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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

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.