07 Nov 2020

BMS ep 161: Steve Landsburg and I Debate Why the Universe Exists

Bob Murphy Show 16 Comments

This was a fun one. Audio here, video below:

16 Responses to “BMS ep 161: Steve Landsburg and I Debate Why the Universe Exists”

  1. Martin Carrington says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thank you for this episode I always enjoy your content!

    Regarding self-awareness/consciousness, it seems to be there’s a basic point that people keep missing. Steve says that consciousness “emerges” from the complexity in your brain. Well great, very complex things are capable of complex bahaviors. That’s not the issue though.

    The issue is, why in the world is it *your* brain? There are lots of brains on Earth. What’s so special about yours? Why is it that if I tickle some neurons in this particular brain you feel a sharp pain but that doesn’t happen for any other brains. There have been people for millennia. Why were you born in the year in which you were born? Could you have been born in another year? What possible mechanism could be responsible for deciding when you enter this reality and start experiencing things? That is a true mystery, and saying things like “you’re conscious because of complex firing patterns of neurons” seems super silly. There have been complex neuronal firing patters for a long time before you were born and you felt none of them.

    Let me know if you agree,



    • Harold says:

      Imagine humans one day create the first conscious AI.

      “What possible mechanism could be responsible for deciding when you enter this reality and start experiencing things?”

      For the AI, it is when humans build it or turn it on.

  2. Transformer says:

    Fascinating discussion.

    I wonder of the gap between Bob’s and Steve’s view could be bridged by positing mathematical objects that contain an omniscient, omnipotent God just as Steve envisages mathematical objects that contain conscious beings ?

    • Harold says:

      My thought is that such a universe would be mathematically impossible, but I cannot prove that.

      • Transformer says:

        I am not a mathematician so have no idea what the scope of a mathematical object may be, but I assume (perhaps this is a wrong assumption?) that anything that could be written in computer code could also be represented by a mathematical object. I can imagine a (really complex!) computer program that would implement a virtual universe containing both conscious beings and a a god who was omniscient and omnipotent within the scope of that universe.

        • Harold says:

          Steve at one point said something like “a mathematical object that was as consistent as ours” would exist in the same way ours does. My suspicion is that an omniscient omnipotent God model would turn out to have inconsistencies. Omnipotence requires ability to alter physical laws that my intuition tells me would not be possible in a consistent mathematical system. I do not know for sure if this is the case.

          An omnipotent and omniscient God would not necessarily do anything. It would not be needed as the creator of the universe in which it found itself (assuming the mathematical object hypothesis) and what it chose to do would depend on motivation.

          So unfortunately, I don’t think it would bridge the gap if were possible. I have not thought much about that idea, so am open to persuasion.

          • Transformer says:

            Omniscience seems somewhat straightforward. If a mathematics object can contains conscious sub-objects then it seems a small leap beyond that to think that such a sub-object (or perhaps the object itself?) could in theory have a complete understanding of all aspect of the object.

            Omnipotence would be more of a challenge as I agree that if a sub-object had the unlimited ability to change the fundamental attributes of the universe-object where it existed then the consistency of the object would be hard to maintain. However I can imagine that a sub-object that had the power to do anything within the object within which is exists that did not undermine the consistency of that parent object would still be very powerful sub-object indeed and would probably meet most people’s definition of being a god or at least of having god-like powers.

            • Harold says:

              “could in theory have a complete understanding of all aspect of the object.”
              Would Godel’s incompleteness theorem be a problem here?

              • Transformer says:

                Oddly enough the same thought occurred to me after I had submitted and I made a mental note to consider that a bit more!

              • Transformer says:

                In any case one could probably dodge that bullet (for the sake of this discussion anyway) by limiting the definition of ‘omniscient’ to ‘knowing all that is knowable’ and/or keeping a distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘being able to prove’.

  3. James Knight says:

    Hi Bob,

    It was a good interview if we see this merely as you interviewing Steve, which is primarily what it was. But that made your title “ Steve Landsburg and I Debate Why the Universe Exists” rather misleading, as I felt you didn’t really argue the case for God at all. You let Steve drive the whole discussion, when as a Christian I was hoping you’d spend at least some of the time propounding views for why God is the Creator. Remember, Bob, ‘the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in you’ – you have access to Divine powers that a non-Christian wouldn’t have – and I felt this was a conversation in which you could have challenged Steve much more with some profound truths of your own. Maybe this is crying out for a Part II, as this rather felt like only the first half of a debate, enjoyable as it was.

    Best Wishes


  4. Harold says:

    The mathematical object universe at first seemed absurd to me, but the more I hear it the more it seems as reasonable as many others. Once we get over the idea that arguing whether something exists is something of a rabbit hole we can move on.

    A lot of these ideas are about familiarity – things we are familiar with seem reasonable, yet we understand very few of them. Newton’s gravity is a case in point. It describes motion very well, but explains nothing. Yet we are generally happy to simply use it and say to ourselves we understand why things move as they do. We are so familiar with it we generally don’t ask why it works. Einstein expanded on the why, but mostly we don’t think about that.

    There seems to be no fundamental reason why a sufficiently complex mathematics could not manifest as physical.

    It is an interesting point about whether physicality requires minds. My view is that the universe before minds existed on Earth was still physical in the same way it is now. I think Steve would say the other universes or our own before we evolved may have the same properties we call physicality, but that since “real” is not dependent on physicality it makes no sense to talk of physical universes without minds. It is not that physicality as a property is not there, but it is moot without minds.

    On love and beauty – my opinion is that they do not exist without a mind. That seems clear to me. Nothing is objectively beautiful. Your view I think is that they exist because God is a mind.

    Steve’s view explains the fine tuning argument. All the other universes exist in just as real a way as our own. Most of them are not able to support life, or even what we would call physical objects.

    In some ways it does not make any difference to how we live or go about investigating our universe.

  5. Tel says:

    Searching for the universe … it’s always in the last place you look.

    • Transformer says:

      As things always show up in the last place people look I don’t understand why they don’t just reverse the order in which they search for things and save a lot of time.

  6. Transformer says:

    As things always show up in the last place people look I don’t understand why they don’t just reverse the order in which they search for things and save a lot of time.

  7. Mark says:

    Several years ago I was up late, flicking through the channels, and ran across Think Tank on PBS. They were rerunning an episode from 1996 with Ben Wattenberg interviewing Professor Richard Dawkins. His book, Climbing Mount Improbable, had apparently just come out at the time.

    In the course of the interview, Dawkins said, “You start from nothing and you work your way up gradually in easily explainable steps.”

    Wattenberg asked the obvious question, “Where does nothing come from?”

    To which Dawkins replied, “You can ask that – that’s the ultimate question – it’s an important question. But all I would say to that is, it’s a hell of a lot easier to say where nothing came from than it is to say where 30 million species of highly complicated organisms plus a super intelligent God came from. And that’s the alternative.”

    This is the totally backward, totally unscientific, and totally illogical thinking of the evolutionists. Key on the word alternative. Evolutionists don’t want to believe in God, so they will believe in anything – in this case something from nothing (in easily explainable steps!) before they will believe in a Creator. Dawkins spoke of how since Darwin it is so much easier to be “intellectually fulfilled” as an atheist.

    That’s what they are looking for – any reason, any excuse to not have to face the fact that they are accountable to God. This is no different than your guest fantasizing about the origin of consciousness, e.g. Neither science nor math can explain how something came from nothing, life from lifelessness, all living things from a rock that was rained on for millions of years, and how consciousness came from matter or what the first cell ate. One may choose to believe those things as part of a fairy tale religion, but you shouldn’t use the words science or math in a discussion of these issues because no scientist has ever observed or duplicated those events, let alone measured or studied them in any fashion.

    They are a construct of those who would have us believe that one-off fantasy processes, and an unimaginably long period of time, “scientifically” explain the origin, nature, and contents of the universe. These imaginary events, coupled with the myth of Darwinian evolution, allegedly explain all living things, and, more specifically, human beings, who are nothing more than rearranged pond scum in the fantasy world of those who desperately require a rationale to avoid answering to their Creator.

Leave a Reply