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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Latest Cracks in the Cosmological “Just So” Story

The term “just so story” refers to a poorly substantiated narrative in science that is told to explain something. Modern cosmology tells us a “just so” story to try to partially explain why the universe started out in such an exquisitely balanced state. Part of that “just so” story is the theory of cosmic inflation, the narrative that the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion in the first second of its existence. We are told that this special period of super-fast expansion lasted just a fraction of a second. 

Being used to reading triumphalist accounts of modern cosmology, I was pleasantly surprised to read the candid recent account in the very readable book At the Edge of Uncertainty by Michael Brooks, who has a PhD in quantum physics. In his chapter “Complicating the Cosmos,” Brooks paints a picture of a cosmology standard story that is showing many cracks. He cites Michael Turner of the University of Chicago as saying that the cosmic inflation theory is duct-taped and perhaps within a decade of falling apart.

Brooks cites the work of scientist Michael Longo:

Out of 15,000 visible galaxies, roughly 7 per cent more are “left-handed” than “right-handed.” The chances of this being a statistical fluke are about 1 in a million. Especially since, when you look at the southern sky, you see the same effect, but in reverse: more right-handed spirals than left...This means the universe was born with a spin. And if it has a spin, it also has an axis. And if there's one thing the universe isn't meant to have, according to the standard theory, it's an axis. 

Read the account here for a more detailed discussion.  

Brooks then discusses the problems with the Big Bang theory and lithium:

We now know that the cosmos contains one-third the amount of lithium-7 that the Big Bang theory says it should. We also know that there is too much lithium-4, which one less neutron in its nucleus. One thousand times too much, to be precise.

Off by a factor of 1000 – could it be our cosmologists are missing a thing or two (or perhaps 50 or 100)?

Describing a scientific paper by Paul Steinhardt, Anna Ijjas, and Avi Loeb (described by Brooks as Harvard's head of astronomy), Brooks says the following:

The Planck mission has ruled out all but a handful of possibilities for inflation, the paper said. Worse, the ones that disappeared were far more “natural” candidates than the inflation models that provide the best fit to the cosmological data, making them even less likely to be useful resolutions of the horizon problem and the flatness problem.

Brooks then describes an additional huge problem for the cosmic inflation theory created by findings about the Higgs boson. Brooks says, “Once we start adding in solutions to these problems – if we can come up with them – the Big Bang theory will start to look less like a coherent narrative and more like a dreamscape: a mad whirl of disconnected stories.”

Brooks interesting book appeared in 2014, and since then two additional “cracks” may have appeared in our cosmologists' “just so” story of cosmic origins. One is the situation discussed in this paper. The standard assumption of cosmic inflation predicts a universe that is spatially flat, without any spatial curvature. But according to that paper, the latest results from a Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) are in conflict or “tension” with the idea of a flat universe, and are more consistent with an assumption of a non-flat universe with a positive spatial curvature.

Still another recent “crack” in cosmological assumptions may be the recent discovery of a structure called the largest structure in the universe, “a ring of 9 gamma ray bursts (and hence galaxies) 5 billion light-years across” according to this account. Structures that large simply should not exist, according to thinking such as the cosmic inflation theory and the Cosmological Principle (the idea that the universe is the same no matter which direction we look in).

Perhaps such findings should instill a sense of humility in our cosmologists, and make them less likely to speak as if they understand exactly how the universe got to be this way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Which Is More Scientific, the Other Side or the Multiverse?

Today some theorists speculate that there are many other universes in addition to our own. The multiverse is the name used for some hypothetical set of a vast number of universes. But the idea of some other realm outside of our universe (or “parallel” to our universe) was advanced way before anyone started using the term “multiverse.” For over 150 years it has been maintained that there exists some realm of existence we can't see with our eyes, a plane of existence where souls go to after death. Such a realm of existence is often called the Other Side.

An interesting question to consider is: which of these ideas is more scientific – the Other Side or the multiverse?

Some would argue that we should judge whether an idea is scientific based on how much attention it gets among mainstream scientists. But such reasoning is not valid. Reviewing definitions of “scientific,” I see none that say anything like “popular among scientists.” I do see some definitions that say, “based on or characterized by the methods and principles of science.”

Science is based on the idea of empirical verification through observations and experiments. So perhaps we should judge whether an idea is scientific based on whether we can hope to empirically verify the idea, or at least gather empirical evidence that substantially supports the idea, making us think it is likely. Let's compare the multiverse and the Other Side based on their prospects of empirical verification.

Looking at the multiverse idea, we see a concept that has no real prospects of empirical verification. We cannot imagine any observations we might make that would lead us to say that we had substantial evidence of another physical universe. The main reason why is that we can only observe things in our universe.

Multiverse enthusiasts have suggested otherwise, but their arguments are unpersuasive. It is sometimes argued that if the cosmic inflation theory was verified, that would give evidence for a multiverse. But this idea is not correct. The cosmic inflation theory (at least in some of its many forms) involves both the idea that the universe underwent an exponential phase of expansion during its first second, and the idea that our universe is only one of many “bubble universes.” The only one of these claims that we could hope to verify is the first of these claims. Verifying the first of these claims would not verify the second claim, the idea that our universe is only one of many “bubble universes.” If a theory involves an assertion of X and Y, you do not prove Y merely by proving X.

Verifying something about the first second of our universe would only tell us something about our universe, and would not tell us anything about the existence of any other universes.

Multiverse enthusiasts have also suggested that we might find evidence for some other universe by studying the cosmic background radiation, and seeing some unusual spot, bump, or ring indicating a “collision with another universe” early in time. Such an idea is fallacious. For one thing, the cosmic background radiation has already been exhaustively analyzed to an extreme degree, and no such thing has been found. Secondly, even if some unusual spot, bump, or ring was found in the cosmic background radiation, there would always be many ways to plausibly explain it without the extravagant assumption of another universe.

We also do not provide evidence for a multiverse by providing evidence that our universe seems to be fine-tuned or exquisitely well balanced. Evidence that some particular thing looks like a designed thing can never be properly argued as evidence for other universes. For example, it would be quite absurd to argue along these lines:

Walking in the country, I passed an arrangement of flowers that consisted of a grid of 30 evenly spaced rows and 30 evenly spaced columns. Realizing that the plants were most unlikely to achieve this arrangement by chance, I recognized that this was evidence there must be many universes, because under such a hypothesis we would expect such an arrangement to occur by chance at least once.

It seems, therefore, that the multiverse is on extremely weak ground in regard to empirical verification. Not only is there no evidence for such a concept, but the prospects of ever getting evidence are incredibly slim. It is hard to imagine any plausible set of future observations that we might have that would justify someone saying, “Aha, now there is good evidence for another universe.”

Let's compare this situation in regard to the idea of the Other Side. There we find a very different situation. Many people think that there is very substantial evidence for the Other Side, which has been steadily accumulating for more than 150 years. 

One of the main items of evidence comes from mediums, people who claim to have contacted souls on the Other Side. Some mediums have been exposed as frauds, but some have had remarkably successful careers, and have stood up well to scientific investigations. Three of the most famous examples are Daniel Dunglas Home, Leonora Piper, and Gladys Osborne Leonard. In more recent times scientists such as Gary Schwartz PhD and Julie Beischel PhD have done controlled scientific studies of mediums in which they scored far better than non-mediums when trying to gather information about the deceased relatives of unidentified individuals.

Another line of evidence for the Other Side comes from near-death experiences. Those who have such experiences frequently report briefly entering some kind of mysterious other realm where they encounter deceased relatives.

So there is a substantial body of observational evidence supporting the idea of the Other Side. We may contrast this with the evidence situation in regard to the multiverse. There are simply no corresponding observations – real or alleged – in which people claim to have observed or experienced any other universe that is part of a multiverse.

There is, to the best of my knowledge, simply no one out there who is making any claims such as the following:

I had this weird experience. Suddenly I found myself drifting out to some strange place where the laws of physics were very different from ours. All the matter was arranged in some totally weird way unlike anything I have ever seen. It must have been one of the alternate universes of the multiverse.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no one claiming to have experienced some other physical universe of the multiverse, nor is there anyone claiming to have made contact with some other inhabitants of another physical universe of the multiverse. In terms of evidence, the idea of the multiverse is on ridiculously weak empirical ground. But the idea of the Other Side seems to have substantial observations to support it.

So which idea is more scientific, the Other Side or the multiverse? If we judge the question based on what is more fashionable in the halls of scientific academia, the answer might be the multiverse. But if we judge the matter based on the basis of which idea has more evidentiary support, it seems we would conclude that the Other Side is more scientific than the multiverse.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Does Darwinism Plausibly Explain the Origin of Human Intelligence?

Probably the three greatest origin mysteries are the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of human intelligence. Scientists have no explanation for the first of these mysteries, for the Big Bang is unexplained under current science. Darwinism offers no answer to the second of these mysteries. We cannot at all explain the origin of life through any theory of natural selection, as natural selection requires life to exist before it can begin.

But Darwinists claim to have an explanation for the third of these mysteries, the origin of human intelligence. They claim that human intelligence arose because of natural selection. Natural selection involves traits becoming more common in a species when such traits make members of that species more likely to reproduce, or survive until reproduction. A simple Darwinian account of the origin of human intelligence would be that our ancestors got smarter and smarter because there was a survival value in increased intelligence, and natural selection tends to favor traits that give a survival value.

But there are reasons for doubting the plausibility of such an explanation. One reason is that the human mind seems to include many characteristics that do not make a human more likely to survive until he reproduces. Such traits include spirituality, moral reasoning, introspection, self-awareness, altruism, philosophical ability, aesthetic appreciation, and mathematical reasoning.

Another reason for doubting the plausibility of a Darwinian explanation for human intelligence is one that may be called the “high-hanging fruit” reason. This is the reason that the evolution of intelligence in a species would seem to be a case of nature following a path to reproductive success vastly more difficult than easier, simpler paths to reproductive success, which would be rather like someone plucking a fruit from the upper branches of a very tall tree, rather than plucking a fruit from the lower branches. Imagining such a thing does not seem very plausible.

To clarify what I am talking about, let us consider the options available to evolution after some evolutionary ancestor of man descended from the trees, and began life on the ground. We can imagine a variety of options that evolution might have taken to help guarantee reproductive success. They include some of the following:

Evolve a greater sense of smell. Such an adaption (which we can see in organisms such as dogs and bears) is extremely useful in finding food.
Develop claws. Such an adaption (which we can see in bears) can be a powerful weapon against predators when combined with a powerful forelimb.
Develop a large thorax with very powerful arms. Such an adaption (which we see in gorillas) can be a powerful defense against predators.
Develop legs longer and faster than human legs. We don't know of any primate that developed such an adaption, but it would have been very useful in evading predators.
Develop digestive enhancements. We can easily imagine some evolution of the digestive system which would have allowed a species to eat a wider variety of foods (including grass), which would have made finding food a much easier task.
Develop a shorter reproductive cycle, with more offspring. This approach to reproductive success would have been rather the opposite approach of developing intelligence. Instead of evolving a larger brain (which limits the number of offspring, and often involved death to the mother in childbirth because of the difficulty of fitting a large head through the birth canal), a species could have evolved in a way that might that might have led to far more child births per mother, with shorter gestation periods.
Develop camouflage. We can easily imagine an adaption that might have made human ancestors less likely to be noticed by predators, perhaps something like a greenish fur.
Develop better vision. Such an adaption (which we see in eagles, who have 20/4 vision much better than ours) would have made it much easier to find food.

These are only some of the possible adaptions that a human ancestor might have taken to increase its reproductive success. All of these adaptions have one thing in common: they all would have been vastly easier for evolution to have achieved than the evolution of intelligence. Darwinism tells us that the more complicated an adaptive trait is, the more mutations it required. Science has absolutely no specific account of the number of mutations needed to develop human intelligence, but we can be quite sure that the number of mutations needed to develop human intelligence must have been many times greater than the number of mutations needed for the evolution of adaptions like those listed above.

All of the items listed above are rather like low-hanging fruit available to evolution. So why did evolution (when dealing with man and his near ancestors) pass over such possibilities, and instead produce human intelligence, a fruit hanging so much vastly higher up on the tree? It's rather like a hungry person climbing  25 meters up a tree to pluck an apple, rather than just plucking an apple hanging 5 feet off the ground. 

Why did evolution pluck the high-hanging fruit rather than the low hanging fruit?

Limiting ourselves to Darwinism, we cannot at all answer this question by suggesting some kind of “arrow of progress” in evolution by which it favors grander and grander designs. According to Darwinian accounts, natural selection doesn't care a whit about “progress,” but cares about nothing but reproductive success.

Let us imagine that we discovered a planet on which there was some animal species that used laser beams to zap its prey -- laser beams fired from some biological structure of the species. It would be all but impossible to explain such a thing through any account involving natural selection. We could not plausibly explain such a thing merely by saying that such an adaption increased the survival value of the species that had it – because we would still have the question of why such a hard-to-achieve result had been obtained by evolution rather than some other simpler adaption which would have achieved the same degree of survival advantage in a way that would have been so much easier to achieve. Exactly the same problem exists with explaining the origin of human intelligence by using an explanation of natural selection.

What I am suggesting here is that according to Darwinism, the evolution of intelligence is not at all something that we should expect, but is instead some strange fluke. Exactly the same thing has been suggested by some of the leading evolutionary theorists. George Gaylord Simpson wrote an essay called “The Nonprevalance of Humanoids,” suggesting that the evolution of beings like us was some rare fluke we should not expect to see repeated in the accessible universe. Ernst Mawr (another leading Darwinist) argued that the appearance of intelligence was a rare fluke, and that it is highly unlikely that alien life has achieved intelligence.

Comments such as these by leading Darwinists strongly suggest that Darwinism does not offer a plausible account of the origin of human intelligence. Generally speaking, you only offer a plausible explanation of something when you offer some explanation under which such a thing is likely.

Consider a trial in which the prosecution is arguing that someone named John killed his wife. Imagine if the prosecution shows that (a) John had a violent temper; (b) John had $500,000 in gambling debts which he owed to a crime syndicate; (c) John had a million dollar life insurance policy on his wife; and (d) John had just become enraged after finding out his wife was committing adultery. This would all add up to a good start in a plausible case for showing John killed his wife. Under such conditions, we might expect that someone like John would have killed his wife. But imagine the prosecution merely suggested that it was some strange fluke, and that John had killed his wife just because he didn't like the clothes she was wearing on the day she was murdered. That would not be a plausible explanation for a murder, because it would not be a set of conditions under which such a murder would be likely.

Similarly, if Darwinists cannot give us a situation under which the evolution of intelligence is likely under Darwinist principles, they have not provided a plausible explanation of the origin of human intelligence. You do not give a plausible explanation of something if you describe it as being a strange rare fluke under your theoretical framework, something we would be unlikely to see again on any of millions of other planets.

This difficulty was recognized by Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin. Talking about the human brain (which is about three times heavier than a gorilla brain), Wallace wrote the following (quoted in section 5.8 of this interesting work):

A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would....fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution, whose essence is, that they lead to a degree of organization exactly proportionate to the wants of each species, never beyond those wants...Natural selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a few degrees superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher.

Upon reading this passage, Darwin wrote to Wallace: “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.” Darwin need not have worried about such an objection murdering the whole theory of evolution, but should indeed have wondered whether it threw doubt on the idea that natural selection is the main cause of evolution. 

We need to start pondering explanations of the origin of human intelligence which describe a situation under which the appearance of human intelligence is a likely event rather than some incredibly improbable fluke. No theory that describes the origin of human intelligence as some strange improbable fluke can claim to have offered a plausible account of the origin of human intelligence.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Nanobot Wife: A Science Fiction Story

Waldo Schmenk was tired of the dating frustration he was experiencing in the year 2060. A shy, plain-looking man with a big nose, Waldo was tired of all the rejection he got from the opposite sex. With modern technology, it seemed ridiculously easy for Waldo to meet single women. But this only seemed to increase his number of monthly rejections. So one day Waldo decided to go shopping for a technological solution to his frustrations. He went to the office of a company called Personal Fulfillment, Inc.

I want to find a nice wife, and I'm tired of trying conventional methods,” said Waldo. “What can your company do for me?”

Let me tell you about some of our astonishing products,” said Brad Blair, one of the company's salesmen. “Let me take you into Room C for a hot little demo.”

Inside Room C there was a very attractive blonde who immediately started addressing Waldo seductively, promising life-long fidelity.
She's lovely,” said Waldo. “But are there any drawbacks?”

Well, of course, this one's a hologram,” said Brad. “So you can't physically interact with her. But other than that, she makes a perfect little wife.”

No thanks,” said Waldo. “I'm looking for a more physical relationship.”

Brad then took Waldo into Room D, and showed some of the company's robot models. There was a very attractive redhead model with long flowing hair.

Can I try her out a bit?” asked Waldo.

Sure,” said Brad.

Waldo tried giving the robot some kisses and hugs. But he found it oddly disappointing. Somehow it was like kissing a mannequin dummy in a department store.

I don't think this quite works for me,” said Waldo.

Well, there is one other exciting new product we have,” said Brad. “It's a new product we call a nanobot wife.”

A nanobot wife?” asked Waldo. “I don't want some tiny little wife smaller than a flea.”

No, you've got the wrong idea,” said Brad. “A nanobot wife is created when we inject some tiny nanobots into your brain. The nanobots manipulate your brain to create an illusion in your mind, the illusion that you have a beautiful wife. To your eyes she will look just like a real wife. You will be able to physically interact with her just as pleasurably as if you had a real wife. It won't be real sex, but it will seem to you just like real sex.”

Waldo was skeptical, but after being informed about the special introductory discount, he was finally persuaded. The company's technician injected the nanobots into Waldo's brain. When he awoke at his bed in the company's medical area, a beautiful blonde figure appeared before him.

Waldo couldn't believe how lovely the woman looked. She talked just like a regular woman. When Waldo held her, she felt just like a regular woman.

Thanks for the great deal on this nanobot wife,” said Waldo to Brad. “Any last minute tips?”

The biggest problem you'll have is that nobody will be able to see your nanobot wife except you,” explained Brad. “That's because she's just an illusion created by the nanobots in your brain. So when you stroll down the street talking to her, people may think you're some crazy person talking to himself. But if anyone asks you why you were talking to yourself, just pretend you were talking on the phone.”

That night Waldo had a blissful intimate encounter with his new nanobot wife. But things took a dark turn in the morning. The nanobot wife suddenly appeared with a crazed look on her face, while holding a big knife. The nanobot wife lunged after Waldo with the knife, as if trying to kill him.

For five minutes Waldo was chased around the house by the bizarre knife-yielding figure apparently bent on murder. Finally Waldo escaped, and made his way back to the offices of Personal Fulfillment, Inc.

What the hell is wrong with that nanobot wife you gave me?” screamed Waldo. “She's been trying to kill me all morning.”

Apologizing, Brad started asking around the company. He finally came back to Waldo with an explanation.

I'm terribly sorry, but there's a logical explanation for what you experienced,” said Brad. “You see one of our most popular products is a nanobot product called 50 Shades of Danger. It works like this: we inject nanobots into your brain, and then you start experiencing all kinds of dangers. They aren't real dangers, they're just vivid illusions in your mind created by the nanobots. This product is very popular for the kind of person who likes to go on scary amusement park rides.”

What does that have to do with me?” asked Waldo.

I can explain,” said Brad. “You see in our rush to get the Nanobot Wife product finished, we apparently got some of our nanobot subroutines mixed up. What you experienced was the 'Wife tries to kill you' module of the 50 Shades of Danger nanobot entertainment product. It was just a bit of an accidental mix-up.”

Take all the nanobots out of my head,” demanded Waldo.

Waldo got a complete refund from the company. Frustrated with his high-tech experience, Waldo decided to go back to looking for a wife the old-fashioned way. He marched into a bar, vowing to use a good pickup line on the first attractive lady he saw. But what line could he use? He thought long and hard, and then decided on a pickup line that he thought was really fresh and original.

Hey, good looking,” said Waldo to a pretty blonde at the bar. “What ya got cooking?”

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Electromagnetism is Algorithmic and Exquisitely Balanced (Part 2 of 2)

Two of the main forces that help keep the universe orderly are gravitation and electromagnetism. In Part 1 of this 2-part post, I explained why electromagnetism is algorithmic, in the sense of involving “if/then” logic. Now let me justify the claim that electromagnetism is exquisitely balanced.

There are two major reasons for making such a claim. Let me explain the first such reason, which has to do with the relative strength of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe. If you do a Google image search using the phrase “relative strength of four fundamental forces,” you will find quite a few tables that compare the strength of these fundamental forces. The tables typically give numbers like this:

Fundamental Force Relative Strength
Strong nuclear force 1
Electromagnetism 1 divided by 137
Weak nuclear force 10-6
Strong nuclear force 10-39

We see here that electromagnetism has a very specific strength level that is about a trillion trillion trillion times stronger than the force of gravitation. Referring to the short-lived stars known as blue giants (which don't last long enough to support planets where life evolves), and to the type of stars known as red dwarfs (generally regarded as being stars not as suitable for Earth-like planets as yellow stars like our sun), the physicist Paul Davies says on page 73 of The Accidental Universe: “If gravity were very slightly weaker, or electromagnetism very slightly stronger (or the electron slightly less massive relative to the proton), all stars would be red dwarfs. A correspondingly tiny change the other way, and they would all be blue giants.” So apparently the existence of sun-like stars depends on electromagnetism having a level of strength very close to its actual strength. 

We also know from consideration of the atom that the electromagnetic force is finely tuned. There is an electromagnetic force of repulsion between the protons that make up much of the nucleus of an atom, and the nucleus holds together only because there is a strong nuclear force holding protons together (along with neutrons). That strong nuclear force is only about 100 times stronger than the electromagnetic force.  A fairly small increase in the electromagnetic force would cause atoms with more than 6 protons in their nucleus to become unstable because of the electromagnetic repulsion between protons.  In such a case the calcium in your bones (not to mention the iron in your blood) would be radioactive.  A fairly small decrease in the electromagnetic force would mean that electromagnetism would be insufficient to allow for the complicated molecules on which life depends.

So apparently our universe lucked out with the strength level of electromagnetism that we have. This is one way in which electromagnetism is exquisitely balanced. But there's another way, which pertains to the strength of the charges on the proton and the electron. At the subatomic nature there is great uniformity, in the sense that each electron is exactly like every other electron, and each proton is exactly like every other proton. Each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than the mass of each electron. If one knew only of this fact, and knew nothing about how strong the charges are on these particles, you might guess that the charge of a proton is about 1000 or 2000 times greater than the charge of each electron. But that is not the case. Instead, the charges are exactly the same (although by convention – a not really warranted convention – the charge of an electron is called a negative charge). 

According to scientists, the charge of the proton is 1.60217657 ×1019 coulomb, and the charge of the electron is 1.60217657 ×1019 coulomb. This scientific paper is by a scientist who used a molecular beam deflection method to conclude that the proton charge and the electron charge have a magnitude differing by less than 5 parts in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. 

The chemistry on which life depends could not exist if the magnitude of the charge on the electron did not match the magnitude of the charge on the proton. It would require only a small difference between the two to make planets unstable (not surprising because electromagnetism is a force about a trillion trillion trillion times greater than the gravity that holds our planet together). 

In his book The Symbiotic Universe, astronomer George Greenstein (a professor emeritus at Amherst College) says this about the equality of the proton and electron charges:  "Relatively small things like stones, people, and the like would fly apart if the two charges differed by as little as one part in 100 billion. Large structures like the Earth and the Sun require for their existence a yet more perfect balance of one part in a billion billion."  

So we have the second reason why electromagnetism is exquisitely balanced. But it would be easy for you not to notice this second reason, because scientists use a little semantic convention that almost seems to have been designed to hide or cover up this exquisite balance.  The semantic convention is one that involves failing to list the proton charge and the electron charges as separate constants, but referring to them as a single constant called the "elementary charge."

We can see how this is kind of a cover-up by considering an analogy. Imagine that your parents were born on exactly the same day and the same hour. If you listed those two times and dates of birth in a table like the one below, it would really catch your attention, and might make you think that perhaps some meaningful synchronicity was involved. You might think to yourself, "This isn't just a coincidence."

Father's birth place San Diego, USA
Mother's birth place Toledo, USA
Father's birth date/time January 22, 1990 10:37 PM EST
Mother's birth date/time January 22, 1990 10:37 PM EST
Parental assets $22,035.00

But imagine you wanted to hide this coincidence. You might instead list this data in the following table, which someone might read without noticing any coincidence.

Father's birth place San Diego, USA
Mother's birth place Toledo, USA
Parental birth date/time January 22, 1990 10:37 PM EST
Parental assets $22,035.00

 Here we have a little trick in which the two separate birth dates and times of the parents are listed under a single row marked "Parental birth date/time."  This kind of hides the coincidence of the exact match (or at least makes it much harder to notice). 

Scientists use a very similar little trick in listing the fundamental constants of nature. A typical table listing the fundamental constants will start out looking something like this (with the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron represented by a single row labeled "elementary charge"):

Gravitational constant 6.67384(80)×10−11 m3·kg−1·s−2
Planck's constant 6.626 069 57(29) × 10−34 J·s
Proton mass 1.672 621 777(74) × 10−27 kg
Electron mass 9.109 382 91(40) × 10−31 kg
Elementary charge 1.602 176 565(35) × 10−19 C

But this is the same kind of trick as the "parental birth date/time" trick mentioned above.  There is no physical basis for assuming that the charge of the proton and the charge of the electron are the same actual thing -- they are instead two separate things that happen to exactly match.  The honest, correct way to list the above constants is as follow.

Gravitational constant 6.67384(80)×10−11 m3·kg−1·s−2
Planck's constant 6.626 069 57(29) × 10−34 J·s
Proton mass 1.672 621 777(74) × 10−27 kg
Electron mass 9.109 382 91(40) × 10−31 kg
Proton charge 1.602 176 565(35) × 10−19 C
Electron charge -1.602 176 565(35) × 10−19 C

 When we see the constants listed as above, we suddenly notice  the coincidence of the proton charge and the electron charge matching exactly.  The actual match is not just to 10 decimal places (as indicated in the table below), but to at least 18 decimal places. 

Electromagnetism (upon which all life depends) is algorithmic, involving "if/then" logic (as I explained in Part 1 of this post).  Electromagnetism is also exquisitely balanced, for the two reasons given in this post.  The exquisite balance of electromagnetism is comparable to what we would have if an obelisk the size of the Washington Monument was balanced on its top. 

Electromagnetism is only one aspect of physics, which is only part of science. But it would seem that electromagnetism by itself has an intrinsic ingenuity and extreme fine-tuning that is sufficient to suggest weighty philosophical implications.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Electromagnetism is Algorithmic and Exquisitely Balanced (Part 1 of 2)

Two of the main forces that help keep the universe orderly are gravitation and electromagnetism. Electromagnetism actually seems to have “if/then” logic embedded within it, although scientists have used a semantic cheat that tends to hide this reality.

Before scientists advanced an equation describing electromagnetism, there was first Newton's famous law of gravitation. The equation for this law is one that can be used to calculate the gravitational attraction between any two objects in the universe. The equation looks like this.

In this equation F represents the force of gravitation between the two objects, m1 represents the mass of the first object, m2 represents the mass of the second object, and d is the distance between the two objects. G is a fundamental constant of nature called the gravitational constant.

After this equation was introduced, scientists began learning a lot about electrical charges. Before too long, someone had the idea: let's try to describe electromagnetism with an equation similar to the equation for gravitation. But there was a problem with that. Gravitation always results in attraction. But electromagnetism is a force that can either result in attraction that moves thing closer together, or repulsion that tends to push things apart.

It works like this: if you have two particles nearby that are both protons (or both electrons), there is an electromagnetic force of repulsion between them. But if one of the particles is an electron and the other particle is a proton, there is an electromagnetic force of attraction between them. If one of the two particles is a neutron, then there is neither a force of electromagnetic repulsion between the two, nor a force of electromagnetic attraction between the two.

But how to shoehorn such a setup so that it follows an equation similar to the law of gravitation? Scientists came up with an answer. The answer was to create a semantic convention by which electrons are considered negative charges, and protons are considered positive charges. Using such a convention, it was possible to declare Coulomb's law, which is stated as follows.

In this equation F represents the force of electromagnetic attraction or repulsion between the two objects, qa represents the charge of the first object, qb represents the charge of the second object, and r is the distance between the two objects. K is a fundamental constant of nature. Under this formula, a negative number (for F) is considered a force of attraction, and a positive number (for F) is considered as a force of repulsion.

For scientists, this semantic convention works very well. It allows them to do exact calculations involving electrical charges. There is just one problem with this semantic convention: it is a cheat, a cheat that is not justified by the actual situation we find in nature. We can call this cheat “Coulomb's cheat.”

Judging nature purely by its actual characteristics (without considering semantic conventions or what is convenient for scientists doing calculations), it is not accurate to say that electrons are negative charges and protons are positive charges. Nature itself has no characteristics that justify the claim that a proton has a positive charge and an electron has a negative charge.

It is easy to imagine universes in which it might be justified and accurate to call the electron charge negative and the proton charge positive. One such universe would be one in which electrons always caused a repulsion between themselves and other particles, and in which protons always caused an attraction between themselves and other particles. But we don't live in such a universe. It might also be accurate to call the electron charge negative if electrons tended to produce repulsion more often than they tend to produce attraction. But as far as scientists can tell, electrons do not tend to produce more repulsion than attraction, and produce just as much attraction as repulsion. The same thing is true for protons.

So the long-honored semantic convention of considering electrons as negative charges and protons as positive charges is not actually warranted by what we find in nature. But how can we accurately describe what is going on, without using this time-honored cheat? For starters, we can stop using the terms “negative” and “positive” in talking about charges, and simply use the term “proton-like charges” to refer to charges like that of the proton, and the term “electron-like charges” to refer to charges like that of the electron.

To describe what is going on in nature (without using Coulomb's cheat), we can use two flowcharts. Below is a flowchart that describes the rule followed by a proton in regard to how to react to some nearby particle.

Below is a flowchart that describes the rule followed by an electron in regard to how to react to some nearby particle.


These flowcharts give us an accurate description of electromagnetism, without the unwarranted cheat of considering electrons as negative charges and protons as positive charges. But when you look at these flowcharts, you might have quite a realization. The realization is: nature is actually computing to determine whether there should be an attraction, a repulsion or neither between two particles. What is going on is not simply a law that can be expressed as an equation. What is going on is that nature is using an algorithm, a bit of programming, some “if/then” logic. Each one of those diamonds in the diagram represents a piece of “if/then” logic. Each line leading out of the diamond represents either an “if” or a “then” in some "if/then" logic.

This particular piece of “if/then” logic is actually fundamental to our existence, because if nature stopped performing this piece of code at any instant, the chemistry in our bodies would instantly be turned off, and we would all die within a few seconds.

The realization that electromagnetism is fundamentally algorithmic is not at all a trivial one. If nature has programming inside its very core – if it has "if/then" logic at the heart of one of its most fundamental forces – it is reasonable to assume that programming is controlling other key operations of nature, such as the development of large-scale order, the origin of life, and the origin of intelligence. Pondering this at length, it becomes all too reasonable to assume that since the time of the Big Bang, the universe has been progressing along a path that it was programmed to achieve from the very beginning.

So far I have justified the first part of this post's title, by explaining why electromagnetism is algorithmic. But what about my claim that electromagnetism is exquisitely balanced? I will justify that claim in the second part of this two-part post, and will explain two ways in which electromagnetism is as finely balanced as the Washington Monument would be if it were positioned upside down, and balanced on its top tip.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Poison Fruit of “Simulated Universe” Speculations

Nick Bostrom is back at it again, once again pitching his theory that we live in a universe simulated by extraterrestrials. The argument for this idea goes something like this:
  1. The universe is billions of years old, and contains billions of galaxies, each containing many millions or billions of stars.
  2. It is therefore likely that advanced civilizations arose on many planets long ago.
  3. Such advanced civilizations would have fantastically advanced computing powers, including the ability to create incredibly complicated simulations so realistic they would be indistinguishable from reality.
  4. Even if only a small fraction of such civilizations created such simulations, the total number of simulations they would create would be incredibly high, probably many times higher than the total number of planets containing civilizations similar to ours.
  5. We therefore should conclude that we are probably living in such a simulation, rather than living on a real planet in a non-simulated universe.
This reasoning is not convincing. We have not the slightest evidence that any civilization could be capable of simulating human experience in a way that would result in a being who would actually have a flow of consciousness in the way that you and I have a flow of consciousness. There is every reason to suspect that producing such a simulation would be so difficult that it could not even be accomplished by planet-sized computers, particularly given the nearly infinite number of variations that are available in the lives of people such as us who appear to have almost unlimited choices.

We do not understand at all our consciousness, and it seems all too plausible that our experience and consciousness involve some mysterious X factor that cannot be accounted for by mere brain activity. Since it is quite dubious that any technology can produce anything like human experience as a human experiences it, it is very premature to be speculating about some technology that could not only create something like experience as we experience it, but also accomplish the gigantically greater task of producing such a thing within a simulation that tricked you into believing that there was an external physical universe corresponding to what your senses perceive. Bostrom's speculation about a simulated universe is rather like making a speculation about traveling to other stars before anyone has shown that you can even build a rocket.

A person advancing the idea of a simulated universe will try to kind of “keep the monster in the box,” by presenting a scenario that doesn't scrap too much of our basic assumptions about reality. The thinker may describe the simulation as being produced by advanced extraterrestrials like those we have imagined in our science fiction shows. The thinker will also probably suggest that under this simulated universe we can still believe in the reality of other humans that we see with our eyes, and still believe that the human past has happened pretty much as we imagine. The idea is kind of that your life is part of a simulation, and that your neighbor's life is also part of the same simulation --- so your neighbor has experience just like you have, and he's real in the same sense you are.

But once you introduce the idea of a simulated universe, you can't keep the monster in the box. Once you introduce the idea of a simulated universe, all bets are off,  and there is no solid rock of reality on which you can stand.

For one thing, if you believe in a simulated universe you can't conclude one blessed thing about those who have created the simulation. You can't reason that they are super-advanced extraterrestrials living on some planet, because there is no particular reason why universe simulators would create a simulated universe similar to their own universe (rather than imaginatively making up something totally different from their universe). So the creators of the simulated universe could be trillion-mile long purple dragons floating in a nonsimulated cotton-candy universe, or any of a million crazy alternate reality ideas you might think of. With such a range of possibilities, science pretty much disappears, and we're in the realm of “anything goes” fantasy and speculation.

For another thing, if you believe in a simulated universe, you can make no conclusion about how long humans have really existed or how long you have existed. For it might be that the computerized simulation of our experience really started, say, two days ago, and that the simulation makers merely uploaded the memories of your past experiences, and that you never really had such experiences.

For another thing, if you believe in a simulated universe, you may well end up in a sick little place that I might call monohumanism. To explain the idea of monohumanism, I may first explain the concept of solipsism. Solipsism (in its most radical form) is the idea that all that exists is the self. A solipsist may say to himself, “I exist, but everyone else is just some image or perception in my mind.” A solipsist may think that he is the only one that exists in the universe.

Monohumanism is a rather similar position, but not exactly the same. A monohumanist is one who believes that he himself is living in a computer simulation created by one or more unknown simulation agents. Using a kind of principle of parsimony, a monohumanist is one who assumes that there is no need to assume that any other human beings exist other than himself. The monohumanist may say to himself, “I exist, in the sense of having the experiences I experience; but there is no need for me to assume that those I see with my eyes or hear with my ears are also people having actual experiences like I have --- they probably only exist as perceptions in my mind, perceptions provided as part of the computer simulation I am experiencing.” So a monohumanist doesn't believe that he is the only mind in the universe. He simply thinks that he is only mind corresponding to a person living on planet Earth.

Once you start believing in a simulated universe, monohumanism seems all too possible. For it is not at all obvious that if a universe simulator was providing you a simulated reality, that such a simulated reality would also be provided to anyone else you saw with your eyes. If you are living in a computer simulation, it could be that when you hear your neighbor talking, his words were chosen not by an external mind corresponding to your neighbor, but instead were chosen by the same computer that is providing the overall universe simulation.

What are the moral consequences of monohumanism? They are absolutely poisonous. Once you get someone believing that the people he sees with his eyes are not really people experiencing pain and pleasure, but are merely “parts of the computer simulation,” then the door to every form of wickedness has been opened. A monohumanist will always feel free to act in any way that pleases him, on the grounds that no matter what he does, he isn't really causing pain or suffering for any other human, since such humans are merely “part of the simulation” not corresponding to individuals who actually suffer.

 Speculation may lead you to a  weird, distorted view of your fellow humans

This is where speculations about a simulated universe may lead you – to a dark, twisted place in which you have used some fancy speculative reasoning to give yourself a green light for any evil. Ignore such nonsense, which is a big waste of time, and a step on the road to insanity. There is not the slightest evidence that we live in a simulated universe.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Facts That Challenge the Idea That Your Brain is The Sole Cause of Your Mind

On this page we have the amazing story of an MIT student who helped doctors find a baseball-sized tumor in his brain. Doctors performed surgery and removed the tumor. Later, the student gave a presentation to cancer researchers. A video of the presentation is included on that page.

Now I know what you are probably expecting – something like a wheelchair-bound presenter somehow managing to very slowly communicate by using some technology like that used by Stephen Hawking. But amazingly, the young man seems to show no sign whatsoever of a damaged mind. He walks and talks normally, and seems to have slick presentation skills sufficient to land him a job as a host on a morning TV show. The page tells us that this young man is now pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering.

In the presentation, the young man tells us that the doctors removed about 12 billion neurons in his brain.

The anomaly discussed here is one of many in the medical literature in which people have lost large portions of their brains, and suffered little or relatively little damage. Now for another similar anomaly that is even more amazing. This is a case in which a human managed to function well in society as a French civil servant, even though he had almost no functional brain.
The case is discussed here. Inside a normal brain are tiny structures called lateral ventricles that hold brain fluid. In this man's case, the ventricles had swollen up like balloons, until they filled almost all of the man's brain. When the 44-year-old man was a child, doctor's had noticed the swelling, and had tried to treat it. Apparently the swelling had progressed since childhood. The man was left with what the Reuters story calls “little more than a sheet of actual brain tissue.”

But this same man, with almost no functioning brain, had been working as a French civil servant, and had his IQ tested to be 75, higher than that of a mentally retarded person. The Reuters story says: “A man with an unusually tiny brain managed to live an entirely normal life despite his condition, caused by a fluid buildup in his skull.” The case was written up in the British medical journal The Lancet (link).

In 1980 John Lorber, a British neurologist, recounted a similar case of a brain filled with fluid. “There's a young student at this university,” said Lorber, “who has an IQ of 126, has obtained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.” According to Lorber, “We saw that instead of the normal 4-5 centimeter thickness of brain tissue...there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal fluid.” Lorber found other similar cases. Here is a link discussing his work.

According to the recent scientific paper published here, Lorber's findings have been confirmed by others:

John Lorber reported that some normal adults, apparently cured of childhood hydrocephaly, had no more than 5% of the volume of normal brain tissue. While initially disbelieved, Lorber’s observations have since been independently confirmed by clinicians in France and Brazil.

How can we explain such anomalies under the theory that the brain is the sole producer of your consciousness? One glib nonexplanation is the idea of degeneracy. The idea is that natural selection may have helpfully given us a brain that can lose most of its neurons but keep doing pretty much what it was doing before.

But no one can plausibly explain how such a thing could have evolved because of natural selection. Explaining the origin of human consciousness and man's mental traits is a nightmare enough without throwing in the additional difficulty of explaining how such functionality could have evolved in a way so that you could lose large parts of your brain (or even most of your brain) while still largely retaining your intellect.

I may note there is apparently no “degeneracy” at all in the human cardiac system. If one little artery gets blocked, you can die of a heart attack. If one little heart valve stops working, you also die. Why would evolution have given us “degeneracy” in the brain while not giving us “degeneracy” in the cardiac system?

There's a better explanation – that your human consciousness is not solely produced by the brain. Your consciousness may be an output that comes from the combined inputs of your brain and some totally mysterious “X Factor” from outside of your skull or outside of your body. That may be why human consciousness and intelligence can survive with relatively little damage when huge parts of the brain are lost. It may also be why people have reported floating above their bodies during near-death experiences.

As the scientific paper cited here states (in a challenge to materialistic orthodoxy), “the scope of explanations must not exclude extracorporeal information storage.”