This is part 2 of looking at how a blogger, Michael Egnor, has assessed the mental competence of the Caltech physicist, Sean Carroll. Last time we assessed the claim that Carroll’s ideas on Boltzman brains make him illogical. This time, we are looking at whether finding a multiverse more believable than a God makes Carroll a candidate for psychiatric intervention (here). But first, as that is a bold claim that spans both psychiatry and psychics, let’s have a look at Egnor. After all, we couldn’t want medical diagnoses made by just any old person with wifi and a keyboard, would we?
Egnor is a doctor: a neurosurgeon, to be precise. I have no intention of taking that away from him. This means he probably has a familiarity with, but not an expertise in, psychiatry. He certainly has no reason to be familiar with quantum mechanics, an understanding he tried to feign in the article my last post responded to. Weirdly, Egnor is on the record saying that doctors don’t study evolution ― which they do. It’s a weird claim, given that Columbia University is not an awful university. However, medical doctor or not, his notoriety comes from being a public creationist, not medical advancement or knowledge.
If Egnor had no medical background, and his claim that Carroll has psychiatric concerns didn’t stand up to scrutiny, my response might be to claim that this is a careless hyperbole. But, knowing that he does have medical expertise, I do wonder whether or not my response might instead be a sign that he has little understanding or respect for his own discipline. But let’s not get into that, yet. Instead, we should have a look at why Egnor would say something so disparaging about Carroll at all.
Anyone who wants to know what category Egnor’s argument might be filed under, here’s my generalised synopsis of Egnor’s argument: Atheism is naturalism; this part of naturalism appears absurd; therefore atheism is absurd; absurd means wrong; therefore religion is intellectually justified.
Quantum mechanics is weird. That statement might be vague, but I think you’d have a hard time saying I was wrong (short of denying all subjective judgement and language). The fact that individual events appear to be uncaused and random ― and yet at the statistical scale follow rule with immense precision ― is an alien world unlike anything the average person has ever seen (except, perhaps, primary school teachers). The experiments, results and maths are one thing, but the actual reality they suggest ― the ontology ― is another question altogether. And, as a result, there are a number of interpretations of the data that physicists take seriously.
One is the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation. To be clear, this is not the multiverse, and neither is it higher dimensions. This is the idea that at every quantum event, reality splits. There becomes one reality for each thing that event could have been. (Arguably, the number of realities created should actually be proportional to the probability of each event.) I’m not sure what the empirical difference between this only happening in conceptual space and this actually happening is. But, I’m not a physicist and that’s not my call to make. The Copenhagen Interpretation, for reference, is that quantum material is actually all of the possible events at the same time, until there is some sort of ‘observation’ (which actually means “interaction” ― so any time the quantum material is part of a causal chain).
Everett, who first articulated the Many Worlds interpretation (hence the name Everett’s Many World Interpretation), says that all the other interpretations are making facile attempts to make the equations fit some sort of intuitive understanding of what the equations could mean, but that what the equations do mean is the Many Worlds interpretation. I have taken that from the same place Egnor took umbrance: Carroll’s discussion in this video.
Egnor makes a point of telling us he is not going to discuss the physics, but the delusional psychology of Carroll. But what Egnor actually does is offer us an explanation of how the many worlds (which he does confuse with many universes ― because he’s less qualified than I am to talk of this stuff, and I’m almost wholly unqualified) is wishful thinking; the many world, apparently, is to play the numbers game and elide1 the need for a creator. But, that is not what the video is about. The video is about interpreting the meaning of established mathematical equations. If we compare Many Worlds with the Copenhagen interpretation, we find a choice (which is incomplete, admittedly) between living in a universe that has incompatible things happening simultaneously or living in only one world when there were others. Perhaps ‘Shut up and keeping doing the maths’ is a better interpretation, but given the maths is pointing somewhere, I’m not sure choosing between these two is a psychiatric concern at all.
Intellectual progress has included rejecting Aristotelian physics, developing non-Euclidean geometry, harnessing the power of cooperation over conflict, all of quantum mechanics, heliocentrism and relativity. And yet, authors like Egnor still prefer to call the prima facie absurd “wrong”. When confronted with the unintuitive nature of reality, they deem reality absurd and those who care what reality is delusional. They live in a world entirely limited by the untested boundaries of their intuitions.
1 Engor’s word. Good word. I approve.