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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Things Science Cannot Explain, Part 4

In part1, part 2, and part 3 of this 4-part series of blog posts, I listed 36 things that science can't explain. In this post I'll finish up the 4-part series by listing 14 more things that science cannot explain.

37. Savants

Savants are individuals who have some mental disability but also have some extraordinary mental talents. Many people are familiar with savants from the film Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman, based on an actual savant. An example of a savant is Daniel Tammer, who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. He holds the European record for reciting Pi from memory, to 22,514 digits. Supposedly he learned the Icelandic language in only ten days.

Another example of a savant is the late Kim Peek, who supposedly could accurately recall the details of 12,000 books he had read, despite having an IQ of only 87. Like several savants, he had the ability to instantly calculate the day of the week on which any person he met was born. Still another savant is Derek Paravicini, who can play a piece of music accurately after hearing it just once. He was born very prematurely, at only 25 weeks.

While science can explain while people deprived of some sense (such as sight) may have increased abilities relating to some other sense, science suggests no explanation for why a severe deficit in one mental area might lead to a radically improved ability in some other area, an ability we would not expect any human to have.

38. The placebo effect

A placebo is typically a sugar pill that a doctor gives to a patient, merely in the hopes that the patient's belief that he is getting an effective treatment will actually do some good. The placebo effect is the astonishing degree to which placebos are actually effective in reducing symptoms. One study indicates that half of a drug's effectiveness may be due to the placebo effect. Another study indicates that when patients are given a placebo pill labeled as a drug, it does just as well in alleviating migraine headaches as when patients are given an actual drug labeled as a placebo.

Why should people so often get better or have their pain eased simply because they believe they are taking some medicine that is effective? The placebo effect suggests a “mind over body” effect which modern science is quite unable to account for.

39. The “law of the five allowed stable particles”

Most of the laws of nature have been given names by scientists. But there is one very important law that hasn't been give a name, so I sometimes give it a name by calling it “the law of the five allowed stable particles.” This is simply the law that when high-energy particles are colliding, resulting in a shower of “daughter particles,” nature always makes sure that the resulting stable particles are one of only five types: protons (with a rest mass of 1.672 X 10-27 kilogram), neutrons (with a rest mass of 1.674 X 10-27 kilogram), electrons (with a rest mass of 9.109 X 10-31 kilogram), photons (with no rest mass), or neutrinos (with almost no rest mass). 

Stable particles between these masses are never created from these high-energy collisions of particles. For example, in subatomic particle colliders such as the Large Hadron Collider, we only see the creation of stable particles that are the electron mass or about 1836 times the electron mass, and never see the creation of stable particles that are between 100 and 1000 times the electron mass. Why does nature follow this rule? We know the rule is beneficial to life, as it allows for the kind of “standardization” that facilitates life's existence. But science has no idea why nature should follow this law in such an invariable way, as if it had been programmed into nature by some cosmic programmer.

40. Verified premonitions

Verified premonitions can be defined as cases in which someone has a feeling or dream about something that is going to happen in the future, only to later find just such a thing did happen. Many fascinating cases have occurred in human history.

On May 3, 1812, John Williams had the same dream three times in a single night: a very specific dream about someone assassinating Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister. Eight days later Perceval was assassinated, and several of the details matched William's dream.

Two weeks before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln had a dream that he would be assassinated. The famous writer Mark Twain had a dream about the death of his brother that turned out to closely match what happened a few days later. Several people had premonitions that something would go wrong on the Titanic before it sunk. One person who had a ticket on the ill-fated ship had two dreams that the ship would overturn, with passengers in the water.

In 1950 a church blew up in Beatrice, Nebraska, at a time when the church normally would have had a choir practice. Amazingly, no one was hurt, because the church was empty. We can only guess at how many of these people felt a premonition of doom, and avoided their regular choir practice.

According to research published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, dozens of people had premonitions of disaster before the Aberfan avalanche that killed 144 people. Some had dreams about such a disaster before it happened. During World War II Winston Churchill had two premonitions that may have saved his life or those of others. One premonition led him to switch sides on his staff car. A bomb then went off on the side he moved away from. Another premonition led him to tell his kitchen staff to leave the kitchen and go underground. A bomb then destroyed the kitchen.

A number of people also had premonitions of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. In early September, Lawrence Francis Boisseau had a dream that the World Trade Center was collapsing around him. Boisseau was killed in the attack.

Science offers no explanation for such cases, other than the unconvincing explanation of mere coincidence.

41. Spiral galaxy spin non-randomness

Physicist Michael Longo and his helpers studied more than 15,000 galaxies to determine which direction they were spinning (something that seems like the most tedious assignment imaginable). The end result was very surprising. Instead of finding that spiral galaxies always spin in one direction 50% of the time and the other direction 50% of the time, Longo found that in some parts of the sky galaxies prefer to spin one way or the other significantly more frequently.

According to his research, in some directions of the sky there is an almost exact balance between galaxies that are spinning in a “left-handed” way and galaxies spinning in the opposite, “right-handed” way. But in other directions of the sky, “left-handedness” can be preferred by as much as 7% over “right-handedness.” For more information, read this blog post.

42. Crop circles

When Doug Bower and Dave Chorley in 1991 claimed to have made some 200 crop circles since the 1970's, their story was taken as fact by skeptics, despite the lack of any explanation as to why the two would have done this incredibly laborious task for more than a decade without profiting from it. This incident kind of illustrates that when a skeptic is presented with testimony that he doesn't want to believe, he will invent endless excuses for not accepting the testimony. But when testimony is presented that a skeptic wants to believe, he may accept it without proof, no matter how farfetched it may be. There is, in reality, little basis for accepting Bower and Chorley's farfetched tale, and since it was made in 1991 by men in their sixties, it cannot be used as an explanation for crop circles that have continued to appear around the world since then, often with incredibly intricate patterns that seem impossible for any small team of humans to have created overnight.

43. Kepler 78b

Kepler 78b is a planet so strange that it will be one of the topics discussed next month on an episode of NASA's Unexplained Files. For a discussion of why science is currently unable to explain this planet, see this blog post.

44. Fast moving orbs

You can do a Google image search for “moving orbs” to see an astonishing set of photos from many different web sites, sites showing unidentified circular objects or spherical objects moving at very fast speeds. Since such photos show strong motion blur and the photographic effect known as ghosting, they are indications of objects moving very rapidly, much faster than 100 miles an hours. Skeptics and scientists have no plausible explanation for these anomalies. One utterly lame explanation is to suggest that such photos are produced when someone photographs moving insects. That doesn't work, because the average speed of an insect such as a house fly is only about 3 miles an hour, and the photos of fast moving orbs show objects that seem to be moving more than 30 times faster than that. Moreover, photos of fast moving orbs (in particular, this series of 18 photos) often show the objects making sharp right-angle turns, sharp u-turns, and sharp undulations, which are types of motion that we never observe from dust, birds, or insects.

45. “Peak in Darien” experiences

See this post for a discussion of these experiences, in which people seemed to know about the deaths of people that should have been unknown to them.

46. Mars anomalies

See this set of four blog posts for a discussion of recent anomalies on Mars that scientists and skeptics are unable to account for.

47. Fermi's Paradox

Science currently has no good explanation for this long-standing mystery of why extraterrestrial life hasn't been discovered yet.

48. Fermi Bubbles

While mentioning Fermi, I should also mention Fermi bubbles. These are two gigantic bubbles of energy above and below the plane of our galaxy. Scientists have no good explanation for them.

Fermi bubbles (credit: NASA)
49. LEDA 074886

LEDA 074886 is a galaxy with a rectangular shape. Scientists have no good explanation for how this could have come about.

50. The “duality” of electrons

When certain experiments are performed, electrons seem to behave exactly as if they were particles. When certain other experiments are performed, electrons seem to behave exactly as if they were waves. Scientists have not been able to explain why this strange duality exists. It seems as strange as some animal that looks like a giraffe when you photograph it with an Olympus camera, but looks like a lion when you photograph it with a Sony camera.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

50 Things Science Cannot Explain, Part 3

In part 1 and part 2 of this 4-part series of blog posts, I listed 25 things that science can't explain. Below is a discussion of some more things that science cannot explain.

#26 Human memory

We know exactly how the memory of our computers and digital devices work. On the lowest level, all information is stored as binary bits, sequences such as 01100111010101; and such bits are stored magnetically on surfaces such as hard drives. But we have no such understanding at all of how our own memory works. Try looking up human memory on the Internet. You will get a lot of discussion that makes quite a few points that don't add up to a substantive answer. We have no idea whether memory is stored chemically, electrically, through neuron connections, through some combination of the three, or through some entirely different means. Nor do we have the slightest idea about what kind of code or alphabet the brain might use to store memory. A modern neuroscientist can say quite a few things about memory, but he can't really explain it.

#27 The reincarnation research of Stevenson

Dr. Ian Stevenson was an University of Virginia professor and MD who was once the head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. He spent decades gathering evidence for reincarnation, and published a 2268-page two-volume work Reincarnation and Biology, providing a huge amount of evidence. Stevenson's main technique was to investigate reports of children who claimed to have memories of past lives. He produced countless cases in which the details of the claims of the past life were verified. In very many cases the children making these claims seemed to have had birthmarks corresponding to the facts of the claimed previous life. For example, a child claiming to be the reincarnation of someone killed by a head blow might have a scar on his head.

For us to have an explanation of such research, we would need either a parapsychological explanation involving actual reincarnation, or some naturalistic explanation of why children might incorrectly make such claims. Science offers us neither.

#28 The mental abilities of crows and homing pigeons

According to the standard materialistic thinking that intelligence is purely a function of the brain, we would not expect that any small birds would have much intelligence. But scientific studies involving crows show that they have astonishing mental powers. One scientific study found that crows are as clever as children between the age of five and seven. Homing pigeons are pigeons that can find their way home over very large distances, sometimes more than 1000 miles. Science offers no good explanation for either of these capabilities.

#29 The existence of man's higher mental capabilities

Humans have some capabilities that we can explain from an evolutionary standpoint, such as vision, the ability to run, the ability to grasp, and the ability to detect distant predators. We can explain the growth of such things by saying that the more humans developed such capabilities, the more likely they were to survive – so natural selection caused such capabilities to grow. But there are quite a few refined characteristics of humanity that cannot be explained in terms of evolution and natural selection. They include man's spiritual capacity, aesthetic appreciation, compassion, mathematical abilities, language abilities, and the ability to perform philosophical thinking. None of these things made a primitive caveman more likely to survive until reproduction, so none of them can be explained by referring to natural selection or evolution. How did man get such capabilities? Science has no real answer.

#30 Charge conservation

Above the subatomic level, it is true in nature that the smaller or less massive a thing is, the more common it is. But when we come to the subatomic level, such a principle is abandoned. Protons are 1836 times more massive than electrons, but as far as we can tell, protons are about as common as electrons. This is a very convenient state of affairs, as atoms require an equal number of protons and electrons. Life would probably be incredibly difficult or impossible if electrons were about a thousand times more common than protons, as there would be so many excess electrical charges lying around that people would probably kill themselves whenever they touched a rock.

A scientist might claim to explain the electrical balance of the universe by evoking the law of the conservation of charge, the law that when something like a high-speed particle collision occurs, the number of stable positive charges that result must be the same as the number of stable negative charges that result. But scientists have no explanation for why such a law should exist. When we consider that we have no understanding of why there should not be a universe with zero electrical charges, or a universe with nothing but positive electrical charges, or a universe with nothing but negative electrical charges, it seems all the more inexplicable that nature should have some built-in “book balancing” system that guarantees that the total number of positive charges always balances the total number of negative charges.

#31 Nina Kulagina

Nina Kulagina was a Soviet woman who seemed to have astonishing psychokinetic powers. She was studied at length by scientists who saw evidence of highly paranormal abilities, and who could find no evidence of trickery.

In the video below we see Kulagina apparently moving small objects such as match sticks in some paranormal way, even if the objects are enclosed in a transparent container (which should have prevented any possibility of fraud). Science has no explanation for this anomaly. 


#32 The tether incident on STS-75

On the 75th space shuttle mission (STS-75), astronauts deployed into space an object with a thin tether that was supposed to stretch to a length of 12 miles. The tether broke, and astronauts filmed its appearance in space. The video showed an extremely strange event in which what looked like a swarm of objects floated around the tether. Although later dismissed as mere dust particles near the camera, most people watching the video get an impression of something totally different. The objects floating around the tether wiggle around like microbes seen under a microscope. Moreover, many of the objects look very similar, appearing to have some kind of hole in the middle. Some of the objects are seen moving behind the far end of the very distant tether, something completely incompatible with an explanation of nearby dust particles.

Science offers no good explanation for this amazing event, which seems to point towards some reality entirely beyond our understanding. The objects photographed could be some kind of objects of alien manufacture, or perhaps some totally different paranormal phenomenon having nothing to do with extraterrestrials.

#33 The improbable smoothness of the Big Bang

We know that the early universe was incredibly smooth. About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was uniform to 1 part in 100,000. We know that from the cosmic background radiation, which has no lumps greater than 1 part in 100,000. You may get the wrong idea by looking at one of those maps of the cosmic background radiation that show different colors. Those maps are amplifying differences of only 1 part in 100,000. A map of the cosmic background radiation that does not use such an amplification would consist of a single color. 

But such almost perfect smoothness, physicist Sean Carroll has pointed out, would not occur in more than the tiniest fraction of the trajectories that the universe might have had after an event such as the Big Bang. How small is that fraction? On page 21 of a scientific paper Carroll estimates that “the total fraction of the trajectories that are smooth at early times” is very roughly 1 in 10 to the 66 millionth power. That's a fraction equal to 1 in x, where x is 10 followed by 66 million zeroes.

How come nature landed this “hole in one”? How did nature's arrow hit this very distant bullseye? Science has no explanation. As Carroll points out in his paper, a theory of cosmic inflation does not solve the problem:

Inflation, therefore, cannot solve this problem all by itself. Indeed, the measure reinforces the argument made by Penrose, that the initial conditions necessary for getting inflation to start are extremely fine-tuned, more so than those of the conventional Big Bang model it was meant to help fix.

#34 The careers of Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard

Mediums often seem to have knowledge acquired by paranormal means. The standard skeptical explanation for such mediums is that they either engage in fraud, or engage in an information-fishing technique called cold reading. But such explanations fail to explain the cases of Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard.

Leonora Piper was a medium investigated for years by scientists and skeptics. She was investigated by an extreme skeptic named Richard Hodgson, who set out with the goal of debunking her, and even had her trailed by detectives. After a long study of her, Hodgson became convinced she was obtaining information by paranormal means. The same conclusion was reached by the eminent psychologist William James, who also investigated her. Piper was never found cheating.

A similar case was that of Gladys Obsborne Leonard, who was the subject of more than 35 articles and papers published in the Society for Psychical Research and the American Society for Psychical Research. Leonard excelled in what are known as book and newspaper tests, a type of test that would seem to offer no possibility of fraud, and in which there is no possibility of success through cold reading. Like Piper, Leonard was never found guilty of cheating or fraud.

#35 Atomic quantization

The subatomic level does not allow a continuous range of values. Instead only certain values are allowed. Electrons are not allowed to have any old energy level within an atom (and if this were allowed, electrons would fall into the nucleus, and atoms would not be stable). Instead electrons can have only a certain relatively small number of possible energy levels within an atom. It's rather like a school that only allows students who weigh 70 pounds, 85 pounds or 93 pounds. Why does this restriction exist? Science cannot tell us. The restriction seems all the more remarkable when we consider that outside of an atom, electrons can have any degree of energy.

#36 Dreams

Dreams seem to serve no purpose, so why should we have them? Science has no real answer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

50 Things Science Cannot Explain, Part 2

In part 1 of this 4-part series of blog posts, I listed 13 things that science can't explain. Below is a discussion of 12 more things that science cannot explain.

#14 The alignment of quasar polarization vectors

Quasars are very energetic astronomical objects associated with the cores of very distant galaxies. Quasars shoot out jets of gas in a particular direction. Scientists know of no reason why these jets of gas should not be pointing in random directions.

But surprisingly, what are called the polarization vectors of quasars tend to be aligned in the same direction in particular regions of space. In one gigantic area of space, they may be aligned in one direction, and in another huge region of space, they may be aligned in some different direction. This is an unexplained cosmic anomaly that leaves astrophysicists scratching their heads in bewilderment, as discussed here.

#15 The career of Daniel Dunglas Home

Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886) was a 19th century man with a seemingly unparalleled career as a worker of paranormal wonders. He traveled around for many years working wonders in many different houses of the upper class. Many very distinguished witnesses reported that he could do an astonishing array of marvels. These included feats such as elongation (making his body longer); making an entire room shake; playing musical instruments without touching them; picking up hot coals and holding them for some time without damaging his hands; and also the levitation of heavy tables and his own body. In one famous incident, it was reported by 3 distinguished witnesses (including the earl of Dunraven, Lord Adare) that Home had levitated, floated out of a window, and floated back in another window. A very distinguished scientist (Sir William Crookes) investigated Home and reported that several of his paranormal wonders were genuine. Home was never found guilty of fraud. No explanation is offered by scientists to account for these facts.

#16 The large-scale existence of homosexuality

From an evolutionary standpoint, the existence of homosexuality is a great puzzle. It is believed that homosexuality is something inherent, not a choice. So from a Darwinian standpoint, homosexuality must be due to some genetic factors. But if such genetic factors existed, they should have become less and less prevalent as time passed. This is because evolution tends to work very efficiently to increase the prevalence of anything that causes additional reproduction, and it also tends to work very efficiently to decrease the prevalence of anything that causes less reproduction. So from a Darwinian standpoint, the large-scale existence of homosexuality is basically inexplicable. Scientists have made  some attempts to explain the existence of homosexuality, but  none of them are convincing.

#17 Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical technique involving sticking needles in the body. It has a long history of being medically successful in relieving pain and alleviating symptoms, but scientists have basically no idea as to why it should work.

#18 Quantum entanglement

Quantum entanglement is a baffling phenomenon in which a change in the state of one set of particles seems, in effect, to instantly produce a similar (or opposite) effect in another set of particles, even though the two sets of particles may be very far away. Quantum entanglement is sometimes called “spooky action at a distance.” Scientists have no explanation as to why particles should act in such a coordinated way.

#19 The vacuum's low density

Scientists say that the vacuum of empty space should be seething with energy, as what are called virtual particles pop into existence and pop out of existence. Calculations based on quantum field theory lead to the conclusion that ordinary space should have an energy density so great that each cubic centimeter of space should have many times more mass-energy than the mass-energy in a cubic centimeter of solid steel. But for some reason the vacuum of empty space is many, many trillions of times less dense than predicted by quantum field theory. Scientists have no explanation for this, which is one of the great outstanding puzzles of modern physics, as discussed here.

#20 The faint young sun paradox

Models of solar evolution lead scientists to conclude that the sun should have given off much less heat billions of years ago. In fact, a straightforward calculation leads to the conclusion that our planet should have been entirely frozen until about 1.7 billion years ago. But scientists think that life is more than a billion years older than that. How could life have begun if the planet was apparently too cold for that to have happened? Scientists have no good explanation, as discussed here.

#21 Remote viewing

For more than a decade the United States government funded research on remote viewing, which is allegedly the ability of some people to be able to kind of “send out their minds” to get information about remote locations. Despite many successful trials, the program was finally canceled. To explain remote viewing, we would need either an explanation of why it exists, or an explanation of why positive results might have so often been reported if it does not exist. Science offers neither of these explanations.

#22 The fine-tuning of the Higgs field

In modern physics there is a “naturalness” problem regarding the Higgs field, a very important all-pervasive field that helps determine the mass of fundamental particles. The problem is discussed here. The problem is basically that we should not at all expect the Higgs field to have the low value that it has, but some other value more than a billion times larger. Science currently has no good explanation for this anomaly. There is an incredibly ornate attempt to explain it away through a theory called supersymmetry, but recent experimental results at the Large Hadron Collider have almost ruled out that theory.

#23 The exact matching of the proton charge and the electron charge

Our existence depends on an exact numerical coincidence in nature: the coincidence that all protons have a particular electrical charge of 1.6021765 X 10-19 coulomb, which is exactly and precisely the opposite of the electrical charge of each electron (-1.6021765 X 10-19 coulomb). If this coincidence did not happen to exist, stars and planets would not be able to hold together, and we wouldn't be here. Now this coincidence would not be too surprising if all protons had the same mass as each electron. Then we could simply say, “Protons and electrons have the same mass, so it's not too surprising that their charges are the same.” But in reality, each proton is 1836 times more massive than each electron. So the fact that the charge of the proton is the exact opposite of the charge of the electron is something in need of explanation. But modern physics offers no explanation for this coincidence.

#24 The “global consciousness effect” as shown in random number generators

The Global Consciousness Project is a long-running project that uses a worldwide network of continually running random number generators. The project correlates the output from these random number generators with notable world events. The project concludes that there is a very significant deviation between the results of the random number generators (during notable world events) and the output that would be expected by chance. The cumulative deviation from chance is growing larger and larger as time passes. The project estimates the likelihood of the total deviation from chance is about 1 in 3,000,000,000,000. Science has no explanation for this anomaly.

 #25 Brain function anomalies

According to the standard scientific story, your consciousness is produced entirely by your brain. But there are some strange anomalies that seem hard to explain if that is the case. As discussed here, there are documented cases of people who functioned very well even though they had lost half or more of their brains. Science has no explanation for such anomalies, other than the vague word “plasticity,” which doesn't really explain anything.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

50 Things Science Cannot Explain, Part 1

Science is a good and great thing, and it is very good at explaining quite a few things, such as the production of energy by the sun, the appearance of volcanoes and tsunamis, and the details of biological reproduction. Some like to think that science has an explanation for almost everything. But this is far from the truth. In reality, there are many things that science has no credible explanation for. In this four-part series of blog posts, I will list 50 such things.

#1 The origin of the universe (the Big Bang)

Scientists say the universe began in an incredibly hot and dense state (supposedly an infinitely dense singularity). But they have no explanation at all for what may have caused this event. The only attempts to explain this event have been purely speculative.

#2 The existence of matter rather than just energy

Scientists say the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter. When a matter particle comes into contact with an antimatter particle, both are converted into pure energy (photons). Scientists say that given the incredible density at the Big Bang, all of the universe's matter particles should have combined with antimatter particles, leaving a universe with nothing but energy. But instead we have a universe in which there is lots of matter, but no detectable antimatter. Scientists call this puzzle the mystery of matter/antimatter asymmetry. Scientists have been scratching their heads over this issue for decades, but don't seem to be getting anywhere in solving it.

#3 Extrasensory perception

As discussed in this post, very strong evidence has been gathered over more than 80 years for the existence of extrasensory perception. Much of this evidence has been gathered under carefully controlled scientific conditions that meet all the standards of modern experimental science. Science offers no explanation for why the human mind should have such an ability. Many a modern scientist prefers to simply deny that there is any evidence for the phenomenon, despite the accumulation of a mountain of evidence for its existence, both laboratory evidence and quite common anecdotal evidence.

#4 The origin of life from chemicals

Scientists say that the first life consisted of self-replicating molecules simpler than cells. But scientists have no explanation for the origin of the first self-replicating molecules. Scientists have been trying for decades to figure out how simpler chemical compounds could have developed into self-replicating molecules, but have made little progress on this matter. Part of the problem is that the main way of explaining the development of complexity is biological evolution. But before there were self-replicating molecules, there could have been no biological evolution. So biological evolution can't explain the origin of the first self-replicating molecules.

#5 The origin of the genetic code

In order for life to begin, you need not merely self-replicating molecules, but the genetic code, which is kind of a simple language used in the production of proteins. The origin of this genetic code is an unexplained mystery.

#6 Apparitions

Although skeptics may say that ghost sightings are a relic of the past, all available evidence is that apparition sightings are not any less frequent now than in the past. There is evidence that a significant fraction of humanity may have experienced an apparition sighting or a similar experience. What does modern science have to say about this phenomenon? Virtually nothing. There is no prevailing theory to explain away such sightings. The simplest natural explanation – hallucinations – is not credible, because apparitions seem to be experienced by such a significant fraction of the population, most of whom have no psychiatric symptoms. Nor can one plausibly explain apparitions as hallucinations caused by fear, as there is no evidence that fear produces hallucinations; and apparitions often are reported as sudden appearances by people who are not afraid.

#7 The existence of consciousness

The origin of consciousness is the problem of how it is that consciousness could have originated long ago from mere protoplasm. To a person who is a reductionist, and who believes that all human consciousness is merely a chemical and electrical by-product of the brain, this problem may not seem like much of a mystery. But the origin of consciousness has seemed like quite a mystery to those who have considered how different Mind is from matter. To some, the idea of mind arising from mere matter seems as hard to explain as the inverse (the idea of matter arising from mere mind, as might happen if you thought into existence an apple).

Here is another way to consider the mystery of the origin of consciousness. Let us define a philosophical zombie (for lack of a better term) as a person who acts like a human but has no real inner consciousness or self or private thoughts or inner emotions. We can imagine a race of such beings existing on our planet rather than human beings. Biologically, such a race seems every bit as plausible to exist as the human race (or even more so, since less is required from the brain). So why doesn't such a race exist rather than our race? Science has no answer.

#8 Why there is something rather than nothing

The mystery of existence is simply the mystery of why anything exists at all. In other words, why is there something rather than nothing? The simplest possible state of existence is eternal absolute nonexistence: a state in which nothing exists (no God, no universe, nothing). So why did not this elegantly simple state of existence (the state of absolute nothingness) prevail, rather than our messy, complicated universe? You can't answer the question by imagining (in a quantum mechanical way) that a vacuum is unstable, because an unstable quantum mechanical vacuum is something, rather than nothing, and the question is why something exists rather than nothing.

It would seem that we cannot have the slightest hope that science will ever be able to solve this problem. We cannot hope that science might discover something such as some natural law that guarantees the existence of something, because such a natural law would itself be something in need of explanation; and we could always ask why was there not any such natural law, and not anything else?

#9 Near death experiences

For decades people who came close to death have been reporting amazing experiences involving things such as seeming to float out of their bodies, traveling through some mysterious tunnel, encountering a Being of light, and encountering dead relatives. Quite a few examples can be found here.  Science has no good explanation for this phenomenon. We cannot plausibly explain near-death experiences by assuming oxygen deprivation, because we have plenty of accounts of pilots and mountain climbers who experienced oxygen deprivation, and the effects reported do not strongly resemble those of near death experiences. We also cannot explain near-death experiences as being the result of drugs, as no known drug given to dying people produces similar accounts, and the accounts often occur when people have not recently been given drugs.

#10 The fine-tuning of nuclear physics

This article yesterday gave a good overview of the work of a scientist who has done computer simulations to help answer the question: how big a change in some fundamental physical constants (the quark masses and what is called the fine structure constant) would mess things up so that the universe wouldn't have abundant amounts of carbon and oxygen (both requirements for living things)? The scientist came up with an answer of about 2 percent. It seems that our universe is fine-tuned so that it has two of the prerequisites of living things, abundant amounts of carbon and oxygen.

Scientists have no explanation for this example of cosmic fine-tuning. I am not counting the idea of a multiverse (the possibility of some huge collection of universes) as an explanation. Since we have no verified example of anything ever being explained by the assumption of a huge collection of universes, a multiverse explanation is disreputable. Because it is unverifiable, the idea of a vast set of other universes is not really a scientific explanation, but a metaphysical type of claim. Also, we wouldn't explain fine-tuning in this universe by assuming the existence of many other universes, because the existence of such other universes would not make it any more likely that this particular universe would have the characteristics needed for life.

#11 The more dramatic cases of table tipping

Table tipping was hugely popular during some years in the nineteenth century. A group of people would often get together, lay their hands gently on a table, and find after a while that the table would start moving about or tilting. Spiritualists said this was evidence of intervention by spirits of the dead, although an alternate paranormal explanation is that somehow a group of people acting together can produce a small psychokinetic “mind over matter” effect. Skeptics may say that table tipping is no longer observed, but that's not correct. On www.youtube.com if you search for “table tipping” you can find 17,000 videos, some of which are very spectacular.

Science has no real explanation for the more dramatic cases of table tipping. There is a theory that something called the “ideomoter effect” causes people to subconsciously move tables while having their finger tips on top of them. But while such a theory might account for a little bit of movement of a very light table, such a theory cannot explain the more dramatic cases of table tipping shown on www.youtube.com, which show tables (sometimes heavy ones) dramatically moving about when people simply lightly lay their finger tips on top of them.

#12 The existence and persistence of spiral galaxies

There are two great marvels to appreciate in the fact that we look out and see so many spiral galaxies in the universe. The first marvel is that any spiral galaxies should even have formed after the Big Bang. One would expect that an inconceivably violent explosive event such as the Big Bang should have produced only the wreckage of a universe, not a universe in which beautiful and orderly spiral galaxies are abundant. Scientists know that certain parameters such as the gravitational constant had to be just right for galaxies to have formed. 

Spiral galaxy M101 (Credit: NASA)

The other great marvel involving these spiral galaxies is that they have continued to exist for billions of years. There is an unsolved problem called the winding problem, which is that the rotation of spiral galaxies should cause them to lose their spiral shape after only a few rotations, which would occur in about 600 million years. But somehow spiral galaxies have persisted for a period more than 10 times longer, for more than 10 billion years. There is currently no adequate scientific explanation for this.

#13 The more dramatic cases of unidentified flying objects

Reports of astonishing UFOs in the sky have continued for more than 50 years, and there are many dramatic photos and videos to substantiate the phenomenon. Does science offer any natural explanation? It can only explain the less dramatic cases. Explanations such as “seeing Venus” or “swamp gas” or “reflections in the windshield” cannot explain very bright UFOs seen outside of a car far away from a swamp.

But what about the simple explanation that UFOs really are alien spacecraft from another planet? Isn't that a good scientific explanation for UFO's? But the problem is that it is often reported that UFOs accelerated at enormous speeds that would kill any life forms in them. Also, if UFOs are from some other planet, how come astronomers cannot seem to detect any extraterrestrial “mother ship” out in outer space?

So we must also put down UFO's as something science cannot currently explain.

In my next post on this blog, I will describe 12 or 13 additional things science cannot explain; and by the time the 4-part series is over, 50 such items will be listed.