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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Requirements Underestimation, the Perennial Sin of Theoretical Scientists

Requirements underestimation is what occurs when somebody underestimates what is required for something to happen, failing to understand the necessary prerequisites. Teenagers dreaming of their future may sometimes make such an error. A male teenager may think: all I need to be the next rock star is a guitar. But that ignores many other things you typically need: a good singing voice, good looks, guitar playing ability, connections, some catchy songs, and so forth. Similarly, a female teenager may think: all I need to be the next big starlet is a ticket to Hollywood. But that ignores lots of other typical requirements such as good looks, connections or a successful audition, and acting ability or comedic ability.

It's not just teenagers who are guilty of requirements underestimation. Even the leader of a country may underestimate requirements. One example is this statement by Adolf Hitler while planning the conquest of the Soviet Union: You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down. Judging from that statement, Hitler thought that all that was needed to conquer Russia was a swift, strong initial attack. This proved to be a huge mistake. The next winter countless German soldiers froze to death because they didn't have winter coats, one of the requirements that had been overlooked.

One very different set of people that has underestimated requirements repeatedly over the centuries is theoretical scientists. Whether estimating the requirements for life or the requirements for an orderly universe or the requirements for the human mind or the requirements for a body such as the sun or the requirements for stable matter, our scientists have again and again underestimated the requirements, failing to understand how high the requirements are.

Many decades ago scientists thought that there were no particularly special requirements for the origin of life. It was believed that life could just spontaneously arise from sterile matter, and that this routinely happened. Even after this spontaneous generation idea died away, scientists continued to believe that the appearance of the first life didn't require anything too special. Darwin's description of the origin of life merely mentions some chemicals in a warm pond, nothing too special. But now we understand that the origin of life has vastly greater requirements, including the fantastically improbable appearance of self replicating molecules, the appearance of a genetic code, and so forth. Clearly the origin of life has vastly higher requirements than scientists imagined in the nineteenth century.

In considering the idea of atoms, scientists long underestimated the requirements that must be met for atoms to exist, assuming that there basically were no such requirements. The idea was that atoms were just solid tiny balls, the type of things that would have no requirements. But the more scientists learned about atoms, the more they learned about how many requirements must be met for our atoms to exist. Among the many requirements now known are: an existence of a strong nuclear force that binds the nucleus together; an existence of electromagnetic attraction between protons and electrons, which tends to keep electrons near the nucleus; the existence of quantum mechanics laws that prevent such an attraction from causing electrons to fall into the nucleus.

In considering the sun, scientists long thought of it as something with no special requirements. They thought of the sun as just some hot ball of fire, and probably thought of it as having no more requirements than having a large mass to slowly burn. But now we understand that many requirement must be met for stars like the sun to exist. Besides Einstein's most famous equation, there are physical constants that must be very precisely fine-tuned, or stars like the sun won't be able to exist.

When considering the origin of cosmic structure, scientists long thought that only one thing was needed: gravitation of the type described by Newton. But then eventually they concluded that there are more requirements: things such as dark matter and dark energy.

For centuries astronomers thought that the universe had nothing along the lines of origin requirements. Their assumption was simply that the universe had existed forever. But then the Big Bang was discovered, and within 15 years scientists found out that it wasn't just any old Big Bang but an exquisitely fine-tuned Big Bang in which the initial expansion rate matched the critical density to 50 decimal places. So scientists got busy trying to create a theory trying to explain this new very precise requirement for our existence.

Do you see the general trend here? The historical trend is that again and again theoretical scientists have vastly underestimated the requirements for the existence of beings such as ourselves and a universe such as ours. One reason this may happen is that a theoretical scientist has a very strong temptation to do such a thing. The fewer requirements that are recognized as things that must be explained to explain some aspect of nature, the easier it is for a scientist to claim that he has some theory that explains that aspect of nature. If a scientist candidly acknowledges that the requirements for phenomenon X are mountainous requirements, he won't be able to claim he has a good theory explaining that phenomenon; but if he speaks as if those requirements are mere molehill requirements, he might be able to persuade you that he has a good theory explaining the phenomenon.

They keep thinking "molehills" when they should be thinking "mountains"

This perennial sin of requirements underestimation continues to this day. A current example of requirements underestimation is Darwinism, the idea that evolution can be explained merely by natural selection and random mutations. This idea drastically underestimates the requirements for the origin of complex biological functionality, by ignoring the high degree of coordination that is needed for such a thing.

Every engineer knows that tremendous coordination is required for the origin of complex functionality. Every software manager knows that you cannot do a complicated software release without a high degree of coordination in introducing the diverse parts that make up a new substantial unit of functionality. But Darwinism has no mechanism for any such coordination. It requires that we believe that required bits of functionality arrive at random times over vast time spans, and that this somehow works to create marvelously intricate and complex functionality.

A correct estimation of the requirements for the origin of complex biological functionality would include the following, in addition to many other things:
  1. The appearance of all of the necessary parts for the complex functionality;
  2. A high degree of chronological coordination, so that related parts of a larger functional whole are introduced within a relatively short time span, rather than at random times in an eon;
  3. A high degree of structural coordination, so that parts fit together well;
  4. A high degree of sequential coordination, so that parts are appropriately preceded by other parts on which they are dependent.
Darwinism has basically zero provision for the last three requirements. According to Darwinism, the requirements for the origin of fantastically complicated biological functionality we observe are simply the following: random genetic variation (helped by mutations) and survival of the fittest. This is a gigantic case of requirements underestimation, the same intellectual sin that our theoretical scientists have committed so often throughout scientific history.

Our neurologists also underestimate requirements drastically in trying to explain human consciousness. They assume a simplistic “light from the light bulb” model of consciousness, in which our minds are merely the product of brain activity. But how can a few pounds of neurons produce all the wonders of human mentality? Why would merely arranging some cells in some particular way magically cause the wonder of human consciousness? Thinking more realistically, we will assume that a requirement of the human mind is some unknown X factor that we do not understand, something that comes from beyond our brains. Only by such an assumption can we account for the wealth of solid evidence for human paranormal abilities and unusual psychic experiences. Such evidence is overlooked and ignored by most neurologists, who underestimate the requirements for our minds by assuming that they are purely material.

Have we pretty much figured out the physical requirements for a universe such as ours? There is every reason to suspect that we have barely begun such a task. One reason is that we have in no way accounted for the apparently vast information processing requirements for an orderly universe. For example, under current theory there is a force of gravitational attraction between your body and every other piece of matter in the universe, in addition to forces of electromagnetic repulsion and attraction between your body and every body in the universe. But how is such a thing calculated? It would seem all too reasonable to assume that the universe has behind it some vast information processing infrastructure which allows such things to be calculated. But the whole issue of the information processing requirements of nature has been almost completely ignored by scientists, who just kind of think that “nature somehow magically does it.” When we actually get into determining the information processing requirements of nature, we may well discover countless additional requirements for our existence. We may also discover that a universe such as ours absolutely requires not merely a few physical laws, but a complicated regulatory system resembling a very complex computer program, with an extensive amount of conditional logic embedded within it. 

What is astonishing is the failure of scientists to imagine that there may be a wealth of requirements for our existence that they know nothing about, even though the history of requirements underestimation by scientists strongly suggests exactly such a thing. It is as if after discovering the seventh requirement for beings such as us and a universe such as ours, scientists then decided that there were no more than seven such requirements; and that after discovering the twenty-first requirement for beings such as us and a universe such as ours, scientists then decided that there were no more than twenty-one such requirements; and that after discovering the sixty-fifth requirement for beings such as us and a universe such as ours, scientists then decided that there were no more than sixty-five such requirements. Why is it that scientists cannot see the trend line here? Why is that they cannot imagine that the total requirements we have thus far discovered for beings such as us and a universe such as ours may be only a tenth or a hundredth of the actual requirements? Perhaps it is because that theoretical scientists would then be forced to stop swaggering about and thinking of themselves as grand lords of explanation, and to realize that their understanding of nature is merely paltry and fragmentary.