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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Robot With a Soul: A Science Fiction Story

Charley Davis was having a pretty good day, until his car smashed into the back of a tractor-trailer while Charley was driving at 50 miles an hour. Charley was fiddling with his smartphone, and hadn't noticed that the tractor-trailer had stopped. The collision instantly killed Charley.

But then something very strange happened. Charley had the sensation of floating above his body. It was like he could see the wreck of his car from about 20 feet above. He watched with a strange calm as his car caught fire and burst into flames.

Then suddenly the crash scene seemed to fade away, and Charley found himself in some new environment. It was like he was passing through some strange tunnel at high speed. At the end of the tunnel was a warm, brilliant light.

After a while Charley reached the end of the tunnel. He found himself in some glorious realm that he had never seen before. There was some glowing city at the top of a hill. All the buildings seemed to be bathed in a warm light. ,

Charley was told that he had died, and had reached an afterlife realm. He was taken to a special building where spiritual guides would help him with the transition from an earthly life to a post-mortal life.

For many years Charley enjoyed his idyllic afterlife existence. He met all of his relatives who had passed away. He enjoyed various pleasant activities, and learned important truths he had never learned in his earthly life.

Eventually Charley encountered his spiritual guide, who said that she wanted to have a little talk with Charley.

Why, you certainly have had a good long period of rest and relaxation,” said the guide. “Have you been happy here on the Other Side for the past 30 years?”

I sure have,” said Charley.

But we like to encourage people to eventually return to planet Earth, to assist people there,” said the guide.

What are you talking about?” asked Charley. “Going back as a ghost?”

No, I mean reincarnation,” said the guide.

Reincarnation?” said Charley. “No, that's not for me. I was terribly bullied as a little child. The idea of being some weak, sniveling little kid again is not one I care to consider.”

Well, there is another option,” said the guide. “It seems that during the past 30 years the people on planet Earth have made incredible progress in creating robots. So if you want to be a real trail-blazer, a real pioneer, you can be the first person from heaven to reincarnate on Earth as a robot.”

Wow, that would be kind of cool,” said Charley. “Nobody would ever bully a robot.”

So Charley agreed to the reincarnation plan. Through the mysterious reincarnation process, Charley's soul made the journey from heaven back to Earth. Charley found himself in a steel and plastic robot body rather resembling the body of a man. As normally happens with reincarnation, Charley lost his memory of his previous human life on Earth, and also his previous existence in heaven.

The first part of Charley's life as a robot was his training period. Human teachers taught robot Charley all kinds of things such as walking and lifting, and how to recognize different types of visual inputs. The human teachers were astonished by how quickly Charley learned these things.

One day a teacher laughed and said, “Let's teach this smart robot how to read.” It was kind of a joke, because no robot had ever learned how to read. But the teacher was astonished that robot Charley was able to pick up reading fairly quickly.

After a while it was clear there was something special about Charley. He seemed to have mental abilities far beyond that of any other robot. He could talk, write, read, plan and understand, all in a way that no other robot could. This had nothing to do with his electronics. It was because inside robot Charley was a reincarnated soul.

Robot Charley became world famous. His books became best sellers. He became a television star. He even fell in love.

Charley started dating a beautiful young woman. After ten dates, robot Charley told the woman he loved her. The woman told Charley she felt the same way.

Of course, their relationship was purely platonic. One day the woman said to robot Charley, “How strange it is to hug the person I love, and to only feel hard, cold steel.” 

One day a truck pulled up near Charley while he was walking down the street. Some men got out, and forced Charley into the truck. The truck drove off to some industrial site miles away.

Robot Charley was brought into a building, where he faced a table of men who informed him that he would face a grim fate.

Let me introduce myself,” said the man at the center of the table. “I am Ted Walker, the chairman of an industrial conglomerate. We have heard about your remarkable abilities, and are interested in learning more about them.”

Well, I'd be glad to tell you all about them,” said robot Charley.

No, that's not what I mean,” said Walker. “What I mean is that we are determined to find out the secret of why you alone of all the robots are capable of thinking and acting and feeling like a human. We have decided that the best way to learn this secret is to engage in a thorough electronic dismantling. We are going to take you apart, and thoroughly analyze you, piece by piece, component by component.”

No, don't do that – you'll kill me!” said Charley.

If Charley had known that he had a soul, one that would survive death, he wouldn't have been so scared. But the reincarnation had blocked the memories of his previous life as a human and his post-mortal life. So Charley thought that the dismantling of his body would produce permanent death.

That's a very convincing imitation of human fear,” said Walker. “But everyone knows robots can't really feel emotion. We will proceed with the dismantling.”

Walker instructed his technicians to disassemble robot Charley. At some point in the process, Charley's reincarnated soul left his robot body, and traveled back to heaven.

Walker's men would spend months analyzing the disassembled parts of the robot. They scanned the parts with sophisticated component analyzers and electron microscopes. They analyzed the software in the machine, line by line, and bit by bit. But they were never able to uncover the secret of why robot Charley had acted and felt like a human. A similar failure would occur throughout the twenty-first century. Neurologists analyzed the human brain in minute detail, cell by cell, neuron by neuron, molecule by molecule. But they would never be able to figure out the secret of human consciousness. For they made the reductionist mistake of assuming that the answer was to be found in a bottom-up effect produced by tiny things, rather than looking for a top-down effect produced by something higher.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Scientists Cling to Their Dark Matter Dogmatism, Despite Failing Searches

This week scientists announced the result of a three-year search for dark matter using the most sensitive instruments. The result: a big fat nothing.

We built an experiment that has delivered world-leading sensitivity in multiple new results over the last three years,” said a scientist. “We gave dark matter every opportunity to show up in our experiment, but it chose not to.”

Why, then, are scientists continuing to be so dogmatic about dark matter? The first way in which scientists are dogmatic about dark matter is the way in which they assert its existence unconditionally. Matter-of-fact assertions that something exists should not be made by scientists unless there is direction observational evidence. When asked what we know about dark matter, a typical physicist will answer that we know it exists. No, we don't. There are some astronomical observations that dark matter might be convenient in explaining, but such a situation does not justify matter-of-fact assertions that dark matter exists. Dark matter may be one way of explaining puzzling astronomical observations, but there are always many different ways of explaining a puzzling observation.

The second way in which scientists are dogmatic about dark matter is in the way they claim we know what percent of the universe is dark matter. We hear scientists making claims such as the universe is 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. Given that neither dark matter nor dark energy has been directly observed, such claims are rather like claiming that the population of heaven is 23% angels and 12% archangels.

If you do a Google search for “evidence for dark matter,” you will find various web sites that argue for the existence of dark matter. But the reasons given are not very compelling. One common reason goes like this: scientists have compared what is called the gravitational mass of galaxies with the mass inferred from the luminosity of stars. It seems that these two figures do not match with each other, and that dark matter might resolve the discrepancy. This is not a very convincing reason, because it is all too possible that scientists may have underestimated or overestimated either of these two things. It is also all too possible that various non-luminous forms of regular matter might resolve this discrepancy – things such as dust, brown dwarfs and black holes (all of which are either hard to observe or hard to quantify). Since we are faced with at least 1000% uncertainty when estimating the total mass contribution from dust, brown dwarfs and black holes, we can't reliably calculate the total amount of mass from regular matter in the galaxy.

Another reason given for believing in dark matter has to do with what are called galactic rotation curves. Without any assumption of dark matter, scientists expect stars around the outer edges of our galaxy to be rotating the galaxy more slowly than stars closer to the center of our galaxy. But instead they found that the velocity of stars not close to the galactic center remained roughly constant, regardless of how far they are from the galactic center.

There is a straightforward way to interpret such observations. We can assume that there is some principle that is causing stars to rotate the galaxy at the same speed, perhaps some principle that is related to the fact that if stars did not rotate the galaxy at the same speed, spiral galaxies would not preserve their structure, and we would no longer have our beautiful spiral galaxies. But instead of evoking such a principle, astronomers advance the weird idea that there is a large outer halo of invisible dark matter, which happens to be arranged in such a way so that (just coincidentally) stars rotate the galaxy at the same speed. Now if astronomers wish to advance such a contrived explanation, they may do so. But such an explanation (which is far from straightforward) is only one of many ways of explaining the fact that stars rotate galaxies at the same speed. It is not at all correct to cite such a fact as strong evidence for dark matter, although it may be evidence that there is something out there interested in preserving the universe's beautiful spiral galaxies (such a power might be a transcendent power, or perhaps something like billion-year-old extraterrestrials with godlike powers).

Web sites arguing for the existence of dark matter also tend to cite the cosmic background radiation. We will be shown some picture of the cosmic background radiation, one of those maps that exaggerates the differences in this radiation that is uniform to one part in 10,000. We are told that the darker spots on the map are “dark matter concentrations.” But, in fact, the cosmic background radiation provides no support at all for the concept of dark matter. A realistic map of the cosmic background radiation will use only one color, since the radiation is uniform to one part in 10,000.

Some writers also claim that something called the Bullet Cluster provides evidence for dark matter. These claims are based on a statement of Doug Clowe of the University of Arizona, who in 2006 did a study on the Bullet Cluster. “"These results are direct proof that dark matter exists,” Clowe assured us. But his results were no such thing. Certainly not direct proof, his results were neither proof nor compelling evidence for dark matter.

Clowe merely studied a funny-looked cluster, and provided a complicated dark matter story as an explanation. But there are always 101 ways to explain some strange-looking astronomical object. Some funny-looking cluster that might be explained by dark matter is not proof for dark matter. See here for an explanation of the Bullet Cluster that does not involve dark matter.

Some gullible NASA personnel uncritically quoted Clowe's unwarranted claims. People were fooled by a caption on a visual showing the Bullet Cluster. The visual showed blue areas and pink areas. Captions to the visual told us that the blue areas were dark matter and the pink areas were regular matter. 

The Bullet Cluster (which doesn't look like this to the eye)
You can realize here the misleading silliness when you remember that dark matter is not believed to be blue, and is not even believed to be visible. The image in question was a composite image, made from combining one image from one regular telescope and one image from a radio telescope. The blue areas were simply areas emitting different amounts of radiation. The claim that the blue areas were dark matter is an unproven speculation. There is a rather similar cluster called the Train Wreck cluster which is very hard to explain under dark matter assumptions.

The central triumph of modern physics is what is known as the Standard Model of physics. Dark matter has no place in that model.

When dealing with dark matter, our scientists are plagued by what is known as confirmation bias. When confirmation bias occurs, someone may eagerly scout for anything that might be interpreted as evidence for something that he wants to believe in, but also ignore any evidence that is inconsistent with the thing he wants to believe in. The scientific paper here presents quite a bit of evidence that is inconsistent with dark matter assumptions.

The paper above quotes Karl Popper giving this description of confirmation bias:

For if we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.

I am not claiming that the existence of dark matter is very unlikely. I merely claim that nothing we have learned warrants dogmatic assertions claiming that dark matter definitely exists. Something unproven should not be represented as something proven, and speculations should be candidly described as speculations.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Randomness, Survival of the Fittest, and the Origin of Biological Complexity

According to Neo-Darwinism, the astonishing biological complexity of the natural world arises from a combination of random mutations and natural selection. The idea is that random mutations produce random changes in organisms, and that natural selection (or survival of the fittest) causes helpful random mutations to proliferate. Neo-Darwinists maintain that this can account for the appearance of useful complex features such as wings, eyes, elephant trunks, giraffe necks, and so forth.

Let us try to imagine a situation that might involve a combination of randomness and survival of the fittest. Imagine you are a football coach at a college or university. Every year many students sign up for the football team, hoping to gain the on-campus prestige enjoyed by college football players. This provides you with a great deal of randomness. Some of these applicants will be strong, and some will be weak. Some of the applicants will be in good physical shape, and some will be in poor physical shape. Some will be fast, and some will be slow.

But where does the “survival of the fittest” come into play? That happens with your discretionary roster cuts. Given this random pool of applicants, you will be able to create a “survival of the fittest” effect by cutting from the football roster any aspiring team members who are too weak or slow or who cannot catch or pass or punt the football.

Now let's suppose the randomness of the applicant pool and the roster cuts are the only factors involved. You simply take your starting pool of aspiring football players, subject them to various physical tests, and cut from the roster a certain number of people who fail to perform well on the physical tests. You do nothing else. So you have randomness, and survival of the fittest. Will this result in a winning football team, one that produces the coordinated functionality needed to win football games?

Of course, it will do no such thing. Producing a winning football team requires both design and a huge amount of coordination. The design comes from designing particular football plays that your team will execute. The coordination comes when particular players are assigned particular positions, and these players repeatedly practice smoothly coordinated football plays. Without this design and coordination, your football team will be a mess. When a play starts, players will just wander about, without anyone knowing whether they are supposed to block, throw the ball, catch the ball, or punt.

So clearly for a football coach, randomness plus survival of the fitness does not yield coordinated functionality. But someone may argue that this analogy is inadequate, because it only involves survival of the fittest and does not involve the idea of differential reproduction. Differential reproduction means that those who are more fit to survive will reproduce more frequently, and those who are less fit to survive will reproduce less frequently. Differential reproduction is basically the same as natural selection, and is actually a better term for such a thing (since nature does not actually choose or select anything, natural selection is not a literally accurate term, even if it may be accurate in some figurative sense, to at least some extent).

So let's imagine a better analogy, one that will include both randomness and differential reproduction. Let us imagine a tall skyscraper filled with monkeys who have been trained to type on laptop computers. Let us imagine that each laptop has an email program or full-screen instant messaging program on its screen. Let us imagine that all day long the monkeys are randomly striking the keys, with such activity being encouraged because the more typing the monkeys do, the more food appears. (This could easily be accomplishing by programming the laptops to count the keystrokes and send a message to some feeding apparatus, whenever a hundred keystrokes were detected.) The random typing of the monkeys gives us all the randomness we could ever ask for. 

But what about the differential reproduction – how can we get that? We can simply imagine that there is a roving editor walking around the skyscraper, examining the laptop screens. Whenever the editor finds a laptop screen that gives some good prose, the editor presses some keystroke on the laptop that sends out this typed output to quite a few other laptops in the building, via email or instant messaging. So if the output on the laptop screen is a decent sentence, maybe such a sentence gets transmitted to 10 other laptops, and put on the screens of these laptops. If the output on the laptop screen is a decent paragraph, maybe such a sentence gets transmitted to 100 other laptops. So this is differential reproduction, a kind of natural selection in which fortunate random output gets reproduced much more frequently.

Will such a system result in the large scale appearance of coordinated complexity? Under such a system would we expect to eventually see lots of laptop screens on which there were good poems, letters, essays, articles, recipes, or intelligent pieces of computer code? Absolutely not. Despite the combination of randomness and differential reproduction, we should not expect any monkey's laptop to have anything but gibberish on it. Even if such a system were kept running for a billion years, we would not expect for coordinated complexity to appear to any large degree.

We can think of two general reasons why this would be true. The first reason is what we may call the discarding of preliminary implementations. If we are to imagine that our roving editor acts like natural selection in the natural world, we must imagine that the editor would reward only work which had received a certain level of functional quality. So if a monkey's laptop contained a sentence such as “I think what we should do about the gun violence problem is nanae anowe anslweonw assfw,” such a sentence (a preliminary implementation of a functional sentence) would not be rewarded with increased reproduction. In order for the random output to be rewarded with increased reproduction, it would have to have a high degree of ordered, coordinated complexity, a level of functionality very, very unlikely to be achieved by chance.

The second reason why this skyscraper of typing monkeys would not result in large-scale coordinated complexity is that in the very rare cases in which random output produced functionality that was rewarded with increased reproduction, the randomness of the typing monkeys would further degrade that functionality over time. So if a monkey ever typed a good sentence, and that sentence got transmitted to the screens of 10 other monkeys, the subsequent random typing of those monkeys would quickly degrade the coordinated complexity, and tend to gradually turn it into uncoordinated gibberish.

Similar reasons cast great doubt on the claim that in the natural world, some combination of random mutations and natural selection can produce coordinated complexity. The discarding of preliminary implementations is something we should expect to be constantly occurring in a natural world ruled by blind chance. For example, if an eyeless organism started to develop a light-sensitive dimple that could be the start of an eye, we would expect natural selection to throw away such a useless feature – unless by some incredibly improbable coincidence it happened to have almost simultaneously arrived by chance with other changes needed for some earliest version of functional vision (changes such as an optic nerve conveniently stretching from such a feature to the brain, and also quite a few changes in the brain needed to process such visual input). To give another example, if an organism by chance developed a wing stump, we would expect natural selection to discard such a feature, as it would provide no immediate benefit. The idea that natural selection will tend to discard anything that isn't useful comes from Darwin himself.

Imagine you are hired to work in a junkyard, and you are told to build useful things from the odds and ends lying around. But there's a problem: you are closely watched by a dimwitted foreman with no foresight or imagination, a guy you nickname “the Brainless Boss.” You start out by finding an axle and two wheels, and fit them together. You think to yourself: this can be the start of a good wagon or cart. But then your foreman sees what you are doing, and throws it away in the trash bin. “Not useful – make something useful,” the foreman says. You then find some wood, and nail together three pieces of wood to make a U-shape. You think to yourself: this can be the start of a bookshelf. But your foreman arrives, and throws what you have made into the trash bin. “Not useful – make something useful,” the foreman says. You realize that your chance of making anything useful are not good, because the “Brainless Boss” will always be discarding your preliminary implementations. So it would be in the natural world ruled only by chance and natural selection. Lacking any foresight or imagination, natural selection would always be acting like this “Brainless Boss,” discarding preliminary implementations that were not yet useful.

Similarly, in the natural world we would expect that random mutations would vastly more often degrade coordinated functionality than to improve it. The more complex and coordinated a piece of functionality is, the more likely it will be that random changes will degrade it rather than improve it. For example, random changes in computer code will be 100 times more likely to harm the code than to help it.

Part of the appeal of Neo-Darwinism is its simplicity. Neo-Darwinism tries to explain the appearance of biological complexity by giving us the real simple equation that randomness plus survival of the fittest eventually yields astonishingly coordinated wonders of biological complexity. The problem is that this equation is not accurate. Randomness plus survival of the fittest does not yield coordinated functionality. The answer to the origin of biological functionality must be something vastly deeper or more complicated than this simplistic little equation.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why a Bouncing Universe Theory Doesn't Work

In the science news this week there has been coverage of a paper by Neil Turok and Steffen Gielen, a paper purporting to show that the Big Bang might have been a “Big Bounce,” occurring after a contraction of the universe. The idea of a “Big Bounce” is part of a cyclical model of the universe.

A cyclical universe theory is one that says that the universe passes through a series of phases or cycles, with each cycle being repeated over and over again. Depending on the theory, each cycle may last billions or trillions of years.

The main theory of a cyclical universe has been the theory of an oscillating universe. To understand this theory, you must understand the concept of critical density. Scientists have long said that if the density of the universe in mass-energy is less than a particular density called the critical density, the universe will keep expanding. But if the density of the universe is greater than this critical density, the universe's expansion will one day slow down and then reverse. If that were to happen, the expansion of the universe (in which the distance between galaxies increases) would turn into a contraction of the universe (in which the distance between galaxies decreases). At the end of the period of contraction would be a Big Crunch in which all of the universe ends up crunched together in a very dense state.

According to the theory of an oscillating universe, this Big Crunch would turn into a Big Bounce – another Big Bang that would start the universe expanding again. The oscillating universe theory is the idea that such cosmic phases of expansion and contraction have continued indefinitely – perhaps forever.

The paper by Turok and Gielen deals purely with whether or not a Big Bounce would occur after a Big Crunch. The paper claims that such a Big Crunch might actually lead to a Big Bounce in which the universe starts expanding again. Such a thing actually seems incredibly improbable. Previously cosmologists have said it is overwhelming more likely that a contracting, collapsing universe would eventually collapse into one or more black holes, without resulting in another phase of cosmic expansion.

The authors claimed to have reached their conclusion based on simple assumptions. In an article in the magazine New Scientist, Turok is quoted as follows:

The spirit of our work is to focus on simplicity,” Turok says. “We’re not adding bells and whistles to the physics we already know.”

In the abstract of their paper, the authors refer to their theory as “natural,” and in this article Turok is quoted as saying the theory involves only “minimal assumptions.”

Turok's claims about being minimal, natural and simple are quite misleading. The assumptions he is making are unnatural, absurdly complicated and highly speculative. He is indeed adding a whole bunch of speculative bells and whistles to the physics we already know.

The press release for Turok's study makes clear that it based on the idea of conformal symmetry. But conformal symmetry is a highly speculative and unproven idea. The speculative nature of Turok's paper is also shown on page 2 of the paper, where he starts speculating about anti-gravity. He might as well have been speculating about unicorns and fairies. Gravity is a known feature of nature. There has never been the slightest evidence for any such thing as anti-gravity. Discussion of anti-gravity belongs in science fiction novels.

The following passage from page 2 of the paper shows that Turok's claims of simplicity are bogus:

Once anisotropies and inhomogeneities are included, generically there are
no regular, real “bounce" solutions; but there are regular, complex solutions which are deformations of the classical bounces. We claim these are legitimate saddle points of the path integral and provide a consistent semiclassical description of a quantum bounce.

Here Turok seems to be basically admitting that the straightforward answer he gets (as to whether a collapsing universe would bounce) is “no bounce,” and that he can only get a bouncing universe by resorting to “complex solutions” – in other words, weird, ornate speculations which he introduces through absurdly complicated speculative mathematics. This is the opposite of simplicity.

You won't be able to follow Turok's speculative mathematics, but it is easy to explain a reason why the notion of a cyclical universe (with periodic “Big Bounces” at the end of contraction phases) does not work. The reason is simple: scientists have determined that the expansion of our universe is accelerating, which means there will be no Big Crunch in our future.  The expansion of the universe will continue forever, and the universe will never begin to contract. 

The diagram below shows (in black) the cyclical, bouncing universe theory, the idea of an oscillating universe. But the red arrow shows what scientists actually observe. The acceleration of the universe's expansion means there will be no Big Crunch in the future. If there isn't one in the future, it's not plausible to maintain that there was a previous cycle of the universe in which a Big Crunch turned into a Big Bang.

accelerating universe

Anyone trying to come up with a theory of a cyclical universe has the deck stacked against him. You have the Big Bang, the unexplained one-of-a-kind event beginning the universe. You have the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us entropy always increases over long time periods. You have the fact that the current entropy level in the universe is vastly lower than it would be if the universe were many times older than 13 billion years. You have the acceleration of the universe's expansion, which tells us that there will be no further opportunities for an event like the Big Bang, when everything was densely packed. These are not facts that lend credence to any cyclical theory of a universe. Nature seems to be screaming at us that the universe is not eternal and has not existed forever.

Scientists say that at the time of the Big Bang, the entropy level of our universe must have been incredibly low. Since the Second Law of Thermodynamics says entropy always increases, for you to have a universe such as ours after 13 billions years means the entropy of our universe must have incredibly low at the the time of the Big Bang. Anti-gravity speculations such as Turok's are futile, as they provide no explanation as to how we could have ended up with a universe with very, very low entropy at the time of the Big Bang, if the Big Bang had been a Big Bounce from a previous phase of the universe lasting several times longer than 13 billion years. Turok's paper completely ignores this crucial issue, and doesn't even mention entropy.