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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, April 30, 2018

Future Fear: A Science Fiction Story

In the year 2040 Adam Jackson had started to strongly suspect that he had seen a ghost. How else could he explain having a conversation with John F. Kennedy?

It had all started when Adam was in the office, working at his job as an android robot designer. Adam began to feel a strange pain in his arm. Before long he felt a terrible pain in his chest he had never felt before. Adam touched the small wafer on his 100-purposes utility wrist-band, and requested immediate medical assistance. Then he blacked out.

Given what had happened, Adam would not have been surprised to find himself waking up in hospital bed. Instead he was surprised to find himself waking up in what looked like a hotel room. He asked himself: where am I? He looked out the window, but it was dark, and he could see little.

Adam decided to do a little walking around to try and found out where he was. He opened the door of his room, and walked into a hall with many rooms. Adam went to the room next to his, and tried opening the door.

The door opened, and Adam walked into the room. There inside the room sitting on a sofa was what looked exactly like John F. Kennedy, the US president who was assassinated. Adam was startled.

Where am I?” asked Adam.

Good fellow, I'm sure you're better capable of answering that than me,” said the man in a voice matching the distinctive Boston accent of John F. Kennedy. “But sit down with me, and we can discuss some secrets I've never told about how I handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Or, if history bores you, we can discuss my incredibly interesting sex life.”

Shaken by what looked just like a man who had died many years ago, Adam left the room. He walked down the hall, and opened another room. Inside he saw a woman sitting on a sofa.

Excuse me,” said Adam. “I know this sounds strange, but I don't know where I am. What is this building?”

My name's Lizzie,” said the woman. “Lizzie Borden.” She raised up something that was on the sofa, and Adam saw it was what looked like an ax. Adam quickly exited the room, shutting the door. In the hall Adam remembered the famous rhyme inspired by the grizzly murder long ago:

Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

Adam walked back to his room. He started to think about what he had seen after waking up. What could it mean, seeing two people who had died long ago? Then a terrible thought occurred to him: maybe the people he had seen were ghosts. Maybe he had somehow ended up in the most haunted of haunted hotels.

Adam thought to himself: there's one way to test my theory – the next time I see one of these “dead” people, I'll reach out my hand to touch him; and if my hand just passes through him, I'll know he's really a ghost. Adam went out of his room, and walked further down the hall, opening up a door he hadn't opened up before.

Walking into the room, Adam couldn't believe what he saw in front of him. Standing there before him was a figure from history he recognized. It was Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union with an iron hand.

Another visitor – welcome!” said the man in a thick Russian accent. “Tell me, comrade: would you consider me your dear friend?”

Adam was just about to say, “Why, of course not; we only just met.” But then he remembered something about Stalin. During the 1930's, before World War II, Stalin had sent millions of people to their deaths in the Great Purges. If there was ever the slightest suspicion that someone was not an ardent Stalin loyalist, that person would be shot. Terrified that he might be shot on the spot unless he answered exactly right, Adam chose his words carefully.

Why, in the worker's paradise you have created, Mr. Stalin,” said Adam, “there is no more ardent supporter of you than myself.”

Adam remembered how he had to test his theory that he was seeing ghosts. “In fact, it would be the greatest honor of my life,” said Adam, “if you only let me touch your shoulder.”

With trepidation Adam reached out his hand, trying to touch the shoulder of the figure before him. His hand didn't stop when it reached the figure's shoulder.  His hand seemed to disappear inside the body of Joseph Stalin. Adam gasped, and ran out of the room.

Adam rushed back to his room. My worst fears are confirmed, Adam thought. I'm in a hotel filled with ghosts. Maybe I'm dead myself. Maybe this is how it's like when you die. You start seeing lots of other dead people, and then you slowly realize it's because you yourself are dead. I probably died from a heart attack! That's what those chest pains were – a heart attack that killed me!

Adam decided to try to leave the building. He walked down the stairs. He ended up in a lobby that looked like an ordinary hotel lobby. There he met some ordinary flesh-and-blood people. After asking lots of questions, and making some electronic queries, Adam was able to finally sort out what had happened.

He had indeed had a heart attack, and had been rushed to a hospital. There the doctors had given him the Karposky treatment, which completely cures heart problems, but causes 36 hours of unconsciousness. Given the penetration of a genetically engineered epidemic into the hospital, a dire need to free up hospital beds, and the lack of any further need for the patient's medical treatment, the doctors ordered that Adam should be returned to his home. The doctors had correctly identified Adam's home using his wrist-band, as the location of 1670 Richards Avenue #7F. But, misled by some sloppy doctor's handwriting, a pair of medical transport workers had mistakenly dropped the patient off at 1610 Richards Avenue #7F, a suite in the newly opened Hologram Hotel.

The historical figures Adam had seen were not ghosts, but holograms. A manager at the hotel explained the idea of the hotel to Adam.

A hologram is a three-dimensional illusion that resembles something solid, but which is merely a projection using lasers,” explained the manager of the Hologram Hotel. “Visitors check into our hotel rooms, and are able to wander into other hotel rooms, meeting some of history's most famous figures inside the hotel rooms. Those figures are just holograms – but they look just like the real thing. And our chatbot software controlling the holograms makes them talk just like the real thing. It's all great fun for our hotel guests.”

I could have sworn they were ghosts,” said Adam.

We're sorry that you were scared by the mix-up,” said the manager. “Don't worry, we'll make things up for you by giving you a 10% discount coupon for your next stay at the Hologram Hotel.”

Discount coupon – are you kidding?” said Adam. “I'm gonna avoid this crazy place like the plague. I wouldn't be caught dead here – which is just what I thought had happened.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Skeptic's Book Is Thick with Weaponized Psychobabble

The new book Belief by psychologist James Alcock has the subtitle What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling. A more accurate subtitle capturing the nature of the book would be Why Your Mind Is Real Messed Up If You Believe Any of the Many Things I Don't Want You to Believe In. A few skeptics will try to deeply research the evidence for beliefs they criticize you for believing in. No such approach is taken by Alcock, who seems to show only a slight knowledge of the evidence for beliefs and alleged paranormal phenomena he criticizes. Alcock devotes very much of his time to dreaming up speculative psychological reasons why people might believe things because of flaws in their minds or brains. You can call this type of approach weaponized psychology.

Let me give some examples of how Alcock fails to do his homework and tell his reader about things he should have informed them about.

On page 273 he discusses dowsing, the practice of trying to locate water by using human clairvoyance, aided by a dowsing rod. Alcott mentions only one study, a study by Hyman with a negative finding. He fails to tell us that the person in question was a hard-core skeptic with no credentials in physical science, and that his study (a book not a peer-reviewed paper) was written in 1959. The biggest study on dowsing was a 10-year study involving more than 2000 drillings. In his extremely detailed and lengthy paper, the physics professor Betz stated, “Now, however, extensive field studies...have shown that a few carefully selected dowsers are certainly able to detect faults, fissures and fractures with relative alacrity and surprising accuracy in areas with, say, crystalline or limestone bedrock.” A press release on the study notes the following:

An overall success rate of 96 percent was achieved in 691 drillings in Sri Lanka. Based on geological experience in that area, a success rate of 30-50 percent would be expected from conventional techniques alone.

As discussed here, the chance probability of such an outcome was less than <0.000000000001. 

On page 358 Alcock tells us “there is no persuasive evidence that acupuncture works.” But a New York Times article asserts otherwise, saying the following: 

A new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. The findings provide strong scientific support for an age-old therapy used by an estimated three million Americans each year.

In the post, a methodologist at the very prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says, "We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain.”

In pages 407 to 437 Alcock examines religious belief, and tries to explain it purely as result of glitches or weaknesses in the mind or brain. He makes no mention of any evidence basis why someone would believe in a higher power. Such a treatment is defective in light of the extremely substantial reasons why a person might believe in a higher power. These include the following:

  1. the sudden origin of the universe, completely unexplained by modern science;
  2. the unexplained origin of life, an “organization explosion” scientists have been unable to explain or duplicate;
  3. the incredible degree of fine-tuning, organization, and precision in biological organisms, which is not well-explained by current Darwinian theory, which still fails to explain the initial stages of any complex biological innovation;
  4. the extremely large degree of fine-tuning in the universe's fundamental constants and laws, widely discussed by physicists, and fantastically unlikely to have occurred by chance in any random universe.

We hear not one word about such things from Alcock, who talks for 37 pages as if the only reason why someone might believe in a higher power is because of mind glitches that Alcock has dreamed up. A full discussion of the four reasons above would take up fifty times more space than Alcock's speculations on psychological reasons for religious belief.

On page 442 Alcock gives us a list of thing that include extrasensory perception, out-of-body experiences, apparitions, and near-death experiences, and tells us that “there is no persuasive evidence that such phenomena exist.” This is not at all correct. There is very good laboratory evidence for ESP; the sighting of apparitions is a well-documented empirical reality; and even most skeptics admit that near-death experiences take place. There is very good evidence for both out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.

On page 445 Alcock misrepresents the classic work Phantasms of the Living by Gurney, Myers, and Podmore by saying that it is a volume of people who “reported having had a hallucination.” This massive 1400 page book (which can be read online) lists hundreds of normal people who reported anomalous sightings of human forms, very many that can be called apparition sightings. The witnesses did not describe their sightings as hallucinations. Meticulously checked by a team of investigators looking for verification of details, the volume is very substantial evidence for apparition sightings.

Alcock's explanation for apparition sightings on page 495 is vacuous: that “our perceptions are affected by expectation and suggestibility.” There is no known tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations based on expectations. Tens of millions of Democrats fully expected Hillary Clinton to win the election on November 8, 2016, and not one of them hallucinated that Hillary Clinton won on that night. A study found that 64% of people having apparition sightings reported seeing them “during mundane or normal times in their lives,” not in some haunted house when expectation or suggestibility might have been a factor.

On page 446 and 447 Alcock discusses the ESP research of Joseph Rhine, who over many years obtained massive laboratory evidence for extrasensory perception. For example, as discussed here, Rhine did 10,300 card guessing trials with Hubert Pearce, who scored an enormous 27 standard deviations above the expected chance result (particle physicists regard a result as a discovery if it scores only five standard deviations above chance). We hear no numerical details of Rhine's research from Alcock, nor do we hear from him about any numerical details of any non-negative experimental research relevant to the topics he discusses. On page 447 Alcock makes this extremely laughable statement:

It is actually fallacious to equate departures from chance with paranormal influence. Statistical analysis can only determine that there has been a departure from chance expectation, which means that such an outcome is unlikely (but not impossibly so) to occur by chance alone.

This is extremely absurd. Using such reasoning, if you shuffled a pack of cards 10 times, and then asked someone to guess the sequence of 52 cards, and the person did so with 100 percent accuracy, we should not assume this was paranormal – because it would not be impossible for someone to make 52 consecutive guesses correctly which each had a probability of 1 in 52. You could use such reasoning to disqualify almost every single thing a scientist claims is true, including virtually all facts of chemistry, physics and biology. For example, if we followed such a rule, we should not believe that ice forms when water freezes, because there is always 1 chance in a trillion quadrillion quintillion that every time we have seen ice, we have merely hallucinated.

Unfortunately by announcing such a most ridiculous standard (that we should ignore departures from chance when judging the paranormal unless they are impossibilities), Alcock discredits and impeaches all of his judgments on all belief topics discussed in his book, on the grounds that he does not have a reasonable standard for being persuaded whenever he says something like “there is no convincing evidence for such a thing.”

On page 447 Alcock claims this about Joseph Rhine: “Subsequent analysis revealed flaws and biases in his experimentation to the extent that parapsychologists do not refer to his data when arguing for the reality of the paranormal.” This is false, and Alcock makes no substantive discussion of any such flaws. The experimental research of Joseph Rhine stands up very well as extremely convincing evidence for ESP, and his research is typically cited by parapsychologists when arguing for the reality of the paranormal. We may note that the vast majority of skeptics claiming there were “flaws and biases” in such research never tell us what such alleged flaws and biases they are talking about, because their complaint would be shown to be lacking in substance if they presented it in detail.

Alcock then spends several pages (pages 448 to 451) giving us misstatement after misstatement about parapsychology research. He claims that experiments of psychic phenomena are not replicable. This is false. There have been innumerable replications of successful experiments for ESP, both before and after Rhine. Long after Rhine the ganzfeld sensory deprivation experiments on ESP were extremely successful time after time in showing results far above chance, in which subjects tested would get results of around 30 percent or 32 percent in which the expected chance result was only 25 percent.

Many thousands of books have presented evidence of the paranormal. Alcock shows no good evidence of having seriously studied any research or testimony on the paranormal other than skeptical and negative works. Nowhere in his book does Alcock give any good evidence that he actually read and carefully studied any book or major research paper on any paranormal topic or any belief topic he discusses, except for skeptical and negative works. Alcock's book is the type of book a person might write if his research rule was “gather only negative information.”

On page 488 Alcock discusses the reincarnation research of Ian Stevenson, a University of Virginia psychiatrist who spent decades piling up evidence of children who seemed to remember a past life. Alcock mentions not a single one of the many compelling cases Stevenson documented, and discusses his research (and that of his successor Jim Tucker) in such a skimpy and mangled way that no reader of his book would think such research had any substance. Read up on their research and you'll get an entirely different picture. In a type of case Stevenson carefully documented many times, a child would recall many details of being in a previous life a particular person living many miles away, and a subsequent investigation would show that there previously lived exactly such a person who the child should have been unaware of. In very many cases the child had birthmarks matching the death wounds of such a person. We don't hear about any such cases in Alcock's book.

He also mentions the reincarnation research of Helen Wambach, conveniently failing to mention the statistical analysis she did after doing “past lives regressions” of 700+ people. She found that such people gave details of food, clothing and utensils far better than in popular history books, and that the percentage of people reporting a past life in the lower class, middle class or upper class matched that of historical periods in which a past life was reported.

On page 485 Alcock discusses psychokinesis, claiming “there is no persuasive evidence that psychokinesis actually exists.” He fails to discuss any laboratory evidence for mind-over-matter. But a meta-analysis of research on mind-over-matter in dice throwing experiments found that “the experimental effect size is independently replicable, significantly positive, and not explainable as an artifact of selective reporting or differences in methodological
quality.” The meta-analysis found that the mind-over-matter effect in dice throwing experiments was a massive 19 standard deviations above chance. In particle physics, something is considered a discovery if it is a mere five standard deviations above chance.

The US government spent millions of dollars funding research on the paranormal phenomenon of remote viewing, with the research being funded for many years. There were many astonishing successes, some of which you can read about here. Alcock makes no mention of any such research, other than mentioning in passing in one paragraph “remote viewing studies” without mentioning who did such studies or what the results were.

When discussing precognition, which he lists under “illusory experience,” Alcock seems to have no knowledge of the topic other than having heard about Lincoln's dream that seemed to foretell his death. Almost everyone discussing this topic mentions the recent research of Cornell University professor Daryl Bem, which Alcock fails to mention. The research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The widely discussed paper was entitled, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect.” Despite repeated claims by skeptics that these results have not been replicated, they have actually been well-replicated, as Bem has shown in a meta-analysis of similar experiments. His meta-analysis was published in the paper “Feeling the future: A meta-analysis of 90 experiments on the anomalous anticipation of random future events."

Bem's meta-analysis discussed 90 experiments from 33 laboratories in 14 different countries. The analysis reported an overall effect of p=1.2 X 10-10. Roughly speaking, this means the results had a probability of about 1 in 10 billion. This is a very impressive result, showing statistical significance millions of times stronger than what is shown in typical papers reported by mainstream media. A typical paper that gets covered by the press will have an effect of only about p=.01 or p=.05. A meta-analysis on precognition and presentiment found that “The statistical results for a class of forced-choice studies is associated with odds against chance of about 1024; for a class of free-response studies, odds about 1020; for psychophysiological-based studies, odds about 1017; and for implicit decision studies, odds about 1010.

Alcock discusses mediums without mentioning any of the famous mediums such as Leonora Piper, Daniel Dunglas Home and Indridi Indridason who underwent extensive study by scientists or skeptics, and who fared very well under such scrutiny, with paranormal effects being produced under controlled conditions. He tries to explain medium successes by the vacuous explanation of “cold reading,” which is little more than the idea of lucky guesses. He fails to mention the activity of the Windbridge Research group, which has published peer-reviewed papers testing mediums under controlled conditions, finding significant scientific evidence of “anomalous information reception.”

Discussing near-death experiences without showing any sign of having deeply researched the topic, Alcock claims, “There is simply no reasonable evidence that NDEs are anything other than the product of a distressed brain.” This is not at all true. There is plenty of such evidence. One piece of evidence is that near-death experiences very often occur during cardiac arrest, when the brain has shut down, as it does a does a few seconds after the heart stops beating. Such cases cannot possibly be the “the product of a distressed brain” because they occur when the brain has shut down and flatlined, and brain waves have stopped.

Another very powerful evidence reason why near-death experiences cannot be explained as brain activity is they often involve cases of people reporting the details of their operations or the details of physician's attempts to revive their hearts, during a time when their hearts had stopped and they should have been completely unconscious. Many such cases of “veridical near-death experiences” are described here.  The most famous one (a topic to be addressed by any serious treatment of this topic) is the case of Pam Reynolds. Alcock conveniently fails to mention all such cases.

Alcock's explanation for near-death experiences on page 478 is that they are a “reverie in a disordered brain.” When I search for a definition of “reverie” I get this from Google: “a state of being pleasantly lost in one's thoughts; a daydream.” Does it make any sense to suppose that people engage in pleasant daydreams when they are experiencing heart attacks, cardiac arrest, or other catastrophic events such as downing that put them on the brink of death? Certainly not. And a brain cannot have a “reverie” when it is shut down because a heart has stopped. The same reason rules out all other explanations Alcock suggests for near-death experiences, including his suggestion that they may be caused by ketamine. The brain has no stash of ketamine that it might release when someone nears death, and ketamine is not given to people as a treatment for heart attacks.

Alcock almost always give skimpy, distorted or inaccurate treatments of the evidence reasons people hold beliefs in the paranormal and the religious. He fills up a large portion of his book with excursions in weaponized psychology. After discussing some belief, he usually gives psychobabble speculations attempting to suggest that people hold that belief because of glitches or imperfections in their mind, brain or senses. Since Alcock never discusses in any detail any of the better evidence for any belief topic or paranormal topic he deals with, his readers may say, “Oh, that's why people believe such things.” This is like someone arguing against the Big Bang theory, failing to inform his readers of the two main reasons why such a theory is believed (the red-shift of galaxies and the cosmic background radiation), and then presenting pseudo-scientific psychobabble to explain why people believe in the Big Bang.

There is a general reason why such psychobabble speculations are fruitless. It is that they can be used with equal force against someone who believes something, and someone who does not believe such a thing. For any given political belief or religious belief or belief in the paranormal, you can create a list of psychological reasons why a person might hold such a belief, as well as an equally substantive list of psychological reasons why someone might not hold such a belief. Therefore all such speculations are futile from the standpoint of supporting or discrediting a belief. Speculation about belief motives is not even a scientific undertaking, because such speculations can neither be confirmed nor falsified. There are always ten possible reasons why someone might believe something not generally acknowledged, and there's no way to determine the reasons for a belief (something that can't be determined by just asking people why they believe something).

In the Soviet Union psychiatrists would attempt to convince people they had a mental illness whenever they deviated from Marxist orthodoxy. So if a person in 1975 Russia thought that he wasn't actually living in a worker's paradise, or that perhaps society needed to be reformed through democratic action, the psychiatrists would claim he had a mental illness. Writers today who practice weaponized psychology to try to enforce the rigid orthodoxy of materialism are like psychiatrists of the Soviet Union who used weaponized psychiatry to enforce the rigid orthodoxy of Marxism.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Suggestions for Revising Scientific Terminology

Some of the terms or theories in science have poor names, names that either fail to candidly describe the phenomenon or theory, or names that fail to do enough to inform us about the nature of the phenomenon or theory. Below are examples, with some suggestions on better names that could be used (which is not to imagine any possibility that the scientific world will take up any of these suggestions). 

Cold Dark Matter Theory

In scientific journals the cold dark matter theory is often stated as ^CDM, where ^ is the Greek character Lambda. This is one of the geekiest and most unclear names ever used for a scientific theory. In popular accounts, the theory is referred to as the cold dark matter theory. The term “dark matter” suggests regular matter that is not illuminated. But the theory postulates some type of material substance that is not matter as we know it, some matter that is not made of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up an atom.

A better name for the theory would be to call it the “non-atomic halos” theory. This would remind us that the theory involves not merely an assumption about the existence of a non-atomic substance, but also some particular assumptions about how such a substance is arranged.

Cosmic Inflation Theory

The cosmic inflation theory is a theory that during a tiny fraction of the first second of the universe’s history, the universe underwent a period of especially fast expansion called exponential expansion. The term “cosmic inflation” is a terrible name for such a theory, because of the endless confusion that arises by those who confuse this “cosmic inflation” with the regular type of expansion that the universe has undergone since its first second. For example, if I say, “I don't believe in the cosmic inflation theory,” a sizable fraction of my readers may think I am denying the expansion of the universe or denying the Big Bang, even though you can deny the cosmic inflation theory without denying either of these things.

A better and more candid name for the “cosmic inflation” theory would be to call it the “primordial double transformation theory.” Primordial means occurring at the very beginning. The cosmic inflation theory imagines that the universe underwent two drastic transformations in its first second: first changing from a linear expansion to an exponential expansion, and then changing from an exponential expansion back to a linear expansion. By calling such a theory the “primordial double transformation theory” we would be reminding people of the drastically discontinuous nature of such a theory.

Big Bang Theory

It is widely acknowledged that the Big Bang theory has a poor name, suggesting the idea that the universe once existed as a kind of bomb that exploded. The actual theory is that the universe began to expand from an infinitely small and dense point. A better and more descriptive name for the Big Bang theory would be to call it the “origination from infinite density” theory or the “origination from zero diameter” theory or the “primordial singularity theory” (in physics a singularity is a state of infinite density).

Ekpyrotic Theory

According to this link, Professor Paul Steinhardt's contrarian cosmological theory involves speculations about some kind of a double universe. It would seem that calling it the “double universe theory” would be better than calling it by the so-easy-to-forget name “ekpyrotic theory.”

Long-Term Potentiation

The term “long-term potentiation” is one of the most misleading terms in neuroscience. The term refers to a slight synapse strengthening that can occur when learning occurs. For years neuroscientists have told us that long-term potentiation is a sign of memories being stored in synapses. However so-called long-term potentiation is actually a very short-term affair. In virtually all cases it does not last longer than a few weeks, and has never been proven to last for as long as two years. The term should therefore be renamed as “transitory potentiation” or “short-term potentiation.”

Natural Selection

The term “natural selection” is a rather misleading and confusing term, a case of a metaphor that was entirely unnecessary. The term “natural selection” confuses people by making people think that somehow nature does something like a conscious selection action. But blind nature never chooses or selects things; only living things or machines can select things. There is no need at all to use the confusing metaphor of “natural selection,” because there are two different terms that express the same idea exactly without resorting to a metaphor. The first term is “differential reproduction” and the second is “survival of the fittest.”

Evolution by Natural Selection

Besides the fact that it uses the misleading term “natural selection,” there is a big reason why it is misleading to refer to Darwin's explanation for biological complexity as the theory of “evolution by natural selection.” This reason is that in such a theory natural selection is not the biggest factor. The theory maintains that new species arise from random mutations and natural selection. But natural selection (survival of the fittest or differential reproduction) cannot occur in regard to any biological innovation until that innovation has appeared. So Darwinism maintains that first lucky random mutations lead to a biological innovation appearing and then natural selection helps to spread that innovation in a gene pool. In such a theory 99% of a biological innovation is coming from random mutations or pure luck. A Darwinist believes that every single nucleotide in a fine-tuned gene pool came from a random mutation. To describe such a theory as “evolution by natural selection” is therefore rather dishonest or disingenuous. It's like someone having a theory that log cabins arise from random falls of trees (with friction helping the trees stay together), and calling such a theory “the friction theory of cabin origination,” when such a theory should really be called the “chance theory of cabin origination.”

An honest name for Darwin's theory will be candid about its reliance on lucky chance events. Suitable names for the theory would be “the theory of accidental engineering” or “the theory of accidental inventions” or “the theory of accidental biological innovations” or “the theory of evolution by random mutations.”

natural selection

White Holes Theory

I remember forty years ago buying John Gribbin's book on the theory of white holes – that there are places in the universe where matter mysteriously squirts out, in a process the opposite of the process by which matter is lost in black holes. Since then the white holes theory has gained little traction. It would probably gain more attention if it were given a catchier sexed-up name such as the “cosmic ejaculations” theory, which would be a fairly good description of what the theory imagines.

Many Worlds Theory

The theory called the Many Worlds theory is the crazy theory that every instant reality is splitting up in an infinite number of ways, so that every possibility is actualized. Under this theory, there are an infinite number of parallel universes or realities, in which there are an infinite number of copies of all of us. "Many worlds” is a bad name for such a theory. The phrase “many worlds” suggests something reasonable enough, like perhaps the idea that there are some Earth-like planets in the universe. But the Many Worlds theory teaches something infinitely more extravagant than that: the idea of an infinity of parallel Earths in which every possible thing happens. A more candid name for this theory would be “the theory of infinite duplication” or perhaps “the ever-splitting universe theory.”

Abiogenesis Theory

The theory of abiogenesis theory is the theory that life arose from mere chemicals. Most people who hear the term “abiogenesis” cannot tell from that word what the theory is about. Because life is a state of organization vastly higher than that of some mere chemicals in a liquid, the abiogenesis theory is a theory of a kind of chemistry miracle. It would be better to call such a theory “the chemistry miracle theory” or the “accidental life origination” theory.

Vacuum Catastrophe

I really shouldn't complain about the use of the term “vacuum catastrophe,” because when you type that in as a Google search term, you will get one of my blog posts on the first page of results. But it should be noted that the term “vacuum catastrophe” is ludicrously inappropriate. The term refers to the fact that despite various physics and quantum factors which should have produced (under 99.9999999999999999999999% of random cases) a vacuum of space very high in density, precluding the appearance of any life, so that the space between the sun and the earth was denser than steel, we instead have a vacuum of space that is almost entirely empty, which allows life to exist. It would be far more appropriate to refer to this “vacuum catastrophe” as “the vacuum blessing” or “the vacuum long-shot” or “the vacuum miracle.”


Besides the fact that it sounds vaguely erotic, the term “panspermia” has the disadvantage that no one can tell from the name itself what the word means. Panspermia refers to the idea that extraterrestrials were involved in the appearance of life on planet Earth. A better term would be “the extraterrestrial assistance theory.”

The Second Law of Themodynamics

The term “second law of thermodynamics” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you basically nothing about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “law of increasing disorder” or “law of increasing entropy.”

The Special Theory of Relativity

The term “special theory of relativity” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you nothing at all about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “cosmic speed limit theory,” because at the heart of the theory is the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

The General Theory of Relativity

The term “general theory of relativity” is a poor term because it uses four words to tell you nothing at all about the meaning of the theory. A better term would be “Einsteinian gravitation theory.”

String Theory

The term “string theory” tells you pretty much nothing about the extravagant family of fancy physics theories known as string theories. A much better term would be “the extra dimensions theory,” which at least tells you something substantive about such theories, that they postulate that there are extra, unobserved dimensions of space.

Quantum Mechanics

The term “quantum mechanics” tells you basically nothing about the theory that has this name. A person guessing what the theory was about might guess that it had something to do with engines or machines, on the grounds that it has the word “mechanics” in it. A better name for this theory would be the “subatomic strangeness” theory, which would at least tell you that it has to do with what's going on at the subatomic level.

Synaptic Plasticity

The term “synaptic plasticity” is a term that neuroscientists mouth whenever they observe minds working well despite large brain damage or the loss of a large part of the brain. So, for example, if a French civil servant who thought himself to be a normal person finds that 90% of his brain has been replaced by fluid, such a case (a real-life one) is described as a case of “synaptic plasticity.” A more candid term would be to call such cases examples of “brain dogma shortfall” – because they are cases in which the dogma that the brain makes the mind fails to predict reality correctly.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

We Need Philosophy, But Do We Need Philosophy PhDs?

Philosophy is a very good and necessary thing for any civilization. It is untrue that we do not need philosophy because we have scientists to guide us to the truth. For one thing, a large part of philosophy is ethics, and science is a morally neutral thing that gives no guidance in regard to ethics. For another thing, what is taught by scientists is often a mixture of fact, dogma, and speculations. In many cases the dogma consists of ideas that are not proven, but which have simply become popular in scientific communities. In such cases it is extremely useful to have a philosophical thinker around, regardless of whether such a person has any philosophy credentials. A philosophical thinker can act as a kind of referee or watchdog, alerting the public when scientists are making truth claims that they have not proven by observations or experiments.

Then there is the fact that our scientists are fond of saying that large classes of statements are forbidden to their kind, such as statements about the existence of the supernatural or some higher power. Since so many scientists are taking “hands off” attitudes towards such things, we need non-scientists such as philosophers to help us sort out the logic or lack of logic about truth claims in such an area, and to help sort out whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant beliefs about the supernatural.

The very idea that philosophy and science are completely separate things is erroneous, in the sense that scientists will often engage in philosophical activity as part of their jobs. For example, when a physicist starts speculating about a multiverse, he has strayed into metaphysics. It is appropriate at such times for a philosopher to comment on whether good metaphysics is going on, or poor metaphysics. And when scientists start spouting metaphysics, they sometimes spout the worst kind of metaphysics (violating the philosophical principle of Occam's Razor in the worst way). To give another example, when a scientist starts saying “This type of statement is forbidden to a scientist,” he has strayed outside of science itself into what is known as philosophy of science. At such point we need philosophers of science to give input on whether the scientist's statement is an appropriate rule.

So philosophy is very necessary indeed. And philosophy is still a good subject to be taught as an undergraduate major. For a large fraction of employers, a bachelor's degree is today largely a screening device, mainly serving the purpose of showing that a student is smart enough (and has sufficient writing and thinking skills) to pass a four-year program of study. There are countless employers who will hire any new college graduate with a good GPA, and many of them don't particularly care whether you have a degree in philosophy or French literature or history. Such employers often require employees to use skills they can only learn at their company.

But what about graduate programs in philosophy? Do we have any great need for philosophy PhDs? There is no tremendous need for people to have doctoral degrees in philosophy, and we could certainly get along with far fewer philosophy PhDs. Consider the literary output of a typical academic philosopher. Such a person will largely write for philosophy journals that almost no one reads. A typical philosophy journal will have its content behind a paywall, meaning there will be few Internet readers. And you probably won't be able to read the journal at your local library. 

You can get an idea of the small readership of philosophy papers by going to the website Philpapers.org, which allows you to see the abstracts of a vast number of philosophy papers. If you look at the full abstract for a paper, you will see a graph showing how many people have downloaded the paper. A typical result will be maybe two downloads a month.

The papers written in philosophy journals are typically papers about philosophy written by philosophers purely for the sake of other philosophers. Such papers are often very obscure and written in jargon that only other philosophers can understand. The cultural impact of such technical papers tends to be very slim. When philosophers start writing mainly for other philosophers, they tend to produce forgettable content that has little cultural impact.

There is a general reason why a university environment may be a poor environment for a philosopher. Part of the proper role of a philosopher is to criticize unwarranted or illogical claims from other people, regardless of their status in society. But a university can set up scientists as almost kind of local gods. The biologist or physicist may be a local celebrity at his university, enjoying fame, funding and a large building that may totally dwarf that of some philosopher at the university. This creates a situation in which the philosopher at such a university may have a strong tendency to kowtow to such an authority figure, and take his pronouncements as gospel truth. But such a philosopher may not be doing his job if he does that. Part of a philosopher's role is to expose poor logic and unwarranted claims of authority figures.

Will a philosopher at Central University be willing to criticize the unwarranted dogmatism or unjustified statements of Scientist Jones, when Central University is paying Scientist Jones $300,000 a year to secure the services of this well-known figure, and doing everything it can to build up his reputation and status? Probably not. A university environment may not be an ideal environment for a philosopher, just like the Pentagon may not be an ideal environment for an editorial writer analyzing the moral rectitude or logical sense of current US military policies.

There is no clear and obvious reason why we need to have philosophy PhDs. It may be that you can't do much microbiology unless you work at a university with fancy expensive laboratories, or a corporate lab with similar equipment. But anyone can write philosophical content even if he or she is not in a university. People who write philosophical content and place it on the Internet will probably get far more readers than those writing in philosophical journals.

A good deal of a philosophy curriculum involves studying the past works of philosophers. Such a study does not need to be perfect. It's very important that there be nuclear engineers who get things just exactly right, so that nuclear power plants can be built safely; and it's very important that there be geneticists who get things just exactly right, so that gene-splicing activities be done just right, and with minimum risk. But it isn't so terribly important that philosophy teachers get things just exactly 100% right when describing the teachings of past philosophers such as Plato, Kant, or Hegel. The main reason for studying such figures nowadays is perhaps to get a few ideas that someone might find useful in developing his or her own philosophical viewpoint. For such a purpose, it works just fine to have a fairly good knowledge of some past philosopher's ideas, rather than a crystal clear knowledge of that.

It seems that the philosophy departments of universities could serve their purpose well enough if all instruction in philosophy was done by only people with master's degrees rather than PhDs (and an accelerated master's degree would probably be sufficient for teaching philosophy at a university). Since the philosopher should be ever-ready to challenge the thinking of authorities in all fields (government officials, religion authorities, scientists and other philosophers), perhaps philosophers should be in no hurry to set themselves up as authorities with doctoral degrees in philosophy. 

The idea that you have to undergo many years of specialized study before you can call yourself a philosopher is misguided. It is the birthright of every human to philosophize, and any person who thinks deeply on any abstract philosophical topic may rightfully call himself a philosopher. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Consciousness Instinct" Tells No Coherent Tale As to How a Brain Could Make a Mind

In the recent book The Consciousness Instinct, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga writes about the brain and the mind. The subtitle of the book is Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind. The book is obviously written with the assumption that brains do make minds, a very dubious proposition there are many reasons for doubting.  The book fails to make anything like a substantive defense of the claim that brains do make minds.  

One of the key issues in whether brains make minds is how a brain could possibly generate any such thing as an abstract idea. Brains and neurons are physical things, but ideas are mental things. We can understand how a physical thing can generate another physical thing, and we can understand how a mental thing (a mind) can generate another mental thing (an idea). But no one understands how a physical thing (a brain or some neurons) could generate a mental thing (an abstract idea).

Looking at the index of Gazzaniga's book I see it has no entry for “idea.” But I do see four pages that refer to “thoughts.” Searching those pages, I find on page 8 what seems to be Gazzaniga's only description of how thoughts or ideas are created:

It is as if our mind is a bubbling pot of water. Which bubble will make it up to the top is hard to predict. The top bubble ultimately bursts into an idea, only to be replaced by more bubbles. The surface is forever energized with activity, endless activity, until the bubbles go to sleep. 

As an attempt to explain the origin of ideas, this is a flop. A bubble is a physical thing, not a mental thing. When someone creates an abstract idea (such as the idea of a Trumper after viewing various zealous Trump supporters), such an abstraction (a mental act) bears no resemblance to a bubble floating up from hot water, a physical event which does not involve any observations. It may seem mysterious that bubbles pop up from water as it heats, but that's not an example of something appearing mysteriously. Water has some air trapped inside it, and the air just comes out as the water heats.

Water being heat up in a pot and producing bubbles is in several respects a very poor analogy for the creation of an idea. A human being will come up with a new idea only very slowly, and a human will only have one thought in his head at any single time. But in a heating pot of water, we see dozens of bubbles very quickly rising at the same time. When water starts to boil, it is a frothy chaos that bears no resemblance to the orderly thinking of a person trying to produce a new idea.

Not like a thinking mind

Again on page 206 and 207 Gazzaniga continues his bubble analogy, saying the following:

Thinking about this led me to use the metaphor of bubbling water as a way to conceptualize how our consciousness unfolds....The results bubble up from various modules like bubbles in a boiling pot of water....Each bubble has its own capacity to evoke that feeling of being conscious....Our smoothly flowing consciousness is itself an illusion.

Consciousness is certainly not an illusion, and there are no neurological facts supporting any such metaphor, or the idea that our smooth flow of consciousness is anything like a stream of individual bubbles.

On page 214-215 Gazzaniga gives us more bubble babble, and says “we have memory bubbles and feeling bubbles.” We are told, “As one bubble quickly passes to the next, we have the illusion of feeling about the remembered event.” No, the feelings we have when remembering important events are not illusions. A woman remembering being raped is not having an illusory emotion.

Gazzaniga speaks very frequently about modules in the brain. The term module derives from computer programming. A module is a distinct unit of computer programming code that accomplishes some particular job. There is no meaningful insight involved in talking about mental function as a set of modules. The human mind is a seamless whole. We can speak of different aspects of the human mind, such as insight, imagination, memory, emotion, and so forth. But you're not doing anything to explain such things by fancy talking and calling such things “modules.” There is nothing like computer code producing the aspects of our mind. 

One of the biggest mysteries of the mind is memory. How is it that humans are able to remember things for 50 years or more, despite all the rapid molecular turnover in the brain? And how is it that a human is able to instantly retrieve an old memory, such as we see happening when someone mentions some obscure figure in history and you immediately recall some facts about that person? If the information is stored in some tiny spot of the brain, there should be no way in which the brain could find that exact spot so quickly in a brain that has no indexing, no coordinate system, and no position notation system. Doing such a thing would be like instantly finding just the right book in a vast library in which none of the books had titles on their covers, and none of the bookshelves or book aisles were marked.

Gazzaniga says nothing to explain such difficulties. He says on page 214 about a memory, “It is placed in memory in ways we still don't understand, but it is symbolic information, cold and formal, just as DNA is symbolic information – and just like DNA it has a physical structure.” This is another case of a scientist pretending to have some knowledge he does not have. We have no evidence that our memories are physically stored in our brains as symbolic information, and (as discussed here) no one has a credible theory of how episodic memories could be stored as neuron states, synapse states, or chemical or electricity states. There is no current theory of a structure or encoding scheme by which episodic memories and abstract learned concepts could be brain stored.

What about understanding, insight, and imagination? None of these things are mentioned in the index of Gazzaniga's book.

On page 79 Gazzaniga says, “I will argue that consciousness is not a thing.” He then claims that “consciousness” is just a word we use for “the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism.” This is not true. I can close my eyes and lie on my bed, thinking of nothing at all, and not remembering anything. That is consciousness that does not involve any instincts or memories.

The final chapter is entitled “Consciousness is an instinct,” which mirrors the title of the book. The claim that consciousness is an instinct is erroneous. The dictionary defines an instinct as “an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli.” An example of an instinct is the instinct of a newborn baby to suck its mother's breast, or the instinct of a young man to get an erection when he sees a naked woman. Consciousness is not any such thing. It is not a particular reaction we have to a particular stimulus. We can have consciousness even when we are closing our eyes and receiving no stimulus at all.

One wonders: why on earth would Gazzaniga be claiming that consciousness is an instinct, a claim I can never recall any neuroscientist or philosopher of mind making? The only guess I can make is that maybe he was thinking that it would sound like an explanation for consciousness if we can explain consciousness as an example of something we understand: instincts. But we don't understand instincts at all. Instincts are one of the most mysterious aspects of biology. How is it, for example, that an average male would become sexually aroused by a female rather than some other stimulus? There's no neurological or genetic explanation that we can come up with for this. There's no little picture of a naked woman in the genes or the brain that a man reads to serve as a guide for what to become sexually stimulated by.

The lack of any neurological or genetic basis for such an instinct is shown by homosexuality, in which five percent of the male populace becomes sexually stimulated not by women but by members of their own sex. Many other animal instincts cannot be explained by genetics or neurology. Genes are just recipes for making proteins, and lack any power of expression to state behavior rules for organisms. So as we don't understand instincts, we would do nothing to explain consciousness by saying it is an example of an instinct; and consciousness is not an instinct.

What do you do when you're someone claiming that the brain makes the mind, but with no powerful ideas to offer as to how a brain could handle memory or generate ideas or generate consciousness or produce understanding? You fill up the book with digressions and detours, which is what this book does. We are treated, for example, to many pages talking about quantum mechanics.

It is rather like the way it was in high school when the teacher asked you to explain something you did not understand, and you tried to kind of fake your way through rather than saying, “I don't know.” For example, the teacher might ask you, “How did World War II begin in Europe?” and you might answer something like:

World War II was a very important conflict. There were big noisy battles, and American troops were landed in France, and there were lots of tanks shooting at each other. And they dropped lots of bombs. It all ended on a day called VJ Day.

Such is the approach of our neuroscientists, who give us endless assorted facts designed to impress us with their knowledge, but fail to give the answers they would give if they actually understood how a brain could make a mind.

Because of reasons discussed in great detail here, I assert that brains do not actually generate minds, and that no neuroscientist has either a credible theory of how a material brain could produce the memory skills that the human mind has (such as the instantaneous recall of very old memories), or a credible theory of how a brain could store memories for 50 years despite rapid molecular turnover in synapses, or a credible theory of how material brains could produce nonmaterial things such as consciousness, understanding, ideas, or thought.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Paltry Probability of Nearby Chance-Arising Humanoids

The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds is a recent book about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Written by Dirk Schulze-Makuch and William Bains, the book is mainly a look at earthly biology, with attempts to assure us that what we see on our planet isn't all that amazing, and that we should expect to see similar wonders all over the universe. On page 181 of their book, the authors make this Panglossian statement: “So if life arises on a distant exoplanet, it will also traverse the path from simple to complex, unicellular to multicellular, and produce intelligent animals capable of tool use in its forests and kelp beds, providing the planet is habitable long enough.”

To promote such runaway optimism, the authors introduce a classification scheme attempting to categorize biological innovations. They maintain that biological innovations can be put into three categories: (1) the Critical Path model; (2) the Random Walk model; (3) the Many Paths model.

On page 5 the authors define the Critical Path model like this:

Each transition requires preconditions that take time to develop...Once the necessary preconditions exist on the planet then the transition will occur in a well-defined timescale. It is like filling up a bath tub; once you turn on the taps, the bath will fill up. It just takes time.

On page 5 the authors define the Random Walk model like this:

Each transition is highly unlikely to occur in a specific time step, and the likelihood does not change (substantially) with time. This may be because the event requires a highly improbable event to occur, or a number of highly improbable steps....Once life exists on a planet, ultimately the key innovation will occur, but when it occurs is up to chance, and whether it occurs before the planet runs out of time and becomes uninhabitable is not knowable.

The last sentence is rather confusing, because “ultimately the key innovation will occur” suggests inevitably, but the rest of the sentence suggests no inevitably at all. On page 9 they clarify that this Random Walk model refers to something that is “quite unlikely to occur.”

On page 5 the authors define the Many Paths model like this:

Each transition or key innovation requires many random events to create a complex new function, but many combinations of these can generate the same functional output, even though the genetic or anatomical details of the different outputs are not the same. So once life exists the chance that transition will occur in a given time period is high, but the exact time is not knowable.

Later on page 9 they describe this Many Paths model like this:

There are no specific preconditions for a Many Paths process other that prior existence of life that can achieve the innovation. However, once any appropriate precondition is met, the innovation will happen fairly reliably some time afterwards (as measured in generations). So it it almost inevitable that the innovation will occur eventually. But because there are many ways that it can occur, then each time the function will be carried out by a different mechanism.

Throughout the book again and again the authors attempt to convince us that particular types of biological innovations that occurred on Earth were examples of a Many Paths process, and that we should therefore expect to see them commonly on other planets. The logic of the authors seems to be something like this: when nature shows us there are many ways in which a particular biological innovation can be implemented, we can call this a Many Paths innovation; such innovations are pretty likely because there are many ways they can be implemented, not just one way.

But such reasoning is very fallacious. To judge the likelihood of something, we should not merely consider whether there is only one way that it can be achieved, or many ways. We should instead consider the ratio between the outcomes that do not achieve such a result and the outcomes that do achieve such a result.

We can give a concrete example regarding vision systems, the biological systems that result in vision. In humans the vision system consists of 4 main things: (1) the eye; (2) an optic nerve stretching from the eye to the brain; (3) the visual cortex in the brain (a part of the brain that interprets visual inputs); (4) very complex and fine-tuned proteins such as rhodopsin that are used in vision, helping to capture light. On page 6 the authors submit this as an example of a Many Paths innovation. They state:

An example of the Many Paths Model is the evolution of imaging vision. Eyes that can make images of the world (not just detect light and dark) have evolved many times in insects, cephalopods, vertebrates, and extinct groups like the trilobites.

But you would be committing a great error in logic if you reasoned like the authors, and suggested that it is fairly likely that a vision system would evolve, because there is not just one way to make a vision system, but lots of ways. A better line of reasoning would involve comparing the number of ways to arrange matter that do not result in functional vision to the number of ways that do result in functional vision. That would give you a ratio of more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1. From such a perspective the appearance of a vision seems fantastically unlikely.

It is fallacious to argue that something is relatively likely to occur because there are many ways for it to happen. Using such reasoning we might argue that there is a pretty good chance that tornadoes passing through a junkyard will one day assemble a car by chance, because there are many different ways to assemble a car from parts in a junkyard. Even though there are many types of automobiles, the number of arrangements of matter that do not result in automobiles is more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times greater than the number of arrangements that do result in automobiles. So the chance of an automobile appearing in such a way is incredibly low, despite there being many different ways to make a car.

Because we do not show some outcome is likely or show that it even has one chance in a trillion quadrillion of occurring by showing there are many ways to achieve the outcome, the classification scheme offered by the authors of The Cosmic Zoo is misleading, and should not be used. But is there some better way to classify biological innovations, some classification scheme that might shed a little light on the chance of them randomly occurring on other planets?

Let me sketch out such a classification scheme. The categories are below. The difficulty level refers to how hard it is for the biological innovation to occur by random mutations and natural selection. 

Category Name Description Example Difficulty Level
Category 1 A biological innovation requiring no major structural change A biochemical change resulting in sun-protective dark skin rather than light skin. Low
Category 2 A biological innovation requiring some small structural change which is repeated many times Hair, which consists of thousands of repetitions of a single hair follicle Moderate
Category 3 A biological innovation requiring multiple small components which are either very simple and easy-to-achieve or complex but individually useful Teeth. Each tooth provides a small benefit. Moderate
Category 4 A biological innovation requiring multiple complex components, none of which by itself provides any benefit to the organism (no increase in survival value or reproduction) A vision system, requiring eyes, an optic nerve, a light-interpreting visual cortex, and complex light-capturing proteins (all are useless unless all 4 components exist) Fantastically improbable; vastly harder than Category 3

The difference between the difficulty of achieving biological innovations in Category 3 and Category 4 is an exponential difference, which we can colloquially describe as “all the difference in the world.” I can give an exact numerical example to illustrate the difference.

Let us imagine that some biological innovation requires five complex components, each of which is individually useful once it occurred. If a species consists of a million organisms, it might be that there is (on average) only 1 chance in 100 of each of these components arising by chance in this population during a 50-million year period. But if each of these components is useful by itself, once such a component appears in the gene pool a “classic sweep” of natural selection might cause all of the organisms to get such an innovation after several generations. So over the course of 50 million years, the overall likelihood of the biological innovation occurring in the population might be only a little less than 1 in 100 to the fifth power, which equals 1 in 10 billion. Those are pretty steep odds, but not totally prohibitive odds.

But let us imagine that some biological innovation requires five complex components, each of which is not individually useful once it occurred, and each of which is not useful until all of the five components have appeared in a single organism. If a species consists of a million organisms, it might be that there is (on average) only 1 chance in 100 of each of these components arising by chance mutations in this population during a 50-million year period. But if each of these components is not useful by itself, once such a component appears in the gene pool there would not be any “classic sweep” of natural selection that might cause all of the organisms in the population to get such an innovation after several generations.

Now the math ends up being radically different. Imagine the first component arrives in the gene pool, and that such an arrival (at any time during the 50 million years) has a chance of 1 in 100. If the second component appears in the gene pool, it would need to occur in some member of the population that already had the first component; or else the second component would be wasted. The chance of this now is 1 in 100 multiplied by 1 in a million (actually less 1 in a million, because the first component, being useless by itself, would probably have disappeared from the gene pool before the second component arrived). So to get an organism with both the first and the second component, we have an overall likelihood of less than 1 in 100 times 1 in 100 times 1 in a million. The same math ends up applying to the third component, the fourth component, and the fifth. Overall the math looks like this for the probability of ending up (at any time during the 50 million year period) with a single organism with all of the five components required for the biological innovation (with the “1 in a million” coming from the size of this population):

Chance of first component appearing in gene pool per 50 million years: 1 in 100.
Chance of second component appearing during this period in an organism already having first component: 1 in 100 multiplied by less than 1 in a million.
Chance of third component appearing during this period in an organism already having first and second components: 1 in 100 multiplied by less than 1 in a million.
Chance of fourth component appearing during this period in an organism already having first, second, and third components: 1 in 100 multiplied by less than 1 in a million.
Chance of fifth component appearing during this period in an organism already having first, second, third, and fourth components: 1 in 100 multiplied by less than 1 in a million.

These are all independent probabilities, and to compute the overall likelihood of all of these things happening in this population during the 50 million years we must compute the first probability multiplied by the second probability multiplied by the third probability multiplied by the fourth probability multiplied by the fifth probability. This gives us an overall probability of less than 1 in 10 to the thirty-fourth power (less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.000). These odds can be described as being totally prohibitive. We would not expect such an event to occur even once in the history of the galaxy, even if there are billions of life-bearing planets in the galaxy.

Do we see any of these Category 4 innovations occurring in earthly history? Yes, we see them occurring rather often. One example is the appearance of a vision system. If we consider a minimal vision system consisting of several eye components, an optic nerve, a part of the brain specialized to interpret visual signals, and at least one fine-tuned light-capturing protein, then we have a system consisting of at least five or six components, all of which are necessary for vision. Numerous other examples could be given of such Category 4 innovations. If we consider only random mutations and natural selection, we should not expect such miracles of innovation to be repeated on any other planets in our galaxy. Natural selection (which creates a “classic sweep” causing the proliferation of a useful trait) makes Category 3 innovations more likely, but does nothing to make Category 4 innovations anything other than fantastically improbable.

I call this type of difficulty “the scattering problem.” It is the problem that when we consider how the mutations needed for a complex innovation would (if they occurred) be scattered across the individuals of a population existing over multiple generations, it is exceptionally unlikely that all of the required mutations would ever end up in a single individual. This “scattering problem” rears its ugly head in every type of Category 4 innovation, in which the complex components needed for an innovation are not individually useful (meaning no “classic sweep” can occur until all of the components have appeared in a particular organism).

evolution problem

I can illustrate this scattering problem through an analogy. Let's imagine you're some “ahead of his time” genius who invented the first home computer in 1960. Suppose that this consisted of 7 key parts: a motherboard, a CPU, a memory unit, a keyboard, a monitor, a disk drive, and an operating system disk. If you were to mail one of these parts on 7 different days, sending a different part each day to the same person, there might be a reasonable chance that the person might put them all together to make a home computer. But imagine you did something very different. Imagine you mailed each part in a different year, sending out the parts gradually between 1960 and 1965. Imagine also that each part was mailed to a person you selected through some random process (such as picking a random street and a random time, and asking the name and address of the first person you saw walking down that street) – a process that might give you any of a million people in the city you lived. What would be the chance that the parts you had mailed through such a process would ever be assembled into a single computer? Less than one chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The actual likelihood in this example is about 1 in a million to the seventh power, or 1 in 1042.

It is comparable odds that a Darwinian process of random mutations and natural selection would constantly be facing in regard to complex biological innovations of the Category 4 type. If it luckily happened that there somehow occurred in a gene pool all of the random mutations needed for some biological innovation, such gifts would be scattered so randomly across the population and across some vast length of time that there would be less than 1 chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 that they would ever come together in a single organism, allowing the biological innovation to occur for the first time. 

The previous analogy involving computer parts serves well as a rough analogy of the scattering problem. To make a more exact analogy, we would have to imagine some parts distribution organization that persisted for many generations. Such an organization might send out one part of a complex machine in one generation, to a randomly chosen person in a city, and then several generations later send out another part of the machine to some other randomly chosen person in the city (who would be very unlikely to be related to the previous person); and then several generations later send out another part of the machine to some other randomly chosen person in the city; and then several generations later send out another part of the machine to some other randomly chosen person in the city. The overall likelihood of the parts ever becoming assembled into a machine with all the required parts would be some incredibly tiny, microscopic probability. This more exact analogy better simulates the scenario in which favorable mutations supposedly accumulated over multiple generations.

Is there any way to reduce the scattering problem when considering the odds of complex biological innovations occurring by Darwinian evolution? You might try to do that by assuming a smaller population size. However, assuming a smaller population size is very much a case of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” The reason is this: the smaller the population size, the smaller the chance that some particular favorable random mutation will occur in a gene pool corresponding to that population (just as the smaller the number of lottery ticket buyers in a lottery pool, the lower the chance of any one of them winning a multi-million dollar prize). So any reduction in the assumed population size should involve a corresponding reduction in the average chance of one of the favorable mutations occurring. The result will be that the incredibly low probability of the biological innovation will not be increased.

In the calculations above, I don't even consider an additional aspect of the scattering problem: that the mutations needed for some innovation would be scattered not just over some vast length of time and not just over an entire population but also scattered in random positions of an organism (so, for example, some component needed for an eye would be far more likely to occur uselessly in some other spot such as a foot or an elbow). This consideration just shrinks the likelihood of accidental complex innovations by many additional orders of magnitude, making it billions or trillions of times smaller.

The previous calculations involved the probability of only one organism in a population ending up with some biological innovation. The probability of such a biological innovation becoming common throughout the population (so that most organisms in the population have the innovation) is many times smaller. Evolution experts say that a particular mutation will need to occur many times before it becomes "fixated" in a population, so that all organisms in the population have the mutation. I did not even factor in such a consideration in making the calculations above. When such a consideration is added to the calculation, we would end up with some probability many, many times smaller than the microscopic probability already calculated. Instead of a probability such as 1 in 1032 we might have a probability such as 1 in 1050 or 1 in 10100.

Probability 1: Probability that the gene pool of some particular species will ever experience (possibly scattered in different generations and organisms) each of the random mutations needed for a complex “Category 4” biological innovation, in which there is no benefit until multiple required components exist arranged in a way providing functional coherence Some particular probability
Probability 2: Probability that all of these mutations will exist in the gene pool during one particular generation (possibly scattered among different organisms) Some probability only a tiny fraction of Probability 1
Probability 3: Probability that all of these mutations will ever end up in one particular organism, allowing the biological innovation to occur Some probability only a microscopic fraction of Probability 1-- perhaps a million trillion quadrillion times smaller.
Probability 4: Probability that all of these mutations will ever end up in most of the organisms in the population Some probability many times smaller than Probability 3, and perhaps billions of times smaller.

There is clearly a very strong basis for suspecting that something other than mere chance and natural selection was involved in all the biological innovation that occurred on Earth. Contrary to the naive claims of the authors of The Cosmic Zoo, if we use nothing but the explanations of orthodox Darwinists, we are left with bleak prospects for the existence of humanoid beings elsewhere in our galaxy. A more hopeful attitude would be appropriate only for someone willing to consider metaphysical and teleological considerations that might change the prospects dramatically. It would seem to make no sense for a SETI spokesman to be optimistic, unless he believes in cosmic teleology -- or unless he can specify some way in which non-humanoid extraterrestrials with a radically alien biology might appear without any of the ever-so-improbable Category 4 biological innovations occurring. 

But an orthodox Darwinist will continue to argue along the lines of “Innovations that occurred multiple times must have had a high chance of occurring randomly.” Below is a dialog that illustrates the fallacy in this type of reasoning. Let us imagine a conversation between a mother and a father, with a 3-year-old son.

Mother: That son of ours is learning a few things. I notice that he knows the channel of his favorite TV show, because I see him repeatedly pressing three buttons on the remote, and getting his favorite channel on the first try.
Father: No, that must be just chance. He's probably just randomly pressing number buttons on the remote. He probably accidentally gets the right channel often because there aren't that many channels.
Mother: Are you kidding me? I must have seen our son fifty different times press three numbers on the remote, and get his favorite channel on the first try. That proves it isn't just chance.
Father: Not at all. If our son got the right channel fifty different times, that just proves what I said – that there must be few TV channels, and that there's pretty good odds of him getting the right channel accidentally. Otherwise, he wouldn't have accidentally got his channel so quickly so many times.

The father's reasoning here is very much in error. Each additional time that the son presses three numbers on the remote and gets his favorite TV channel on the first try is actually an additional item of evidence arguing against the claim that blind chance is involved. If there are ten such cases, it argues strongly against the accidental success theory, and if there are fifty such cases, it argues much more strongly against the accidental success theory. The father has simply taken evidence against his theory, and tried to convert it into evidence for his theory. His statement that “otherwise, he wouldn't have accidentally got his channel so quickly so many times” commits the fallacy of overlooking the possibility that something other than chance is involved, and assuming the truth of what the father is attempting to prove (an example of what is called circular reasoning).

Similarly, each additional occurrence of a vastly improbable biological innovation is not evidence that such innovations have accidentally occurred but are instead additional reasons for doubting the theory that such innovations are mere accidents. Similarly, if you are playing poker with a card dealer who very frequently deals himself a royal flush in spades, this doesn't show that it's easy to get by chance a royal flush in spades; it's simply a reason for suspecting that something more than chance is involved.