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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“Galaxy Is Our Playground” Thinkers Would Probably Not Rethink Views If Mars Life Found

There is a certain type of thinker who indulges in the idea that our galaxy of more than 100 billion stars is just waiting to be taken over by humans. I may call such thinkers the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers. According to this view, we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. Some day, according to such thinkers, we will spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing it entirely. According to such thinkers, the galaxy is like some huge gift waiting for the human species, a gigantic inheritance which we can explore and exploit at our leisure without competition. 

Galaxy greed: the fantasy of a galaxy ripe for conquest

People who have such a view try to support it by bringing up Fermi's Paradox, the issue of why we do not yet have clear evidence of extraterrestrial life. On this blog I have several times rebutted this argument. Some of the main reasons why “we are alone in the galaxy” arguments based on Fermi's Paradox are not convincing is the severe difficulty of interstellar travel, the significant chance that interstellar colonization may be relatively rare, and the possibility that our planet may be part of a kind of nature preserve set aside by extraterrestrials (who could be expected to create such nature preservation areas just as our species does on our planet).

Just recently there were some exciting NASA findings that may be relevant to this issue. NASA finally found organic compounds on Mars, a prerequisite of life NASA has long sought on Mars. NASA also found strong spikes of methane on Mars, and one of the most plausible causes of such spikes could be biological activity, possibly from bacteria.

We could be on the verge of discovering life on Mars. How would such a discovery affect the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers? Will we see some revision of thought such as the hypothetical one below?

I used to think that we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. My opinion was based on the incredible difficulties of life getting started billions of years from mere chemicals. But now that we have discovered microbes on Mars, I have revised this opinion. Since life has evolved on two out of two planets where it had the chance, it is only logical to assume that life exists throughout our galaxy, and that on some good fraction of these planets, intelligent life has arisen.

No, I don't think the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers would go in such a direction. There is a strange tendency in the human mind that often works like this: when someone has committed himself to a particular position, he may tend to regard evidence against such a position as all the more reason to believe in the position. We see this when a fundamentalist zealot says something like, “Your discovery of 100 new 'transitional fossils' is simply all the more proof that Satan is deceiving us by planting such things,” or when a skeptic says something like, “This book of 50 new 'paranormal photos' is just all the more proof that such photos can easily be faked.” It's a weird kind of tendency whereby the human mind attempts to make a silk purse when it has been given a sow's ear, a kind of “make lemonade when you get lemons” thing. We don't like to revise our opinions, and we would rather transform (however implausibly) a new finding or set of observations into another reason for believing in our existing opinions rather than going through the painful process of revising our opinions.

So I imagine that if Mars life was discovered, the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers might react to the finding along these lines:

Why this finding of Mars life simply makes our original vision of the human conquest of the galaxy even more enthralling! Before we thought that the origin of life was rare, perhaps occurring only on our planet. But if the origin of life is common, that means the whole galaxy is probably filled with life-bearing planets for humans to explore and conquer. Rather than having ahead of us the not-so-thrilling task of taking over an all but barren galaxy with almost no life, we will instead have before us the even more thrilling job of taking over and conquering a galaxy filled with all kinds of exotic plants and animals (of course, none of them as intelligent as us).

Meanwhile, as such thinkers indulge in such pleasant fantasies, minds that are to our minds like our minds are to the insects may well be pondering whether to soon squash us like bugs at their feet or keep watching us for a few more centuries.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Junk Logic of a “Junk Science” Accusation

Regular readers of this blog may know that I sometimes criticize some scientists for various things such as herd thinking, being too infatuated with heavy hardware projects, jumping the gun in interpreting preliminary results, having too much hubris in regard to the level of their understanding, engaging in dubious speculations or overselling such speculations, or being too narrow-minded in excluding various unexplained phenomena. But these minor sins are no doubt outweighed by the virtues of the typical scientist. Let me make clear that all in all, I think almost all scientists are fine people who do excellent work.

This is why I don't like to see a group of scientists get smeared by a dubious hatchet job. One such lamentable putdown we see today is when global warming deniers claim that scientists are faking their results in order to get more grant money from the government. This story has little plausibility. With a world of exciting things to research, with 1001 potential possibilities for research, why would someone need to fake something to come up with a compelling research grant proposal?

While mentioning dubious smear jobs against a group of scientists, I should also mention yesterday's blog post on the site realclearscience.com, one which featured an attack against a large distinguished team of scientists and doctors. The post in question listed the AWARE study of near-death experiences on a list of “The Biggest Junk Science of 2014.” Now the term “junk science” is an incendiary term. As the hillbilly expression goes, “them's fightin' words.” By accusing this study of “junk science,” realclearscience.com is impugning the reputations of every single author of this study.

How many authors were there? Let me list them. They were Sam Parnia, Ken Spearpoint, Gabriele de Vos, Peter Fenwick, Diana Goldberg, Jie Yang, Jiawen Zhu, Katie Baker, Hayley Killingback, Paula McLean, Melanie Wood, A. Maziar Zafari, Neal Dickert, Roland Beisteiner, Fritz Sterz, Michael Berger, Celia Warlow, Siobhan Bullock,Salli Lovett, Russell Metcalfe Smith McPara, Sandra Marti-Navarette, Pam Cushing, Paul Wills, Kayla Harris, Jenny Sutton, Anthony Walmsley, Charles D. Deakin, Paul Little, Mark Farber, Bruce Greyson, and Elinor R. Schoenfeld. This is a very distinguished group of scientists, medical doctors, and PhD's which hail from leading institutions such as Emory University Medical School, the University of Virginia, and Stony Brook Medical Center. So charging a lineup such as this of doing “junk science” is quite an amazing charge. Does realclearscience.com have any evidence or reasoning to back this charge up?

No, they don't. But realclearscience.com has made up some stuff. Referring to the AWARE study, their post states the following:

The researchers behind the study interviewed 140 survivors of cardiac arrest, and apparently one of those people reported memories of events during the cardiac arrest while they were unconscious. The researchers considered this lone instance strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.

There are two misrepresentations here. First, the authors of the AWARE study did not at all claim that any of their findings are “strong evidence for a near-death experience in which the conscious mind or spirit separates from the body.Some of their findings may actually be such evidence, but the authors have not at all drawn any such conclusion. They've made no conclusion at all about whether the mind or spirit ever does separate from the body. Secondly, rather than the researchers finding only one near-death experience, a single “lone instance” out of 140, they reported that 9% of the 140 reported near-death experiences. For example, besides a case of a 57-year-old person who reported floating out of his body and witnessing doctor's attempts to revive him (with details that were corroborated), the study reported a case of a person who reported a very vivid “trip to heaven” kind of near-death experience.

So realclearscience.com misrepresents the facts. Now what do they say to back up their claims of “junk science”? They complain that the interviews with the people who had the near-death experiences were conducted “days, weeks, or even months” after the cardiac interest, and claim that therefore the memories were likely “heavily altered.”

This is junk reasoning. Almost all testimony made in our legal  system is made “days, weeks, or even months” after the reported event. We rely on such reports so much that we send people to jail for life if a particular report identifies someone as a murderer. There is no reason to think that testimony of cardiac arrest experiences made “days, weeks, or even months” after an event will be any more “heavily altered” than any other testimony made of a past occurrence. If we followed the implications of this reasoning – that testimony made a while after an event cannot be relied on – then we would have to free most of the murderers now in prison, who are there typically because of eyewitness testimony made recalling events that occurred months earlier.

The strongest part of the AWARE study was the testimony of a 57 year-old man who reported floating out of his body during a cardiac arrest, and observing medical persons trying to revive him. The study reports the case as follows:

A 57 year old man described the perception of observing events from the top corner of the room and continued to experience a sensation of looking down from above. He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation (Table 2 provides quotes from this interview). His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED)

The post at realclearscience.com tries to support their charge that this is junk science by quoting a neuroscientist who makes the following farfetched claim:

We need to consider what the odds are that one of the 140 people would have a memory (almost certainly contaminated, as no procedure was in place to prevent contamination) that matched events during cardiac arrest in some arbitrary details. This certainly sound [sic] consistent with random background noise in the data, and is therefore not evidence of anything.

You need only read the AWARE paper to see that this insinuation of “random coincidental agreement” is  implausible. The 57-year-old reported that while floating above his body he saw a chunky fellow (with a bald head, a blue hat, and blue scrubs) working on reviving him, a nurse saying “dial 444 cardiac arrest,” a nurse pumping on his chest, his blood pressure being taken, and his blood gases and blood sugar levels being taken. So I can answer the “what are the odds” question raised by the neuroscientist.

The odds of anyone having a memory of his experiences during the middle of a cardiac arrest are very low, because people lose consciousness during a cardiac arrest. Given a million people suffering a cardiac arrest, we might expect that only a very few of them (or perhaps none of them) would have any memory of having lived through the experience. Assuming that some of these hallucinated, we would not expect that any (or more than one or two) of this small number would make a report of having floated out of their body (as there are a 1001 possible hallucinations one can have, almost all not involving floating out of the body). And we certainly would not expect that even 1 in a million would give an account of floating out of his body, with the results being verified. The case is therefore very strong evidence of something important, and cannot with any credibility be portrayed as “random background noise in the data” that is “not evidence of anything.” As for the neurologist's comments trying to raise a suspicion about “contamination” (without supplying any supporting facts), it's the same shady trick used by the O.J. Simpson lawyers.

Does realclearscience.com give any other reasoning to back up its incendiary charge that a major scientific study is “junk science​?” No, it doesn't. Their attack is therefore a dud. It's kind of like when some gunman pulls out a gun and fires it at someone without killing him, because the gunman forgot to load the gun. Such an event shows great hostility and clumsiness, but doesn't have any force. 

Will you one day view your body like this?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Riddle of Existence

The dream I had the other day was the only dream I can ever recall having had about a philosophical topic. The philosophical topic it touched on was the most profound philosophical question of all: the question of why is there something rather than nothing.

In my dream I was simply at some cocktail party where I spotted a cosmologist. Then I thought to myself: I'll ask him why does there exist something rather than nothing. Then the dream ended.

It's somewhat amazing to have had a dream about a philosophical topic, considering that I can't ever recall hearing about other people having such dreams. It's not as if you hear someone saying at the water cooler, “I had a dream last night about the mind-body problem.” But it's not too surprising that I should have a dream about this particular philosophical topic, because I spent many hours pondering it as a teenager (oddly enough).

The riddle of existence can be stated as the simple question of why is there something rather than nothing. In this context something means anything whatsoever (such as the universe, God, or anything at all), while nothing means absolutely nothing – no matter, no universe, no God, no energy, just an absolute absence of anything.

The riddle of existence perplexes us when we consider how absolutely plausible is the concept of complete eternal nonexistence. By complete eternal nonexistence I mean a state of affairs in which nothing whatsoever existed, now, in the past, or in the future. Such a concept is counter-factual, something that we know to be incorrect. But nonetheless it seems to have a great plausibility, because of its perfect simplicity. A state of affairs in which absolutely nothing exists in the past, present, or future is one that seems to be very plausible because there are zero explanatory difficulties associated with it. One can only have an explanatory difficulty if there is something to explain, but there is nothing to explain if nothing existed in the past, present, or future.

If it seems hard to get your arms around the concept of something being counter-factual but plausible, consider the case of a basketball player who stands at one end of the basketball court, and is given only one chance to throw the ball across the entire court, into the opposite net. Suppose he takes that one chance, and sinks the ball successfully in the basket at the other end of the court. Such a player may consider the case of him missing the shot on his only try, and not sinking the ball in the basket. Such a case is counter-factual, because he knows he actually sunk the shot. But nonetheless such a case is very, very plausible.

Similarly, although we know we exist, it seems all too plausible that we might not exist, and also all too plausible that absolutely nothing should exist. The most plausible “alternate universe” narrative is a blank page.

Some cosmologists claim to have some possible answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The reasoning goes something like this: a vacuum is unstable because of quantum mechanics – so a vacuum may have actually fluctuated or decayed into a state where matter existed.

To understand what is wrong with this reasoning, we need to understand the difference between a vacuum and nothingness. Matter and energy can be thought of as just two forms of the same thing, which is mass-energy. A vacuum is defined as some space in which no matter exists. But in modern physics, a vacuum is not at all a state of nothingness. Modern physics holds that a vacuum actually has quite a bit of energy in it, because what are called virtual particles are always popping into existence and out of existence because of quantum fluctuations. In fact, a physicist may consider certain types of vacuums that have very large amounts of energy. Under some possibilities considered by the modern physicist (particularly when considering the cosmological constant or possible conditions of the early universe), a vacuum may have more mass-energy in it (per cubic meter) than a block of steel.

So basically any “vacuum decay” or “vacuum transformation” reasoning is a sham and a “word trick” deceit if it s used to address the question of why there is something rather than nothing. A vacuum teeming with energy isn't nothing – it is something. Without understanding the details of any equations of a theoretical model, it is easy to determine whether a claim of a “universe from nothing” through some physical process is misleading us when it refers to nothing. If the model actual depicts something coming out of the “nothing,” then the “nothing” being talked about wasn't actually a nothing but a something. A real nothing could never give rise to anything. Please don't try to rebut this reasoning by referring to quantum mechanical laws, as such laws themselves are a something that would not exist if there was actually nothing.

Trying to solve the problem of existence by defining a high-energy vacuum as “nothing” is an empty word trick, rather like trying to solve the problem of poverty by defining a poor person as someone who starves to death because of no money, and that therefore there are no poor people in the USA.

Another attempt to solve the problem could involve the idea of a “universe spinner.” We imagine a spinner like one of the spinners used in a board game. There are different possibilities involving different universes, and one of the possibilities (the black pie slice) is no universe at all (the possibility of eternal nothingness). The visual below illustrates the idea, although the idea might actually involve an infinite number of pie slices on the spinner, all but one representing a different universe.

Now given such a spinner, one could argue that there is something rather than nothing simply because there are an unlimited number of slots on the spinner for actual universes, but only one slot for the nonexistence of a universe (eternal nothingness). So, the reasoning goes, some form of existence is therefore more likely than eternal nonexistence.

But this reasoning doesn't work, because if there existed such a spinner (or any situation corresponding to such a spinner), that would itself involve something rather than nothing. So by imagining such a spinner, we are really imagining something rather than nothing. One doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing by imagining some type of “spinner” situation which is itself something. You don't explain anything when you start out by assuming the thing you are trying to explain.

So we are left with the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. I once pondered this riddle at length, thinking about it for many hours. I was convinced that if you could only figure this out, the doors of wisdom would be opened, and you would have the answer to a dozen deep mysteries. I still tend to think that is true, but I doubt that any human is able to exactly understand why there is something rather than nothing. To truly understand the answer to this question probably requires understanding beyond the capabilities of the human mind, and insight beyond that which can be expressed using our current vocabulary. We can perhaps get a faint intimation of the solution by thinking about concepts such as necessity and a transcendent ground of being, but the full understanding of the solution seems to require something beyond the power of our little minds.
We can only hope that in some afterlife we may climb some lofty mountain of knowledge, some Everest of understanding, and at its summit we might gain some deep illumination into the eternal nature of things, some luminous insight that causes us to think: now that is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Big Toy" Science Takes On the Origin of Life

When science teachers want to encourage students to become scientists, they sometimes make a pitch like this: “It won't pay as much as Wall Street, but think of the cool toys you'll get to play with!” Yes, our modern scientists do get to play with cool, big, expensive “toys” – big, shiny, impressive-looking machines. In fact, it seems they sometimes spend too much time playing with such things, without much results.

Perhaps the ultimate case of “big toy science” was the Apollo moon mission. In that case, there was one of the coolest toys ever – the Saturn 5 rocket. But the scientific results were pretty meager. Can anyone tell us: what exactly did we learn from bringing back those moon rocks?

Another example of big toy science was the 300 million dollar LIGO project, which involved creating miles-long vacuum and laser tunnels in a search for gravitational waves. Total gravitational waves found: zero.

The scientist Nicholas Tesla said that when science began to study non-physical phenomena, it would make more progress in a decade than all of the previous years of its existence. There are certainly some types of reported phenomena that scientists could investigate at low cost, with a great potential for “bang for the buck.” I can think of five or ten unorthodox projects that could be done for $30,000, with a great potential for knowledge breakthroughs. But such possibilities don't seem to interest most of today's scientists, who prefer to work with projects involving big, expensive equipment.

I wonder whether there is some kind of “mine is bigger than yours” Freudian context involved when scientists construct ever bigger machines, often involving projects of dubious scientific merit. Perhaps the latest example was a project involving a 490-foot long laser, an experiment designed to shed light on the origin of life.

The scientists' idea was to zap some chemicals with a very powerful laser, supposedly to simulate the effects that an asteroid collision might have had billions of years ago. The underlying thinking is that asteroid collisions may have helped to spur the origin of life billions of years ago.

The laser used in the experiment (Credit: Dagmar Civisova)

The underlying thinking seems pretty ridiculous. We have been told many times that asteroid collisions are deadly perils that cause the massive obliteration of life, and that the spot where an asteroid strikes is like the ground zero of a nuclear explosion. So how in blazes could an asteroid collision have been some help in the origin of life? The idea of simulating an asteroid collision with a laser is also objectionable, since a laser blast is something very different from an asteroid collision. But why think about such objections when you have a chance to play with a cool 490-foot-long laser?

To get results other than a total bust, the scientists used what seems like a bit of a “cheat” or a fudge. Rather than just zapping water and ordinary soil or rock, they zapped a chemical called formamide, a liquid rather similar to ammonia. There's not much reason to think that this chemical was lying around in great amounts in the early Earth, so testing with that was rather dubious. Scientist Jeffrey Bada says, “Is the presence of pure formamide plausible on the prebiotic Earth? The answer is probably no.”

What was the result? The “base pairs” of RNA were produced, although one was produced in such small amounts that one scientist quoted in the AP article claims that the results are not very relevant. Moreover, we already knew that the base pairs of RNA could be created from zapping formamide with sufficient force. The book Practical Aspects of Computational Chemistry III says, “All five nucleobases and their analogues have been synthesized from formamide in the presence of various catalysts."

To create an RNA molecule, you need these “base pairs” as well as ribose sugars (not produced in the laser experiment). These also must combine in meaningful ways so that very long molecules are created which become self-replicating and serve as an expression of a genetic code, the origin of which is very mysterious. The chance of that all happening because of an asteroid collision: basically zero.

So the results, design, and assumptions of the experiment are all dubious. But I shouldn't be such a killjoy, and I should just let scientists like this have fun playing with their big laser toys, kind of like little boys playing with those Star Wars laser toys.