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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, October 28, 2016

Are They Extraterrestrial Signals From 234 Stars?

A study by Canadian astronomers has attracted considerable attention, because the astronomers claim that they may have found evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations. The astronomers used spectra, which is what results when you pass the light from a star through a scientific instrument such as a spectrograph, which splits up the light into component parts. The astronomers say they have picked up irregularities in the spectra of 234 stars. 

A cluster of stars (credit: NASA)
Viewed without any transformation or alteration, the “signals” in question look completely natural. But the astronomers monkeyed with the data to get it to cough up some blips.

The paper gives figures such as the one below, showing something received from one particular star. 

But this data is not raw data from the star. It is data that has been transformed by the astronomers, who keep telling us in their paper that they are showing a “Fourier modulus of the frequency spectrum (after subtraction of its smoothed spectrum).” That's some kind of abstruse mathematical contortion – something many times more complicated than an average. Why should we be impressed by some kind of blip that emerges only after some statistical or mathematical tinkering has been done? There are 101 ways to massage data to get it to produce some type of blip, if you are looking for some type of blip to appear.
Press reports claim that these “signals” match exactly signals predicted in a 2012 paper. But that isn't actually true. The 2012 paper shows a type of blip that might appear in a stellar spectrum, but it shows a great big blip. The type of blips shown in the new paper by the Canadians are only small blips.

Here is the graph shown in the 2012 paper, which is just a "we might get signals like this some day" type of graph:

 The graph above shows a blip much, much more dramatic than the type of blips shown in the paper of the Canadian astronomers. 

I find it rather hard to believe the idea that extraterrestrials would artificially modify the radiation coming from their stars (presumably a very expensive business) in the hopes that such signals would be detected by people on other planets who just happened to apply a Fourier transform (plus an additional subtraction) to such signals. Such a message would be merely a “we are here” type of message that would not transmit semantic content, such as you can transmit in a radio message. But if you are going to go to all the trouble of trying to communicate with planets outside of you, why not use radio signals, which allow you to send detailed, meaningful content (such as a description of what your planet is like, and what type of beings live on it)?

Then there is the coincidence problem. Since the stars in question are scattered throughout space, if we are to believe that most of the spectra blips were produced by extraterrestrials, we would have to believe that coincidentally more than 100 extraterrestrial civilizations decided to use the same weird technique for signaling their existence, a technique that is not one of the five main techniques we would think extraterrestrials would use. Such a coincidence seems far-fetched.

I am also troubled by the fact that the signal is not directly found in the data, but only emerges after some monkeying with the signal that is not straightforward. We can imagine a UFO investigator presenting similar evidence:

UFO Investigator: Here's my photo showing a disk-shaped UFO in the sky. Pretty impressive, eh?
Skeptic: Wow, nice work. So that's the original photo?
UFO Investigator: No, the UFO only showed up after I applied multiple transformations to the photo. First, I applied a “Fish eye” transformation. Then I performed a “horizontal shift” transformation. Only then did the disk-shaped UFO show up.
Skeptic: Get outta here, that's worthless. Try showing me an unaltered photo!

What is very strange is that astronomers seem to be ignoring evidence of unexplained sky anomalies and UFO's in our own skies, but then they try to go torturing data from other stars until it drips out signs of extraterrestrials. There are very many unaltered photos and videos of unexplained phenomena in our own skies. Such photos and videos do not use exotic transformation techniques to produce evidence of something unusual. There is also abundant eyewitness testimony, and the witnesses were not wearing “special light transformation” glasses when they saw what they saw. Why should not such things be regarded as something much more substantial than evidence that only emerges when you have massaged data until it produces the effect you are looking for?

Why might a scientist ignore a great deal of photographs, videos, and eyewitness sightings, all suggesting evidence of something unexplained or extraterrestrial in our skies, but instead prefer to focus on some minor blips from distant stars that only emerge after some contrived methodology in which raw data is massaged until it looks very different? Perhaps the explanation has something to do with snobbery. All those UFO photos and videos are taken by ordinary citizens. There seems to be an unfortunate tendency among the very clannish scientific community for scientists to think along the lines of, “An observation doesn't count unless it was produced by someone in our little country club.” This type of snooty elitism makes no sense.

Besides a kind of people snobbery, I think there's also a kind of technological snobbery going on. A scientist may prefer some mildly suggestive observation produced by some fancy expensive piece of scientific equipment, rather than accept a much more substantial observation made by someone using some $80 point-and-click camera. This also makes no sense, since the reliability of an observation has no relation to how complicated or expensive was the equipment used to produce it. In fact, the fancier the equipment, the greater the opportunities for error.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Dogma Doom: Two Bullets for Dark Matter, One Bullet for Dark Energy?

Our scientists are often giving us visual displays designed to impress us with their grasp of nature. Such visuals should sometimes be taken with a large grain of salt, as they are often examples of dubious dogma. An example is the type of “composition of the universe” pie graph that shows the universe as about 71% dark energy, 24% dark matter and 5% regular matter. But as I discussed in my previous post “A Second Bullet in the Chest of Dark Matter?” the case for dark matter is wobbly, and two recent findings are hard to reconcile with standard accounts of dark matter. Commenting on one of these findings, an astrophysicist has said, “Nothing in the standard cosmological model predicts this and it is almost impossible to imagine how that model could be modified to explain it, without discarding the dark matter hypothesis completely.”

In my previous post I suggested that we should replace the dogmatic “composition of the universe” pie chart with a table listing the universe's contents as ? % dark matter, ? % dark energy, ? % atoms, and ? % unknown. Coincidentally, a few days after making this post, there appeared a news science story that seems to further shatter all confidence that we understand the composition of the universe.

The new science story dealt not with dark matter but dark energy. No one has any idea what dark energy is, but there is a vague idea that the vacuum of space may be filled with dark energy. The case for dark energy seemed to solidify when scientists announced that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Scientists said that only dark energy in the vacuum of space could account for this acceleration. We were told that dark energy has a kind of expansive pressure, rather like the gas pressure that keeps a helium balloon from collapsing, and that this is causing the universe's expansion to accelerate.

But now dark energy may have taken its own bullet in the chest. It comes from this paper dealing with supernova explosions. The conclusion that the universe's expansion is accelerating was based largely on an analysis of the star explosions called supernova explosions. The new paper also analyzes supernova explosions, but uses a more sophisticated technique and a larger database. The new paper says, “We find, rather surprisingly, that the data are still quite consistent with a constant rate of expansion.”

As discussed here, the new paper casts doubt on the claim that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. In doing so, it seems to undermine the main evidence for dark energy.

Ouch! It looks like our swaggering, strutting cosmologists may have little idea about what they are talking about when they pontificate about the composition of the universe. But we shouldn't be surprised by such dogmatic overconfidence, seeing how extremely common it is in the fields of physics, biology and neuroscience. Should we tear out those pages of the astronomy textbooks that have dogmatic “composition of the universe” pie charts? Perhaps instead we can print up some candid stickers resembling the visual below, and paste them over such “composition of the universe” pie charts. The figure in the white coat represents a scientist with the proper degree of intellectual humility. 

composition of universe
 Postscript: Some news reports said that the authors of the new paper on supernova explosions had said that the expansion of the universe is not accelerating. But their paper was actually entitled "Marginal evidence for cosmic acceleration from Type Ia supernovae." They merely claimed that the evidence for an accelerating universe was marginal. Their paper is rebutted by this paper from today, entitled "Is the expansion of the universe accelerating? All signs point to yes."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Second Bullet in the Chest of Dark Matter Theory?

The phrase “caught with your pants down” means to be found in an embarrassing situation. This is exactly what has happened to the swaggering overconfident theorists who have been telling us for decades that many a cosmic mystery can be explained by postulating the existence of dark matter.

For decades such theorists have said the behavior of galaxies cannot be explained merely by the gravitational attraction of ordinary visible matter. So, we have been told, there must be some kind of additional matter, an invisible matter, what is called dark matter. No one has ever produced direct observational evidence for such dark matter, and the Standard Model of physics does not include dark matter. But our dark matter theorists have insisted that there is indirect evidence for dark matter, and have even dogmatically asserted that the universe is 26.8% dark matter. This type of unwarranted precision about an unknown has struck many as being an absurd case of theoretical overconfidence.

Now a new study has cast grave doubt on whether dark matter even exists. (Interestingly, a recent article in Astronomy magazine states, “Scientists now know that dark matter comprises some 84 percent of the universe’s material,” which is so far off from the other estimate it makes you wonder whether someone's just picking numbers out of a hat.)

As reported here and here, the new study found that the rotation speed of galaxies correlates very strongly with the amount of visible matter in galaxies. In other words, if you know how much visible matter is in a galaxy, you can accurately predict the rotation speed of that galaxy. Such a relation is all but impossible to explain under dark matter theories. As astrophysicist David Merrit says, “Nothing in the standard cosmological model predicts this and it is almost impossible to imagine how that model could be modified to explain it, without discarding the dark matter hypothesis completely.”

 The new study seems like a bullet in the chest of dark matter theory. And it may be the second bullet in the chest of dark matter theory. In August scientists announced findings about a distant galaxy called Dragonfly 44. This galaxy seems to have about roughly the mass of our galaxy, but only emits 1 percent of the light our galaxy emits. So astronomers stated that this Dragonfly 44 galaxy seems to be 99.99% dark matter. But such a conclusion raises the question: how could some galaxy get to be 99.99% dark matter, if dark matter is only about five times more common than regular matter? Our cosmologists have been telling us that dark matter is about five times more common than regular matter, and that the two are mixed throughout the universe. If two things are mixed together in a five to one ratio, we should not expect that you would have some local concentration that contained 99.99% of the first thing. A galaxy that is 99.99% dark matter seems no more likely than there might form over a town a lethal patch of the atmosphere that is 99.99% nitrogen and only .01% oxygen, something that would cause you to die of oxygen starvation.

Our scientists talk dogmatically about dark matter, and present arguments for its existence. But such arguments typically involve some underlying assumptions such as the following:
  1. The only force acting to determine the structure of galaxies is gravitation.
  2. Gravitation acts in the simple way that matches our formulas for gravitation, rather than in some more complicated way.
Since such assumptions are dubious, the case for dark matter is very doubtful. What we observe is a universe behaving in strange, mysterious ways. Our scientists try to make things look less mysterious by making precise estimates of the composition of the universe. It would be much more honest if such scientists admitted that we do not understand such things.

From a philosophical perspective, it is entirely possible that the universe is zero percent matter. All that we have direct knowledge of is what goes on in our own minds. Philosophers such as George Berkeley have presented reasonable scenarios of a “mind only” universe in which matter exists only as something perceived within a mind.

Let us imagine a savage living on some remote island in the Pacific ocean. The savage knows nothing of modern science and technology, and he often finds his little world to be a frightening place, particularly when there are thunderstorms. Yet the savage has one consoling thought: he thinks that the local witch doctor knows almost everything. But one day something surprising happens: the savage sees a distant jet airplane passing by the island, something he has never seen before. Bewildered, the savage goes to the witch doctor, and asks him to explain this wonder. “Oh that,” says the witch doctor. “That was just a big insect.” Now the savage is relieved. He can still believe that the witch doctor is a lord of understanding.

No doubt our cosmologists will try to explain away this latest cosmology anomaly in some similar way. Once society has anointed a figure as a great “lord of understanding,” such a figure will almost never say, “You know, I really don't understand these matters.”

But if our cosmologists were to be candid, they would cross out their dogmatic “composition of the universe” pie charts, and replace them with a frank diagram looking like the lower chart below. 

composition of universe
 Postscript: A new scientific paper notes that "no explanation exists so far for the observed dearth of dwarf galaxies in the local universe compared to the large number of dark matter halos predicted by" dark matter theory.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

These “Near-Death Experience” Skeptics Offer No Legwork and Little Logic

Oxford University Press has recently published a book entitled Near Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife by the philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin. University presses typically publish books by people who are experts in what they are writing about. But being a philosopher is no qualification at all for writing a book on near-death experiences. Being a neurologist, a psychologist or a parapsychologist might be a relevant credential, but we should not expect a philosopher would be more qualified to write about near-death experiences than, say, a plumber or a baseball pitcher.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin certainly have not made up for their lack of relevant credentials by being diligent in doing original research on their topic. They seemed to have done no original research whatsoever, and seem to show no evidence of having personally talked to anyone who had a near-death experience. They also seem to show no evidence of having personally interviewed any of the doctors or scientists who are researching near-death experiences. Where's the legwork? Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin have taken a lazy armchair approach which fails to offer any substantive new contribution to this topic. They haven't even done any numerical or classification work such as numerically categorizing or classifying near-death experiences. 

Armchair indolence

Their discussion of near-death experiences has curious omissions. In recent years probably the biggest event in the field of near-death experiences was the 2014 AWARE study published in a scientific journal, a paper authored by Sam Parnia and co-authored by many other doctors and scientists. The study receives no mention in Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's book.

They do discuss the well-known Pam Reynolds case of a woman who reported verified details of her operation while she was unconscious and allegedly having an out-of-body experience. Reynolds had both her eyes and her ears blocked (the latter being blocked by an earphone emitting 100-decibel clicks). To try to explain this, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin offer an explanation (on page 23) that is not credible: “Rather, we are raising the possibility that, even though she was unconscious, auditory impressions may still have registered, and they could have come to be conscious awareness later.” That's absurd. A sound is not something that sits in your brain like an unread e-mail message to be read at your leisure. If a sound isn't part of your conscious experience, the sound will not be remembered later. I may note that in this case Reynolds had earphones that were blocking her hearing and sending in 100-decibel clicks, so in this case a “delayed perception of received sounds” theory is particularly lame.

We can imagine someone suggesting something similar: “While I was out cold from all those sleeping pills, and while I had my headphones on, that were sending me loud white noise, I heard you insult me, and when I woke up I remembered hearing that when I was in deep sleep.” That's hardly a claim you'd believe.

To try to support this untenable theory, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin imagine a case of someone who drives home passing by a traffic accident, pays no attention to it, comes home, and then sees a report of it on the TV, leading him to recall seeing the accident. But that's a case of paying little attention to a perception you are consciously experiencing, which does nothing to make credible Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin's preposterous idea that your brain can store memories of something you heard while you were unconscious.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do not champion any one natural explanation to account for near-death experiences, relying on a pastiche of sketchy ideas, suggestions and suspicions. One of the main things they rely on is an utterly dubious appeal to an unbelievable psychological theory called terror management theory. On page 68-69 of their book, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin suggest that “terror management theory can explain why people who have near-death experiences would experience reunions specifically with their loved ones.”

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin attempt to pass off this extremely dubious “terror management theory” as some kind of established science, claiming that it is “well-validated” and that “over the past three decades, its predictions about human behavior have been repeatedly verified.” They offer no evidence or reference to back up this claim, which is off the mark. A 2009 paper entitled “Mortality Salience: Testing the Predictions of Terror Management Theory” discussed four studies that all failed to verify the predictions of terror management theory. The paper here notes a case where terror management theory (TMT) makes the wrong prediction:

TMT researchers assert that disgust reactions to death are part of such defenses, generating the prediction that death disgust should increase with age. Here, using the measure of disgust sensitivity devised by the Rozin School, we have shown that, contrary to this prediction, disgust sensitivity in the death domain declines with age.

On page 141 of their book, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are trying to explain a near-death experience in which a child named Colton reported floating out of his body, and then observing his father praying in one room and his mother praying in another room (an account confirmed by his father). Again Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin appeal to terror management theory. They say:

For the second step, we might appeal to terror management theory. It is plausible that a visual representation of his parents praying would help to relieve some of Colton Burpo's anxiety about his severe illness and surgery.

This is weak logic, since it does nothing to explain the accuracy of the reported observation or vision, nor is it clear why anyone would hallucinate about their parents praying as an anxiety-reducing mechanism (since your parents would be most likely to simultaneously pray for you if you were on the brink of death). A sight of your parents praying for your survival is no more anxiety-reducing than the sight of a priest giving you last rites.

Like Freud's simplistic theory which attempted to explain most human psychological problems as being caused by a single cause (childhood traumas), terror management theory is a simplistic psychological theory that claims that the fear of death is the motivating cause behind very much or most human behavior. But the idea that human behavior is mostly motivated by anxiety about death is completely inconsistent with a large variety of observed human behaviors that are very risky, such as suicides, unsafe sex, bungee jumping, jaywalking, cliff-diving, cigarette smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and people who drive fast and drive without seat belts. So these types of human behaviors are strong evidence against terror management theory, which is not something “well validated” as Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin claim.

A paper here rebuts terror management theory:

Although terror management theory's proponents claim that it is an evolutionary theory of human behavior, its major tenets are implausible when examined carefully from a modern evolutionary perspective. We explain why it is unlikely that natural selection would have designed a “survival instinct” or innate “fear of death,” nor an anxiety-reduction system in general, or worldview-defense system in particular, to ameliorate such fears.

The point is a solid one. Natural selection is “interested” only in your survival until you are finished reproducing, and has no interest whatsoever in whether you might have pleasant hallucinations when you die. I may note that terror management theory is an attempt to explain common human behaviors and beliefs, and does not at all predict that you will have pleasant visions when you die. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin have hijacked terror management theory, using it for some purpose that it was not intended. It's rather like some person claiming that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (part of quantum mechanics) helps explain why his girlfriend is uncertain about spending the night with him.

There is, in fact, no evidence that humans not close to dying have anxiety-reducing hallucinations when they are faced with anxiety or are in fear of death. No one who is approached by a threatening gunman ever has a hallucination that the gunman is bearing a bouquet of flowers, and no one who is on a sinking ship ever has a hallucination that a ship has come to save him. Moreover, people have near-death experiences when their heart has stopped or they are unconscious, so any psychological theory to explain a near-death experience vision is futile. Psychology is not going on when you are unconscious. Your brain does not do “fear management” when you are unconscious, because there is no fear at such a time.

I can think of ways in which a philosopher could use his philosophical training to add to the debate about near-death experiences – perhaps by offering some insight from the branch of philosophy called the philosophy of mind, or perhaps by speculating about some metaphysical reality that might explain such experiences. But we don't seem to get any such thing from Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin, who just lazily give us garden-variety armchair skepticism without any original research.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Is There a Better Argument for a Simulated Universe?

Nowadays when people discuss the concept of a simulated universe, they generally discuss the argument presented by Nick Bostrom. Bostrom's argument has got an amazing amount of attention, considering the fact that it is very weak. Bostrom reasoned that there may be super-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that could build super-sophisticated gigantic computers, perhaps as large as planets. He claimed that such computers would be capable of simulating all of human experience. He argued that if a super-civilization was interested in simulating human experiences, it might run a gigantic number of “ancestor simulations” simulating the experience of creatures such as us. There might be so many such computer-generated “ancestor simulations” that it might be more likely that we are living in such a simulation than that we are regular beings living in a regular material reality. 

There are several reasons why this argument is not very convincing. One is that it relies on a reductionist theory of the human mind, the idea that the human mind is just some by-product of material effects. There are very good reasons for believing that such a theory is wrong, and that something like human consciousness could never be produced by any computer. Among such reasons are psychic experiences suggesting that there is a lot more to human consciousness than brain activity, and also the fact that some humans have had pretty normal human consciousness even though very much or most of their brain was lost to disease (as documented by the physician John Lorber). Another reason (discussed here) is that while super-advanced civilizations might try their hands at running ancestor simulations, we have no reason to think that they would keep running such simulations for thousands of years (particularly since such super-advanced civilizations would have a trillion other fascinating projects they might busy themselves with). The chance of being part of some “ancestor simulation” that might be run during only a thousandth of the history of a very old super-advanced civilization seems very low. Then there is the fact that if we try to argue from a likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations to a likelihood of a simulated universe, then once we reach the idea of a simulated universe we reach an “all bets are off” stage, in which we no longer have a basis for believing in the likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations (since such a likelihood involves assuming the physical reality of external planets, something you can no longer count on if the universe is simulated). It is not logically valid to start with a premise and then use that premise to reach a conclusion that undermines the very premise you started off with.

So Bostrom's argument about a simulated universe is weak. But is there a stronger case we can make for such a concept? There may be. Below is a general argument for a universe that is simulated in the sense of not having the age and material reality that we normally suppose. Although the argument mentions a simulated universe, it is not explicitly referring to a universe that is a computer simulation.

Here is a short version of the argument:
  1. If the universe is in some sense simulated, we would expect that it would have various artificiality indications, which might include things such as indications of inexplicable sudden beginnings, internal self-contradictions, or regularities that are incredibly unlikely to exist by chance.
  2. Our universe seems to have quite a few such artificiality indications.
  3. So there is a good chance our universe is in some sense a simulation – perhaps something that exists as a matrix or substrate for conscious experience rather than something that exists as a physical reality independent of consciousness.
To explain the concept of an artificiality indication, let me discuss my favorite episode of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. The episode is called “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and begins as a man and a woman find themselves waking up in a deserted town. Their memories are scattered, because they were drinking too much the previous night. The couple doesn't know how they got in this town. Searching around in the town, the couple finds strange things – for example, a refrigerator has only plastic food, and there is a stuffed squirrel in a fake tree. Finally the couple notices a giant body above them. We see a giant girl pick up the couple in their hands. We then hear the girl's mother say the wonderful line, “Be careful with your pets, dear – your father brought them all the way from Earth.” Evidently the couple has been abducted by extraterrestrials, and put in a simulated human environment. The plastic food and the stuffed squirrel were artificiality indications – clues that their environment was an artificial construction.

The question is: do we have any such artificial indications in our own universe? Perhaps we do.

One type of artificiality indication you can imagine is an inexplicable sudden beginning. For example, in the “Stopover in a Quiet Town” scenario, the couple might have woken up with a dark sky outside, and then suddenly it might have been light (as the giant girl turned on the lights above them). Are there any inexplicable sudden beginnings that we know of in our universe? Quite a few, apparently. You can start with the Big Bang, the mother-of-all inexplicable sudden beginnings. Then there's the almost equally inexplicable origin of life believed to have occurred billions of years ago. Then there's the quite sudden Cambrian Explosion, in which a large fraction of the animal phyla appear suddenly in the fossil record about 550 million years ago. Then there's the apparently rather sudden origin of modern consciousness about 90,000 years ago.

We actually see little evidence of transitional fossils in the fossil record. It's almost as if someone had made a rather half-hearted attempt to simulate a natural past history of life on our planet, without doing all the work needed to leave behind a fully believable story in the fossil record. This may be a little like the fake food in the refrigerator in “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”

Another type of artificiality indication is an inconsistency. For example, suppose the couple in “Stopover in a Quiet Town” had found that the post office sign said “Pleasantville Post Office,” but the sign at the town's front said, “Welcome to Sunnyville.” This inconsistency would be a clue that the town was an artificial simulation.

Can we find such inconsistencies in our universe? Perhaps we can. Quantum field theory predicts that the vacuum should be incredibly dense, far denser than steel. But we see in outer space a vacuum that is almost empty. Quantum mechanics is actually inconsistent with general relativity, but both make predictions that have been very well verified. Are such inconsistencies signs of a universe that is artificial or simulated?

Conversely, when things are too consistent and unvarying, that can be an artificiality indication. So suppose that our “Stopover in a Quiet Town” couple had started to examine the rocks in the small town they woke up in, and found that all of the rocks were of two sizes: pebbles exactly one inch in length, and larger rocks exactly five inches in length. And suppose that all of the pebbles looked exactly the same, and all of the larger rocks looked exactly the same. That would be a strong artificiality indication. Is there anything like that in our universe?

Perhaps there is. When we get to the subatomic level, we find that all protons have exactly the same mass and charge, that all neutrons have exactly the same mass and no charge, and that all electrons have exactly the same mass and charge. Is this an artificiality indication?

It could be that these things I have mentioned are artificiality indications, clues that our universe is something like an artificial or simulated universe. The fact that the universe seems to be 13 billion years old is no proof that it is. It could be that things such as the cosmic background radiation and dinosaur fossils are just part of a kind of “backstory” plugged into our universe to “flesh out the simulation.”

Going back to the “Stopover in a Quiet Town” scenario, imagine the perplexed couple wandering around the town comes across a plaque in the town that looks like this:

Would this sign prove that the town was actually founded in 1745, burnt in the War of 1812, and visited by Abraham Lincoln? No, in this scenario the sign is just a bit of “backstory” provided to flesh out the simulation. Similarly, some things that our scientists take so seriously such as the cosmic background radiation or dinosaur fossils may be just things thrown into an artificial universe to “flesh out the simulation” by providing some “backstory” suggesting a past of a certain type.

If our universe is in some sense artificial or simulated, then we cannot tell how old it is, cannot tell how much matter it has, and cannot even tell whether it even has matter. The universe could mainly just be a substrate or kind of arena for the experiences of creatures such as us, and may have no reality outside of our minds.

Our scientists have such faith in their calculations of the universe's age, but this may be unwarranted overconfidence. Let's imagine an interesting scenario. Let's imagine that in the year 2500 some power (extraterrestrial or supernatural) creates an artificial zoo-like environment for humans (enclosed by a ring of high cliffs), and that such a power then creates some adult humans and puts them in this environment. We might imagine that the humans, the trees, and the grass were created either through some miracle or through some fancy genetic technology.

We can then imagine that these newly created humans might try to calculate how old their environment is. They might take some seeds from a high tree, plant the seeds, watch how fast the newly planted tree grows, and do a projection, which might lead them to believe their environment is at least 100 years old (based on the high trees they observe). They might also bear a child, and project from the child's growth rate that they must be at least 20 years old. The humans might then confidently proclaim (in the year 2503) that they had scientifically double-proven that they must be living in an environment at least 20 years old. But this would not be accurate, since their environment would actually have been created only 3 years ago, in 2500. The point of this thought experiment is: age calculations cannot be reliably done in an environment that is artificial or simulated. The possibility of an artificial or simulated universe means we cannot really be very confident that our universe has been around for 13 billion years. We can merely say that we have a method of calculating the universe's age that suggests such a conclusion.

People nowadays often ask, “Is the universe a computer simulation?” But that is too narrow a question to be asking. A computer-simulated universe is only one type of artificial universe, and there are many other types of artificial universes we can imagine. The broader question we should be asking is: is our universe something artificial that reflects the purpose of some higher intelligence?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Table Listing 50 Things Science Cannot Explain

Below is a list giving only a fraction of the very many things that modern science is unable to explain. Some of these things are exotic and anomalous phenomena, and others are very ordinary and familiar things. 

things science cannot explain
things science cannot explain

Below is a brief commentary on some of the items in the list, proceeding from top to bottom, and left to right.

Line 1: The Big Bang is the origin of the universe, which is completely unexplained, because we have no idea of what caused it. Baryon asymmetry is the unexplained fact that the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, but we don't observe any such balance in our universe – matter is actually many times more common than antimatter. The genetic code is a system of symbolic representations that seems to have been used by life from the very beginning. Explaining how such a system could have naturally appeared seems very hard or impossible.

Line 2: ESP or extra-sensory perception has been well demonstrated in laboratory experiments such as those done by professor Joseph Rhine, but the existence of such a phenomenon seems impossible to explain under materialistic assumptions. The origin of life is a problem scientists have been knocking their heads over for ages, but they have done very little to explain it (and it certainly cannot be explained through natural selection, which requires that life first exists). Near-death experiences have not been explained through theories of hallucinations, which are unable to account for why such experiences so often have a similar pattern.

Line 3: Apparitions are the same as ghost sightings, a phenomena that has occurred throughout history, but which is unexplained. Quantum entanglement has not been well-explained because it involves “spooky action at a distance” that scientists repeatedly said was impossible until quantum entanglement was proven. The alignment of quasar polarization vectors is a strange mystery discussed here.

Line 4: Consciousness is still an unsolved mystery, and involves the strange riddle as to how some arrangement of matter could possibly give rise to a totally different type of thing, the thing we call Mind (getting Mind from matter seems rather like squeezing a rock to produce blood). Dreaming is hard-to-explain as it seems to serve no purpose (and sometimes involves retrieval of distant memories one would think would be impossible while a person is sleeping). The vacuum's low density is the cosmological constant problem, the problem that the space between stars is almost entirely empty of mass-energy, even though quantum field theory predicts it should be very densely packed with mass-energy (see here for more about this).

Line 5: UFO's are unexplained lights or objects in the sky, sometimes extremely bright and large, which are not adequately explained by ideas such as mistaken identifications of aircraft and the planet Venus. Remote viewing is a psychic ability that the US government spent millions of dollars investigating, often producing astonishing results, but with no explanation of the cause. Charge conservation is the unexplained fact that when there are high-speed collisions of matter (such as in particle accelerators or shortly after the Big Bang), nature “balances the books” so that the number of negative charges balances the number of positive charges. Our existence depends on this convenient law of nature.

Line 6: The Cambrian Explosion is the fact that we see very few fossils in the fossil record until a time about 550 million years ago, when all of a sudden there appears most of the major phyla of animals. This sudden appearance is unexplained because it seems to defy expectations of gradual evolution. The existence of long-term memories lasting 50 years or more is unexplained, because prevailing theories of memory are based on synapse storage of memory, but (as discussed here) synapses are subject to rapid molecular turnover which should make them unsuitable for storing memories for more than a few weeks. The fine-tuning of the Higgs field (also called the “naturalness problem” by physicists) is something that physicists have tried for decades to solve, thus far having no success.  It involves a crucial factor in nature that seems to have a favorable and fantastically improbable value.

Line 7: Instantaneous memory retrieval is unexplained for the reasons discussed here. We have no explanation of how the brain could be retrieving a memory stored in some particular location of the brain, for it seems that the brain could never know where such a location would be. Schizophrenia is still unexplained, as are almost all mental illnesses (we know that drugs can help the symptoms of schizophrenia, but we don't understand why such drugs work). Genetic explanations don't work to explain schizophrenia, for it seems that if there were some gene defect causing schizophrenia, natural selection would have such caused such a defect to disappear from the gene pool. Atomic quantization restricts electron energy levels to certain discrete values. It's another natural law necessary for our existence, but unexplained.

Line 8: Crop circles are mysterious arrangements (often 100 meters or larger) in crops that appear overnight. There is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon, and skeptics have to resort to implausible theories of super-industrious fakers. Stevenson was a researcher who found very many cases of children who claimed to have had past lives. He was often able to corroborate the details they provided in such accounts. Savants are cases like that of Kim Peek, who was able to perform astonishing mental feats such as remembering the entire contents of 7000 books he had read. Very strangely, savants often have great problems in other areas of mental functioning.

Line 9: Spiral galaxy spin-nonrandomness is explained here. The double-slit experiment is perhaps the most baffling experiment in physics, under which particles behave like either particles or waves, seemingly in a way that almost suggests they can tell how they are being observed. John Lorber was a doctor who documented cases of almost-normal brain functioning in patients who had lost most of their brains due to diseases such as hydrocephalus. More than half of the patients he studied had above average intelligence. Moreover, removing half of someone's brain in a hemispherectomy operation seems to have no major effect on either memories or intelligence. 

Line 10: The problem of the Big Bang's improbable smoothness is discussed here, where I discuss a scientific paper saying that “the total fraction of the trajectories that are smooth at early times” is very roughly 1 in 10 to the 66 millionth power. The existence of man's higher mental capabilities is an unsolved mystery because (as discussed here) so many of these capabilities (such as musical ability, spirituality, philosophical reasoning, and math ability) are things we cannot explain as being products of natural selection (as they are things that do not increase an organism's likelihood of surviving in the wild). Daryl Bem's precognition experiments are those suggesting a small but real anomalous ability of humans to foretell the near future, something inexplicable.

Line 11: The placebo effect is the effect by which something with no medical effectiveness will produce good medical results, apparently just because someone thinks it is effective or may be effective. The evolution of extremely complicated proteins (particularly those with very rugged “fitness landscapes” and those with a high sensitivity to changes) is unexplained by natural selection, as are the appearance of very complicated biological systems of a type which require great complexity and coordination before yielding any survival value. The tether incident on the STS-75 space shuttle mission was one in which a swarm of baffling objects appeared, behaving like some kind of strange creatures or UFO's.

Line 12: The origin of language is a problem scientists have failed to offer much insight on, as discussed here. How is it that all those brain changes and larynx changes needed for speaking and understanding language could have occurred, when so much coordinated functionality would have to happen before any survival benefit would be produced? And how is it that a language could ever get started, when you would seem to need a language to ever establish a language? Verified premonitions are what happens when someone has a specific fear of some future misfortune, one that matches an actual disaster that occurred. In his book The Science of Premonitions, Larry Dossey provided many examples. “The law of the five allowed stable particles” is a name I use for the fact that nature behaves in such a way so that when high-energy particle collisions occur, the stable end product is never anything other than a proton, a neutron, an electron, a photon, or a neutrino. Scientists have no explanation for why nature behaves in such a restricted way (something necessary for our existence).

Line 13: Fermi bubbles are gigantic bubbles of energy, one stretching above our galaxy, and another stretching below it. An article produced by the National Accelerator Laboratory is entitled, “Despite Extensive Analysis, Fermi Bubbles Defy Explanation,” and notes, “The farthest reaches of the Fermi bubbles boast some of the highest energy gamma rays, but there's no discernible cause for them that far from the galaxy.” Fermi's Paradox is the fact that we have discovered no firm proof of extraterrestrials, despite living in a galaxy that offers billions of solar systems in which life has the opportunity to arise. “Peak in Darien” experiences are a particularly inexplicable type of near-death experience in which a subject who nearly died reports seeing a vision of dead people, including someone who died but whose death was unknown to the subject when he had such a vision.

Line 14: Why there is something rather than nothing is an age-old philosophical question that science does not explain. Why didn't we just have the perfect simplicity of eternal nothingness, something that would seem easier to explain than a universe with some particular set of characteristics? The fine-tuning of nuclear physics is the fact that the fundamental constants of nature have to be just right in order for you to end up with sufficient quantities of oxygen and carbon, and also stable molecules. Imagining a multiverse is not a scientific explanation of such a thing, both because imagining unobserved universes does not qualify as science, and also you don't explain the features of this particular universe (as opposed to “some universe”) by imagining a multiverse. The origin and persistence of spiral galaxies is a mystery because the rotations of spiral galaxies should cause their spiral arms to “unwind,” which means these beautiful spiral structures should not last more than a few hundred million years. See here for more on this.

Line 15: The widespread existence of homosexuality (with about 5% of the human population being homosexual) is not explained by science, particularly since we would think that natural selection would have caused such a tendency to disappear from the human population. The faint young sun paradox is the fact that models of stellar evolution suggest that the sun should have given off much less energy billions of years ago, presumably resulting in an Earth too cold for life to have appeared at the time scientists say life appeared. The exact matching of the proton charge and the electron charge (which have an absolute value that is identical, to 18 decimal places) is a “coincidence” on which our existence depends, as it is necessary for planets to hold together. Modern physics offers no explanation for this exact match, which seems very surprising given that each proton has a mass 1836 times greater than each electron.

Line 16: Believed to make up most of the universe, dark energy and dark matter are both unexplained by scientists, who have no idea what particles are involved in these things (the Standard Model of Physics does not include either dark matter or dark energy). Morphogenesis is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of biology. It is the mystery of how it is that a tiny fertilized ovum (the size of a grain of sand) is able to progress to become a full baby before birth. The DNA inside our cells seems to have no such thing as sequential instructions that might explain such a progression. The “global consciousness effect” is an effect by which the expected results from a global network of random number generators shows mysterious deviations during important world events.

Line 17: Orbs are mysterious circular anomalies that appear in photos. Although skeptics claim they are dust, many orb photos (such as these) show orbs that are too big to be dust, too bright to be dust, too colorful to be dust, and too fast-moving to be dust (as well as orbs that have stripes, distinctive repeating features, and face-like details). The particles of dust in ordinary are actually a thousand times too small to produce the larger orbs that show up in photos. Leonora Piper, Daniel Dunglas Home and Gladys Osborne Leonard were mediums who produced astonishing psychic results that investigators were unable to explain. Many think the human body plan is stored in DNA, but (as discussed here) DNA seems to use no language capable of expressing any such plan, and instead uses a bare-bones language capable of storing only lists of chemicals. That leaves the location of the human body plan as something science does not actually understand. 

For more information about these enigmas, follow the links above, or see my 4-part series "50 Things Science Cannot Explain," by using this link and scrolling down.  

Below is a single image listing the table above (which I had to break up into two images for it to display properly). 

things science cannot explain

 Postscript: Below are some additional things science cannot explain.

The protein folding problem. Proteins are specified in DNA as only one-dimensional sequences of amino acids, but somehow they form into complicated three-dimensional structures. Scientists have spent 50 years trying to solve the riddle of why this happens, but have still not explained why this happens.  See here for more about this fascinating problem.

Homochirality. Our cells use only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. Were it not for that fact, it wouldn't be possible to make complex proteins. It would be like trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle when half of the pieces were turned upside-down; in that case there would be no way to fit the pieces together. But when amino acids are created in the laboratory, half are left-handed and half are right-handed; and so it is for sugars. You would have to have seemingly impossible lucky breaks needed for all amino acids to have the same left-handedness, with the sugars all being right-handed.

The C-Value Paradox.  It is not at all true that the more complex an organism, the more base pairs in its genome. Amphibians and flowering plants have more base pairs in their genomes than mammals (including man), and humans have only slightly more base pairs in their genomes than worms. 

Toddler language acquisition.  Mainly by just listening to their parents, toddlers somehow acquire language, including complex rules of grammar, even though they are never formally taught such rules.  This is very hard to explain. There have been attempts to explain this as a result of a genetically provided "brain module," but it seems impossible that language rules could be stored in DNA, which uses a "bare-bones" nucleotide language only suitable for stating the constituents of proteins. 

Hyperthymesia.  Hyperthymesia (also called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory) is a rare condition in which people can remember in incredible detail what happened to them during any day during the past few decades. There is no known explanation. 

Cell Differentiation. A generic stem cell may specialize to become one of many specific types of cells. But no one knows how this happens. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

An Unconvincing Attempt to Explain Biology as Chemistry

The book What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by chemistry professor Addy Pross is an example of the type of reductionism you get when an expert in a particular topic tries to reduce something incredibly complicated to the much simpler topic that the expert is familiar with. So an economist may write a book claiming that human history is just economics, and a hormone expert may claim that human behavior is just the effect of hormones, and an information technology expert may claim that human consciousness is just data processing. Pross's variation on this type of errant reductionism involves an attempt to argue that life is just chemistry. One of his chapters is entitled “Biology Is Chemistry.”

But how can we explain the explosion of information that occurred when life first originated? Pross attempts to discuss this in a section entitled “Information and Its Chemical Roots.” But his discussion is vacuous. First he says (without justification) that “the biological phenomenon of information generation is nothing other than the chemical phenomenon of establishing and enhancing specific catalytic function.” Then he says, “Just as my writing of this book creates information (hopefully), the process of evolution can also create information.” That hardly makes a natural origin of biological information understandable, since an author's writing a book is a deliberate act by a conscious agent, which is not what would be occurring in any natural scenario of the origin of biological information.

Part of the problem of explaining the origin of life is explaining the origin of the genetic code, the complex system of symbolic representations used by life from the beginning. It's hard to imagine any chemical reactions that would have caused that to originate. What does Pross have to say about the genetic code's origin? Nothing. The genetic code does not appear in the index of his book. And what about cells? Of course, explaining the origin of cells is one of the most troubling aspects of explaining the origin of life. But Pross apparently has nothing much to say about that, for I don't found an entry for “cell” or “cells” in his index. And what about explaining the origin of proteins, another gigantic problem in explaining the origin of life? The only index entry for proteins in the index of Pross's book is an entry marked “protein degradation.” Clearly, someone paying little  attention either to the origin of cells or the origin of the genetic code or the origin of proteins is not someone who can justifiably use the phrase “How Chemistry Becomes Biology” as the subtitle of his book. 

The complex structure of a protein molecule
I do find a passing reference to the origin of cells on page 186 of Pross's book, where he says this:

That's when cells, as discrete biological entities, were born. That transition was a highly significant one – one might consider it as a phase transition.

A phase transition is a physics concept. It is what occur when all the particles in a system start behaving in a different way when a certain condition is reached, such as when all the water particles in a liquid start behaving differently when the water freezes. But a phase transition does not involve an appearance of new information or new functionality, so it is worthless in explaining the origin of the complicated biochemical machinery in cells. The origin of cells was not a phase transition.

On page 164 Pross gives a reductionist definition of life, defining it as: “A self-sustaining kinetically stable dynamic reaction network derived from the replication reaction.” Which is a definition of life that only a chemist would give. Do chemists greet visitors by saying, “Greetings, fellow reaction network”?

After reading Pross's book, I'm reminded of the old story about the blind men who were presented with an elephant. One blind man held on to the leg of the elephant and said the elephant is like a tree. Another blind man held on to the tail of the elephant, and said that the elephant was like a rope. Another blind man held on to the tusk of the elephant, and said the elephant was like a spear. Like a blind man holding the tail of an elephant and concluding that the elephant is just a rope, Pross has got hold one of one part of life – chemistry-- and apparently convinced himself that's all there is to life.

But biology cannot be reduced to chemistry, just as chemistry cannot be reduced to physics. Imagine it is early in the history of the universe, before water formed, and you are some mysterious entity studying the universe. You know all about physics and all about the different elements, but you have never seen water. Could you predict from studying the properties of hydrogen and the properties of oxygen that when these two are combined into a molecule you would have something that would have the properties of being wet and drippy? You certainly could not. Chemistry is something that cannot be reduced to physics.

Similarly, biology cannot be reduced to chemistry. Imagine if you were some pure-energy visitor from some other universe who knew nothing about biological life. Imagine you came to the early earth, and studied all the available elements and chemicals, and all the chemical reactions that were occurring, before life appeared. You would have no basis for predicting that any macroscopic biological life would appear. Biological life is not merely chemistry. If you have a dead corpse, you cannot jolt it with some electricity to restart the chemical reactions, and then have a reanimated human that is alive (contrary to the hopes of Victor Frankenstein).