paraphrasing) that we should doubt that truth must be expressed in equations.  The reason is this.  He thinks we physicists use mathematics because it is an aesthetic choice. That's not the reason at all.  We use mathematics because that is the only way you can make predictions that are precise and can be compared to experiment. Only by doing that can we figure out what is a practically good description of nature, based on minimal models.  We only know something is true empirically when we can calculate and compare precisely with experiment, with full understanding of the uncertainties in both the experiments and the calculations.  I don't take an exalted view of physics. We are at heart engineers of the natural world.  


"It is true that you can convince yourself that you understand quantum mechanics without calculus (or using simpler mathematics than that which professional physicists use) but that's totally delusional.  Good luck calculating the Lamb shift!  Because popular science books focus on quasi-religious stuff like multiverse and other pathologies of physics, they completely overlook how we know it all works. But I guess you don't sell as many books if you tell people that if you want to understand the natural world you need the appropriate level of mathematics, which may require some hard work.  I feel like I understand something when I can calculate it.  I don't want to fly in a plane built by someone with a different definition of understanding!"


Synchronicity: I'm reading The Idiot, the marvelous novel by Elif Batuman, and I just came across this passage: "math is a language that started out so abstract, more abstract than words, and then suddenly it turned out to be the most real, the most physical thing there was. With math they built the atomic bomb. Suddenly this abstract language is leaving third-degree burns on your skin. Now there's this special language that can control everything, and manipulate everything, and if you're the elite who speaks it—you can control everything."


Final comment from Richard Gaylord, who started this whole thing: He says this cartoon expresses his view of things.cartoon---that-is-my-philosophy.png

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My Slam-Dunk Arguments for Free Will

You can choose to stay on this path or stray from it, because you have free will.

This piece is adapted from one I originally wrote for Scientific American. – John Horgan


I often dwell on free will as the new year approaches, and I begin formulating resolutions: quit caffeine, again, start meditating, again. Plus, last semester I found myself struggling, again, to convince my students to believe in free will. For these reasons, and not because a stray cosmic ray just struck my brain, I'm jotting down a few arguments for free will.


By free will, I mean a capacity for deliberate, conscious choices. Our choices are never entirely free. They are constrained by all sorts of factors: physical, biological, social, economic, political, even romantic. Choices and constraints interact in complex ways, with positive and negative feedback loops.


Example: My willful girlfriend "Emily" often overrules my choices. If she wants pizza tonight instead of Chinese food, we'll have pizza. I don't mind submitting to her choices, because I choose to be with her, as she with me. And if I graciously submit to her will today, she might submit to mine tomorrow. Although free will is never entirely free, that doesn't mean we lack it.


I'm not going to defend free will by invoking quantum mechanics, information theory or arcane philosophical reasoning. I find slick, technical defenses of free will (like the "strong free will theorem," which says we have free will because subatomic particles do) as unpersuasive as slick, technical denials.


My arguments will leave many questions unanswered. Like, did we discover free will or invent it? I don't know, both, perhaps. Do non-human organisms like chimpanzees or bumblebees possess it? Maybe, maybe not, but humans have it. All right, enough throat-clearing, here are my arguments:


Just Because Physics Can't Account for Free Will Doesn't Mean It Doesn't Exist. Free-will deniers tend to be hard-core materialists, who think reality consists of particles pushed and pulled by forces. This hyper-reductive worldview can't account for choice. Or consciousness, for that matter, or beauty, morality, meaning and other elements of the human condition. That doesn't mean these things are illusory. It just means materialistic science, which does a splendid job explaining protons and planets, remains baffled by us.


Don't let mean reductionists bully you into agreeing with them; they're not as smart as they think they are. In fact, anyone who argues strenuously against free will is a walking, talking contradiction. Their disbelief, like my belief, is a choice stemming from their reasoning, which in their case is faulty. Reasoning, by the way, is another mind-based capacity irreducible to physics and chemistry.


This Sentence Is Proof of Free Will. And this one. And this one. This whole column constitutes proof that free will exists. Free will is an idea, a packet of meaning, that cannot be reduced to mere physics. The idea of free will, not its instantiation in my brain, provoked me to type this column. I'm not compelled to write it. I have lots of other things to do, like finding an anniversary gift for Emily. (No matter what I choose, she probably won't like it. She's very choosy.)


No, I choose to write this column, because I want others to share my belief in free will. Once I decide to write the column, I must decide how to write it. Writing entails countless choices, which are constrained by factors such as time, my verbal skills and knowledge, my sense of what readers will like and so on. Again, just because free will is not entirely free doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


You Reading This Sentence Is Proof Too. You don't have to read this column, do you? Of course not. You choose to read it, freely. More proof of free will! If you're irritated by the column's substance or style, and you jump to TikTok to find something more amusing, that's another choice! More proof!


Libet's Experiments Are Bogus. Decades ago, psychologist Benjamin Libet monitored subjects' neural activity while they chose to hit a button, and he discovered a burst of activity preceding the conscious decision to push the button by a split second. Free-will deniers seized upon Libet's experiments as evidence that our brains make decisions, and our conscious choices are mere afterthoughts. Hence, no free will.


First of all, deciding when to push a button is not remotely analogous to genuine choices, like whether to get divorced or write a book. The Libet experiments are profoundly flawed, as psychologist Steve Taylor points out in Scientific American. Why do smart people persist in claiming that Libet disproved free will? Some smart people, I suspect, feel smarter when they attack beliefs that give others comfort, such as free will and God. Adamant free-will deniers tend to be adamant atheists.


Free Will Must Exist If Some People Have More of It Than Others. You have more free will—more ability to see, weigh and make choices--now than when you were a baby. Right? You have more than if you were suffering from Alzheimer's disease, or addicted to heroin, or imprisoned for drunk-driving. If you are black, female or gay and living in the U.S. you have more choices and hence free will than you would have 50, 100 or 200 years ago (although your choices are still limited compared to those of white, straight men). If some people have more choices than others—and they obviously do--free will must exist.


This is my best, slam-dunk argument for free will. That doesn't mean this argument always or even usually works. My students can be so stubborn! But this argument convinces me. Usually. To be honest, I have doubts about free will now and then. Sometimes I feel like I'm sleepwalking through life. I'm a confabulating somnambulist, a bundle of reflexes, twitches and compulsions with no self-awareness, let alone self-control. I'm not even sure I really choose to be with Emily!


In these dark times, I give myself pro-free-will pep talks, like this column. Free will is like Tinkerbell. If you don't believe in her, she dies. Maybe that's what I'm really doing with this column, trying to keep free will alive. Because free will isn't just a philosophical riddle, it matters. Free will is another name for freedom. The more we believe in freedom, the more we have, and the more likely we are to use our freedom to make the world more free. Please believe.


Further Reading:

I rant about free will in my books Pay Attention and Mind-Body Problems. You can read the latter for free online. See especially the chapters on Douglas Hofstadter, Owen Flanagan and Deirdre McCloskey.

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How Ho-Ho-Hoboken Became My Home

Ho-Ho-Hoboken waterfront, December 2022. 

A few years ago a former student asked me to write an essay about Hoboken, New Jersey, for Hoboken Gay, an online magazine he was creating. Hoboken Gay has yet to appear, so I'm posting my essay here. --John Horgan


I'm an ardent believer in free will, our capacity to choose our own fate rather than having it foisted on us by forces beyond our control. So it's a little awkward for me to admit that Hoboken, like everything I care about, came into my life by accident.


My first visit, in 2005, ended badly. I was married, living with my wife and two kids in Garrison, New York, a Hudson River hamlet about 50 miles north of Hoboken. Lisa Dolling, a philosopher at the Hoboken-based Stevens Institute of Technology, who happened to have read one of my books, invited me to give a talk (on, as I recall, science and literature). I accepted, because I needed the modest honorarium. I was a full-time freelance writer, and I was having a tough time supporting my family with book royalties and magazine fees.


When I arrived at Stevens, the parking lot to which Dolling had directed me was full, so I blithely parked on a nearby street. (I was so innocent then!) The campus, with its spectacular views of the Hudson and Manhattan, charmed me, as did the folks I met at Stevens. After my talk, I had dinner with a pack of professors at the on-campus mansion of a Stevens dean, Eric Kunhardt. He was a fast-talking, pop-eyed physicist who spouted provocative albeit not entirely coherent ideas about reforming higher education.


When I said goodbye and returned to my car, it had been booted. Damn! I returned to Kunhardt's house and informed him, and he called the home number of a Hoboken official and screamed at him. It was very late when I finally got back to Garrison. After that incident, perhaps because they felt guilty, Kunhardt and Dolling offered me a job teaching and running a lecture series at Stevens. Although I had no academic experience, I accepted their offer--again, I needed the money.


Before my visit, I knew of Stevens only as the place where Jeremy Bernstein, who wrote wonderful profiles of scientists for The New Yorker, had taught physics. I once tried to get Bernstein to give a talk at Stevens, but he refused, adamantly. He loathed Stevens, which he felt had mistreated him.


Stevens treated me just fine. Gradually I learned how to teach (the key, I realized, is making sure that I enjoy myself in the classsroom), and I befriended my fellow professors. One pal was Jim McClellan, an historian of science and former student radical whose kindly face was haloed by Moses-esque hair and beard. Another was Garry Dobbins, a curmudgeonly philosopher with an Australian accent and gift for snark, which he often directed at me.


The worst part of the job was the 2.5 hour commute—each way!--from my home in upstate New York. (Drive to train station, take Metro North to Grand Central, then subway, another subway, PATH to Hoboken terminal, 15-minute walk to Stevens.) At one point, a Stevens official arranged for me to stay overnight in a spare student dorm room when I had late events and class the next morning. But that was weird for me—and no doubt for the students I encountered in the dorm. They were polite, but their expressions said, What is this old guy doing here?


In 2009 my marriage broke up, and I moved out of our Garrison house into a furnished one-bedroom apartment near my kids' high school. I went on an internet dating site and met a woman whom I'll call Emily. She worked in publishing, so she was leery of writers, but we hit it off. She lived in Tribeca, just a seven-minute ferry ride from Hoboken. She let me stay with her on nights when I had to be on campus the next morning, but the commute from upstate New York still ground me down.


In 2014, after my kids graduated from high school, I moved to Hoboken to be closer to Stevens and Emily. She decreed that we should keep separate apartments, so we wouldn't get sick of each other. I rented a one-bedroom in a red brick high-rise just south of the Stevens campus, cutting my commute from 2.5 hours to five minutes. I could stroll home and eat lunch while watching Rick and Morty!


Do I love Hoboken? That's hard to say. The name "Hoboken" pleases me. I find myself saying "Ho-Ho-Hoboken" a lot as Christmas approaches. (Ho-Ho-Hoboken is not to be confused with Ho-Ho-kus, an actual borough in New Jersey.) When Emily mocks Hoboken, it bothers me. Although she helped me find and decorate my apartment, she rarely visits me. When we're together, it's at her place in Tribeca. She's a Manhattan snob, the kind who wrinkles her nose at the mere mention of New Jersey.


Her loss! My 11th-floor apartment has a view of the Hudson and southern Manhattan that gives me pleasure every day, in good weather or bad. I like it when rain or snow fall like a veil over Manhattan, and when jagged lightning bolts descend from the clouds and strike the Freedom Tower. I like jogging around the big grassy pier that juts out into the Hudson, past the grazing geese and the fishermen sitting stoically beside their poles. I like watching the Waterways ferry rumble up to the decrepit Hoboken terminal, with its baroque, blue-green copper trim and ancient Lackawanna train sign. I like chatting with a ferry crewman named Kevin, a rogue with silver hair and tongue who's had more adventures than Don Quixote.


But I'm in Hoboken without being of it. That's how I've felt about most places I've lived, and about life in general, come to think of it. This, I suppose, is the downside of being a writer. I'm more spectator than participant, audience than actor. I haven't gotten to know any neighbors in my apartment building. Many, I'm guessing from the accents, are young immigrant couples, probably Wall Streeters, with kids. My only Hoboken friends are Stevens colleagues.


Just as Garrison, my old hometown, made me sad after my divorce, so Hoboken has become tinged with melancholy. Many of my Stevens pals are gone. Lisa Dolling, whose invitation first brought me to Stevens, left for another school years ago, and wacky Eric Kunhardt succumbed to cancer. Jim McClellan, the historian with the fabulous hair, moved with his wife Jackie to a retirement community in Pennsylvania. Garry Dobbins, the snarky philosopher, retired to Vermont. Pennsylvania? Vermont? Why? Maybe to save money. I get that. Hoboken ain't cheap.


I'm not sure I'll stay here after I retire from Stevens. But inertia is a major force in my life. Once I make a choice, or once a choice is foisted on me, I tend to stick with it, even if I have misgivings about it. Where would I go? Vermont? Pennsylvania? Why not Arkansas? Or Zanzibar? The more I think about my choices, the more arbitrary they seem. So I'll exercise my free will by choosing not to choose. If I'm still with Emily, or even if I'm not, I'll probably just stay here in Ho-Ho-Hoboken.


PS: Pay Attention, a lightly fictionalized account of a day in my life, has lots of Hoboken in it. I just dropped a signed copy off at Hoboken's wonderful Little City Books on 1st and Bloomfield.


Clarification: My girlfriend says I misrepresent Emily's views of New Jersey. "Emily loves New Jersey, especially the shore," my girlfriend says. "She would love a house there with a little nature around it. She just doesn't love sitting in a little white box high rise when she can be home."


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