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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Is Theism or Atheism Verifiable or Falsifiable?

A rather interesting question to consider regarding atheism and theism is this one: is either theism or atheism verifiable or falsifiable?

First, let us consider theism. A scientist might claim that theism is not verifiable, on the grounds that there are no experiments or observations that we might make that would show the existence of some type of deity. But this claim is not valid, and is typically based on a presumption of the nonexistence of any deity. When talking about whether something is verifiable, the rules of the game are that we temporarily suppose the thing to be true, and then we imagine whether there are any observations we might make that would verify such a thing is true.

Following such a protocol, we can indeed imagine observations that might confirm the existence of a deity, if a deity exists. For one thing, it is possible that such a deity might reveal itself in some spectacular way to the entire world. An act such as writing a giant glowing message in space or causing the sun to blink out a message in Morse code would presumably cause us to have an observation that would verify the existence of a deity. It is also possible that when we die, we will have some supernatural experience that would qualify as a verification of the existence of a deity. Indeed, some people who have near-death experiences claim to have had such experiences.

So theism is verifiable, in the sense that hypothetically there are observations that we might make that could verify the existence of a deity. I may note here that there is no sound basis for distinguishing between that which is verifiable and that which is “scientifically verifiable.” The term “scientifically verifiable” implies a kind of conformity or similarity to existing methods of scientists, or the current assumptions of scientists. But when talking about what is verifiable or falsifiable, there is no reason why we should make such a restriction. It is all too possible that something might be verified or falsified in some way that does not conform to existing methods or expectations of today's scientists.

Now let's consider: is theism falsifiable? An atheist might argue that theism has already been falsified, because there is so much evil and suffering in the world. But this argument is not valid for two reasons, a simple reason and a complex reason. The simple reason is that evil or suffering could never show the nonexistence or unlikelihood of any deity. At best it might show the nonexistence or unlikelihood of an omnipotent deity, leaving unscathed the possibility of a deity with finite power. The complex reason is that there is always the possibility that earthly experience may be some tiny thread in a vast tapestry, one that might include a happy afterlife for everyone. It could be our earthly experience is some microscopic fraction of some commendable million-year plan in which suffering is necessary for diversity, growth, variety of experience, moral freedom and other good things (and necessary for the avoidance of the evils discussed here). It is possible that if we were to understand this million-year “big picture,” we might conclude that earthly suffering is quite compatible with the existence of an omnipotent deity. 

Considering the two reasons listed above, we must conclude that theism is not falsifiable. Even if we imagine the most disastrous observations we can imagine, they would not actually qualify as proof that no deity exists. For example, imagine an asteroid strikes our planet and kills almost everyone, or perhaps every single human. While that might cast much doubt on the idea of an omnipotent deity who rules over our planet with loving care, it would leave unscathed the possibility of a somewhat less than omnipotent deity who might not have the power or inclination to watch over each of billions of planets in the universe. In addition, there would still be the possibility that an omnipotent deity does exist, and that such a disaster is some necessary part of some million-year plan in which devastating setbacks are a vital ingredient. The possibility that everyone will have a happy afterlife despite such a disaster takes the power out of emotional arguments such as “but no deity would allow the little children to die.”

It seems, therefore, that theism is verifiable, but not falsifiable. We can imagine some hypothetical observations that might cause us to say with great conviction, “Now that proves it – there is a deity.” But we cannot imagine some hypothetical observations that might warrant us saying with great conviction, “Now that proves it – there is no deity.”

Now what about atheism: is it verifiable, falsifiable, or neither? The points I have just made about theism not being falsifiable can be used to help establish that atheism is not verifiable. For atheism to be verifiable, we would have to make some observation or observations that show that no deity exists. Such observations could not be made. Even if we were to witness the most horrible tragedy here on our planet, that would still leave undamaged the possibility that the universe was designed or created by a still-existing deity with less than perfect power, who lacks the power to guarantee pain-free conditions on each of the countless planets in the vast universe. Even the possibility of an omnipotent deity would still be standing, because there would still be the possibility that the terrible tragedy was a necessary ingredient in some million-year plan too complex for us to understand (and it would still be possible that all of the loss of life wasn't really a final snuffing out of consciousness, because of the possibility of an afterlife).

So atheism is not verifiable. But is it falsifiable? Yes, it is. We could falsify atheism merely by having some observations that might convince us that some deity exists. It is easy to imagine how such observations could occur – for example, there might appear a giant “God exists” sign in outer space that stretched millions of miles. Or one day the world might be visibly taken over by some divine power.  Or after dying you might see some magnificent heavenly scene that would be sufficient evidence of a deity's existence.

Now, an atheist might agree that atheism is falsifiable, and might claim this as a strength. He might argue that this shows that atheism is a really scientific claim. It has been argued that all really scientific claims are falsifiable.

But this would seem to be a case of trying to claim an advantage that isn't really there. For one, thing it is not actually true that all valid scientific claims are falsifiable. If Karl Popper thought this, then he didn't think things through. Here is one example of a major scientific theory that could never be falsified: the theory that extraterrestrial life exists. If we lived in a tiny little universe, we might be able to falsify such a theory, by quickly exploring all planets. But we live instead in a universe of billions of galaxies, a large fraction of which have billions of stars. Even if you imagine a fleet of a million warp-speed spaceships traveling throughout the universe trying to falsify the theory that extraterrestrial life exists, we must imagine that such a search would take many millions of years to check all the countless trillions of planets scattered throughout billions of galaxies. Even if such a search found no extraterrestrial life, it would still not falsify the theory that extraterrestrial life exists. For it would still be all too possible that the search had failed to find extraterrestrial life that was hiding or hard-to-find, and it would still be all too possible that while such a search (spanning millions of years) was going on, some other extraterrestrial life had arisen on the planets that had already been checked.

Too many of these to falsify the theory that extraterrestrial life exists

So the theory that extraterrestrial life exists cannot be falsified. This example shows that it just isn't true that all scientific theories can be falsified. So the fact that atheism could be falsified does not give the atheist anything to brag about.

None of these considerations touch on whether atheism is more plausible than theism. But these considerations may provide a kind of pragmatic reason for not investing too much time in a thesis such as atheism. Our earthly life is short, and it is perhaps best for us to concentrate on claims that might one day be verified through some confirmation event. Just as it may make little sense for a scientist to devote decades on some physical theory that could never be verified, it may (from a purely practical standpoint) be inadvisable for an atheist to devote great energies to a doctrine that can never ultimately result in him being able to say: that proves it, I was right all along.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Evacuation of America: A Science Fiction Story

On December 27, 2033 US President David Collins met in the White House with his advisers and a team of scientists to discuss the alarming situation at Yellowstone National Park. For decades scientists had known that underneath the huge park was a gigantic chamber of hot molten rock, one that was growing bigger ever year. A half a million years ago, such a chamber had erupted, burying North America in ash. Now the geologists were worried that the same thing might be about to happen again.

So give it to me straight,” said the President. “What are the chances that this thing is going to blow up this year?”

All the signs are there,” said geologist Leonard Parks. “The smoke is starting to seethe out. We see lava bubbling up in places where we never saw lava before. We're starting to see just the type of seismographic activity that was predicted to precede a gigantic continent-burying Yellowstone Park eruption.”

Give me a simple probability figure,” demanded the President. “As a percentage.”

My best guess, is there is a 50% chance that Yellowstone will erupt in the next three months,” said Parks grimly. “If if does, most of the country will be buried in ash.”

The President considered the possibility of a national evacuation to foreign lands. But he decided against it.

We can't evacuate,” said the President. “It we evacuate and the volcanic eruption doesn't occur, I'll be the laughingstock of the world.”

But that night the President had a terrible dream. He dreamed the eruption occurred, and the whole country was covered in ash. Children were wandering in the streets, weeping, as the ashes covered their faces.

The dream caused the President to change his mind. He called in all his main subordinates to the Oval Office, and announced a dramatic decision.

We can't risk the entire population,” said the President. “I order you all to begin drawing up plans for the evacuation of America.”

The government-funded evacuation ended up being the craziest chaos the country had ever seen. America just hadn't been designed with the possibility of a complete evacuation in mind. One of the citizens who experienced the worst of it was 70-year old Sally Davis, who lived in St. Louis.

Sally reported to the bus station to get on one of the evacuation buses. But she told the bus was full. Sally looked out at the bus station mobbed with hundreds of scared people.

It's now or never,” Sally said to herself. She sneaked into the luggage storage slot at the bottom of the bus, an area not designed for human passengers. She stayed there for the entire journey from St. Louis to New York City.

When the bus got to New York, Sally thought that the worst of it was over; but it wasn't. She now had to elbow her way onto one of the ships carrying people across the Atlantic. Some lucky people got airplanes, but there weren't enough planes to evacuate so many millions of people.

When Sally got to the pier area, she found a scene of chaos. Countless thousands of people were trying to cram into a diverse assortment of boats and ships. The scene looked like the hasty evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II, but far more crowded. Sally checked out the lines in front of the big ships, but they were way too long.

She finally found a small fishing boat that had been loaded up with passengers. She was told the boat was full, but after some pleading the crew let her on. After the boat left to begin its voyage across the Atlantic, Sally found that it was way overloaded with passengers.

When night came, it was impossible for Sally to find a place to sleep below deck. She had to sleep on the freezing deck.

Please help me – I'll freeze to death up here,” pleaded Sally.

There's no room below deck,” said one of the fishermen. “Too many passengers. But we have a haul of fish we caught before we were dragged into this job. We can cover you in those fish to keep you warm.”

It wasn't too bad the first night – at least being covered in fish kept Sally warm. But by the third day of the voyage, the fish had started to rot. By the fifth day, Sally was praying: “Please, God, let me freeze to death tonight so that I don't have to smell these rotting fish one more night.”

Finally after days of great discomfort for the passengers, the fishing boat reached England. Sally asked a young man: in which hotel would they be sleeping?

Hotel?” said the young man. “Are you kidding? The hotels are all full. So are all the houses, with all these millions fleeing America. We'll be sleeping in some field.”

Sally almost froze to death sleeping in the field, but she finally figured out she could protect herself from the cold by grabbing trash from trash cans, and stuffing the trash underneath her clothes.

At the White House, the President was about to evacuate all of his staff. But then one of the geologists made a surprising announcement.

It turns out we goofed,” said the geologist. “There was a bug in our calculation software. It turns out that while the great volcanic eruption in Yellowstone Park will probably occur, it probably won't occur for another 50,000 years.”

The order was sent out from the White House: bring back all of the 300 million Americans who had evacuated the country.

For Sally the journey back was almost as bad as the journey over. She was assigned a government-issued ticket for a ship that would sail back to America two months later. But she had no funds to last her until then. For days she hung around the piers wondering what to do. Finally she lucked out. She saw an old man who had been waiting for his place on a ship about to depart, and she noticed the man had died. She grabbed his ticket, and used it. The ship took her back to New York.

Having no money for the bus trip back from New York to St. Louis, Sally had to hitchhike the entire trip. Much of the time she spent bumping around in the back of various delivery trucks and pickup trucks. She suffered a terrifying scare when she was harassed by a biker gang that saw her hitchhiking.

At the White House, the President called a meeting of advisers to discuss the issue foremost in his mind: his upcoming campaign for re-election. It seemed like an insurmountable task. How could the President ask for re-election when he had needlessly subjected 300 million Americans to the horrors of a hasty forced evacuation? But the President urged his top political strategist Albert Baker to “do the impossible” by coming up with a viable re-election slogan.

The next day Baker showed a proposed campaign poster to the President.

Talk about turning a minus into a plus!” said the President. “Now that's what I call turning a sow's ear into a silk purse! Now that's what I call making some lemonade when life has given you a lemon!”

The poster read:

Re-elect President David Collins – the only President who ever gave you a free vacation.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Cosmic Inflation Theory Has Not Passed the Predictive Test

The cosmic inflation theory is often confused with the Big Bang theory, but it is really just a variation of the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory makes the very general assertion that the universe started to expand from an incredibly hot and dense beginning 13 billion years ago. The cosmic inflation theory makes a very specific claim that during a tiny fraction of the universe's first second, the universe underwent a burst of “exponential expansion.” You can believe in the Big Bang theory without accepting the theory of cosmic inflation.

On June 17th cosmologist Ethan Siegel published a post entitled “Cosmic Inflation's Five Great Predictions.” The subtitle of the piece is “A 'speculative' theory no more; it’s had four of them confirmed.” But Siegel's reasoning is in error. The theory of cosmic inflation – an extremely speculative theory – has not passed the predictive test. In fact, as we will see, it flunks such a test, by predicting that our universe is a lifeless universe.

First, let's look at the whole idea of using predictions to verify that a theory is correct. There are two main ways in which predictions might justify the claim that a theory has a good chance of being correct:
  1. A theory might make precise numerical predictions that are invariably found to be exactly correct, in thousands of different comparisons between the predictions of the theory and an observed reality.
  2. A theory might correctly predict a long series of observations that are each very unlikely to be observed if the theory is not correct.

An example of such a theory is the theory of gravitation. The theory of gravitation makes very precise numerical predictions, such as predicting that there will be exactly some particular force of attraction between two particular objects in space. Such predictions have been verified countless times, both on Earth and in space. So in a case such as the theory of gravitation, we can truly say that it has made countless thousands (or even millions) of exact predictions that have been verified. We can say that the chance of all these predictions being true by mere coincidence is incredibly tiny – less than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000 presumably.

But what happens in the field of science is that proponents of some theory will often claim that their theory has passed a predictive test, even though the record of successful predictions is infinitely weaker than the success record of gravitation theory. For example, imagine I say that my theory T predicted X (when X, Y, and Z were the alternatives) , and my theory predicted a value of 7 for parameter P (when that parameter could have had a value between 5 and 10). Does that mean I can then claim that my theory T has been confirmed because it passed a predictive test? Not by a long shot. In this case you would have a probability of merely 1 in 15 that an incorrect theory would make the correct predictions, and such a probability isn't impressive at all.

To understand why such a number is not at all impressive, imagine yourself as a bumbling scientific theorist who produces a scientific theory once every two weeks, without putting much thought into your work. Within about a year you will be likely to produce a theory that purely by chance meets a predictive test with a chance probability of 1 in 15. So meeting such a test means virtually nothing, and gives no reason for confidence that such a theory is true.

Now let's look at the items that cosmologist Siegel claims as successful predictions by the cosmic inflation theory. First, I may note that all of the items are merely “one-shot” affairs. In no case does cosmic inflation theory make any predictions that are repeatedly verified over and over, in the same way that gravitation theory and quantum mechanics do. So right off the bat this puts in grave doubt any claim of predictive verification involving the cosmic inflation theory.

We also find that in no case do any of the claims of predictive success involve something that was extremely unlikely to be true if the theory was false. All of the claimed predictive successes are what we may call semi-obvious predictions. A semi-obvious prediction is a prediction of something that isn't very unlikely to be true by chance – rather like predicting that a random male's favorite sport is baseball.

Let's look at the cases cited by Siegel.

Prediction #1 cited by Siegel: a flat universe. Back when the cosmic inflation theory was first advanced around 1980, there were three possibilities involving the universe's spatial geometry: the universe might be open, the universe might be closed, and the universe might be flat. The cosmic inflation theory predicted that the universe was perfectly flat. Thus far it looks like the universe is close to being spatially flat. But that's not a very impressive prediction, as you would have had 1 chance in 3 of getting such a prediction right if you had guessed. So this is merely a semi-obvious prediction. From a prediction verification standpoint, such a predictive success is “peanuts,” too paltry to even be considered. A solid example of predictive confirmation might be a case when a theory predicted a particular alternative when there were a thousand or a million possible alternatives.

I may also note here that it is premature to even say that the prediction of cosmic inflation theory on this matter has even been verified. The actual prediction of the theory is that what is called the critical density and the actual density differ by less than 1 part in 10,000 (the same as saying that the universe is perfectly flat). But we have only verified so far that these two differ by less than 2 parts in 100 (that the universe is close to being flat). It is still quite possible that the prediction of a difference of less than 1 part in 10,000 will be proven false.

Prediction #2 cited by Siegel: some fluctuations predicted by inflation theory were found. This also does not at all qualify as anything very unlikely to have occurred by chance. What Siegel says is basically that either the fluctuations might have been found, or might not have been found; and they were found, as predicted by cosmic inflation theory. So what? If I predict something exists when it might or might not exist, my chance of success is about 50%. Again, this is “peanuts,” from the standpoint of predictive verification – not at all impressive. It's another semi-obvious prediction that doesn't count for much.

Prediction #3 cited by Siegel: some fluctuations that could have been adiabatic, isocurvature, or a mixture of the two, were found to be adiabatic as predicted by cosmic inflation theory. Again, this is “peanuts” from the standpoint of predictive verification – a meager success that is “small potatoes.” Siegel says that were three alternatives, and cosmic inflation theory predicted the right one. The odds of that occurring by chance are 1 in 3, so this is merely another semi-obvious prediction. Solid predictive verification comes when a theory predicts an observation with a chance likelihood of something like 1 in a 1,000,000.

Prediction #4 cited by Siegel: something called the scalar spectral index was predicted by cosmic inflation theory to be between .92 and .98, and was found to have a value of about .97. Once again, this is “peanuts” from the standpoint of predictive verification, a paltry success. If we assume that such a “scalar spectral index” parameter could have had a value between .7 and 1.3, then the chance likelihood of you predicting a value between .92 and .98 and being correct is something like 1 in 7. That's nothing like what you need for real predictive verification, which might involve successfully predicting something that has a chance likelihood of only 1 in a 1000, 1 in a million, or 1 in a billion.

In short, Siegel is not able to come up with one “smashing success” of cosmic inflation theory, a case in which it predicted something incredibly unlikely to be true unless the theory is true. He's merely able to list some semi-obvious predictions that each would have had a decent chance of being true by pure coincidence.

But do the four “little successes” cited by Siegel add up to a decent record of predictive success? No, not when one considers that one could probably list 20 things that have been incorrectly predicted by cosmic inflation theorists over the past 35 years. Since the cosmic inflation idea became popular around 1980, physicists have cranked out more than 1000 papers spelling out countless different flavors of the theory. Countless numbers of these variations have been discarded, because their predictions turned out to be false. So should we have any confidence in cosmic inflation because some of these variations or flavors have some minor predictive successes not very unlikely to have occurred by chance? No, we shouldn't.

If I were to create a computer program that automatically generates variations of some physics theory of mine, I might find that 99% predicted the wrong things, and a few lucky ones had some predictive successes. But that should give you no real confidence that the lucky ones were some indication that the underlying theory was correct.

Imagine the following conversation.

Jim: Do you know my dog can read your mind? I can tell what he's thinking by watching how his tail wags.
Jane: Oh, really? Well, let's give it a try.
Jim: First, think about whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. Let's see .. my dog tells me by his tail wagging that you're a Republican.
Jane: Yes, that's correct.
Jim: Now, think about which season you were born in. Let's see...my dog tells me by his tail wagging that you were born in summer.
Jane: Yes, that's correct.
Jim: Now, think about your favorite holiday. Let's see...my dog tells me by his tail wagging that your favorite holiday is Christmas.
Jane: Yes, that's correct.
Jim: So that's it. I've proven that my dog can read your mind.

Of course, this would not prove any such thing, because it is not all that unlikely that such successes might be purely due to chance. The same thing can be said about the semi-obvious predictive successes listed by Siegel in regard to cosmic inflation.

There are also cases in which cosmic inflation theory seems to flunk the predictive test. One such case involves what is called the cold spot in the cosmic microwave background radiation, which is shown in the circled portion of the image below. 

 The CMB Cold Spot (credit:NASA)

A cosmologist at Cambridge University suggests that the existence of this cold spot conflicts with what the cosmic inflation theory predicts:

[The inflationary model] “predicts that today’s universe should appear uniform at the largest scales in all directions. That uniformity should also characterize the distribution of fluctuations at the largest scales. But these anomalies, which Planck confirmed, such as the cold spot, suggest that this isn’t the case… This is very strange. And I think that if there really is anything to this, you have to question how that fits in with inflation…. It’s really puzzling.

Siegel fails to mention the most important thing about the predictions of cosmic inflation theory: that it incorrectly predicts that we should not even exist. The cosmic inflation theory predicts that our universe should be a lifeless “small bubble” universe that is way too young and way too small for any galaxies to have formed in it.

The cosmic inflation theory actually makes this prediction because it predicts that each universe that undergoes exponential expansion produces many other “bubble universes,” and that each of these bubble universes themselves produce many other bubble universes, and so on and so forth. According to the predictions of the theory, the number of these bubble universes too small to contain any galaxies (and any life) should be more than 1,000,000,000,000,000 times larger than the number of bubble universes large enough for galaxies to form. As cosmic inflation proponent Alan Guth describes here (in a discussion of this “youngness paradox”), “The population of pocket universes is therefore an incredibly youth-dominated society, in which the mature universes are vastly outnumbered by universes that have just barely begun to evolve.”

Given such a situation (in which small bubble universes are many trillions of times more common than universes large enough for galaxies to form), and given that predicting one thing is trillions of times more likely than another thing is equivalent to predicting the first thing, it must be said that the cosmic inflation theory predicts that our universe should be one of those smaller, lifeless universes.

I may note that we should not all “subtract” one of a theory's predictions from the list of its predictions simply because we have always known that prediction to be false. We are not at all entitled to “cross out” one of a theory's predictions because we have always observed the contrary. In such a case we should note that such a prediction is a falsified prediction. So it is with the existence of life and the cosmic inflation theory. The theory predicts that our universe should be a young, lifeless, tiny bubble universe. Rather than crossing out or ignoring this prediction because we know it to be false, we should carefully note it as a falsified prediction.

An inflationary theorist might try to counter this argument by claiming that a theory's predictions consists only of what has been publicly predicted by advocates of that theory, and no such advocate has predicted that the universe is lifeless. But such a general claim about theory predictions is not true. A theory's predictions consists not of what has been publicly predicted by advocates of that theory, but instead a theory's predictions consist of whatever predictions are logically or physically implied by the theory.

In short, the predictive record of the cosmic inflation theory consists of a few unimpressive semi-obvious minor successes (none of them very unlikely to have occurred by chance), a likely failure in regard to the cold spot in the microwave background radiation, and one huge, gigantic predictive failure – that our universe should be a lifeless thing too small to have galaxies. Overall, that adds up to a failed predictive record.

For more on the shortcomings of the cosmic inflation theory, see this post.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Case For Denying "Like" Votes To Conspicuous Consumption Posts

For a long time Americans have engaged in what is called conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption means spending money on something largely in hopes that other people will notice how you have spent, and think to themselves: wow, he must make good money, or wow, he must be raking in the dough.

Back in the 1960's, conspicuous consumption was a little bit hard to practice. If you bought a new car, it was pretty easy – you would just leave the car parked out in front of your house where people would be sure to notice it. But if you bought some fancy new household item, it might be a lot harder to get people to notice it. For example, if you bought a 26-inch color TV (which most people didn't have in those days, because they were pretty expensive), you might have to throw a party to get people to notice your fancy new expenditure. Or if you went on an expensive vacation, you would have to make sure to send postcards to all of your friends, so that they would notice your lavish consumption.

But nowadays it is so much easier to practice conspicuous consumption. You simply spend some money lavishly, and then go to your favorite social media, to make a type of post that I call a conspicuous consumption post. Such a post is designed to get your friends to say to themselves: wow, he must have a pile of cash.

A "conspicuous consumption" post on social media looks like this

These days the conspicuous consumption post has become so common that what I will now suggest may be regarded as an unforgivable social heresy. What I suggest is that in most cases when you see this type of “conspicuous consumption" post, you should deliberately not grant it a “like” vote on your social media.

There are four reasons I can think of for denying “like” votes to conspicuous consumption posts. The first reason is that when many hundreds of millions of people practice conspicuous consumption, it tends to worsen global warming. Most examples of conspicuous consumption involve increasing your carbon footprint, the amount of carbon dioxide that you are contributing to the atmosphere. If, for example, you take your vacation by traveling all the way to a Pacific island to go swimming (rather than swimming at your local beach), you are greatly increasing your carbon footprint. Or, to give another example, if you buy a second or third car that you don't really need, the manufacture of such a car involved (directly or indirectly) a large increase in your carbon footprint. So if conspicuous consumption practiced by the masses is a large contributor to global warming, then we should not be encouraging conspicuous consumption --- and it seems that we do encourage it when we give “like” votes to social posts that trumpet someone's conspicuous consumption. Such votes establish a kind of reward system for conspicuous consumption behavior that may be inappropriate from an environmental standpoint.

The second reason I can think of for denying “like” votes to conspicuous consumption posts is that such votes may encourage behavior that (when practiced by many millions) tends to worsen the problem of resource depletion. Resource depletion is the fact that many important human resources such as oil, coal, water, and various metals are being used up at an alarming rate, creating a severe danger that within a few decades there may be grave shortages of some of these things. There is a quite significant chance that oil production may peak within 10 or 20 years, and that oil shortages will be one of the biggest problems of the 21st century. As discussed here, we are tapping out many of the aquifers that are used to supply freshwater, meaning that water shortages may be one of the biggest problems of the 21st century. The projected supply of some of the main metals used by consumers is only a few decades. Given such troubling resource depletion issues, it would seem that to live frugally and modestly is the most socially responsible way to live, not to live according to a “conspicuous consumption” lifestyle. It would also seem that we should not (with our social media votes) be encouraging conspicuous consumption in our friends.

The third reason I can think of to avoid giving “like” votes to conspicuous consumption posts is that such posts may help to encourage unwise or inadvisable financial behavior. Here's an example. You know a restaurant cook in Westerly, Rhode Island, a guy who is struggling to meet his mortgage. Rather than taking his vacation enjoying the beautiful beaches near Westerly, the cook takes his vacation in insanely ritzy and ridiculously expensive spots in southern France. The cook then puts up some social media posts, hoping to get those “like” votes. By giving such posts “like” votes, you are encouraging this guy to engage in the same financially reckless behavior next year. It would seem to be better if such a person gets no social media reward, and starts to spend his money more cautiously.

Or, to give an another example, suppose you know some old man (with two adult daughters) who is using up his modest savings on a “bucket list” tour of the world. If you see his social media posts of this tour, why give “like” votes that almost send an “I approve of you spending money this way” message (if you actually think he should be saving the money so that his daughters can inherit it)?

The fourth reason I can think of to avoid giving “like” votes to conspicuous consumption posts is that if we reduce the number of conspicuous consumption posts, perhaps our social media experiences will become more intellectually and spiritually rewarding. Aren't you sick of an endless stream of “look what I bought” posts and “look at this fancy place I went to” posts? Wouldn't it be better to read more social media posts that explore the feelings and ideas of your friends, rather than how they are spending their money?

I admit that denying “like” votes to conspicuous consumption posts is difficult, so let me suggest some exceptions to such a rule (so I won't sound like such a dour old skinflint). If I know someone spends his money responsibly, and doesn't have too high a carbon footprint, I may well give him a “like” vote for a conspicuous consumption post, particularly if I think the consumption he is displaying is just a kind of “rare indulgence” type of thing. If a conspicuous consumption post shows some great scene of natural beauty, or some scene of tender emotion, I will also give a “like vote” to that, on the grounds that my “like” vote is a salute to the scenery or the emotion, rather than the related consumption. Also, if a person says something clever or witty in his conspicuous consumption post, I may also give a “like” vote to it, on the grounds that I am saluting that person's words rather than his conspicuous consumption.

But what if you see the ordinary, uninspired, all-too-common “look at my lavish feast at this fancy restaurant” post or “look at my fancy hotel room” post or “look at this expensive thing I just bought” post? My suggestion is: stiff them, by not clicking that “like” button.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Variety of UFO Possibilities Undermines the Arguments Against UFOs

Those who do not believe in UFOs attempt to explain UFO sightings by evoking a smorgasbord of explanations such as sightings of the planet Venus, mistaken sightings of aircraft, sightings of meteors, fraud, and so forth. This approach doesn't work very well, because there is such a huge variety of dramatic UFO sightings seen by multiple witnesses. It's a little hard to make a “you only saw Venus” or “you only saw a plane” argument work when multiple witnesses report seeing something like a 50-meter long disk.

So rather than just relying on attempts to naturally explain UFOs, UFO skeptics also sometimes try to reason that UFOs are impossible – that they simply can't exist. Here are some of the main arguments used.
  1. Interstellar travel is impossible.” It is sometimes argued that UFOs cannot exist because it just isn't possible to travel from one solar system to another.
  2. If they were here, we would see their mother ship.” This argument was made by Arthur C. Clarke, who said that if we really were being visited by UFOs, they could no more hide their main spaceship than you could hide a giant Apollo rocket in Manhattan. The idea is that interstellar travel would require some huge spaceship, and astronomers would be able to see such a spaceship with their telescopes.
  3. If they were here, they would land on the White House lawn.” This is the argument that if we were being visited by extraterrestrials, they would surely have made their presence known, by some dramatic gesture such as landing on the White House lawn or hovering for hours over the UN building.

Even if we confine ourselves to the most common concept of UFO's (that they are spaceships from another planet), we still should not regard any of these arguments as convincing reasons for rejecting sightings of UFOs. Let's start with the first argument – the claim that interstellar travel is impossible. The reasoning is that the distance between stars is so great that travel between stars would require a voyage much longer than a lifetime. But there are 4 reasons why this reasoning is not sound.
  1. Extraterrestrials might be able to build multi-generation spaceships that take centuries to travel from one star to the next. Such a spaceship might be large enough to comfortably house a community that might last for numerous generations. One generation might leave the home planet on such an interstellar voyage, and by the end of the voyage between solar systems, the passengers might be the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren of the original passengers. (To read an interesting story I wrote about such a possibility, read this short story.)
  2. An extraterrestrial race thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours might consist of individuals with lifetimes lasting hundreds or thousands of years.
  3. Extraterrestrials might be able to use some type of space warp technology or wormhole technology allowing them to travel fairly rapidly from one star to another.
  4. UFOs may be automated spaceships manned by robots. Such robots would be able to handle an interstellar trip lasting many centuries.

What about the “if they were here, we would see their mother ship” argument – the reasoning that if UFOs were here, our astronomers would have detected the large main ship of their interstellar expedition? The argument is not sound, because it completely ignores the fact that extraterrestrial visitors might have designed their main spaceship in a way that minimizes their chance of being detected – something that would be a prudent defensive precaution. One simple way to do that would be to create a black-colored spaceship with no exterior lights. Once the main engine had been turned off, it might be hard for earthly astronomers to detect such a spaceship. Another way to do that would be to design a spaceship so that it resembled a rocky asteroid (or to hollow out an asteroid and build a spaceship inside it). Such a spaceship (resembling an asteroid) would be hard to detect. A third way for visiting extraterrestrials to keep a low profile would be for them to use some type of fancy “cloaking” technology. This could be done using not-too-advanced technology in which the outer surfaces of a spaceship are like TV screens projecting whatever is behind the spaceship. Such a spaceship might be extremely hard for earthly astronomers to detect.

What about the “if they were here, they would land on the White House lawn” argument? The argument is not very convincing, because it assumes that we can predict how extraterrestrial visitors would behave if they traveled to our planet. We cannot do any such thing, largely because they may have minds and motives vastly different than ours. For one thing, it may well be that they regard us like puny little bugs, worthy of study, but not worthy of communication. They may have no more interest in communicating with us than we would be interested in communicating with mice scurrying around in the forest.

Besides these reasons, there is a gigantic reason why the “UFOs cannot exist” arguments are invalid: the simple reason that UFOs might well be things other than spaceships from other planets. Here are some of the possibilities.
  1. UFOs may be objects dropping in from some other dimension or higher plane of reality. There may be some way to directly travel from such a dimension or plane of reality, without an interstellar voyage.
  2. UFOs may be some type of strange life-form that exists in the high atmosphere. Such a life form may be a distant descendant of some life form that once existed on the surface of our planet.
  3. UFOs may be time-travelers coming from the future.
  4. UFOs may be manifestations of some spiritual beings such as angels or beings existing in some heavenly afterlife realm. Such beings may send out UFOs rather like a land dweller might occasionally toss stones into a lake.
  5. Eons ago extraterrestrials may have evolved into beings of pure energy. Some of them may have traveled to other planets just by traveling out like a beam of light. Such beings may be hanging around our planet.
  6. Millions of years ago, an advanced civilization could have evolved on our planet. It might have been mostly wiped out, and its remnants covered up by geological activity. But some remnant of such a civilization may still exist – perhaps living deep underground, perhaps living deep in the ocean, or perhaps living in some base somewhere in the solar system. UFO's may be a manifestation of such a reality.
  7. UFOs may be some kind of “mind over energy” phenomenon produced by the human mind, in a manner similar to the strange results documented by the Global Consciousness Project (which has documented anomalous human influences on random number generators). UFOs may result from some kind of paranormal human influence similar to psychokinesis (a possibility not as exciting as extraterrestrial visitors, but pretty interesting nonetheless, as it would indicate a dramatic psychic reality).
These possibilities further undermine the main arguments against UFOs. Such arguments depend on the assumption that if UFOs exist, they are spaceships from another planet. But as the list above shows, there are lots of ways in which UFOs might exist without being spaceships from another planet.

Why do the members of scientific academia have such a strong tendency to dismiss all reports of UFOs? It's largely because UFO's have become a tribal taboo within this small subculture, in which sociological influences have enormous effects.

Seen last night -- UFOs or something else?

Monday, June 8, 2015

No, Columbia, We Are Not Quantum Fluctuations

On March 2, 2015 the Physics Department of Columbia University held a colloquium that had the title “We Are Quantum Fluctuations: The Cosmic Microwave Background and the Quest for the Origin of All Structure in the Universe.”

An interesting idea, that we are merely quantum fluctuations. Is there any truth to it? No, there isn't.

Goofy nonsense courtesy of Columbia University

To explain why there is no truth to this idea (either literally or metaphorically), let me explain the idea of a quantum fluctuation. According to quantum mechanics, things called virtual particles are constantly popping into existence for tiny fractions of a second, according to a largely chance process. Such appearances are related to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which says there is a certain amount of fuzziness, foaminess or uncertainty at subatomic scales. A very rough analogy might be that if you zoomed in with a microscope on your TV screen, you might see tiny pixels popping into existence very briefly, and then popping out of existence – rather like the flickering static that you used to see on old-fashioned TV sets when you turned to an empty channel.

When one of these virtual particles pops into existence, it is called a quantum fluctuation. One important thing about these quantum fluctuations is that they never result in the sudden appearance of a visible object lasting even a second. There is a precisely measured fundamental constant of nature called Planck's constant that limits how big a quantum fluctuation can be, and Planck's constant only allows the appearance of tiny, invisible “virtual particles” that last for a tiny fraction of a second.

Now clearly you and me are not quantum fluctuations, in the sense that we did not originate through any process like a quantum fluctuation. We arose through biology processes rather than physics processes. But is it true, at the very least, that the particles in our body arose through quantum fluctuations? No, it isn't.

Let's look at the modern scientific account of the origin of the atoms and subatomic particles that make up your body. Your body is made up of molecules which are made up of atoms which are made up of subatomic particles. According to modern science, the hydrogen in your body dates back from shortly after the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, but the Big Bang theory says carbon and oxygen were not produced in any significant amounts by the Big Bang. According to astronomers, the carbon atoms and oxygen atoms in your body originated in one or more distant stars. The idea is that more than four billion years ago, your carbon and oxygen atoms formed in some distant star or stars, and after that star or stars died (possibly in an explosive supernova), such carbon and oxygen atoms eventually found their way to our solar system.

This is a plausible and fascinating thesis – an idea that is sometimes expressed by saying, “We are all star stuff.” But it does nothing to support any claim that we are quantum fluctuations, or that any particle of our bodies arose because of quantum fluctuations.

Let's take things back further in time to account for the origin of the hydrogen in our bodies. What exactly was it long, long ago that produced the hydrogen that is part of the water (chemical symbol: H20) that is a large part of your body?

Hydrogen is made up of protons and electrons, as are other elements (and all other elements are also made up of neutrons). According to modern science, all of the protons, electrons, and neutrons now in existence arose from high-speed energy collisions occurring after the Big Bang. Back near the beginning, everything was so densely packed that matter was constantly converting to energy, and energy was constantly converting back into matter. Eventually when things got less dense and hot, we were left with the subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons) that make up all atoms.

Such a process is fascinating to consider, but it does not significantly involve quantum fluctuations. The basic equation behind the process is not Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (involved in quantum fluctuations) but instead Einstein's famous equation E= mc2.

So you are not a quantum fluctuation, and none of the particles in your body appeared because of a quantum fluctuation. The heavier atoms in your body formed because of stellar processes, and the particles that make up such atoms are the products of high-speed energy collisions in the incredibly dense and hot conditions following the Big Bang.

So literally it is completely false to say that any of us are quantum fluctuations. It is true that cosmologists think that quantum fluctuations were important in the origin of cosmic structure, but such a fact does not justify any such claim as “we are quantum fluctuations.” Bricks are important in the origin of the structure of our cities, but that would not at all justify a claim such as this to city residents: “You are all bricks.”

But is it true to say “we are quantum fluctuations” in some metaphorical sense? One can imagine things that might be metaphorically described as quantum fluctuations – but only things that lasted just for an instant. For example, if a husband looked with sexual interest at an attractive blonde passing by him on the street, and his wife complained, the husband might say, “Don't worry, honey – that lust was just a fleeting quantum fluctuation.” But it is not at all appropriate to metaphorically refer to people living for about 75 years as quantum fluctuations.

So it was neither literally nor metaphorically correct for some physicist at Columbia University to make the claim that “we are quantum fluctuations.” How can we account for such a goofy statement?

The only way I can account for it is by using an explanation of what I might call “stochastic mania.” Many physicists seems to suffer from this strange affliction, in which they seem to worship chance like some besotted schoolgirl who declares her undying love for a rock musician. Stochastic mania may be described as what happens when some person enthrones chance, thinking that almost everything is the result of chance, even in cases when it makes no sense to believe that chance is an appropriate explanation. By claiming “we are quantum fluctuations,” someone at Columbia University seems to have taken this mania to a particularly ridiculous extreme.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Scanty Crumbs Known as Human Knowledge

We sometimes hear people speaking about “gaps” in our scientific knowledge. People often speak as if there were merely a few cracks or gaps in our scientific knowledge, and that in the not-too-distant future those gaps will be filled in (perhaps rather like some construction worker filling in a few cracks in a wall).

Is it correct to speak in such a way? No, it isn't. But the reason is not that our scientific knowledge is perfect. The reason is that our scientific knowledge is so fragmentary and so tiny that it is misleading to use the term gaps or cracks to refer to what we don't know. What we should be saying is that what we do know is tiny, and what we do not know is vast.

Consider the current state of our knowledge. We know about the surface of our planet and a few other planets. But we live in a vast universe of billions of galaxies, many of which have billions of stars. So we know nothing about 99.999999999999% of the planets of the universe.

We also know basically nothing about most of the matter and energy in the universe. Scientists say that 96% of the matter and energy is dark matter and dark energy, which we know basically nothing about. We also have no idea what caused the origin of the universe billions of years ago. There are many mysteries regarding how we got from the supposedly infinite density of the Big Bang to the orderly state the universe is in now.

Considering only our ourselves and our planet, we know almost nothing about mysteries such as the origin of life and how our brains work. There is much evidence of some great psychic reality that we are almost completely ignorant about. Unraveling how the brain works seems a thousand year project that we have barely started.

Given such realities, is it accurate to say that there are “gaps” or “cracks” in our knowledge? No, because such a term implies that we have learned a good fraction of what there is to know. If someone asked you how much you know about quantum chromodynamics, it would be most misleading for you to say that there are gaps in your knowledge of quantum chromodynamics (as that would imply you know a large fraction of that topic). You should instead say that you know nothing or virtually nothing about such a topic.

Rather than speaking of gaps in our scientific knowledge, it is more truthful to say that our knowledge of nature is fragmentary, and that we have acquired only a few pieces in the vast jigsaw puzzle of nature. In the great million-year project of unlocking the universe's secrets, we are merely fledglings and newbies.

Those who sell a story of scientific triumphalism often speak as if scientists are like college juniors or seniors with not terribly much left to master in the curriculum. But instead they (and the rest of us) are all like kids who have merely finished the first few weeks of kindergarten.

Imagine a little child who makes a trip to the seashore. After he observes a few seagulls and fills up a bucket with shells, pebbles, and starfish, he may congratulate himself on his splendid progress in understanding nature. But ahead of him lies the vast and mysterious ocean, the mysteries of which he has barely begun to unravel. That little child is like humanity, which has so far accumulated only a few scattered fragments of nature's deep and mysterious truths, too vast in number to be enumerated.

 Schematic diagram of human knowledge