The Meaning of Life for Sisyphus

In pursuit of my travail intellectuel, I stumbled on a thought experiment proposed by Richard Taylor regarding an old crowd favourite, Sisyphus.

Of course, Albert Camus had famously published his Myth of Sisyphus essay (PDF), portraying his life as analogous to the workaday human, absurdly plodding through existence like rinse and repeat clockwork—same gig on a different day.

Given my perspective on human agency and the causa sui argument, I felt commenting on Taylor’s essay, The Meaning of Life (PDF) would be apt.

The story of Sisyphus finds the namesake character, fated by the gods to each day push a stone up a hill only for it to roll back down for him to push it back up every day ad infinitum. Camus leaves us with the prompt, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’. But must we.?

As Taylor puts it,

Sisyphus, it will be remembered, betrayed divine secrets to mortals, and for this he was condemned by the gods to roll a stone to the top of a hill, the stone then immediately to roll back down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever. Now in this we have the picture of meaningless, pointless toil, of a meaningless existence that is absolutely never redeemed.

Taylor wants us to consider an amended Sisyphus. He writes,

Let us suppose that the gods, while condemning Sisyphus to the fate just described, at the same time, as an afterthought, waxed perversely merciful by implanting in him a strange and irrational impulse; namely, a compulsive impulse to roll stones.

This significantly alters the dynamic. In the scenario, Sisyphus is not toiling; rather, he is pursuing his passion—following his heart. This is the athlete, artist, politician, or mass murderer following their passion. In fact, one might say that he is being his authentic self. He has no control over his self or his desire to roll stones, but he is in his element.

Taylor’s ultimate point is that in either case, the life of Sisyphus is just as devoid of meaning. Ostensibly, nothing can provide meaning. The best one can do is to have the perception of meaning. He writes,

Sisyphus’ existence would have meaning if there were some point to his labors, if his efforts ever culminated in something that was not just an occasion for fresh labors of the same kind. But that is precisely the meaning it lacks.

Although we cannot control what is within, contentment and happiness derive from perception. As we might be reminded by the quip attributed to Schopenhauer,

We can want what we will,
but we can’t will what we will.

In the end, Taylor wants us to know that nothing out there can make us happy.

The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.


I’ve subsequently read some critiques of Taylor’s position, but I don’t want to take the time to rejoin them. Suffice it to say that I find them to be weak and wanting.

Blaming and Naming

When I was writing my review of Elbow Room, this categorical syllogism came to mind:

P1: All agents are responsible

P2: I am an agent

C: Therefore, I am responsible

Now I want to unpack it.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

The first premise is that all agents are responsible. Of course, this hinges on how one defines agent and responsibility. It also depends on the scope, especially of the agent but to some extent also the scope of responsibility.

Leveraging the Causa Sui argument, the agent is a social construct and can only be responsible to what extent s/he has been programmed as well as the ability to maintain and process the programming effectively—so without bugs to continue with the parlance.

If the agent is immature or defective, expectations of responsibility are diminished.

If certain inputs were not given, there is no reason to assume a related command would be executed. This is why so much time and energy is spent on programming and evaluating children.

This first premise is predicated on the pathological need to blame. Unwritten behind the responsibility claim is that I feel compelled to blame. Blame requires responsibility, so if I want to blame someone, they must be responsible. In any given circumstances, I may feel the urge to blame anyone, so all agents [eligible people] are worthy of blame. There is no particular reason to exclude myself, so I too am blameworthy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?

Goose and Gander. Strike that pose.

As PF Strawson said, even if moral responsibility couldn’t possibly exist, it would be invented because people need to blame. This is in line with Voltaire’s commentary on God.

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Voltaire

We can all look around and see how pervasive the god delusion is. Moral responsibility is even more insidious. In principle, moral gods were invented for just this purpose. An omnipresent judge was needed to keep the big house in check.

Where I Stand

From my perspective, I do feel that a person in the space of Dennett’s elbow room can have responsibility. Being a non-cognitivist, I have more difficulty accepting the arbitrary imposition of morality, but I understand the motivation behind it.

The problem I have is that mechanisms to ensure that the inputs and processes are all in order and there are no superseding instructions are not in place. Moreover, if the superseding instruction does not comport with the will of the power structure, it will be marginalised or ignored. This is a limitation of morality being a social construct, and none of this gets past the ex nihilo problem causa sui invokes, so we end up cursing the computer we’ve invented. O! monster of Frankenstein. O! Pygmalion.

Elbow Room

Daniel Dennet is quite the prolific writer. He first published Elbow Room back in 1984. He published an updated version in 2015. I like Dan. He is a master storyteller and has a mind like a trap, archiving decades (and centuries) of information. The approach he takes is thoughtful and methodical, and I tend to agree with most of his positions. This isn’t one of them. Interestingly, I recently reviewed John Martin Fischer’s contribution to Four Views on Free Will, which is sympathetic to his position.

Dennett is a compatibilist. I am an incompatibilist—an impossibility, really—, but I wanted to understand his line of argumentation. Like Fischer, Dennett wants to claim that an agent does possess enough elbow room—wiggle room—to be able to be granted free will or moral responsibility, depending on where you prefer to draw the line.

Dennett tends to agree with my position that free will is a semantic pseudo-problem, but he doesn’t mind calling enough ‘good enough’. Given a situation and circumstances, we have enough latitude to consider any actions to be free—with the usual exemptions for non compos mentis situations, cognitive deficits, and duress. He minimises the impact of genetics and upbringing as insignificant.

Basically, he argues that what latitude we do have is sufficient and what more could one want? Anything more would be unnecessary and excessive. Of course, this is just him drawing an arbitrary line at a point he feels comfortable, claiming that anyone asking for more is being unrealistically unreasonable. This feels a bit like a preemptive ad hominem defence. If you want this, then you are just foolish and selfish.

Dennett does agree with the notion that the world might be deterministic, but even so, we are proximately special. He also leans on the observation that people seem hardwired for blame, so there must be something behind this—instead of considering that humans seem hardwired for many things, not all of which are socially beneficial.

We want to hold people responsible, so by extension, we need to consider ourselves to be responsible.

P1: All agents are responsible

P2: I am an agent

C: Therefore, I am responsible

But the problem is in the definition of agency (as well as the scope and meaning of responsibility and the assignment of responsibility to agents.

In the end, I remain unconvinced, primarily that he fails to overcome the Causa Sui argument.

Fischer, One of Four Views on Free Will

I’ve finally returned to the second author of Four Views on Free Will. The first author was Robert Kane. Here, I was introduced to John Martin Fischer, who wrote a section on Compatibilism. I’ve never read anything by Fischer. Indeed, I have no familiarity with him or his work. Allow me to start by saying that I was not impressed. Before diving into the content, let’s just say that he was extremely repetitive and circumlocutive. I found myself questioning whether the book was assembled with duplicate pages. Hadn’t I just read that? I’ll spare the reader the examples.

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

I repeat myself when under stress

— King Crimson, Indiscipline

The topic was 44 pages on compatibilism. The first 30 pages were compatibilism before he changed to his brainchild, semi-compatibilism. Full disclosure: I am not a compatibilist. My recollection is that the majority of contemporary philosophers are compatibilists. Joining Fischer are Dan Dennett, Frithjof Bergmann, Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. Historically, this cadre are joined by Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Mill. This motley crew has been opposed by Peter van Inwagen and historical figures, Arthur Schopenhauer, William James, and Immanuel Kant.

Semi-compatibilism is the idea that regardless of whether free will and determinism are compatible, moral responsibility and determinism are.

At a meta-level, Fischer repeatedly—I’ll discontinue using this term as, like Fischer, it will become very, very repetitive—invoked law and common sense. Law is not a moral structure in search of truth. It’s a power structure employed to retain the status quo. And, as Voltaire quipped, ‘common sense is not so common.’ This is an argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) fallacy. It also relies on belief and perception. I suppose he’s not familiar with Descartes’ Meditations. It seems he is trying to forge Compatibilism into a cast of soft determinism with hopes that no one notices the switcheroo.

Fischer targets some quotes buy Kant, James, Wallace Matson, and Nietzsche with the general critique that they are expecting too much of an agent by expecting it to be the cause of its own actions. Nevermind, that he is guilty of just this in attempting to parse passive and active agents—passive being insentient dominos and active being conscious entities.

I’m not convinced that maths is a strong point. He sets up a hypothetical scenario where physics has proven that causal determinism is true, so 100 per cent of everything in the universe can be known with certainty. But then he does two things.

First, he exempts human agency—cuz reasons. Second, he creates a parallel scenario where 100 per cent might be 99 or 99.9 per cent.

Second, he claims that because he feels free, he must be free.

Similarly, it is natural and extraordinarily “basic” for human beings to think of ourselves as (sometimes at least) morally accountable for our choices and behavior. Typically, we think of ourselves as morally responsible precisely in virtue of exercising a distinctive kind of freedom or control; this freedom
is traditionally thought to involve exactly the sort of “selection” from among genuinely available alternative possibilities alluded to above. When an agent is morally responsible for his behavior, we typically suppose that he could have (at least at some relevant time) done otherwise.

— Fischer, p. 46

Nothing is such that thinking doesn’t make it so.

It seems that when watching a movie for the third time, the victim who gets killed in the cellar won’t descend the stairs this time. Fisher must get perplexed when she does every time. Of course, he’d argue without evidence that an active agent would be able to make a different decision—even under identical circumstances. He insists that the agent possesses this free will.

Whilst sidestepping physicalism and materialism, he simply posits that consciousness is just different and not subject to other causal chain relationships—and that these cannot be deterministic even if everything else is.

I’m going to digress on his next point—that the person who knows not to cheat on taxes, and who does so anyway, is responsible as any normal person would be. Perhaps the person feels that the taxes are being used for illegal or immoral purposes and is taking the moral high ground by depriving the institution of these proceeds.

Around 2007 or so, I paid my taxes due minus about $5,000, which was the calculated amount of the per capita cost of the illegal and immoral Iraq invasion by the United States and its cadre of war criminals in charge. I attached a note outlining my opposition and rationale.

Some months later, the Internal Revenue department sent a legal request to my employer for the withheld sum. Payroll summoned me and conveyed that they were required to comply with the request. I told them my perspective and said if they could sleep with that on their conscience, then they were in their power. And so no nights of sleep were lost.

The point of this anecdote is to say that morals are social constructs. Clearly, Fischer is just an old-fashioned conformist. I suspect he thinks of Valjean as a bad person.

Like many if not most people, he employs a compos mentis approach, exempting persons of reduced cognitive capacity and those under duress or coercion, but he is not a proponent of the causa sui defence.

He has an entire subsection devoted to the libertarian notion of freedom. To recapitulate, he simply regurgitated all of the standard arguments and exempts the aforementioned agents and adds people under hypnosis, the brainwashed, and so on. Nothing to write home about—not here either.

In the next subsection, his focus is on consequences. He calls out Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument.

Similarly, the skeptical argument about our freedom employs ordinary ideas about the fixity of the
past and the fi xity of the natural laws (putatively) to generate the intuitively jarring result that we are not ever free, if causal determinism turns out to be true (something we can’t rule out apriori). If this skeptical argument is sound, it calls into question any compatibilist analysis of freedom (that is, freedom of the sort under consideration – involving the capacity for selection among open alternatives). If the argument is sound, then not only both the simple and refined conditional analysis, but any compatibilist analysis (of the relevant sort of freedom) must be rejected.

Fischer p. 53

He leans on Borges’ garden of forking paths and claims (without support) that although the past might be fixed, freedom is the ability to add to the future, citing Carl Ginet as the source of this notion. He misses the point that that’s what the future is, tautologically. It adds now to the past and generates a future. Choice is not necessary for this function to operate, but he continues to insist on invoking it.

Standard Frankfort examples are referenced as well as Locke. Here he wants to point out regulative control—but he skirts the question of where the volition comes from by saying ‘for his own reasons‘, as if these reasons are somehow meaningful. In the end, he recites the scenarios, performs some hand-waving, and summons his accord with Robert Kane’s “dual voluntariness” constraint on moral responsibility.

He leaves us with the thought that if the Consequence Argument were true, it would be compatibilism’s death knell, but it’s not true (in his mind), so all is well in Whoville. Crisis averted.

Source incompatibilism is next. His focus here is on the “elbow room” necessary to exercise free will.

Elbow Room is the title of a book by Daniel Dennett originally published in 1984 and republished in 2015. I’ve recently read this on holiday, but I haven’t had time to review it. Please stand by.

His approach in this subsection is to attack opposing perspectives as reductionist. Of course, he’s right, but they are no more reductionist than anything he’s suggested thus far. Besides, simply injecting favoured concepts to add to a model to make it compatible with one’s hypothesis doesn’t make it less reductionist. It just makes the model more convoluted.

Here he attempts to elevate consciousness into a special category in order to shield it from the physics of the universe. We can’t say for sure what consciousness is, but you can bet it’s a magical place where practically anything can happen. OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole.

He uses the metaphor of trying to assess how a television works by only studying the components. Of course, if that is all one did, one would be left with questions. But that is not where one stops. To be fair, neuroscience has come a long way since this was published in 2007. Neuroscientists are asking questions beyond the hardware.

He sets up a strawman by labelling total control as a chimaera as if anyone is arguing that if a theory doesn’t allow for total control, it will not be accepted. He does allow that…

We do not exist in a protective bubble of control. Rather, we are thoroughly and pervasively subject to luck: actual causal factors entirely out of our control are such that, if they were not to occur, things at least might be very different.

— Fischer, p. 68

We agree on this point, but I feel that he underestimates the remaining degrees of freedom after all of this is accounted for.

He attempts to create a mental model with vertical and horizontal lines. At least he admits that he does “not suppose [to] have offered a knockdown argument” because he doesn’t.

Finally, he wraps up this subsection by invoking Nietzsche’s famous Munchausen Causa Sui statement in Twilight of the Idols. He attacks this rationale as being “both ludicrous and part of commonsense.” He loves his commonsense.

Next, he wants to convince us, Why Be a Semicompatibilist? Semicompatibilism just needs enough elbow room to assert freedom. I suppose that’s the ‘semi‘ part. It feels to me an exercise in self-delusion.

The main idea behind semicompatibilism is to shrink the target size of compatibility and focus centrally on moral responsibility and agent control rather than the larger realm of free will.

Fischer makes what might be considered to be a religious argument. We should adopt this perspective because it feels better and is in our best interest. He cites Gary Watson’s view of using indeterminism to undermine determinism, but he feels that rather etiolates control rather than strengthening it because it “becomes unclear that our choices and actions are really ours.”

In the next subsection, he leads with the argument “that moral responsibility does not require regulative control, but only guidance control, and further that it is plausible that guidance control is compatible with causal determinism.” At least, this is the story he’s sticking to.

In Fischer’s “approach to guidance control, there are two chief elements:
the mechanism that issues in action must be the “agent’s own,” and
it must be appropriately “reasons-responsive.””

As for the “agent’s own” constraint, he simply notes that counterclaims exist, but he asserts that he doesn’t accept them.

As for reasons-responsiveness, he cites his own publication written with Mark Ravizza, Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility, and declines to elaborate in this essay.

In the final subsection, he writes about the Lure of Semicompatibilism. I do feel he is lured by the concept and makes light of the label. He advances the notion that “Kant believed that compatibility and incompatibilism are consistent“. Say what? But he takes a weaker position on this claim, using the Kant name-drop for cover.

As I said at the start, I don’t know anything about Fischer, but he is obsessed with legal theory as if it has any bearing on philosophical standing. Perhaps I’ll include a summary from a quick internet perusal. After I’ve wrapped this up. He mentions moral desert, which is a concept employed in matters of restorative and retributive justice.

The section concludes with a list of publications by him and others. Perhaps I’ll list them here in future as an addendum. For now, I’ll pop outside of this edit window and see what I can find on John Martin Fischer.


John Martin Fischer (born December 26, 1952) is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside and a leading contributor to the philosophy of free will and moral responsibility.

Against Moral Responsibility

We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.

Bruce Waller
Bruce Waller, Against Moral Responsibility

Nothing really to add here now, but more on the way. Meantine, sharing this for reference.

Blame

Even the moral sceptic is not immune from his own form of the wish to over-intellectualize such notions as those of moral responsibility, guilt, and blame. He sees that the optimist’s account is inadequate and the pessimist’s libertarian alternative inane; and finds no resource except to declare that the notions in question are inherently confused, that ‘blame is metaphysical’.

PF Strawson, Freedom and Resentment
Quote from Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays by PF Strawson

Part of my central thesis of non-agency is centred on the notion of blame, and it seems PF Strawson has a lot to contribute in this arena. In short, given my lack of belief of material human agency, I wish to investigate the connection between seemingly innate impulses to project blame and the absence of a blameworthy object.

In order to devote more time to researching and writing my thesis and less time editorialising elsewhere, I may post some shorter content such as these gems that I stumble upon along the way. This facilitates my desire to create and share content without the burden of devoting hours to render it. It also gives me places to come back to.

I only hope that you don’t blame me for doing so.


Meantime, indulge my recording my thoughts here in the public space.

What is blame?

We don’t have very precise definitions of blame, we have an intuitive sense of what it means. There is a subject (or object, as the case might be) that creates (or has been attributed to have created) an action that results in an interaction on an object (or process) with a subsequent effect and a notion of intentionality. But we have to parse casual effect, responsibility, and blame as they are not strictly equivalent. Let’s begin with a causal event.

I believe that on balance the causal event process and object interaction is uncontroversial. A billiard ball (Object A), through directed (or undirected) motion, collides (action) with a second billiard ball (Object B) with the subsequent effect of displacing the second ball.

What we can claim in this scenario is that A → B, A causes B to move. Except in the loosest of idiomatic speech, we can’t really extend this causal relationship to claim that A is responsible for B’s movement. Even further removed, one can’t claim that A is to blame for B’s movement.

Responsibility and blame are different moral claims attributed to an agent. I feel I am safe to claim that a billiard ball has no agency. Whilst human agency is defined as an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action (Houston, 2010), an agent in a more general sense is a being with the capacity to act, and ‘agency’ denotes the exercise or manifestation of this capacity.

The word blame is infused with negative connotations. Praise is a loose antonym with positive connotations, but I won’t focus on it because it is not nearly as heavy and operates semantically differently. In any case, I feel justified to cross blame from the list of possible qualifiers for the billiard ball scenario.

Is A responsible for B? Again, I believe that most people do not assign responsibility to inanimate objects—notwithstanding animism, pantheism, and possibly panpsychism.

Here are some diagrammes.

Above, there is only cause and effect. We can intuit that the movement of Object A is not uncaused. Even so, it careens into Object B, causing it to move. And while one could say A is responsible for moving B, this would be non-standard English language use.

If one pulls back to catch a wider glimpse, one can see that the cause of Object A striking Object B, was a person striking Object A (possibly with a cue stick). Here, the casual event chain is the person causing A to strike B. Two cause-effect relationships at a macro level. However, in this case, we can also say that the person is responsible for the event to set A into motion. We can also say that the person caused B to move (by the way of Object A). Even here, blame would be inappropriate to assert.

We may be able to reframe the scenario slightly differently to get blame into the picture, but let’s take a short detour and create a praise situation. If Object B is hit into a pocket, we can praise the person. Perhaps this shot wins the game. The person is responsible for making the shot.

In scenario B, the person misses the shot. Moreover, Object A does collide with Object B, but perhaps Object B is the 8 ball, and it was not supposed to be pocketed yet. Or perhaps the cue ball deflects off of Object B causing A to scratch because it falls into a pocket. Either of these situations might cause the person to lose the match. A mate may blame this person for being responsible for the loss.

Before moving on, I’ll point out that one distinction that affords blame more weight than praise is the ongoing psychology. Whilst with praise, a person may reflect fondly on a positive event, there is not really a counter to a grudge in the case of blame. And while praise can be misattributed with benefits to social capital, misdirected blame can result in a loss of social capital with longer-term implications.

Perhaps someone unseen pushes you into another person causing them to be injured. You may have been the cause of this person being injured, but like the billiard ball, Object B, you are not morally responsible. Moreover, you may be the target of blame.

These are rather low-stakes scenarios. Imaging these as legal negligence or in a criminal setting. Innocent people are routinely convicted for crimes they never committed. Perhaps, they had been previously unaware of any of the actors or events, yet they are blamed and fined or incarcerated.

This isn’t my interest to discuss at the moment. This is a different scope, so let’s return to the main theme.

In the low-stakes billiards example we can say that the person seems to have agency. For trivial events, we can ignore whether this is more than seeming. In essence, we can ignore the antecedent event arrow that caused the person to be in a situation to have the opportunity to strike the ball in the first place. We’ll return to this later.

Can We Just Stop Talking About Free Will

The problem with free will is that we keep dwelling on it. Really, this has to stop.

Owen D. Jones, The End of (Discussing) Free Will, 18 March 2012

This quote was made by Owen Jones in an article published in 2012. I share it because I feel the author is not only being cavalier but wrongly so. According to the bio at the end of the article, Owen D. Jones is a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. As I see it, the problem is not some theoretical—What is the sound of one hand clapping?—pseudo-problem. Human agency is the basis of our legal and jurisprudence systems.

Like good magicians, people like Owen want to redirect your focus to neuroscience and consciousness rather than have to explain how the causal engine that is the brain manifests itself ex nihilo.

Doubling down on my causa sui position, humans may be able to make constrained solutions, and yet they never have control over the constrained system they inherit. I discuss this at length elsewhere, but I wanted to address this comment forthright.

I’ll leave with a quote I tend to trot out a lot.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

— Upton Sinclair, prepared speech, I, Candidate for Governor (1935)

Free will is a necessary illusion for power structures to propagate or they will lose a cornerstone of their control mechanisms. And since humans want to feel they are in control, they are willing to accept the downside for the illusion of an upside.

Individual and Collective Agency and Freedom

As a person dismissive of individual human agency, of course, I am not going to rate the probability of collective agency highly. However, I am very drawn to this topic because I am sure there will be attempts to make parallels and connexions between the individual and the collectives. My guess is that attacks by those who support individual agency yet deny collective agency will pose arguments that will in the end undermine their own position that they will nonetheless cling to.

Colloquium Poster

This event is being broadcast on Zoom on 21 through 23 July 2022 from 17:00 – 21:00 Tawain Time (GMT +8).

Conversational topics will be (i) The Reality of Free Will and (ii) The Loci of Responsibility, two topics near and dear to my interest.

Details can be read here: https://www.lmpsttw.org/ch/events/5thtmc-schedule-721-723

A colleague had this to add.

A question that exercises the minds of philosophers is the existential status and role of groups and collectives. Do ‘forests’ exist, or are there just trees in proximity? Do “herds” exist, or are there just elephants? Perhaps the answers to these questions are of little consequence, but there are other, more interesting questions like, for example:

Do collectives act as single units, and if so, how? Do properties of individuals ‘scale’? For example, we readily attribute consciousness and intelligence to individual humans, can we also attribute consciousness and intelligence to a committee, or community? How is a collective conscious or intelligent? Also, individuals have ‘agency’ – they can/do exercise their individual “will” – but does a collective have a “will”, or “agency”? Does a large population of agents (a ‘country’, say) have a ‘will’ of its own? Does a country have ‘free will’,, and ‘know’ what it is ‘doing’? Do such questions even make sense?

On July 21-23, the National Taiwan University is holding a mini-conference about such “social ontology” conundrums, via ZOOM: https://ucl.zoom.us/j/98941995734, Zoom room ID:989 4199 5734

Revisiting Time Reborn

I’ve just finished with Time Reborn. I wasn’t expecting to be converted to Smolin’s proposition that time is real rather than constructed. I enjoyed the book, and he provided a solid foundational understanding of the conventional scientific perspective (circa 2013, when the book was published).

I understand that Smolin is a professional physicist with a PhD and his grasp of the fundamentals is solid, and I am a peripheral scientist at best. I fully grant that I may be on the left of the Dunning-Kruger curve and making rookie mistakes.

The biggest contention I have is that he insists that everything needs to have a reason, citing Leibnitz. His argument is based on the question of why is our universe so perfectly structured, that it would be improbable to have happened purely by chance.

Whilst I agree that everything has a cause, reasons are an artifice imposed by humans. In practice, where reasons don’t exist, we make them up. This is how we get false theories and gods. Smolin does discuss false theories of the past and attempts to claim that the prevailing theories occupy this space whilst his theory should replace it.

Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life.

My reaction is that it just is. Whether Roger Penrose is correct in saying that the universe is continually recreated and destroyed, rinse and repeat, the reason the universe is constructed in such an (improbably) ordered fashion that can sustain life is that there is no reason. Any universe created without the ability to sustain life would not have us asking why it did not support life. It does. We are here to question, and so we do. End of story.

We can make up all sorts of stories, whether through science, religion, or some other origin myth. None of them is provable. As Smolin notes, this is a one-time event. If it is destroyed, so are we and our memories. If life is sustainable in a future—or even parallel—configuration, we’re sent back to start where we can fabricate new stories.

Perhaps in another universe, it will be configured so differently that some other sort of life is created, perhaps this life will not be DNA-based and be anaerobic? Who knows?

It seems that he has an interest in reserving a place for human agency, which has little room for movement in current scientific models. His model provides this room. Moreover, he further thinks that even in current models, human agency should be injected into the models. I suppose he is not familiar with Keynes’ animal spirits.

For some reason, he decided to devote the final chapter to the hard problem of consciousness. This was a particularly hot topic around that time, so he didn’t want to miss the boat. The long and the short of it, he didn’t think the qualia-consciousness answer would be found through physics—though he reserved that there was a non-zero probability that it could be. He posits this as an existential, experiential challenge, and science is not designed to address such affairs.