Friday, July 6, 2012

Nonsense about the Higgs boson

In the wake of the recent announcement concerning the discovery of what appears to be the elusive Higgs boson, some have taken this as an opportunity to speculate wildly about the nature of the cosmos. A great deal of this is due to the unfortunate labeling of the Higgs boson as the "God Particle." One author who has taken this approach is Mike Adams, the self-labeled Health Ranger who has written a long post on this topic at his website. Adams is very taken with what he describes as "Consciousness Cosmology," and sees this as a correction of a major defect in the scientific community. In discussing this defect he creates a number of straw men, and it is these I want to focus on. For starters:
Yet, as I hinted above, there's still something missing from all this: Consciousness. Without consciousness, the universe cannot be fully explained, as consciousness is increasingly emerging as a fundamental force impacting the very fabric of reality. This is really, really frustrating for many scientists because, for starters, the majority of them don't even believe in the existence of consciousness. Stephen Hawking is famous for his rather short-sighted remarks that people are mindless, soulless beings -- "biological robots" -- and that religion / spirituality is a realm for "people who are afraid of the dark." [Emphasis added]
Setting aside the merits of Hawking's view of human nature, it seems clear that he nowhere describes humans as "mindless." In fact, Hawking is one of our greatest illustrations of the power of the human mind; demonstrating that mere physical limitations are no barrier to studying and contemplating the cosmos. Though I am not familiar with Hawking's view, I take it that he is merely claiming that all the properties of the mind and consciousness can be reduced to neurophysiological properties of the brain, a philosophical view sometimes referred to as reductive materialism. Again, this is not the same as claiming that consciousness doesn't exist.

Furthermore, it seems clearly false to say that the majority of scientists don't believe in consciousness. In fact, to say that one doesn't believe in consciousness is itself a self-refuting statement. To borrow a little Descartes, if one has beliefs, then by definition one is conscious. Thus, it is clearly a straw man to say that a majority of scientists don't believe in consciousness. All scientists believe in consciousness, it is just that the particle physicists don't see any use in referencing consciousness to do particle physics.

Continuing, Adams again misrepresents the state of modern physics when he writes:

Gaining a deep understanding of this may be exceedingly difficult for human beings to achieve. It may, in fact, be beyond the capabilities of biological beings with limited neurological capacity. Nevertheless, I believe that the more modern science understands about the Higgs boson, quantum theory, particle physics and cosmology, the closer science will be to initiating a scientific study of consciousness.
The Straw Man here is in the claim that scientists are not actively engaged in studying consciousness. If this were true, then it is unclear what neurologists and psychologists are doing. They may not be studying consciousness in the way Adam's thinks they should, but to claim that they are not studying it is a gross misrepresentation.

One final (in the sense of what I will discuss here) misrepresentation/straw man occurs when Adam's writes:

Where there is life, there appears to be consciousness, and if there's one thing most physicists and cosmologists agree on, it's that life is ridiculously abundant across the cosmos.
First, life and consciousness are not equivalent concepts. Bacteria and archaea, for example, are certainly alive, but it seems quite a stretch to suggest that they have consciousness. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that life exists anywhere but here on earth. We haven't even discovered life on other planets or moons in our solar system, let alone in other star systems. We have certainly made some promising discoveries that increase the liklehood of extra-solar life, but we certainly haven't discovered any to date.

So, these are just the straw men in an article ridiculed with logical fallacies. I will continue discussing some of the other fallacies in this article in later posts.


  1. First: "...the majority of them don't even believe in the existence of consciousness." Best LOL I've had in a long while! "I don't believe that I have beliefs!" is the only way that one could have been better!
    I, too, am a bit perturbed by some of the adulation given the 'God Particle'. It's as if many think it's the material bridge spanning magical thinking to physical reality - like the Higgs boson has some emergent omniscient quality to it. I find this trend disturbing as the Intelligent Design crowd is latching on and using the work being done at CERN as 'proof' (or, at least a building block to an 'eventual' proof) that ID has a ground in reality. It doesn't, as we know.
    Another thing - your account of reductive materialism, while, I think, meant to be concise and while being correct - at least technically and prima facie, may be a dismissive factor as to further reading on the subject by some of your students. You know I'm a Searle fan, spread the love, man!

    1. Isaac, your point about reductive materialism is well taken. I would certainly recommend the writings of John Searle to anyone who is interested in exploring these issues of consciousness and its relation to the brain in more detail.


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