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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

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.