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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Robot With a Soul: A Science Fiction Story

Charley Davis was having a pretty good day, until his car smashed into the back of a tractor-trailer while Charley was driving at 50 miles an hour. Charley was fiddling with his smartphone, and hadn't noticed that the tractor-trailer had stopped. The collision instantly killed Charley.

But then something very strange happened. Charley had the sensation of floating above his body. It was like he could see the wreck of his car from about 20 feet above. He watched with a strange calm as his car caught fire and burst into flames.

Then suddenly the crash scene seemed to fade away, and Charley found himself in some new environment. It was like he was passing through some strange tunnel at high speed. At the end of the tunnel was a warm, brilliant light.

After a while Charley reached the end of the tunnel. He found himself in some glorious realm that he had never seen before. There was some glowing city at the top of a hill. All the buildings seemed to be bathed in a warm light. ,

Charley was told that he had died, and had reached an afterlife realm. He was taken to a special building where spiritual guides would help him with the transition from an earthly life to a post-mortal life.

For many years Charley enjoyed his idyllic afterlife existence. He met all of his relatives who had passed away. He enjoyed various pleasant activities, and learned important truths he had never learned in his earthly life.

Eventually Charley encountered his spiritual guide, who said that she wanted to have a little talk with Charley.

Why, you certainly have had a good long period of rest and relaxation,” said the guide. “Have you been happy here on the Other Side for the past 30 years?”

I sure have,” said Charley.

But we like to encourage people to eventually return to planet Earth, to assist people there,” said the guide.

What are you talking about?” asked Charley. “Going back as a ghost?”

No, I mean reincarnation,” said the guide.

Reincarnation?” said Charley. “No, that's not for me. I was terribly bullied as a little child. The idea of being some weak, sniveling little kid again is not one I care to consider.”

Well, there is another option,” said the guide. “It seems that during the past 30 years the people on planet Earth have made incredible progress in creating robots. So if you want to be a real trail-blazer, a real pioneer, you can be the first person from heaven to reincarnate on Earth as a robot.”

Wow, that would be kind of cool,” said Charley. “Nobody would ever bully a robot.”

So Charley agreed to the reincarnation plan. Through the mysterious reincarnation process, Charley's soul made the journey from heaven back to Earth. Charley found himself in a steel and plastic robot body rather resembling the body of a man. As normally happens with reincarnation, Charley lost his memory of his previous human life on Earth, and also his previous existence in heaven.

The first part of Charley's life as a robot was his training period. Human teachers taught robot Charley all kinds of things such as walking and lifting, and how to recognize different types of visual inputs. The human teachers were astonished by how quickly Charley learned these things.

One day a teacher laughed and said, “Let's teach this smart robot how to read.” It was kind of a joke, because no robot had ever learned how to read. But the teacher was astonished that robot Charley was able to pick up reading fairly quickly.

After a while it was clear there was something special about Charley. He seemed to have mental abilities far beyond that of any other robot. He could talk, write, read, plan and understand, all in a way that no other robot could. This had nothing to do with his electronics. It was because inside robot Charley was a reincarnated soul.

Robot Charley became world famous. His books became best sellers. He became a television star. He even fell in love.

Charley started dating a beautiful young woman. After ten dates, robot Charley told the woman he loved her. The woman told Charley she felt the same way.

Of course, their relationship was purely platonic. One day the woman said to robot Charley, “How strange it is to hug the person I love, and to only feel hard, cold steel.” 

One day a truck pulled up near Charley while he was walking down the street. Some men got out, and forced Charley into the truck. The truck drove off to some industrial site miles away.

Robot Charley was brought into a building, where he faced a table of men who informed him that he would face a grim fate.

Let me introduce myself,” said the man at the center of the table. “I am Ted Walker, the chairman of an industrial conglomerate. We have heard about your remarkable abilities, and are interested in learning more about them.”

Well, I'd be glad to tell you all about them,” said robot Charley.

No, that's not what I mean,” said Walker. “What I mean is that we are determined to find out the secret of why you alone of all the robots are capable of thinking and acting and feeling like a human. We have decided that the best way to learn this secret is to engage in a thorough electronic dismantling. We are going to take you apart, and thoroughly analyze you, piece by piece, component by component.”

No, don't do that – you'll kill me!” said Charley.

If Charley had known that he had a soul, one that would survive death, he wouldn't have been so scared. But the reincarnation had blocked the memories of his previous life as a human and his post-mortal life. So Charley thought that the dismantling of his body would produce permanent death.

That's a very convincing imitation of human fear,” said Walker. “But everyone knows robots can't really feel emotion. We will proceed with the dismantling.”

Walker instructed his technicians to disassemble robot Charley. At some point in the process, Charley's reincarnated soul left his robot body, and traveled back to heaven.

Walker's men would spend months analyzing the disassembled parts of the robot. They scanned the parts with sophisticated component analyzers and electron microscopes. They analyzed the software in the machine, line by line, and bit by bit. But they were never able to uncover the secret of why robot Charley had acted and felt like a human. A similar failure would occur throughout the twenty-first century. Neurologists analyzed the human brain in minute detail, cell by cell, neuron by neuron, molecule by molecule. But they would never be able to figure out the secret of human consciousness. For they made the reductionist mistake of assuming that the answer was to be found in a bottom-up effect produced by tiny things, rather than looking for a top-down effect produced by something higher.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Scientists Cling to Their Dark Matter Dogmatism, Despite Failing Searches

This week scientists announced the result of a three-year search for dark matter using the most sensitive instruments. The result: a big fat nothing.

We built an experiment that has delivered world-leading sensitivity in multiple new results over the last three years,” said a scientist. “We gave dark matter every opportunity to show up in our experiment, but it chose not to.”

Why, then, are scientists continuing to be so dogmatic about dark matter? The first way in which scientists are dogmatic about dark matter is the way in which they assert its existence unconditionally. Matter-of-fact assertions that something exists should not be made by scientists unless there is direction observational evidence. When asked what we know about dark matter, a typical physicist will answer that we know it exists. No, we don't. There are some astronomical observations that dark matter might be convenient in explaining, but such a situation does not justify matter-of-fact assertions that dark matter exists. Dark matter may be one way of explaining puzzling astronomical observations, but there are always many different ways of explaining a puzzling observation.

The second way in which scientists are dogmatic about dark matter is in the way they claim we know what percent of the universe is dark matter. We hear scientists making claims such as the universe is 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. Given that neither dark matter nor dark energy has been directly observed, such claims are rather like claiming that the population of heaven is 23% angels and 12% archangels.

If you do a Google search for “evidence for dark matter,” you will find various web sites that argue for the existence of dark matter. But the reasons given are not very compelling. One common reason goes like this: scientists have compared what is called the gravitational mass of galaxies with the mass inferred from the luminosity of stars. It seems that these two figures do not match with each other, and that dark matter might resolve the discrepancy. This is not a very convincing reason, because it is all too possible that scientists may have underestimated or overestimated either of these two things. It is also all too possible that various non-luminous forms of regular matter might resolve this discrepancy – things such as dust, brown dwarfs and black holes (all of which are either hard to observe or hard to quantify). Since we are faced with at least 1000% uncertainty when estimating the total mass contribution from dust, brown dwarfs and black holes, we can't reliably calculate the total amount of mass from regular matter in the galaxy.

Another reason given for believing in dark matter has to do with what are called galactic rotation curves. Without any assumption of dark matter, scientists expect stars around the outer edges of our galaxy to be rotating the galaxy more slowly than stars closer to the center of our galaxy. But instead they found that the velocity of stars not close to the galactic center remained roughly constant, regardless of how far they are from the galactic center.

There is a straightforward way to interpret such observations. We can assume that there is some principle that is causing stars to rotate the galaxy at the same speed, perhaps some principle that is related to the fact that if stars did not rotate the galaxy at the same speed, spiral galaxies would not preserve their structure, and we would no longer have our beautiful spiral galaxies. But instead of evoking such a principle, astronomers advance the weird idea that there is a large outer halo of invisible dark matter, which happens to be arranged in such a way so that (just coincidentally) stars rotate the galaxy at the same speed. Now if astronomers wish to advance such a contrived explanation, they may do so. But such an explanation (which is far from straightforward) is only one of many ways of explaining the fact that stars rotate galaxies at the same speed. It is not at all correct to cite such a fact as strong evidence for dark matter, although it may be evidence that there is something out there interested in preserving the universe's beautiful spiral galaxies (such a power might be a transcendent power, or perhaps something like billion-year-old extraterrestrials with godlike powers).

Web sites arguing for the existence of dark matter also tend to cite the cosmic background radiation. We will be shown some picture of the cosmic background radiation, one of those maps that exaggerates the differences in this radiation that is uniform to one part in 10,000. We are told that the darker spots on the map are “dark matter concentrations.” But, in fact, the cosmic background radiation provides no support at all for the concept of dark matter. A realistic map of the cosmic background radiation will use only one color, since the radiation is uniform to one part in 10,000.

Some writers also claim that something called the Bullet Cluster provides evidence for dark matter. These claims are based on a statement of Doug Clowe of the University of Arizona, who in 2006 did a study on the Bullet Cluster. “"These results are direct proof that dark matter exists,” Clowe assured us. But his results were no such thing. Certainly not direct proof, his results were neither proof nor compelling evidence for dark matter.

Clowe merely studied a funny-looked cluster, and provided a complicated dark matter story as an explanation. But there are always 101 ways to explain some strange-looking astronomical object. Some funny-looking cluster that might be explained by dark matter is not proof for dark matter. See here for an explanation of the Bullet Cluster that does not involve dark matter.

Some gullible NASA personnel uncritically quoted Clowe's unwarranted claims. People were fooled by a caption on a visual showing the Bullet Cluster. The visual showed blue areas and pink areas. Captions to the visual told us that the blue areas were dark matter and the pink areas were regular matter. 

The Bullet Cluster (which doesn't look like this to the eye)
You can realize here the misleading silliness when you remember that dark matter is not believed to be blue, and is not even believed to be visible. The image in question was a composite image, made from combining one image from one regular telescope and one image from a radio telescope. The blue areas were simply areas emitting different amounts of radiation. The claim that the blue areas were dark matter is an unproven speculation. There is a rather similar cluster called the Train Wreck cluster which is very hard to explain under dark matter assumptions.

The central triumph of modern physics is what is known as the Standard Model of physics. Dark matter has no place in that model.

When dealing with dark matter, our scientists are plagued by what is known as confirmation bias. When confirmation bias occurs, someone may eagerly scout for anything that might be interpreted as evidence for something that he wants to believe in, but also ignore any evidence that is inconsistent with the thing he wants to believe in. The scientific paper here presents quite a bit of evidence that is inconsistent with dark matter assumptions.

The paper above quotes Karl Popper giving this description of confirmation bias:

For if we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favor of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.

I am not claiming that the existence of dark matter is very unlikely. I merely claim that nothing we have learned warrants dogmatic assertions claiming that dark matter definitely exists. Something unproven should not be represented as something proven, and speculations should be candidly described as speculations.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Randomness, Survival of the Fittest, and the Origin of Biological Complexity

According to Neo-Darwinism, the astonishing biological complexity of the natural world arises from a combination of random mutations and natural selection. The idea is that random mutations produce random changes in organisms, and that natural selection (or survival of the fittest) causes helpful random mutations to proliferate. Neo-Darwinists maintain that this can account for the appearance of useful complex features such as wings, eyes, elephant trunks, giraffe necks, and so forth.

Let us try to imagine a situation that might involve a combination of randomness and survival of the fittest. Imagine you are a football coach at a college or university. Every year many students sign up for the football team, hoping to gain the on-campus prestige enjoyed by college football players. This provides you with a great deal of randomness. Some of these applicants will be strong, and some will be weak. Some of the applicants will be in good physical shape, and some will be in poor physical shape. Some will be fast, and some will be slow.

But where does the “survival of the fittest” come into play? That happens with your discretionary roster cuts. Given this random pool of applicants, you will be able to create a “survival of the fittest” effect by cutting from the football roster any aspiring team members who are too weak or slow or who cannot catch or pass or punt the football.

Now let's suppose the randomness of the applicant pool and the roster cuts are the only factors involved. You simply take your starting pool of aspiring football players, subject them to various physical tests, and cut from the roster a certain number of people who fail to perform well on the physical tests. You do nothing else. So you have randomness, and survival of the fittest. Will this result in a winning football team, one that produces the coordinated functionality needed to win football games?

Of course, it will do no such thing. Producing a winning football team requires both design and a huge amount of coordination. The design comes from designing particular football plays that your team will execute. The coordination comes when particular players are assigned particular positions, and these players repeatedly practice smoothly coordinated football plays. Without this design and coordination, your football team will be a mess. When a play starts, players will just wander about, without anyone knowing whether they are supposed to block, throw the ball, catch the ball, or punt.

So clearly for a football coach, randomness plus survival of the fitness does not yield coordinated functionality. But someone may argue that this analogy is inadequate, because it only involves survival of the fittest and does not involve the idea of differential reproduction. Differential reproduction means that those who are more fit to survive will reproduce more frequently, and those who are less fit to survive will reproduce less frequently. Differential reproduction is basically the same as natural selection, and is actually a better term for such a thing (since nature does not actually choose or select anything, natural selection is not a literally accurate term, even if it may be accurate in some figurative sense, to at least some extent).

So let's imagine a better analogy, one that will include both randomness and differential reproduction. Let us imagine a tall skyscraper filled with monkeys who have been trained to type on laptop computers. Let us imagine that each laptop has an email program or full-screen instant messaging program on its screen. Let us imagine that all day long the monkeys are randomly striking the keys, with such activity being encouraged because the more typing the monkeys do, the more food appears. (This could easily be accomplishing by programming the laptops to count the keystrokes and send a message to some feeding apparatus, whenever a hundred keystrokes were detected.) The random typing of the monkeys gives us all the randomness we could ever ask for. 

But what about the differential reproduction – how can we get that? We can simply imagine that there is a roving editor walking around the skyscraper, examining the laptop screens. Whenever the editor finds a laptop screen that gives some good prose, the editor presses some keystroke on the laptop that sends out this typed output to quite a few other laptops in the building, via email or instant messaging. So if the output on the laptop screen is a decent sentence, maybe such a sentence gets transmitted to 10 other laptops, and put on the screens of these laptops. If the output on the laptop screen is a decent paragraph, maybe such a sentence gets transmitted to 100 other laptops. So this is differential reproduction, a kind of natural selection in which fortunate random output gets reproduced much more frequently.

Will such a system result in the large scale appearance of coordinated complexity? Under such a system would we expect to eventually see lots of laptop screens on which there were good poems, letters, essays, articles, recipes, or intelligent pieces of computer code? Absolutely not. Despite the combination of randomness and differential reproduction, we should not expect any monkey's laptop to have anything but gibberish on it. Even if such a system were kept running for a billion years, we would not expect for coordinated complexity to appear to any large degree.

We can think of two general reasons why this would be true. The first reason is what we may call the discarding of preliminary implementations. If we are to imagine that our roving editor acts like natural selection in the natural world, we must imagine that the editor would reward only work which had received a certain level of functional quality. So if a monkey's laptop contained a sentence such as “I think what we should do about the gun violence problem is nanae anowe anslweonw assfw,” such a sentence (a preliminary implementation of a functional sentence) would not be rewarded with increased reproduction. In order for the random output to be rewarded with increased reproduction, it would have to have a high degree of ordered, coordinated complexity, a level of functionality very, very unlikely to be achieved by chance.

The second reason why this skyscraper of typing monkeys would not result in large-scale coordinated complexity is that in the very rare cases in which random output produced functionality that was rewarded with increased reproduction, the randomness of the typing monkeys would further degrade that functionality over time. So if a monkey ever typed a good sentence, and that sentence got transmitted to the screens of 10 other monkeys, the subsequent random typing of those monkeys would quickly degrade the coordinated complexity, and tend to gradually turn it into uncoordinated gibberish.

Similar reasons cast great doubt on the claim that in the natural world, some combination of random mutations and natural selection can produce coordinated complexity. The discarding of preliminary implementations is something we should expect to be constantly occurring in a natural world ruled by blind chance. For example, if an eyeless organism started to develop a light-sensitive dimple that could be the start of an eye, we would expect natural selection to throw away such a useless feature – unless by some incredibly improbable coincidence it happened to have almost simultaneously arrived by chance with other changes needed for some earliest version of functional vision (changes such as an optic nerve conveniently stretching from such a feature to the brain, and also quite a few changes in the brain needed to process such visual input). To give another example, if an organism by chance developed a wing stump, we would expect natural selection to discard such a feature, as it would provide no immediate benefit. The idea that natural selection will tend to discard anything that isn't useful comes from Darwin himself.

Imagine you are hired to work in a junkyard, and you are told to build useful things from the odds and ends lying around. But there's a problem: you are closely watched by a dimwitted foreman with no foresight or imagination, a guy you nickname “the Brainless Boss.” You start out by finding an axle and two wheels, and fit them together. You think to yourself: this can be the start of a good wagon or cart. But then your foreman sees what you are doing, and throws it away in the trash bin. “Not useful – make something useful,” the foreman says. You then find some wood, and nail together three pieces of wood to make a U-shape. You think to yourself: this can be the start of a bookshelf. But your foreman arrives, and throws what you have made into the trash bin. “Not useful – make something useful,” the foreman says. You realize that your chance of making anything useful are not good, because the “Brainless Boss” will always be discarding your preliminary implementations. So it would be in the natural world ruled only by chance and natural selection. Lacking any foresight or imagination, natural selection would always be acting like this “Brainless Boss,” discarding preliminary implementations that were not yet useful.

Similarly, in the natural world we would expect that random mutations would vastly more often degrade coordinated functionality than to improve it. The more complex and coordinated a piece of functionality is, the more likely it will be that random changes will degrade it rather than improve it. For example, random changes in computer code will be 100 times more likely to harm the code than to help it.

Part of the appeal of Neo-Darwinism is its simplicity. Neo-Darwinism tries to explain the appearance of biological complexity by giving us the real simple equation that randomness plus survival of the fittest eventually yields astonishingly coordinated wonders of biological complexity. The problem is that this equation is not accurate. Randomness plus survival of the fittest does not yield coordinated functionality. The answer to the origin of biological functionality must be something vastly deeper or more complicated than this simplistic little equation.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why a Bouncing Universe Theory Doesn't Work

In the science news this week there has been coverage of a paper by Neil Turok and Steffen Gielen, a paper purporting to show that the Big Bang might have been a “Big Bounce,” occurring after a contraction of the universe. The idea of a “Big Bounce” is part of a cyclical model of the universe.

A cyclical universe theory is one that says that the universe passes through a series of phases or cycles, with each cycle being repeated over and over again. Depending on the theory, each cycle may last billions or trillions of years.

The main theory of a cyclical universe has been the theory of an oscillating universe. To understand this theory, you must understand the concept of critical density. Scientists have long said that if the density of the universe in mass-energy is less than a particular density called the critical density, the universe will keep expanding. But if the density of the universe is greater than this critical density, the universe's expansion will one day slow down and then reverse. If that were to happen, the expansion of the universe (in which the distance between galaxies increases) would turn into a contraction of the universe (in which the distance between galaxies decreases). At the end of the period of contraction would be a Big Crunch in which all of the universe ends up crunched together in a very dense state.

According to the theory of an oscillating universe, this Big Crunch would turn into a Big Bounce – another Big Bang that would start the universe expanding again. The oscillating universe theory is the idea that such cosmic phases of expansion and contraction have continued indefinitely – perhaps forever.

The paper by Turok and Gielen deals purely with whether or not a Big Bounce would occur after a Big Crunch. The paper claims that such a Big Crunch might actually lead to a Big Bounce in which the universe starts expanding again. Such a thing actually seems incredibly improbable. Previously cosmologists have said it is overwhelming more likely that a contracting, collapsing universe would eventually collapse into one or more black holes, without resulting in another phase of cosmic expansion.

The authors claimed to have reached their conclusion based on simple assumptions. In an article in the magazine New Scientist, Turok is quoted as follows:

The spirit of our work is to focus on simplicity,” Turok says. “We’re not adding bells and whistles to the physics we already know.”

In the abstract of their paper, the authors refer to their theory as “natural,” and in this article Turok is quoted as saying the theory involves only “minimal assumptions.”

Turok's claims about being minimal, natural and simple are quite misleading. The assumptions he is making are unnatural, absurdly complicated and highly speculative. He is indeed adding a whole bunch of speculative bells and whistles to the physics we already know.

The press release for Turok's study makes clear that it based on the idea of conformal symmetry. But conformal symmetry is a highly speculative and unproven idea. The speculative nature of Turok's paper is also shown on page 2 of the paper, where he starts speculating about anti-gravity. He might as well have been speculating about unicorns and fairies. Gravity is a known feature of nature. There has never been the slightest evidence for any such thing as anti-gravity. Discussion of anti-gravity belongs in science fiction novels.

The following passage from page 2 of the paper shows that Turok's claims of simplicity are bogus:

Once anisotropies and inhomogeneities are included, generically there are
no regular, real “bounce" solutions; but there are regular, complex solutions which are deformations of the classical bounces. We claim these are legitimate saddle points of the path integral and provide a consistent semiclassical description of a quantum bounce.

Here Turok seems to be basically admitting that the straightforward answer he gets (as to whether a collapsing universe would bounce) is “no bounce,” and that he can only get a bouncing universe by resorting to “complex solutions” – in other words, weird, ornate speculations which he introduces through absurdly complicated speculative mathematics. This is the opposite of simplicity.

You won't be able to follow Turok's speculative mathematics, but it is easy to explain a reason why the notion of a cyclical universe (with periodic “Big Bounces” at the end of contraction phases) does not work. The reason is simple: scientists have determined that the expansion of our universe is accelerating, which means there will be no Big Crunch in our future.  The expansion of the universe will continue forever, and the universe will never begin to contract. 

The diagram below shows (in black) the cyclical, bouncing universe theory, the idea of an oscillating universe. But the red arrow shows what scientists actually observe. The acceleration of the universe's expansion means there will be no Big Crunch in the future. If there isn't one in the future, it's not plausible to maintain that there was a previous cycle of the universe in which a Big Crunch turned into a Big Bang.

accelerating universe

Anyone trying to come up with a theory of a cyclical universe has the deck stacked against him. You have the Big Bang, the unexplained one-of-a-kind event beginning the universe. You have the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which tells us entropy always increases over long time periods. You have the fact that the current entropy level in the universe is vastly lower than it would be if the universe were many times older than 13 billion years. You have the acceleration of the universe's expansion, which tells us that there will be no further opportunities for an event like the Big Bang, when everything was densely packed. These are not facts that lend credence to any cyclical theory of a universe. Nature seems to be screaming at us that the universe is not eternal and has not existed forever.

Scientists say that at the time of the Big Bang, the entropy level of our universe must have been incredibly low. Since the Second Law of Thermodynamics says entropy always increases, for you to have a universe such as ours after 13 billions years means the entropy of our universe must have incredibly low at the the time of the Big Bang. Anti-gravity speculations such as Turok's are futile, as they provide no explanation as to how we could have ended up with a universe with very, very low entropy at the time of the Big Bang, if the Big Bang had been a Big Bounce from a previous phase of the universe lasting several times longer than 13 billion years. Turok's paper completely ignores this crucial issue, and doesn't even mention entropy.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Was the Big Bang Merely a Phantom Event?

Let us imagine a trial in which a man is accused of murder. Suppose there is a crucial witness for the prosecution who says she saw the defendant kill the murdered person. Suppose her testimony goes like this.

District attorney: So tell us what you observed in front of the defendant's house.
Witness: I'll never forget it. I saw a man take out a big knife and plunge it into the murdered woman's chest.
District attorney: And was that man someone in this court room?
Witness: Yes, it was the defendant. I saw him plunge the knife into her chest three times.
District attorney: And how did you happen to be at the defendant's house?
Witness: Well, I was sitting comfortably in my house, when I decided to teleport myself to outside the defendant's house. So I closed my eyes, said “Abracadabra,” and then poof, there I was in front of the defendant's house.

The final detail given here by the defendant is what we may call a narrative disqualifier. A narrative disqualifier is some part of a narrative that is so unbelievable or so seemingly fake that it causes you to throw out the entire story. In this case, no jury would accept the testimony that the witness had seen the murder. They would discard or disqualify her entire story.

Let's imagine another case of a narrative disqualifier, one that we might see in a film. Imagine you are watching a film that purports to be a true documentary about a trip to a strange jungle where creatures like Bigfoot were seen. You watch the film, and it seems very realistic. This film is real and truthful, you tell yourself. But near the end of the film you notice something that reveals the type of film you are watching. The film shows some people that are supposed to be in front of a beautiful vista, looking down from a high hill. You look closely and notice that the scene in back of the characters is fake. The characters are standing in front of some wooden screen on which the scenery was painted!

You have now found a narrative disqualifier. So you disqualify or discard the whole film. Even if all the rest of the film seems very realistic, you now believe the whole thing is fake.

So now you get the idea of a narrative disqualifier. But it is interesting to ask: within the cosmic chronology told by modern science, is there a narrative disqualifier? Is there some part of the story so unbelievable that it should cause us to question or discard the whole narrative?

Below is the modern story of the past of mankind, life, and the universe as told by modern science:

Long before men built cities, they lived in primitive tribes, often living in caves. A few million years before that, there were less intelligent primates walking about. About 50 million years earlier, the planet was dominated by dinosaurs. The major groups of animals first appeared during the Cambrian Era about 550 million years ago. About one or two billion years earlier, the first primitive life appeared from some lucky combinations of chemicals. Millions of years earlier, our planet formed. Billions of years before our planet formed, our galaxy formed. Going back further and further in time, to before the time our galaxy formed, we find the universe was very hot and dense. The farther you go back in time, the hotter things were, and the denser things were. Tracing things back to the very first instant, we see the entire universe popping into existence in a state of infinite density, in the event we call the Big Bang.

Is there anything in this story we might call a narrative disqualifier? If you study the complexity of even the most primitive life and the genetic code, you may be entitled to think that the formation of life from some lucky combination of chemicals is a narrative disqualifier. But there's something in this story that seems like much more of a narrative disqualifier. It's the very end of the story, the Big Bang (or what would be the very start of the story, if the story were told in chronological order). The entire universe popping into existence in a state of infinite density? Perhaps we should regard this as being the “mother of all narrative disqualifiers.”

According to the theory of gravitation, gravitational attraction is proportional to density. The gravitational attraction of a universe an instant after the Big Bang should have been nearly infinite, and should have caused the universe to collapse back into itself instantly, instantly turning the Big Bang into a Big Crunch. Cosmologists know of no known force that could have counteracted this gravitation, and they are purely speculating when they describe a force counteracting this gravity. For example, they may speculate about some “inflaton field,” but there is no evidence for such a field.

Back in the nineteenth century, astronomers tended to believe in an eternal universe. Imagine if someone had proposed the Big Bang theory back around 1850. He would have been almost uniformly denounced as a crackpot selling ridiculous hogwash.

Given the apparent impossibility of the universe popping into existence and expanding from a state of infinite density, perhaps we should regard the Big Bang as a narrative disqualifier. Perhaps the Big Bang disqualifies the whole modern account of the universe's history prior to man's existence. It may be argued that for such an account to be credible, it must have a credible beginning; and that the Big Bang event is not a credible beginning for a universe.

But what alternatives would there be if we made such a disqualification? One alternative would be to construct an alternative physical theory for the past of the universe. That might involve innovative thinking, and an innovative interpretation of red shifts and the cosmic background radiation (the two pillars of evidence for the Big Bang).

Another alternative is to think outside of the box, and to break out of the whole “first there was matter and then there was Mind” type of thinking. Here is one scenario. Let us imagine that there are only minds, and that matter exists only as something that is perceived by minds. Let us imagine that there is what we may call a Mind Source that is the source of minds such as ours.

If such a thing were true, it might be appropriate to distinguish between two types of events: events observed by minds, and events that were not observed by minds. We might call the latter type of events “phantom events,” and assign them a lesser degree of reality. Similarly, we might call years in which no minds could observe anything as “phantom years.”

This would take us into an innovative way of thinking. Scientists have traditionally regarded all years as having the same degree of reality. Just as a poet once proclaimed “a rose is a rose is a rose,” scientists have tended to think like this:

A year is a year is a year.
A century is a century is a century.
An event is an event is an event.

But maybe we shouldn't think in such a simple and monolithic way. If the universe consists only of minds, then years that were never observed by minds should perhaps be regarded as having a kind of shadowy, phantom existence. We might call such years phantom years. The whole first billion years of the universe's history could be regarded as mere phantom years. The Big Bang could be regarded as a mere phantom event.

If this idea seems outrageous, consider how scientists think about particles. You might think it's just common sense to think: a particle is a particle is a particle. But according to modern physicists, that isn't quite right. Physicists distinguish between two types of particles: real particles, and what are called virtual particles. Virtual particles have a kind of ghostly, phantom existence, lacking the same reality as permanent particles. If we can distinguish between real particles and these virtual, phantom particles, why shouldn't we distinguish between real events and phantom events, which might also be called virtual events?

Based on the very strange results of the double-slit experiments, some scientists have speculated on quantum mechanical grounds that events don't become real until they are observed (at which time, supposedly, the wave-function collapses). If that's true, what happens to the Big Bang? It becomes a mere phantom event.

There is another reason for regarding the Big Bang as a kind of phantom event. The reason is a kind of “dirty little secret” of cosmology. It is the fact that the Big Bang is eternally unobservable. There is no chance that we will ever develop technology that allows us to look back to the Big Bang, or anything within 380,000 years of its occurrence.

The physical reason has to do with what is called the recombination era. Scientists say that in the first 380,000 years of the universe's history, matter and energy were so densely packed that all photons of light coming from the early universe were hopelessly scattered. Imagine you are looking through some crazy telescope that is 50 meters long and has 1000 different lenses at different points in the telescope tube. Each of the 1000 lenses causes the light to scatter in a different way. Of course, such a telescope will not allow you to see anything. Just as such an arrangement would act as an impenetrable optical barrier, the first 380,000 years of the universe's history acts as an impenetrable optical barrier. Each light photon from the Big Bang must have been scattered many times every second, as those particles interacted with other matter and energy particles in the dense early universe.

The cosmic background radiation cited as evidence for the Big Bang does not actually date from the Big Bang, but from a time 380,000 years after it. That radiation only tells us about the state of the universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

The visual below illustrates the idea. We can only look back in our telescopes to the edge of the orange area. Trying to look back to the Big Bang is like trying to look through a thick layer of clouds to see the moon, but a million times worse. 

recombination era
 We can only look back to 380,000 years after the Big Bang

If we can consider the light from the Big Bang as a quantity of information, then the first 380,000 years of the universe's history served to shuffle that information billions of times. We can no more recover that information than you could recover the original state of a deck of cards after the deck had been shuffled a billion times.

So we can never look back to the Big Bang. No technology will ever overcome this physical obstacle. Since the Big Bang is eternally unobservable, there are empirical grounds for regarding it as no more than a kind of phantom event, lacking the substantiality of events that we can presently observe or can at least hope to one day observe.

Should we then refer to “the ghostly beginning of all things” when discussing cosmology?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Speculative Extravaganzas Wrongly Called “Models” by Cosmologists

Let us consider the type of work done by theoretical cosmologists. One of the main activities of such people is to create theories about the universe, and theories about the origin of the universe. Quite typically, such theories are mainly speculations which have little basis in fact.

An example is the family of speculations known as cosmic inflation theory, which speculates about a sudden surge in the expansion rate of the universe at a time about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe's beginning (a surge which then suddenly ended after a fraction of a second). The facts we have about the universe do not directly support such an idea, but merely the much simpler idea that the farther you go back in time, the hotter and more dense the universe was (which leads you back to a point, apparently, of infinite density at the very beginning of cosmic history). Another example of a speculative cosmological theory is Paul Steinhardt's ekpyrotic theory, an attempt to replace the speculative cosmic inflation theory with an arguably even more speculative theory involving unobserved cosmic cycles. Another speculative cosmological theory is the theory of cosmological natural selection, which also involves many cosmic cycles. Then there is the “string landscape theory” involving a multiverse of more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 universes.

The job of the theoretical cosmologist is in some ways very similar to the job of a novelist or screenwriter who is trying to dream up a plot for his next novel or screenplay. Just as a writer of a novel or screenplay set in modern America or ancient Rome or renaissance Florence will often try to keep his imaginative creations consistent with known facts, a theoretical cosmologist will often present an imaginative scenario which he attempts to keep consistent with known facts about the universe. But there is one big difference. Rather than selling his imaginative creations to a publishing house or a movie studio, a theoretical cosmologist must pitch his imaginative creations to a scientific journal. The theoretical cosmologist must therefore wrap up his speculations in a kind of scientific garb, making such imaginative creations sound like examples of science. How does he do that?

In his scientific paper our theoretical cosmologist will never refer to his speculative ideas as speculations. Instead he will typically describe his theory as a “model.” But it is often misleading to use such a term when referring to cosmological speculations. In science a model is an attempt to represent known reality by presenting a simplified description that accounts for certain features of that reality, or represents that known reality in a mathematical way.

A very simple example of a model is the Bohr model of the atom, which represented the electrons in an atom as being like planets rotating around the sun, with the nucleus of the atom being like the sun. This model was later found to be too simple, but at least it shows the idea of a model: a mental representation we can use to help us understand a much more complicated reality. 

Bohr model of the atom

Another example of a model is the “solid particle” model of subatomic particles. This simply involves depicting things such as electrons as hard, solid particles. This is a simplification, because it turns out electrons can act like either waves or particles, and the position of an electron should more realistically be represented as a kind of “smeared out” probability cloud. Another example of a model is the plate tectonics model. The physical surface of our planet involves countless details, but we can more simply describe it as being a set of about 12 big plates that generate earthquakes when they collide with each other.

Why is it inappropriate to use the term “model” to refer to speculative cosmological theories such as the cosmic inflation theory, the ekpyrotic theory, the theory of eternal inflation, and the theory of cosmological natural selection? It's because such theories are not simplifications, but are typically the opposite of simplifications. Speculative cosmological theories involve assuming the existence of events or physical realities that have not been observed. Such theories don't involve a mental representation in which things are simpler (as we have with models), but instead involve depictions of nature in which things are more complicated. Theories of such a type are not rightfully called models (although some of them are so ornate that we might rightfully call them extravaganzas).

Another way in which speculative cosmologists hide their speculations and guesswork is to avoid candid phrases such as “we guess” and “we speculate,” replacing them with phrases such as “let us start with,” “we assume,” “we take,” “we model” and “we describe.”

Here is an example from this scientific paper. The authors begin by saying, “Let us start with a model of slow roll-inflation,” and then describe a very specific version of this theory. They've immediately journeyed far into the airy dreamland of cosmological speculation, since “slow-roll inflation” is a highly speculative theory to begin with. The authors then say “we model this by adding a field,” and then describe a further highly speculative complication needed so that some thing “is anchored at the bottom of the inflationary valley.” Mentioning two fields, both of which are speculative, the authors say “we also assume that the fields ...interact via a higher-order operator,” adding another layer of complication to the speculative spider web they are spinning. They later say “we take the representative central value” to have a numerical value of 55, making an arbitrary guess. They then say, “We assume that inflation ends abruptly after the critical point,” making yet another speculative assumption. They mention “we can adjust the inflationary scale” in some particular way, and apparently do that also – still another piece of speculative guesswork.

Do you get the picture on what is going on here? Speculations heaped upon speculations. Wild guesses piled upon wild guesses. Picking numerical values out of a hat. But the reader might not be aware of that, because the authors don't use candid language to describe their guesswork.

If a paper such as this were to be written candidly, it might be written something like this:

We will begin our speculations by starting off with the wildly speculative blah-blah-blah theory already advanced by previous cosmologists fond of guesswork. We add to this some further speculations involving blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah. But to accomplish our imaginative task, we must further guess that blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. We must also arbitrarily guess that blah-blah-blah has a numerical value of 130. When we further speculate that the blah-blah-blah theoretical construct has the very specific shape of blah-blah-blah and that the imagined blah-blah-blah effect has some weird characteristics that we will imaginatively describe, our speculative extravaganza (not to be confused with a scientific model) is finished.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Big Hole in Lanza's Biocentrism

In his recent book Beyond Biocentrism, Robert Lanza MD and his co-author Bob Berman offer another case for the philosophy they advanced in their earlier work Biocentrism. Their philosophy of biocentrism is an example of what philosophers call idealism. Idealism is the philosophical position that matter has no independent existence outside of minds that perceive matter. An idealist is someone who believes that the universe is just a collection of minds. An idealist is someone who thinks that instead of our minds existing inside the solar system, it's the other way around: the solar system is merely something that exists as a perceptual regularity inside of minds such as ours.

To someone who is not used to thinking as an idealist, idealism may initially seem absurd. But the case for idealism was advanced in a surprisingly forceful way in the eighteenth century, by British philosopher George Berkeley. In his classic philosophical work The Principles of Human Knowledge (which can be read here), Berkeley argued for immaterialism, the idea that matter has no existence outside of minds that perceive matter. His classic slogan was: to be is to be perceived.

In order to get a handle on this concept, let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that there exists no Earth at all, and no matter at all. But let's imagine that there exists a particular number of immaterial minds that have a spiritual existence. Suppose that some unknown thing causes these immaterial minds to have a series of thoughts and perceptions and sensations. Suppose also that instead of each of these minds having its own random set of thoughts and perceptions and sensations (like 30 different people having 30 different dreams, all totally different), there is instead a certain degree of similarity, a set of recurring patterns, so that there are various similarities in what goes on inside these immaterial minds. Imagine that all of these minds have somewhat similar thoughts, perceptions and sensations, with these corresponding to earthly experience (such as the experience of seeing it get dark every night, and the experience of seeing a blue sky).

The question then arises: how can you tell that you are not such an immaterial mind living in a universe without matter, in which your sensations of matter are coming from some unknown external source? The answer is: you really can't. There is really no way for you to figure out whether you are a matter person living in a mainly matter world or whether you are a mind person living in a totally mind world. From this standpoint, idealism seems like a rather plausible option, or at least something that is perhaps as likely to be true as not, a kind of 50-50 bet.

But if you are going to be an idealist and not willing to dismiss your fellow human beings as just perceptions in your mind (which would lead you to the morally disastrous position called solipsism), you would need to believe that there is something that causes multiple human beings to have the perceptual regularities and similarities that they have (such as a daily experience of the sky getting dark). Being a theist, George Berkeley simply argued that God was the source of perceptual regularities. If you had asked Berkeley whether the moon will disappear if humans become extinct, Berkeley probably would have said: no, because the moon will continue to persist as an idea in the mind of God. Someone taking a similar approach might argue that we experience sensations of gravitational attraction not because there is really matter undergoing self-attraction but because a divine agent has set up a kind of perceptual rule that all minds will experience perceptions of gravitational attraction.

But what is the philosophy of biocentrism that Lanza has recently been arguing for? It seems like Berkeley-style idealism, but one that is without any core explanation to explain the regularities of human perceptions. It seems like a kind of minimalist, stripped-down, bare-bones form of idealism.

On page 125, the authors say, “The world we see is the visual perception located in our head.” On page 137 the authors say, “There is nothing 'out there' beyond the reality constructed in our minds.” On page 186 the authors say, “We start by seeing that there is no real world 'out there' beyond us.”

This at first may sound like Berkeley-style idealism. But it seems there is a big difference. The biocentrism of Lanza and Berman apparently wishes to reduce the world to what goes on in the human mind, but their philosophy makes no attempt to describe anything that may be the source of human minds or the regularity of human experiences.

This has a certain advantage from the standpoint of simplicity. A typical scientist may want to think the universe is basically matter plus human minds. A Berkeley-style idealist might argue that the correct description of the universe is: human minds plus a divine mind. But biocentrism seems to speak as if the universe is simply: human minds (without any matter). That's simpler than either of the previous two options. But it's not very plausible. Without anything other than human minds, why would there exist human minds that happen to share so many perceptual regularities (such as the experience of seeing the moon in the sky and seeing a blue sky)? If there were just human minds, we would not expect such regularities.

We can imagine how things might be if there was an immaterial universe consisting of only random human minds with random experiences, without some type of cosmic cause of perceptual regularities. Such minds might have conversations like this:

Human #1: Why I had a lovely day today. It was fun watching all those elephants flying about in the green sky above me, and the five moons in the sky made it look even lovelier.
Human #2: My day wasn't so good. There were too many purple fireballs falling from the yellow sky. I much preferred yesterday's chocolate sky, which gave such a tasty rain.

Our experience has hundreds of perceptual regularities, which a non-idealist can account for by assuming matter and natural laws. A theistic idealist can also explain such perceptual regularities by assuming a perception-ordering agent that sets up certain “rules of the game.” But how do we explain the regularities of experience using the “only human minds” kind of thinking of biocentrism? It would seem that this is a big hole in their “bare bones” theory. Lanza and Berman have done nothing to explain the regularities of human perceptions. If we imagine only human minds, and that matter does not exist, we have no explanation of why human experiences are so similar, and why they share so many perceptual regularities. There might be some way for an idealist to explain such a thing in a non-theistic way, but Lanza and Berman have not attempted to do so. By making statements such as “There is nothing 'out there' beyond the reality constructed in our minds, “ Lanza and Berman seem to be advancing a “just human minds” description of the universe, one that is not very plausible because it lacks an explanation for the similarities and regularities of our experiences and perceptions.

We can compare the biocentrism of Lanza and Berman to the idea that our experience is produced by some computer simulation created by an extraterrestrial civilization (an idea that also involves a claim that matter isn't really out there). Such an idea has its own difficulties, but at least it is able to explain the regularities of human perceptions. Just as all players of a video game have certain common perceptual experiences, because the game was programmed with a certain set of rules, under the simulated universe idea we can account for similarities of human perceptions by imagining that it is “part of the programming.” But if we just imagine that the universe consists of nothing but human minds, without attempting to account for why such minds exist, there is no obvious way to account for the similarities of human perceptions.