Excerpt From The Atlantic, April 1998

Posted in Physics, Quickies on  | 2 minutes | 5 Comments →

I came across the following snippet while doing some research on Ed Fredkin’s digital physics:

Among the scientists who don’t dismiss Fredkin’s theory of digital physics out of hand is Marvin Minsky, a computer scientist and polymath at MIT, whose renown approaches cultic proportions in some circles. Minsky calls Fredkin “Einstein-like” in his ability to find deep principles through simple intellectual excursions. If it is true that most physicists think Fredkin is off the wall, Minsky told me, it is also true that “most physicists are the ones who don’t invent new theories”; they go about their work with tunnel vision, never questioning the dogma of the day. When it comes to the kind of basic reformulation of thought proposed by Fredkin, “there’s no point in talking to anyone but a Feynman or an Einstein or a Pauli,” Minsky says. “The rest are just Republicans and Democrats.” I talked with Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate at the California Institute of Technology, before his death, in February. Feynman considered Fredkin a brilliant and consistently original, though sometimes incautious, thinker. If anyone is going to come up with a new and fruitful way of looking at physics, Feynman said, Fredkin will.

I couldn’t help but notice a parallel in my debates with atheists. I’ve never fit squarely into one camp or another when it comes to “theists” vs. “atheists.” I get hated equally on theist and atheist blogs. I mean, I believe in God, so that puts me squarely in the “theist” camp, but I also “believe in” science, logic, reason, rationality, critical thinking, skepticism, the art of questioning and a whole host of other things “your average theist” often eschews. It seems to me that most (a)theist debaters are as Minsky describes: polarized automatons following their respective dogmas. No wonder philosophy of religion is essentially a quagmire, and (a)theist debate seemingly intractable. Most (a)theists simply align themselves to pre-established positions and seem to do little critical thinking of their own.


  1. The idea that a majority of physicists just eat existing ‘dogma’ saddens me. It’s amazing that mainstream physics can’t marry it’s incompatible (but tremendously useful theories)!

    off-topic: @cl, I’m curious which atheist(s) do you admire most and why?

  2. cl


    Well, I think Minsky using “dogma” is accurate on the one hand, a bit misleading on the other. Though I certainly agree that some scientists dogmatize facts and theories, it’s important to note that most people think of “dogma” as arbitrary statements that one must take on faith in order to belong to some group, you know, something like statements of faith from the Vatican for example. In the case of science – though the error might be the same – anything getting dogmatized will likely have a strong empirical case to support its veracity. Whereas a priest might arbitrarily declare one decree or another and then use condemnation against dissent, scientists can unwittingly do the same thing when they commit themselves too hard to this principle or that.

    In fact, ideas supported by a strong empirical case might even lend themselves to dogma more than what the priest says, as the empirical evidence itself becomes a source of overconfidence. This happened with heliocentrism [what do you mean we actually move around the sun? we can see the sun move around us every day!], and to a lesser extent with cathode rays. No matter how strong the evidence, conclusions drawn therefrom need to be equally strong. It is quite easy to draw weak conclusions from strong evidence. All it takes is a few unchallenged assumptions, and I think that’s the point Minsky was getting at.

    …I’m curious which atheist(s) do you admire most and why?

    I don’t mean to be off-putting but not very many! Honestly. Then again, I don’t admire TV preachers, either. I’ve been thinking about this question for a few days, and there aren’t many from the public sphere that come to mind. Still, I’d have to say something like Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, maybe even Dennett for sticking to the topics [for example, contrast his work on consciousness to Dawkins’ TGD].

    Really though, the atheists I admire most are atheists I know personally. Most of the atheists that have commented at this site over the years are in this group. There was a guy named Lifeguard that would comment, another guy named Brad, another guy that went by Dominic Saltarelli… these were all atheists with whom I could have a good, stimulating conversation without all the polemic you find at most (a)theist sites. That’s how most of TWIM’s atheist commenters have been, and for that I’m pretty grateful. Another one of my favorites is a lady named Greta Christina, though, I’m probably one of her least favorites. I like her because she keeps it real by criticizing and questioning atheism and atheists. Google her blog if you haven’t heard.

    I’m sure there are great atheists out there and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. It’s just that most of what I see is more of the same, but that’s generally how it is in any field: a big crowd with a few standouts.

  3. “…that’s generally how it is in any field: a big crowd with a few standouts.”: That’s a good statement. Thanks.

    I’m sorry if you are tired on justifying your position, but bear with me here. To be clear, your concern is that many scientists get to be so reliant on some theory, so much that any opposing evidence is rejected unfairly? So they’ll be building a lot on top of such a theory, closing their minds to fresh approaches (better theories)? I’m not really familiar with scientific method, but is it that bad? You sure you are not just nit-picking?

  4. cl


    …your concern is that many scientists get to be so reliant on some theory, so much that any opposing evidence is rejected unfairly?

    Not quite. When you say “unfairly” it suggests the image of purposeful denial. What I’m talking about is more like simple failure to think outside the box, to keep questioning assumptions, to keep questioning theories in light of other theories and new developments. I think scientists – like any other group – can get stuck in a rut.

    You sure you are not just nit-picking?

    I don’t know. I don’t know what you mean by nit-picking. To me, nit-picking would be criticizing a comment for spelling or non-pertinent factual errors.

  5. “When you say “unfairly” it suggests the image of purposeful denial.”

    Not really. I meant that it’s more of a confirmation bias sort of thing. It doesn’t suggest dishonesty (purposeful denial), but rather “this theory works in a million cases, so I reject yours, since it challenges my ‘successful’ one”, instead of “tell me more of this new theory of yours, and why it’s better than mine”.

    On nitpicking:
    Suppose that I find out about some scientific journal refusing to fairly review some theory that challenges mainstream thought/theory/believe. If I were to use that info to conclude that scientist are stuck in a rut, that would be nit-picking, because that could very well be an isolated incident.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *