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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Why the “Floating Spoon” Just Found on Mars May Be Exactly What It Seems To Be

The robotic probes landed on Mars have produced a series of astonishing photographic anomalies, some of which are shown here and here and here. The anomalies include a gigantic mysterious plume; an orb that seemed to move; what looks like a statue of a woman; a perfect sphere; a shape looking like a pelvis bone; an arrangement of matter looking like a traffic light; and a Celtic cross. Now we have what may be the strangest anomaly yet seen on Mars. The full NASA photograph (as shown on a NASA web page) can be found here. Below is a closeup.

Mars spoon
The "levitating spoon" can be seen in the center (Credit: NASA)

The photo shows what looks very much like a very long spoon floating in the air. Below this spoon shape, we see a shadow that seems to exactly match the spoon shape. How can we explain this wonder?

The initial explanation offered by mainstream sources in that of pareidolia – the tendency of the brain to interpret natural or random patterns as being meaningful shapes that resemble faces or artificial objects. But this is a non-explanation that does not explain anything.

When dealing with a puzzling occurrence, you only do something to explain that thing if you provide some account that causes some reduction in amazement, causing someone to think, “Now, I'm not so amazed.” For example, if I'm a farmer, and I find a giant hole in the back of my corn field, I might be very amazed; and you might reduce my amazement if you explain that meteors fall every day from the sky, and maybe this is just a meteor strike. But in the case of this “levitating spoon,” the idea of pareidolia does nothing to reduce our amazement. We are amazed by why what looks like a very long floating spoon with a matching shadow should be seen on Mars, and we are just as much amazed after the idea of pareidolia is suggested. So there is no reduction of amazement, meaning pareidolia is just a non-explanation in this case.

About the only natural explanation you can come up with to explain such a thing is the idea that rather than being a spoon shape floating in the air, the spoon shape is some rock connected to another rock. It could be that the “handle” of the spoon shape is connected to some other rock. Perhaps the wind somehow sculpted this long shape out of a larger rock.

But such a hypothesis doesn't seem to work. For one thing, there is the problem of how such a very narrow thing so far protruded without structural support could survive without falling, even in the weaker gravity of Mars. Then there is the problem that the “handle end” of the “floating spoon” does not at all seem to be connected to some larger rock, but seems instead to be floating to the side of a larger rock.

There is a very different hypothesis that we should seriously consider in this case. This is the “radical” hypothesis that this “floating spoon” is simply exactly what it appears to be: a spoon shape floating in midair. We can call this the levitation hypothesis.

It is rather easy to rebut the main objections you could bring against such a hypothesis. The first objection might be that levitation is impossible, that it contradicts the law of gravitation. This is not at all true. The law of gravitation in no way prohibits the levitation of objects. What the law of gravitation merely tells us is that there always will be a very weak force acting to push down an object on the surface of a planet. But levitation can be achieved whenever there is a sufficient force acting underneath an object, causing it to rise up. Levitation is actually achieved on our planet in things such as lottery machines (where balls are levitated by jets of air).

So it is possible that some unknown force was acting underneath this spoon-like object, causing it to be levitated in the air. The law of gravitation in no way prohibits such a thing. But what about the very idea of an unknown force acting mysteriously on an object – is that somehow prohibited by science?

It certainly is not, despite the claims made by some skeptics and scientists. Physics tells us that certain forces are always at work in the universe – the gravitational force, the electromagnetic force between charged particles, the strong nuclear force that binds together the nucleus of an atom, and the weak nuclear force involved in radioactivity. But nothing in physics or in any other science gives us a legitimate basis for assuming that the only force that may act on something is some force that we understand. Making such an assumption is unwarranted hubris, a case of advancing in a haughty manner some principle that has not at all been established. We are little creatures very ignorant of very many of the universe's mysteries, and we have no business claiming that the only forces that might operate on something are one of the forces that we understand. Making such a claim is like some 6th-grader claiming that the only process that may occur in history is one of the few historical processes that he understands.

Let's imagine a reasonable hypothesis that might explain a “levitating spoon” appearing in a photo of Mars.
  1. Let us imagine that there exists some unknown mysterious force capable of causing objects to appear in particular places, and causing such objects to levitate. Such a force might be divine, supernatural, spiritual, or extraterrestrial.
  2. Let us imagine that such a force wishes to demonstrate its existence to humans, by creating manifestations that demonstrate its power.
  3. Under such conditions, we might actually see a series of “signs and wonders” that might possibly include something like a very long spoon levitating on Mars.

There actually exists very substantial prima facie evidence to support the first of these claims. The history of paranormal occurrences since 1850 has included very many cases in which tables or other objects were seen to levitate, sometimes under controlled scientific conditions. There are also many reported cases of objects (sometimes called apports) that have been seen to appear out of nowhere, as if they had been brought into existence by some unknown force. For the sake of this blog post, I don't need to delve into such cases, because here I am not attempting to prove the likelihood of a premise such as the first premise, but merely its substantial possibility. The many reported cases of paranormal levitations and apports are enough to establish the substantial possibility of the first premise.

Many scientists like to think that “things like that don't happen,” and that the only cases of physical action that occur are cases of a type that they understand. But they are able to cling to such an unwarranted dogma only by ignoring or dismissing a large stream of reported observations that suggest the contrary – that, in fact, mysterious things happen for reasons they do not at all understand. One example among very many is the case of the Enfield poltergeist that occurred in England during the 1970's, where a dramatic set of inexplicable occurrences (including levitations) were reported by reliable witnesses.

It is therefore quite reasonable to imagine that what we may be seeing on Mars may be some manifestation of some unknown force completely beyond the understanding of current science. Given the reports of strange things that have happened on Earth, there is no reason why we should assume that equally strange things could not be happening on Mars. A scientist may think of Mars as his own exclusive wonderland, where there only occurs the type of things he is comfortable dealing with. But there is no reason to think that everything we will see in Mars will always conform to such an expectation.

One of the most amazing things found previously on Mars was a “Celtic cross” (although it might be just called an X within a circle). Skeptics have tried to debunk this photo by claiming that it is a screw imprint from the APXS instrument on the Opportunity rover that took this picture. My previous blog post refutes this hypothesis. As I explain in that post, according to the NASA activity log for the Opportunity rover that took this picture, the APXS instrument was not used at the site where this photo was taken until the night after the photo was taken. That means this strange “X within a circle” cannot be explained as a screw imprint. Again, we have something that almost looks like some sign being sent by some intelligence trying to alert us as to its existence. 

The "Celtic cross" on Mars (Credit: NASA) 

The previous wonders seen on Mars could all be explained as some kind of traces of an ancient civilization, or of aliens who visited Mars long ago and left behind some traces. But the “levitating spoon” wonder seems unique in that it may hint that some force or intelligence may now be active on Mars.

I ended a previous post on the topic of a strange objects found on Mars with this observation: “I will not be surprised at all if we start to see more and more cases of artificial-looking things on the planet Mars.” Such an observations wasn't very explicitly predictive, so let me go out on a limb and make a more specific prediction. I predict (with only mild confidence) that some of the things we will see on Mars in the years ahead will be more amazing and inexplicable than any of the things that have been photographed so far.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Latest Cracks in the Cosmological “Just So” Story

The term “just so story” refers to a poorly substantiated narrative in science that is told to explain something. Modern cosmology tells us a “just so” story to try to partially explain why the universe started out in such an exquisitely balanced state. Part of that “just so” story is the theory of cosmic inflation, the narrative that the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion in the first second of its existence. We are told that this special period of super-fast expansion lasted just a fraction of a second. 

Being used to reading triumphalist accounts of modern cosmology, I was pleasantly surprised to read the candid recent account in the very readable book At the Edge of Uncertainty by Michael Brooks, who has a PhD in quantum physics. In his chapter “Complicating the Cosmos,” Brooks paints a picture of a cosmology standard story that is showing many cracks. He cites Michael Turner of the University of Chicago as saying that the cosmic inflation theory is duct-taped and perhaps within a decade of falling apart.

Brooks cites the work of scientist Michael Longo:

Out of 15,000 visible galaxies, roughly 7 per cent more are “left-handed” than “right-handed.” The chances of this being a statistical fluke are about 1 in a million. Especially since, when you look at the southern sky, you see the same effect, but in reverse: more right-handed spirals than left...This means the universe was born with a spin. And if it has a spin, it also has an axis. And if there's one thing the universe isn't meant to have, according to the standard theory, it's an axis. 

Read the account here for a more detailed discussion.  

Brooks then discusses the problems with the Big Bang theory and lithium:

We now know that the cosmos contains one-third the amount of lithium-7 that the Big Bang theory says it should. We also know that there is too much lithium-4, which one less neutron in its nucleus. One thousand times too much, to be precise.

Off by a factor of 1000 – could it be our cosmologists are missing a thing or two (or perhaps 50 or 100)?

Describing a scientific paper by Paul Steinhardt, Anna Ijjas, and Avi Loeb (described by Brooks as Harvard's head of astronomy), Brooks says the following:

The Planck mission has ruled out all but a handful of possibilities for inflation, the paper said. Worse, the ones that disappeared were far more “natural” candidates than the inflation models that provide the best fit to the cosmological data, making them even less likely to be useful resolutions of the horizon problem and the flatness problem.

Brooks then describes an additional huge problem for the cosmic inflation theory created by findings about the Higgs boson. Brooks says, “Once we start adding in solutions to these problems – if we can come up with them – the Big Bang theory will start to look less like a coherent narrative and more like a dreamscape: a mad whirl of disconnected stories.”

Brooks interesting book appeared in 2014, and since then two additional “cracks” may have appeared in our cosmologists' “just so” story of cosmic origins. One is the situation discussed in this paper. The standard assumption of cosmic inflation predicts a universe that is spatially flat, without any spatial curvature. But according to that paper, the latest results from a Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) are in conflict or “tension” with the idea of a flat universe, and are more consistent with an assumption of a non-flat universe with a positive spatial curvature.

Still another recent “crack” in cosmological assumptions may be the recent discovery of a structure called the largest structure in the universe, “a ring of 9 gamma ray bursts (and hence galaxies) 5 billion light-years across” according to this account. Structures that large simply should not exist, according to thinking such as the cosmic inflation theory and the Cosmological Principle (the idea that the universe is the same no matter which direction we look in).

Perhaps such findings should instill a sense of humility in our cosmologists, and make them less likely to speak as if they understand exactly how the universe got to be this way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Which Is More Scientific, the Other Side or the Multiverse?

Today some theorists speculate that there are many other universes in addition to our own. The multiverse is the name used for some hypothetical set of a vast number of universes. But the idea of some other realm outside of our universe (or “parallel” to our universe) was advanced way before anyone started using the term “multiverse.” For over 150 years it has been maintained that there exists some realm of existence we can't see with our eyes, a plane of existence where souls go to after death. Such a realm of existence is often called the Other Side.

An interesting question to consider is: which of these ideas is more scientific – the Other Side or the multiverse?

Some would argue that we should judge whether an idea is scientific based on how much attention it gets among mainstream scientists. But such reasoning is not valid. Reviewing definitions of “scientific,” I see none that say anything like “popular among scientists.” I do see some definitions that say, “based on or characterized by the methods and principles of science.”

Science is based on the idea of empirical verification through observations and experiments. So perhaps we should judge whether an idea is scientific based on whether we can hope to empirically verify the idea, or at least gather empirical evidence that substantially supports the idea, making us think it is likely. Let's compare the multiverse and the Other Side based on their prospects of empirical verification.

Looking at the multiverse idea, we see a concept that has no real prospects of empirical verification. We cannot imagine any observations we might make that would lead us to say that we had substantial evidence of another physical universe. The main reason why is that we can only observe things in our universe.

Multiverse enthusiasts have suggested otherwise, but their arguments are unpersuasive. It is sometimes argued that if the cosmic inflation theory was verified, that would give evidence for a multiverse. But this idea is not correct. The cosmic inflation theory (at least in some of its many forms) involves both the idea that the universe underwent an exponential phase of expansion during its first second, and the idea that our universe is only one of many “bubble universes.” The only one of these claims that we could hope to verify is the first of these claims. Verifying the first of these claims would not verify the second claim, the idea that our universe is only one of many “bubble universes.” If a theory involves an assertion of X and Y, you do not prove Y merely by proving X.

Verifying something about the first second of our universe would only tell us something about our universe, and would not tell us anything about the existence of any other universes.

Multiverse enthusiasts have also suggested that we might find evidence for some other universe by studying the cosmic background radiation, and seeing some unusual spot, bump, or ring indicating a “collision with another universe” early in time. Such an idea is fallacious. For one thing, the cosmic background radiation has already been exhaustively analyzed to an extreme degree, and no such thing has been found. Secondly, even if some unusual spot, bump, or ring was found in the cosmic background radiation, there would always be many ways to plausibly explain it without the extravagant assumption of another universe.

We also do not provide evidence for a multiverse by providing evidence that our universe seems to be fine-tuned or exquisitely well balanced. Evidence that some particular thing looks like a designed thing can never be properly argued as evidence for other universes. For example, it would be quite absurd to argue along these lines:

Walking in the country, I passed an arrangement of flowers that consisted of a grid of 30 evenly spaced rows and 30 evenly spaced columns. Realizing that the plants were most unlikely to achieve this arrangement by chance, I recognized that this was evidence there must be many universes, because under such a hypothesis we would expect such an arrangement to occur by chance at least once.

It seems, therefore, that the multiverse is on extremely weak ground in regard to empirical verification. Not only is there no evidence for such a concept, but the prospects of ever getting evidence are incredibly slim. It is hard to imagine any plausible set of future observations that we might have that would justify someone saying, “Aha, now there is good evidence for another universe.”

Let's compare this situation in regard to the idea of the Other Side. There we find a very different situation. Many people think that there is very substantial evidence for the Other Side, which has been steadily accumulating for more than 150 years. 

One of the main items of evidence comes from mediums, people who claim to have contacted souls on the Other Side. Some mediums have been exposed as frauds, but some have had remarkably successful careers, and have stood up well to scientific investigations. Three of the most famous examples are Daniel Dunglas Home, Leonora Piper, and Gladys Osborne Leonard. In more recent times scientists such as Gary Schwartz PhD and Julie Beischel PhD have done controlled scientific studies of mediums in which they scored far better than non-mediums when trying to gather information about the deceased relatives of unidentified individuals.

Another line of evidence for the Other Side comes from near-death experiences. Those who have such experiences frequently report briefly entering some kind of mysterious other realm where they encounter deceased relatives.

So there is a substantial body of observational evidence supporting the idea of the Other Side. We may contrast this with the evidence situation in regard to the multiverse. There are simply no corresponding observations – real or alleged – in which people claim to have observed or experienced any other universe that is part of a multiverse.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, simply no one out there who is making any claims such as the following:

I had this weird experience. Suddenly I found myself drifting out to some strange place where the laws of physics were very different from ours. All the matter was arranged in some totally weird way unlike anything I have ever seen. It must have been one of the alternate universes of the multiverse.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no one claiming to have experienced some other physical universe of the multiverse, nor is there anyone claiming to have made contact with some other inhabitants of another physical universe of the multiverse. In terms of evidence, the idea of the multiverse is on ridiculously weak empirical ground. But the idea of the Other Side seems to have substantial observations to support it.

So which idea is more scientific, the Other Side or the multiverse? If we judge the question based on what is more fashionable in the halls of scientific academia, the answer might be the multiverse. But if we judge the matter based on the basis of which idea has more evidentiary support, it seems we would conclude that the Other Side is more scientific than the multiverse.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Does Darwinism Plausibly Explain the Origin of Human Intelligence?

Probably the three greatest origin mysteries are the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of human intelligence. Scientists have no explanation for the first of these mysteries, for the Big Bang is unexplained under current science. Darwinism offers no answer to the second of these mysteries. We cannot at all explain the origin of life through any theory of natural selection, as natural selection requires life to exist before it can begin.

But Darwinists claim to have an explanation for the third of these mysteries, the origin of human intelligence. They claim that human intelligence arose because of natural selection. Natural selection involves traits becoming more common in a species when such traits make members of that species more likely to reproduce, or survive until reproduction. A simple Darwinian account of the origin of human intelligence would be that our ancestors got smarter and smarter because there was a survival value in increased intelligence, and natural selection tends to favor traits that give a survival value.

But there are reasons for doubting the plausibility of such an explanation. One reason is that the human mind seems to include many characteristics that do not make a human more likely to survive until he reproduces. Such traits include spirituality, moral reasoning, introspection, self-awareness, altruism, philosophical ability, aesthetic appreciation, and mathematical reasoning.

Another reason for doubting the plausibility of a Darwinian explanation for human intelligence is one that may be called the “high-hanging fruit” reason. This is the reason that the evolution of intelligence in a species would seem to be a case of nature following a path to reproductive success vastly more difficult than easier, simpler paths to reproductive success, which would be rather like someone plucking a fruit from the upper branches of a very tall tree, rather than plucking a fruit from the lower branches. Imagining such a thing does not seem very plausible.

To clarify what I am talking about, let us consider the options available to evolution after some evolutionary ancestor of man descended from the trees, and began life on the ground. We can imagine a variety of options that evolution might have taken to help guarantee reproductive success. They include some of the following:

Evolve a greater sense of smell. Such an adaption (which we can see in organisms such as dogs and bears) is extremely useful in finding food.
Develop claws. Such an adaption (which we can see in bears) can be a powerful weapon against predators when combined with a powerful forelimb.
Develop a large thorax with very powerful arms. Such an adaption (which we see in gorillas) can be a powerful defense against predators.
Develop legs longer and faster than human legs. We don't know of any primate that developed such an adaption, but it would have been very useful in evading predators.
Develop digestive enhancements. We can easily imagine some evolution of the digestive system which would have allowed a species to eat a wider variety of foods (including grass), which would have made finding food a much easier task.
Develop a shorter reproductive cycle, with more offspring. This approach to reproductive success would have been rather the opposite approach of developing intelligence. Instead of evolving a larger brain (which limits the number of offspring, and often involved death to the mother in childbirth because of the difficulty of fitting a large head through the birth canal), a species could have evolved in a way that might that might have led to far more child births per mother, with shorter gestation periods.
Develop camouflage. We can easily imagine an adaption that might have made human ancestors less likely to be noticed by predators, perhaps something like a greenish fur.
Develop better vision. Such an adaption (which we see in eagles, who have 20/4 vision much better than ours) would have made it much easier to find food.

These are only some of the possible adaptions that a human ancestor might have taken to increase its reproductive success. All of these adaptions have one thing in common: they all would have been vastly easier for evolution to have achieved than the evolution of intelligence. Darwinism tells us that the more complicated an adaptive trait is, the more mutations it required. Science has absolutely no specific account of the number of mutations needed to develop human intelligence, but we can be quite sure that the number of mutations needed to develop human intelligence must have been many times greater than the number of mutations needed for the evolution of adaptions like those listed above.

All of the items listed above are rather like low-hanging fruit available to evolution. So why did evolution (when dealing with man and his near ancestors) pass over such possibilities, and instead produce human intelligence, a fruit hanging so much vastly higher up on the tree? It's rather like a hungry person climbing  25 meters up a tree to pluck an apple, rather than just plucking an apple hanging 5 feet off the ground. 

Why did evolution pluck the high-hanging fruit rather than the low hanging fruit?

Limiting ourselves to Darwinism, we cannot at all answer this question by suggesting some kind of “arrow of progress” in evolution by which it favors grander and grander designs. According to Darwinian accounts, natural selection doesn't care a whit about “progress,” but cares about nothing but reproductive success.

Let us imagine that we discovered a planet on which there was some animal species that used laser beams to zap its prey -- laser beams fired from some biological structure of the species. It would be all but impossible to explain such a thing through any account involving natural selection. We could not plausibly explain such a thing merely by saying that such an adaption increased the survival value of the species that had it – because we would still have the question of why such a hard-to-achieve result had been obtained by evolution rather than some other simpler adaption which would have achieved the same degree of survival advantage in a way that would have been so much easier to achieve. Exactly the same problem exists with explaining the origin of human intelligence by using an explanation of natural selection.

What I am suggesting here is that according to Darwinism, the evolution of intelligence is not at all something that we should expect, but is instead some strange fluke. Exactly the same thing has been suggested by some of the leading evolutionary theorists. George Gaylord Simpson wrote an essay called “The Nonprevalance of Humanoids,” suggesting that the evolution of beings like us was some rare fluke we should not expect to see repeated in the accessible universe. Ernst Mawr (another leading Darwinist) argued that the appearance of intelligence was a rare fluke, and that it is highly unlikely that alien life has achieved intelligence.

Comments such as these by leading Darwinists strongly suggest that Darwinism does not offer a plausible account of the origin of human intelligence. Generally speaking, you only offer a plausible explanation of something when you offer some explanation under which such a thing is likely.

Consider a trial in which the prosecution is arguing that someone named John killed his wife. Imagine if the prosecution shows that (a) John had a violent temper; (b) John had $500,000 in gambling debts which he owed to a crime syndicate; (c) John had a million dollar life insurance policy on his wife; and (d) John had just become enraged after finding out his wife was committing adultery. This would all add up to a good start in a plausible case for showing John killed his wife. Under such conditions, we might expect that someone like John would have killed his wife. But imagine the prosecution merely suggested that it was some strange fluke, and that John had killed his wife just because he didn't like the clothes she was wearing on the day she was murdered. That would not be a plausible explanation for a murder, because it would not be a set of conditions under which such a murder would be likely.

Similarly, if Darwinists cannot give us a situation under which the evolution of intelligence is likely under Darwinist principles, they have not provided a plausible explanation of the origin of human intelligence. You do not give a plausible explanation of something if you describe it as being a strange rare fluke under your theoretical framework, something we would be unlikely to see again on any of millions of other planets.

This difficulty was recognized by Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin. Talking about the human brain (which is about three times heavier than a gorilla brain), Wallace wrote the following (quoted in section 5.8 of this interesting work):

A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would....fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution, whose essence is, that they lead to a degree of organization exactly proportionate to the wants of each species, never beyond those wants...Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.

Upon reading this passage, Darwin wrote to Wallace: “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.” Darwin need not have worried about such an objection murdering the whole theory of evolution, but should indeed have wondered whether it threw doubt on the idea that natural selection is the main cause of evolution. 

We need to start pondering explanations of the origin of human intelligence which describe a situation under which the appearance of human intelligence is a likely event rather than some incredibly improbable fluke. No theory that describes the origin of human intelligence as some strange improbable fluke can claim to have offered a plausible account of the origin of human intelligence.