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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, March 30, 2018

New Galaxy Discovery Triggers Professorial Logic Flub

The theory of dark matter has struck out at the plate again. Scientists reported that they have observed a galaxy named NGC1052-DF2 that seems to have no dark matter near it. This contradicts the dogmatic claim of dark matter theorists that there is a halo of dark matter surrounding every galaxy.

This is the second blow this year against the dark matter theory. It was only last month that we had headlines such as “New Observations of Galaxies Challenge the Standard Cosmological Model.” It was found that 14 out of 17 satellite galaxies orbit the galaxy Centaurus A in a flat plane-like orbit, not randomly scattered in a sphere surrounding that galaxy, as predicted by dark matter theorists. The same type of situation had previously been found in regard to our own Milky Way galaxy and the large nearby galaxy Andromeda. In all three of these cases, satellite galaxies are positioned in roughly a disk-like shape, rather than scattered in a sphere-like shape as predicted by dark matter theory. 

 Centaurus A (credit: NASA)

The headlines were based on a scientific paper that estimates that the chance of finding a plane-like arrangement of satellite galaxies is only 1 in 200, and which says that the chance of finding three galaxies with such an arrangement is “extremely unlikely” under dark matter assumptions.

The latest discovery concerning NGC1052-DF2 has prompted some nonsensical headlines. Forbes.com has a story entitled, “Bizarre Ghost Galaxy Has Hardly Any Dark Matter - Proving That Dark Matter Exists.” It quotes a Yale professor Pieter van Dokkum as saying the following:

We thought that every galaxy had dark matter and that dark matter is how a galaxy begins. This invisible, mysterious substance is the most dominant aspect of any galaxy, so finding a galaxy without it is unexpected. It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work, and it shows that dark matter is real. It has its own separate existence apart from other components of galaxies.

How's that professor? Finding a galaxy that you don't think has any dark matter shows that dark matter is real? That's defective reasoning, like someone arguing that the fact that he didn't see any unicorns today just proves that unicorns must exist.

We get another look into the logic of van Dokkum in an article on Quanta.org, with the misleading headline, “A Victory for Dark Matter in a Galaxy Without Any.” In that article van Dokkum reasons that other theories would also have a hard time explaining this NGC1052-DF2 galaxy. But an adherent of the dark matter theory is not a reliable source on what competing theories do or do not explain or predict. Scientists in general who become fanboys of some particular theory tend to know very little about competing theories, and often have distorted or jaundiced views about competing theories. Also, it makes no sense to argue that your theory is right because something was observed that conflicts with both your theory and a rival theory. In such a case, the most likely thing is that neither of the theories is correct.

It is, of course, a complete fallacy to be assuming that one of the theories about some natural topic must be true. We may have Theory A, Theory B and Theory C to explain Topic X, but there is no reason to assume that one of these theories must be true. The correct explanation might be Theory D or Theory E or Theory F, none of which humans have ever considered.

We also get a misleading headline from Nature.com, which has a story entitled, “Beguiling dark matter signal persists 20 years on.” That sounds like dark matter has been detected. But the text of the article tells a different story. We hear that “many physicists still express skepticism” about this signal, and some reasons for thinking it's not dark matter. So in that case, why does the story's headline refer to a “dark matter signal” ?

Nowadays there is a situation where any astronomer who sees something baffling he can't explain may tend to call it “a possible sign of dark matter.” But there have been no reliable observations directly showing dark matter exists, and expensive projects trying to detect it directly have failed. Nor do we have any theoretical understanding of dark matter on the particle physics level. The theory at the center of particle physics is called the Standard Model of Physics. Dark matter has no place in such a theory.

So why do astronomers go about claiming that this or that galaxy has dark matter near it? They make such claims whenever they see galaxies behaving in surprising ways they can't explain through ordinary gravity produced by regular matter.

What led to the belief in dark matter was the discrepancy shown in the visual below. Astronomers thought that the rotation velocity of stars (the speed at which they rotate around the center of the galaxy) should decrease the more the stars are located from the center of a galaxy (which would be the behavior shown by the blue line below). But instead stars rotated with the speed shown in the red line. 

Such a discrepancy was certainly not anything that directly suggested that dark matter existed. It was merely a case of nature behaving in a surprising way. Scientists tried to explain this discrepancy by advancing a very contrived, ad-hoc, and speculative assumption: that each galaxy was surrounded by a kind of envelope or halo of invisible dark matter. Such a theory involves two assumptions: the assumption of the existence of such invisible matter, and also a very specific assumption about the arrangement and placement of such matter. The astronomer making such an assumption is like some theologian confidently telling you not merely that angels exist, but that they live on top of clouds where we can't see them (which would involve not just an assumption about an unseen, but a very specific assumption about the position of such an unseen).

The “overwhelming evidence for dark matter” cited by astronomers is no such thing. It's just evidence that stars rotate with speeds that have a surprising uniformity that we don't understand. When an astronomer says that galaxy X has dark matter, he essentially is just saying that the stars revolve around the center of a galaxy with the pattern shown in the graph above. That isn't really something that tells us dark matter exists, but merely a hint that it might exist. A science paper found (as discussed here) that the rotation speed of galaxies is well-correlated with the amount of visible matter, something that makes no sense under the theory of dark matter. 

Showing their love for being obscure in unnecessary ways, scientists use “^CDM” to signify the cold dark matter theory, in which the first character is the Greek letter lambda. Such a phrase can be expressed as Lambda Cold Dark Matter. But that Lambda word tells you nothing. The theory should be called the Specially Placed Invisible Matter theory or SPIM. That would remind us that the theory relies not merely on postulating invisible matter, but on special assumptions about the way such matter is placed. 

To help shed light on whether a claim is warranted, it is sometimes a good idea to put scientific reasoning in kind of a syllogistic nutshell. The Big Bang theory holds up pretty well to such a thing. We can use reasoning like this:

Premise 1: Astronomers know from red shifts that all the galaxies are expanding away from each other.
Premise 2: The universe has a type of background radiation that we would expect it to have if the universe was once in a very dense state.
Conclusion: The universe must have started expanding from a state of incredible density.

That conclusion holds up reasonably well. But let's try the same thing with dark matter.

Premise 1: The stars in a galaxy rotate around the center of the galaxy at a much more uniform speed than we would expect if just visible matter is involved, given our current understanding of gravity.
Conclusion: Therefore, such a galaxy must be surrounded by an invisible halo of dark matter, some substance never directly observed, with this halo arranged in a very particular way.

This conclusion does not at all follow from the premise. It is merely a speculation, one of many possible ways in which the rotation discrepancy might be explained, including new laws of nature. 
composition of universe

Scientists who talk in a matter-of-fact way about dark matter are merely another example of something we see all too commonly: scientists acting as if they know things that they do not actually know.  The problem is that scientists fall in love with their speculative theories, forgetting they are conjectural, and a scientist may "live-breath-and-eat" his favorite theory like some novelist totally wrapped up in his novel or like some ardent suitor obsessed with his loved one.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Organization Explosions They Can't Explain

Last night on the National Geographic channel there was a science documentary discussing the origin of life. It was the typical misleading treatment of this topic I expect to see on a TV show or a mainstream source. There was the usual vastly overconfident talk suggesting scientists may be on the brink of solving the problem of life's origin, an entirely unfounded claim we have been hearing for 70 years. We also heard a scientist in front of a hot spring or hydrothermal vent saying, “This is where chemistry turns into biology.” No, it isn't. There could only be a case of chemistry turning into biology if chemicals were to turn into a living thing, something that hasn't happened on our planet for at least three billion years, in either nature or a laboratory. Chemistry does not turn into biology in hot springs or hydrothermal vents.  As a recent scientific paper notes, "Independent abiogenesis on the cosmologically diminutive scale of oceans, lakes or hydrothermal vents remains a hypothesis with no empirical support."

The origin of life is a case of an organization explosion. The origin of even the simplest life seems to require a fantastically improbable burst of organization. Protein molecules have to be just-right to be functional. It has been calculated that something like 1070 random trials would be needed for a functional protein molecule to appear, and many such protein molecules are needed for life to get started. And so much more is also needed: cells, self-replicating molecules, a genetic code that is an elaborate system of symbolic representations, and also some fantastically improbable luck in regard to homochirality. Scientists have no plausible explanation for this organization explosion, nor do they have a decent explanation for another organization explosion: the Cambrian Explosion.

When we examine the fossil record, we don't see fossils appearing in larger and larger sizes, at an even rate of progression between 3 billion years ago and 100 million years ago. Instead, we see very little fossil evidence of life prior to the Cambrian era about 520 million years ago. But during the Cambrian era there is a sudden surge of fossils in the fossil record. This sudden blossoming of life during the Cambrian era is known as the Cambrian Explosion.

The major groupings of life are called phyla. There are about 35 animal phyla, and almost all of these phyla appeared during the Cambrian era. There is not a single animal phylum that has arisen since about the time of the Cambrian era, which lasted from about 540 million years ago to 485 million years ago. As one research paper states, “The youngest animal phylum is about 500 million-year-old.” This highly technical document states that Bryozoans are the youngest phylum of animal. The document states:

Bryozoans, or moss animals, make their first appearance in the fossil record about 490 million years ago. All other phyla had appeared by about 510 million years.

This creates quite a problem for Darwinian theory, as it is not what such a theory predicts. According to Darwinian ideas, what we should have seen is more and more phyla appearing as time progressed, as more and more branches appeared in a tree of life, like the tree of life that appeared as an illustration in The Origin of Species. In fact, Darwin said in The Origin of Species that the Cambrian Explosion “may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.”

We don't know how many animal phyla originated in the Cambrian Explosion, and estimates vary between 30 and 100. The graph below assumes an intermediate estimate of 50. A graph like this is startling, because it shows the origin of animal phyla in a single blip.

cambrian explosion

There have been various attempts to explain how the Cambrian Explosion could have occurred. One such attempt is the book In the Blink of an Eye by biologist Andrew Parker. The author's theory is summarized on the dusk jacket of the book:

Parker's astounding explanation is that it was the development of vision in primitive animals that caused the explosion. Precambrian creatures were unable to see, making it difficult to find friend or foe. With the evolution of the eye, the size, shape, color, and behavior of animals was suddenly revealed. Once the lights were “turned on,” there was enormous pressure to evolve hard external parts as defenses and grasping limbs to grab prey. The animal kingdom exploded into life, and the country of the blind became a teeming mass of hunters and hunted, all scrambling for their place on the evolutionary tree.

The book calls this theory the “light switch” theory. What is this “pressure” referred to in this quote? It is what Parker calls “selection pressure.” The concept of selection pressure is reasonably used when talking about microevolution, changes in a population that result simply from a state where some particular trait already present in the population is either favored or disfavored by the environment.

Here is an example. Imagine a population of 500 dogs is introduced in the wild to a very cold island in upper Canada. Some of the dogs may have short fur, and others may have thick fur like the Samoyed breed. In such a situation, you could say there is selection pressure that might cause the dogs with thick fur to become more common in the population over the next few generations (because the short-haired dogs might tend to freeze to death). This is an example of microevolution, which does not involve any new complex biological innovations. All of the examples in the wikipedia.org article on “evolutionary pressure” (the same as selection pressure) are mere examples of microevolution.

But Parker has hijacked the term “selection pressure,” which is reasonable when talking about microevolution, and he is using it to try to explain sudden cases of biological innovation, what is called macroevolution. This is illegitimate. In no sense can we explain dramatic macroscopic innovations by using the phrase “selection pressure.”

Let us consider the Darwinian account of how evolution occurs. We are told that new biological innovations are caused by lucky random mutations and natural selection. The idea is that over the eons there very rarely occur fortunate random mutations. We are told that natural selection causes favorable random mutations to accumulate, and that this results in useful new adaptions.

Such a Darwinian process will be at the mercy of how often these rare lucky mutations occur. Such a rate will not be sped up when there is a need for some particular innovation. If a biological innovation requires many parts before it can be useful – which is certainly the case for a vision system, hard shells, and grasping limbs – then there will be no natural selection at all until the innovation has reached a functional threshold, which requires quite a few parts arranged in a way that achieves a functional coherence.

Using the term “selection pressure” to try to explain such an innovation of macroevolution is nonsensical. There would be no natural selection at all until the innovation had become largely functional. And when there's no natural selection going on, there can be no selection pressure. It is absurd to use the word “pressure” to try to explain the natural origin of useful parts and their arrangement into functionally coherent systems. It would be just as absurd to say that if you are freezing in the woods, there will be a “habitation pressure” that will cause falling trees to form into a log cabin for your convenience.

For example, suppose there's a species that does not have wings, and is often preyed on by some predator. It is absurd to say that there is then a selection pressure pushing such an organism to turn into a flying organism that can escape the predator. Until the organism were to develop functional wings, there would no natural selection going on favoring wings. And when there's no natural selection favoring something, there cannot be selection pressure.

Parker's magic-wand phantasmagorical thinking about “selection pressure” is shown on page 6 of his book, where he says, without providing an example, “The introduction of a new food source may lead to the evolution of new mouthparts and limbs for movement.” So if you're an animal that doesn't have a mouth or legs, and some other mobile animal starts to appear in your area, one that might be nice for you to eat, then evolution conveniently provides your species with a mouth and legs, like some Fairy Godmother providing Cinderella with just what she needed for the Prince's ball? That's hilarious.

In reality, Darwinian evolution will always be at the mercy of random mutations that will not cooperate based on needs, and which will always be fantastically unlikely to provide a species with new innovations that it might find useful. This is because virtually all random mutations are neutral or harmful, and it is fantastically unlikely that random mutations would conveniently occur in a way allowing parts to fit together, so that functional coherence was achieved. The need for some biological innovation would cause no change at all in the rate at which favorable random mutations would occur. Such favorable random mutations would be just as fantastically unlikely to occur when a species needed something as when the species didn't need anything. Similarly, there is no relation between your financial needs and the likelihood of you winning a million dollars by playing roulette at Las Vegas.

Below are some of the innovations appearing suddenly in the Cambrian explosion:

  1. vision, appearing in species such as trilobytes;
  2. various phyla that did not have protective shells;
  3. body parts allowing moving about and attacking other organisms;
  4. protective shells
You don't explain the first three of these under any “the lights turned on, so animals needed to protect themselves” idea, as it doesn't explain the first three things. Nor does it work to explain the appearance of protective shells by evoking Darwinian natural selection. Let us imagine the gradual evolution of a protective shell around the internal organs of some species like a primitive trilobyte. The first stages in such a protective shell would offer no benefit, because the organism's body would still be a mostly unprotected area that a predator could attack, like some shark munching on a swimmer who only had his wrists protected by steel bands. So there would be no natural selection benefit for the early stages of such an innovation. This is the same “non-functional intermediates” problem, which in Darwin's time was called the problem of incipient stages.

The problem of explaining the Cambrian Explosion is the problem of explaining the abrupt appearance of a wide variety of sudden biological innovations, including vision, which there is no fossil record of before the Cambrian Explosion. Parker cheats on such a task by offering an explanation that starts out with vision appearing, and then tries to use that to explain the other innovations. That's a cheat because his “light switch” theory doesn't explain the hardest part of the Cambrian Explosion, explaining the origin of vision. 

The problem of the origin of vision is constantly minimized by evolutionary biologists, who try to reduce it to only being the problem of an eye developing. But there are 4 parts in even the most elementary vision system:
  1. an eye
  2. an optic nerve
  3. extremely fine-tuned light-capturing proteins, fantastically unlikely to appear by random mutations
  4. very complex brain changes needed to interpret visual input
So here we have a classic case of the problem that intermediates or incipient stages would be nonfunctional. For example, it would do a species no good if it had only a primitive eye but not the proteins needed to capture light, or only those proteins but not the primitive eye.

Parker's explanation for vision's origin is as featherweight as a photon. His explanation is basically: because there was a little more sunlight, vision appeared. On page 291 to 292 Parker states:

The first eye must have evolved in response to an increase in sunlight...And indeed the geologists have revealed an increase in sunlight levels precisely at the very end of the Precambrian.

He provides no reference for this claim, which is not true in any substantive sense. There is no geological way to tell how much sunlight there was 530 million years ago, and scientists in general assume that the sun does not suddenly change its output. The scientific paper here has a graph that shows an estimate of solar radiation during the past billion years. We see no sudden increase at the time of the Cambrian Explosion about 530 million years ago.

The basic idea behind Parker's “light switch” theory in his In the Blink of an Eye book is a kind of “Fairy Godmother” concept of evolution. It's the idea that when species need something, evolution rather quickly provides them with wonderful new innovations, “in the blink of an eye,” like the Fairy Godmother providing Cinderella with the wonderful innovations she needed to go to the Prince's ball (or like the female character in I Dream of Jeannie blinking something into existence to benefit her astronaut master). Such a chimerical description is very much at odds with standard claims that evolution is driven by mere random mutations and natural selection. The rate at which incredibly unlikely favorable random mutations occur will have no relation at all to the needs of some species, and it should always be fantastically improbable that random mutations should occur in an organized way that conveniently matched the needs of some species. 

Another lame explanation of the Cambrian Explosion involves saying that there was an increase in oxygen that allowed it. But you don't explain a fantastically improbable thing by merely mentioning that a prerequisite for it recently appeared. That's as fallacious as Bob's reasoning in the exchange below, which takes place in Joe's backyard.

Joe: How do you like my house of cards?
Bob: You must have made that by just throwing a deck of cards into the air.
Joe: You're crazy! That would never work. 
Bob: But I have an explanation for how it happened: it's that today is a nice calm day. You never could have made that house of cards yesterday by throwing the deck of cards into the air, because yesterday it was too windy for that to work. 

Bob has here committed the fallacy of trying to explain a fantastically improbable event by merely mentioning that a prerequisite for it occurred.

There's one other explanation I've read for the Cambrian Explosion. It's that we observe it because the Cambrian Explosion suddenly started making fossils that are big enough and hard enough for us to observe 500 million years later. That explanation is as lame as the young man's reasoning in the exchange below.

Old man: I've never seen anything very strange,  except that 50 years ago I suddenly saw 40 huge monsters appear in a field. 
Young man: The explanation is obvious. You saw them that day because they were so big. If they were just tiny monsters, you wouldn't have noticed them.

This type of explanation explains nothing. 

There is also the rather laughable explanation suggested by one  researcher, in an article entitled, "Cancer tumors could help unravel the Cambrian explosion."  Talk about grasping at straws. Cancer is a disorganized cell growth, and such a thing does nothing to explain the incredible organization burst that occurs when a new phylum originates. In the article the author claims to have advanced a "new theory," but the scattered observations in the article never amount to a coherent hypothesis. 

A more substantive idea is advanced in this paper, which tries to suggest that earthly evolution has been supercharged by comet bombardments carrying genetic material from beyond our planet. I'm rather skeptical that such an idea could help much with the Cambrian Explosion problem, but perhaps it could help plug other holes in the standard story of earthly life's evolution. The authors state the following, making an interesting comparison between prevailing Darwinian theory and the discarded theory of Ptolemaic epicycles:

In a final reckoning it would have to be admitted that ultimately all of evolution has been controlled and continues to be controlled by space-borne organisms, microbes and viruses. It is important that we not allow Science to be stifled by a reign of dogmatic authority that strives to restrict its progress along narrow conservative lines. The current situation is strikingly reminiscent of the Middle Ages in Europe – Ptolemaic epicycles that delayed the acceptance of a Sun-centred planetary system for over a century.

A question raised by their idea is: if you're going to imagine extraterrestrial life contributing to earthly evolution, then why not just try to explain the Cambrian Explosion by imagining a spaceship that came here and dropped off organisms specifically designed to live here, as I speculated in this post?

Postscript: One of the authors of a scientific study confirms that the appearance of the first animals (which the author dates to 541 million years ago) involved an information explosion. The author states this:

We discovered the first animal had an exceptional number of novel genes, four times more than other ancestors. This means the evolution of animals was driven by a burst of new genes not seen in the evolution of their unicellular ancestors.

The scientific paper gives specific numbers of new genes that appeared when specific groups of animals originated. For example, it lists 1580 novel genes needed for Bilateria to originate, 1201 novel genes needed for Planulozoa to originate, and 1189 novel genes needed for Metazoa to originate. 

Interestingly, the New York Times covers this story with a headline "The Very First Animal Appeared Amid an Explosion of DNA," which sounds like my phrase "information explosion." Meanwhile panspermia.org refers to these novel genes by saying,"What we find remarkable is that neither the genes that apparently predate animals, nor the novel ones noticed now... have any discernable darwinian provenance," meaning they are unexplained under Darwinian theory. 

A 2019 study published in the journal Nature states, "Our results are consistent with the first animal cell being able to transition between multiple states in a manner similar to modern transdifferentiating and stem cells." The suggestion is that "the first animal cell" had a complexity and capability similar to today's cells, which makes the Cambrian Explosion even harder to explain under current ideas.  This sounds like even more of an "organization explosion." 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Not-So-Grand Destiny of Robots

It finally happened. A robot car killed a pedestrian. A woman crossing the street was killed by a self-driving car. It seems rather amazing that such a thing didn't happen earlier with a self driving car. That's because robots don't understand a single thing.

You may have heard of “machine learning.” But there is absolutely no such thing as machine understanding. There is not a robot or computer in the world that understands anything. Understanding is something that goes on in a mind. Robots and computers don't have minds.

You may get a clearer idea of how things are for a self-driving car if you consider that such a car has not the slightest grasp of such concepts as what a human being is, what life is, or what death is. If you walk in front of some self-driving car, to that car you are merely a group of pixels to be avoided. To the self-driving car, you are only slightly different from stop signs or electrical poles. The software of the self-driving car probably has some priority system whereby it assigns a higher value to avoiding collisions with mobile objects than stationary objects. But the car has not the slightest understanding of why it is bad to run over pedestrians. 


Let us look into what happens when computers and robots compute. The following equation covers most of the types of computation that occur.

digital inputs + processing = digital outputs or modification of digital data

There are various types of variations of this equation. One is simply:

no inputs + processing = digital outputs or modification of digital data

Another variation is the following:

digital inputs + processing + retrieval of other digital inputs = digital outputs or modification of digital data

By digital inputs or digital outputs I mean anything at all that can be represented digitally, by a sequence of binary numbers. Here are some of the things that we know can be represented digitally, and which modern computers do use as digital inputs or digital outputs:

Any number
Any set of characters or words
Sound recordings

Any text can be digitally represented by means of things such as the ASCII system that allows you to represent particular characters as particular numbers. While we don't normally think of an image as digital, it can be represented digitally as a series of pixels or picture elements. For example, a photograph might consist of 1 million pixels, which each can be represented by a number representing a particular shade of color. So the image can be digitally represented by a million such numbers. A video or real-time camera input can also be representing digitally, since the video can be represented as a series of images, each of which can be digitally represented.

Is the output of a self-driving car a digital output? It is. The car simply computes 5 digital quantities:

  • how much to turn the steering wheel to the left;
  • how much to turn the steering wheel to the right;
  • how much to accelerate;
  • how much to brake;
  • which of three positions the transmission should be in (drive, park or reverse)

After a digital-to-analog conversion, these digital quantities are applied to the car's controls.

But there are some things that we can never hope to produce as digital outputs. The first is real conceptual understanding. By understanding I don't mean “how-to” type understanding, but the high-level conscious understanding of some abstract truth or concept. We can imagine no possible way to produce a digital output that would equal a real conceptual understanding of something.

But, you may ask, doesn't that smart computer Watson already understand something – the game of chess? No, it doesn't. Watson merely can produce a digital output corresponding to a good move to make as the next move in a chess game. Watson has zero conceptual understanding of the game of chess itself, and has zero understanding of the abstract concept of a game. The only way you can understand the abstract concept of a game (or the abstract concept of leisure) is if you have been a human being (or something like a human), and played a game yourself.

A digital output must always boil down to a series of 1's and 0's. Can we imagine a series of 1's and 0's that would equal a real understanding of an abstract concept such as health, matter, life or world peace? No, we cannot. Understanding is not a digital output.

So none of our computers and none of our robots understand anything. A programmer may say, “My program understands the difference between new customers and old customers,” but that's just a kind of loose way to talk. What the programmer really means is that the logic in his program can distinguish between two different things. That's not the same thing as actual understanding. Here “distinguish” simply means “behave differently based on different situations or inputs.”

Basically all of the computers and robots existing today are digital. No one has ever built a computer or robot that operates like the human brain operates.

There is also an extremely strong case for believing that it will never work to try to give a computer or robot understanding by
creating a computer or robot based on the human brain. The case is based on reasons for doubting that the human brain is actually the source of the human mind.

The claim that the human mind is produced by the human brain is something scientists have never established. Such a claim is merely a speech custom of scientists, an unproven dogma. There are some very good reasons for doubting this claim, which scientists offer as a simplistic explanation because they lack the imagination to ponder more profound possibilities. Below are a few (but by no means all) of the many reasons for doubting the “brains produce minds” claim:
  • the fact that there are many dramatic cases in the medical literature of people who had more or less normal minds even though large fractions of the brain (or most of their brains) were destroyed due to injury or disease, including super-dramatic cases of people with good minds but less than 15 percent of their brains;
  • the fact that there is no scientific understanding at all of how brains or neurons could be producing consciousness, thought, understanding or abstract ideas (mental things that are very hard or impossible to explain as coming from physical things);
  • the fact that there is no plausible account to be told of how brains could possibly be storing memories that last for fifty years, given the high protein turnover in synapses, where the average protein only lasts a few weeks;
  • the fact that there is no understanding of how brains could achieve the instantaneous recall of distant, obscure memories that humans routinely show, given the lack of any coordinate system or indexing in a brain that might allow some exact position of a stored memory to be very quickly found;
  • the fact that there is no understanding whatsoever of how concepts, visual information, long series of words, and episodic memories could ever be physically stored by a brain in any way that would translate all these diverse types of information into synapse states or neuron states;
  • the fact that for more than 40 years numerous people have reported vivid near-death experiences occurring after their hearts stopped and their brains were inactive, during times when they had no brain waves, and they should have had no consciousness at all, with many of the medical details they reported during such experiences being independently verified (as described here).

All of these reasons (and quite a few others I have not listed) strongly suggest that the human mind comes from something other than the human brain. Rather than being a bottom-up phenomenon bubbling up from tiny little neuron events, our minds may come to us through a top-down process, arising from some mysterious cosmic reality that we don't understand – perhaps something along the lines suggested here and here.

What is the robotic relevance of the evidence strongly suggesting that our minds do not come from brains? Such evidence strongly suggests that all future attempts to build brilliant robots by imitating the architecture of the brain will fail. If we're not getting our minds from brains, there is no reason at all to think that robots or computers will ever get real conceptual understanding because robot designers or computer designers will one day use some architecture based on the human brain.

If that is so, we need not fear at all that robots or computers will ever take over the world, because they will always lack the understanding to do such a thing.  The destiny of robots will not be the grand destiny of taking over as masters of the planet, but the much more modest destiny of serving as our slaves, servants and toys.

Postscript: For a collection of posts presenting in detail many aspects of the case for thinking that minds do not come from brains, see this site. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hits and Misses of the Physicist Bloggers

For decades the late Stephen Hawking was the center of a kind of giant hype machine that portrayed him as the greatest living scientific genius. This hype was unwarranted for a scientist who never even won a Nobel Prize. Showing admirable persistence and diligence despite his severe handicaps, Hawking made some interesting contributions to the study of black holes. But his thoughts about topics outside of his specialty were often not very wise.

An example of his dubious thinking was his “No Boundary Proposal” about the Big Bang, that the Big Bang was not a boundary in space or time. The problem with this proposal is that it is the exact opposite of what nature tells us about the beginning. Everything we have learned about the Big Bang suggests it is as clear a boundary as you can imagine, a sudden beginning of time and space.

Hawking also repeatedly warned that machines might take over the world (a fear that is unwarranted for the reasons  discussed here).  He repeatedly urged that we need to leave planet Earth (not as good an idea as staying here and making sure that our planet stays in good health). He repeatedly sung the praises of M-theory, a wildly speculative theory for which no evidence has ever appeared. He also declared falsely and unwisely that “philosophy is dead.”

Physicist blogger Ethan Siegel (whose specialty is cosmology) has a post entitled “The 4 Scientific Lessons Stephen Hawking Never Learned.” He lists one of these lessons as Be humble about your own speculative, unproven ideas.” He states the following:

This is a pitfall that has afflicted many of the greatest minds throughout scientific history: to fall in love with their own fringe scientific ideas so thoroughly that you tout them with the certainty normally reserved for verified, validated, robust theories. Hawking's no-boundary proposal is speculative and unproven, yet Hawking will often (including in A Brief History Of Time) speak about it with the same certainty he'd speak about black holes....Unproven ideas should never be a substitute for legitimate facts, yet Hawking, in every book he ever wrote, never tells you when he strays from the confirmed-and-validated into this speculative realm, particularly where his own ideas are concerned.

Here Siegel is right on the mark. One of the greatest problems of modern scientific literature is that writers mix up speculations and established facts, packaging the whole mixture as “science.” And so many a dubious proposition and many a doubtful theory is sold to the public as “science,” as if such things were well-established. Such failure to distinguish between fact and theory goes on constantly in the literature of biology, psychology, physics, and cosmology. When people start a sentence with “Science says,” half of the time they will refer us to something that has not actually been established by observations or experiments. 

science speculation
Unfortunately, Siegel himself is often guilty of exactly this problem of falling in love with his own shaky scientific ideas so thoroughly “that you tout them with the certainty normally reserved for verified, validated, robust theories.” We see this repeatedly in his columns when he refers to the extremely speculative and very much unverified theory of cosmic inflation as if it were empirically established science, which it certainly is not. We also see this repeatedly when Siegel refers to the speculative theory of dark matter as if it were empirically established, which it is not. No one has ever directly observed any dark matter. In the same column that Siegel is criticizing Hawking for speculative excess, he refers to “everything we've learned since 1979 about the conditions that set up the Big Bang.” Nothing of the sort has actually been learned, and we know nothing whatsoever about any conditions that set up the origin of the universe.

Not only do we have no observations about anything occurring any time close to the Big Bang, but we have no observations (and will never be able to have any observations) of anything that occurred in the first 300,000 years of the universe's history. Scientists tell us that it was only at about 300,000 years after the Big Bang that there occurred what is called the Recombination Era, in which atoms first formed. During the first 300,000 years, particles were so densely packed that all light coming from those years must have been hopelessly scattered. As a scientific site tell us:

Because of the presence of the free electrons, photons were scattered around in all directions and could not travel far before changing their direction. Therefore the universe was "opaque".

We therefore will never be able to get any observations about anything that happened during the universe's first 300,000 years. The light from those years was hopelessly jumbled and scrambled by the density of the matter, as strongly as if you put your Microsoft Word document through a computer program that might thoroughly scramble its characters 100,000 times. As we will never be able to make observations of the universe's state in the first 300,000 years, all claims about the exact state at the Big Bang (or before it) will never be claims backed up by observations.

A physicist blogger with a large following is Lubos Motl, who has been blogging many times a month since 2004 at his site "The Reference Frame."  Motl's blog is a strange collection of physics, politics, and climate commentary, with many of his opinions being very dubious (but presented with a large amount of literary skill and style). Very strangely Motl is for supersymmetry (a theory for which there is no evidence), but opposed to standard ideas on global warming (for which there is a great deal of evidence). This is simply an example of how the assertions of a modern scientist may be very largely dependent on the scientist's personal tastes. On the plus side, I may note that Motl is a good person to have around when physicists start spouting nonsense about parallel universes, because he has shown his skill at debunking such speculations.

Another physicist blogger with some interesting content is Sabine Hossenfelder, who blogs at this site. In contrast to Motl, she has repeatedly criticized the theory of supersymmetry, a speculative physics theory. That seems appropriate, since all signs are that supersymmetry has been a great big waste of time. Thousands of scientific papers have been written advancing this ornate speculative theory for which no evidence has been gathered.

But Hossenfelder has repeatedly advanced a dubious account as to why physicists advanced the supersymmetry theory. She has often claimed that the theory was advanced because physicists find that supersymmetry is “prettier” or “more beautiful.” Referring to the supersymmetry theory in a recent post, she says,  “I explained many times previously why the conclusions based on naturalness were not predictions, but merely pleas for the laws of nature to be pretty.”

But it's not correct that the supersymmetry theory was advanced because physicists had some great longing for a beautiful or pretty theory. The supersymmetry theory (a very cluttered affair not at all beautiful) was advanced to explain away a particular case of fine-tuning in the laws of physics.

Here is how the wikipedia.org article on supersymmetry explains it:

In the Standard Model, the electroweak scale receives enormous Planck-scale quantum corrections. The observed hierarchy between the electroweak scale and the Planck scale must be achieved with extraordinary fine tuning. In a supersymmetric theory, on the other hand, Planck-scale quantum corrections cancel between partners and superpartners (owing to a minus sign associated with fermionic loops). The hierarchy between the electroweak scale and the Planck scale is achieved in a natural manner, without miraculous fine-tuning.

So the real reason the supersymmetry theory was advanced was to try to avoid a case of “miraculous fine-tuning.” This is a much different reason than creating a theory in hopes of making the laws of nature “be pretty.”

No evidence has shown up for the supersymmetry theory. So scientists are stuck with this case of “miraculous fine-tuning” they had hoped to avoid. In a previous post, Hossenfelder compared this particular case of fine-tuning to finding a cube balanced on one of it edges. She says she doesn't believe that “finetuned parameter values require additional explanation.” In that post she seems to speak as if she thinks people should not pay much attention to cases in physics where we find a cosmic balance so delicate that it's like a cube balanced on one of its edges. I disagree, and think that such cases (which must have an explanation other than chance) are weighty cosmic clues we should pay very much attention to.

Postscript: In a recent interview in Scientific American, cosmologist Martin Rees says that the cosmic inflation theory (not to be confused with the more general Big Bang theory) is a "good bet."  But we should call things a "good bet" only when we have some probabilistic basis for believing in their likelihood. For example, if you hear a 60-year-old suddenly died in his home, it would be a good bet that he died of a heart problem, because that's the most common cause of sudden deaths in the elderly. But there is no probabilistic basis whatsoever for calling cosmic inflation (a brief burst of exponential expansion of the universe) something likely to have occurred. For such a thing to occur (ending up with a universe like ours) requires so many special conditions and so much fine-tuning that it is wrong to be calling such a theory  "a good bet." The theory is better described as a "popular story."

At her blog Sabine Hossenfelder puts the cosmic inflation theory into context:

Theoretical physicists have proposed some thousand ideas for what might have happened in the early universe. There are big bangs and big bounces and brane collisions and string cosmologies and loop cosmologies and all kinds of weird fields that might or might not have done this or that. All of this is pure speculation, none of it is supported by evidence.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Expedition: A Science Fiction Story

I authorize an expedition to the supply center,” said Frank. “Karen and Tom will be the expedition participants.”

Can I go too?” said little Steve. “I've never even been outside our building, least not that I can remember. I'm old enough to go.”

Going on an expedition outside our building is nothing to be taken lightly,” said Frank. “If you don't suit up right, and make all the preparations just right, you may find yourself cooked like a hot dog in the microwave. It's an oven outside this building. Are you ready to face that kind of danger, little boy?”

You bet I am!” said Steve.

Okay, we'll I guess you're finally old enough for something like this,” said Frank. “I guess we can use that expedition suit that your sister first used several years ago. Let me brief you on all the steps you need to execute the expedition successfully.”

Frank retrieved what looked like a space suit.

This is your expedition suit,” said Frank. “It will keep you from dying from all that heat outside.”

I'll put it on,” said Steve.

No, that's not the first step,” said Frank. “First, you strip off your clothes and apply cooling gel all over your body. The cooling gel and the expedition suit work together to stop you from being cooked to death.”

After applying the blue cooling gel all over his body, Steve put on the expedition suit. It fit reasonably well.

So you think you're ready to go outside?” asked Frank.

Sure, I'm ready,” said Steve.

No, you're not ready!” said Frank. “You haven't put on your backpack cooling device. Without that, you'll cook to death out there.”

Frank showed how to set up the backpack cooling device. He had Karen, Tom, and Steve test the radios of the expedition suits. The radios would allow them to talk to each other over the noise of the backpack cooling unit.

So it looks like you're all suited up,” said Frank. “So are you ready to go out the building?”

Sure,” said Steve.

No, you are not!” said Frank. “You didn't make a weather check for dust storms. If one of those things hit while you're outside, it could kill you.” 

After the weather check, and after Karen, Tom and Steve were all suited up, they exited the building. They set out toward their destination a mile away. 

Steve was delighted by all the sights around him. It was a bleak landscape, but for a little boy who could never recall being outside of the building where he lived, everything he saw around him was a source of wonder.

You ever get into trouble on a trip like this?' asked Steve.

Sometimes,” said Tom. “If your expedition suit starts malfunctioning, it can be scary. You may get a sudden dust storm. If you see one of those, then you have to turn around and go back.”

After a mile of walking, they reached the supply center, and went inside.

Okay, you can take off the helmet of your suit,” said Tom. It was nice and cool inside the supply center. After gathering their supplies, Tom asked Steve what they should do before going outside again.

I guess we just have to put on our suit helmets again,” said Steve.

No, it's more complicated than that,” explained Tom. “The cooling gel we put all over our skin got used up during our 1-mile walk over. So we have to take off our expedition suits, and reapply some fresh new cooling gel before we go outside again.”

They all took off their suits, reapplied the cooling gel, and put their expedition suits back on. Before exiting the supply center, Tom had a question for Steve.

So can we go outside now?” asked Tom.

Sure,” said Steve.

No, we haven't done our suit checks yet!” said Tom. “Remember, I told you before: every time before exiting a building, you check all of the indicator lights on your expedition suit to make sure it is functioning perfectly.”

After making the suit checks, Tom asked Steve one more question.

So now are we ready to go outside?” asked Tom.

I guess so,” said Steve.

No,” said Tom. “We didn't make a weather check for approaching dust storms.”

But we already did that when we set out,” said Steve.

I know,” said Tom. “But you've got to make the weather check for dust storms both when you set out, and when you start to come back from your destination.”

After the weather check was made, Tom, Karen, and Steve exited the supply center, and began the one-mile trip back to the building where they lived. The trip back was uneventful. After returning to Frank, they took off their expedition suits, and cleaned off the remainder of the sticky cooling gel on their skin.

Congratulations, kiddo,” said Frank to Steve. “Now that you've made your first expedition outside, I guess we won't think of you as such a little kid any more.”

All that hassle, just to get some food at the grocery store,” said Tom with a sigh.

The four of them were living in Phoenix, Arizona in the southwestern United States in the year 2160. Once populated by more than a million people, the heat-scorched city now had a population of only 4,300, and all of them dressed up like astronauts when they dared to travel outside.