Class Warfare Blog

October 18, 2019

The “Limits” of Our Understanding

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:30 pm
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I am reading a book whose subtitle is “The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.”

I just got started so I don’t have much to say about the book, yet, but I did have a reaction to the use of words. In the introduction the author, after much dissembling, talked about how every measurement is inexact, that they only go so far. But then the word used became “limited” as what we do know and can measure is “limited” and inferring that what we can know is limited. And then, of course, the author wonders what those limitations are. But phrases are then used like “The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.”

I am girding my intellectual loins to read this book, so we will see how I evaluate it when I stop (finished or not). There seems to be more than a little bit of Platonism in the language used so far. The idea of an ultimate truth, in itself, is disturbing to say the least as this idea has only been used by charlatans claiming to know a “truth” that we do not possess and then trying to extract something from us in order to share that “truth.”

Let’s talk about the limitations of measurements to begin with. I used to stand in front of a lab class and ask them how long the lab bench was. People guessed that it was maybe 20 feet long. I responded that that was a good start. I pointed out that the floor had vinyl tiles on it, each of which was 12 inches/1 foot in length and with a little counting we came up with a better measurement. Then I provided a meter stick (Hey, we’re talkin’ science here! You were expecting a yard stick? Go to the hardware store!) And they were able to get an even better measurement from multiple uses of that instrument. Then I pull out a steel measuring tape, and voila an even better measurement!

Finally, I suggested we could walk over to the physics department and borrow a laser interferometer which could measure lengths to a fraction of a wavelength of light! And I asked them what we would find. They all assumed “an even better measurement.” And I said, “Uh uhn. What we would find is that the far edge of this bench is not parallel to the near edge and that we would get different measurements depending where we took the measurement. And even if the two edges were perfectly parallel, we would find that at the realm of wavelengths of light, that the edges were neither perfectly smooth nor perfectly flat and we would start having problems deciding where the bench began and where it ended.

Measurements are necessarily inexact, but it is rare that this is due to our inability to measure accurately. It is usually due to misconceptions, for example that the bench in my teaching lab had a “true length.” The same thing goes for things like atoms. Atoms have no exterior surface, so how do you measure their sizes (from . . . , to . . .)? Even the idea of a perfect object, a Platonic “ideal,” is completely unreal. It is an idea we can have but we cannot create. And can we know the ultimate truth? about anything? Well, basically, my response is “You want the ultimate truth? You can’t handle the ultimate truth!”

This book’s topic impinges on recent posts of mine regarding the nature of reality and how our senses and brains create it for us. We are curious by nature—hardwired in, it is. So, we take things to extremes in our imaginations (because “Enquiring minds want to know!”), but if we start thinking those extremes are real, then our only future is one containing a great many rubber rooms.

Let me give you a ‘for instance’ from the history of science. It was Isaac Newton, in our western tradition, who “discovered” that the force of gravity showed fidelity to an inverse square law, that is the force was inversely proportional to the square of the distance of separation of the attractive bodies. In math, for two gravitationally attracted bodies, say you and the Earth, it looks like this F = k m1m2/d2. The distance, d, is between the two centers of masses of the two objects and the little m’s represent the masses of the two bodies. The proportionality constant, k, makes the units of measurements agree with one another. So, this was in the 1600’s. How well do you think that Newton’s estimate of an exponent of exactly 2 was measured? Could it not have been 2.01 or 1.98 or 2.00002 or 1.9999997? Well, it could be, but this is not how science works. Scientists find that in many, many things, simple integral exponents like 1, 2, or 3 show up quite often, so if the data indicate it is very close to “2” we assume it is “2” for the time being. This has been checked and the exponent is 2 to about eight decimal places . . . so far. As long as Newton’s law of gravity gave us good answers to our questions we used it. When it stopped giving good answers, then we look further into the rule to see if there are limitations to its application. (Einstein’s theory of gravity got props for explaining things that Newton’s theory could not. This does not mean that we stopped using Newton’s theory, we just became aware that there are preconditions for its successful use.) In this fashion we do not need perfect information to proceed. We proceed from the imperfect to better.

Could we ever determine that the exponent in Newton’s equation is “exactly 2?” I suggest that we cannot as we either end up having to expend so much effort to get the next few decimal points, only to end up with there being more to check, or we find out, like the length of the lab bench, that our question becomes incoherent.

So, are there “limits” on how well we can understand things. Absolutely, but these are not philosophical limits or necessary physical limits. And these limits are not necessarily from without (except, consider Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle) they often as not come from our misperceptions of the actual situation we are in. You name the problem and I can give you a long list of potential limitations to us acquiring an answer. For example, consider the question: What is “dark matter?”

Here are some potential limitations on our being able to answer this question:
• The experiments needed are very expensive and no organization will fund them.
• Global climate change creates an existential crisis and we end up spending all of our energy on practical questions.
• Aliens visit us and destroy the planet.
• We develop an AI that metastasizes, takes over the planet, and exterminates human beings.
• Through genetic manipulation, we create a super plague that wipes out humanity.
• We discover that the universe is different from what we thought is was and neither dark matter nor dark energy are needed to explain anything (this is the same as “nothing to explain” and trying to explain things that do not exist, well that is better let to theists).
• An alien invasion involves us being genetically manipulated by viruses, lowering our IQs dramatically because they want us as meat animals.

Speculating as to whether our ability to understand science is “limited” is possibly entertaining (sells books, even) but is likely to be as wrong as all other speculations about the future. Plus, if our ability to understand “the natural” is limited, consider then what limitations might be on our ability to understand the supernatural. (Yes, I believe there is a religious context behind such discussions of the “limits” of science.) The only way to find any such limits to applicability of any science is to attempt them, over an over; it is by doing, not thinking that such things are found.

I am reminded of my ex-wife who was a biochemist and who had gotten a job at a plastics firm. She was assigned to a workgroup and the leader of that group told her they had been working on a problem for the better part of a year and gotten nowhere and wondered if she had any insights. They were trying to come up with a solvent for a new plastic. She said she would think about it. She went into her lab and took samples of the plastic and then took down bottles of every solvent there and added some of the plastic and some of the solvents in small glass vessels. Within a couple of days she had found three decent solvents to continue testing. Her supervisor was looking for a solvent which could theoretically meet their needs. She was looking for a solvent that could actually meet their needs.

This, by the way, highlights the differences between philosophy and science. The scientists have nature to settle disputes, philosophers only have each other.

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October 4, 2019

More on the “Reality” of Our Senses

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:45 pm
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A recent magazine article in Quanta magazine addressed some fine points most of us are unaware of regarding our vision (Your Brain Chooses What to Let You See, <sub> Beneath our awareness, the brain lets certain kinds of stimuli automatically capture our attention by lowering the priority of the rest.).”

There are a number of fascinating limitations on our ability to “see,” that is to take in information through our eyes and process it. Consider these snippets from the article:

“Scientists have long known that our sensory processing must automatically screen out extraneous inputs — otherwise, we couldn’t experience the world as we do. When we look at our surroundings, for instance, our perceived field of view holds steady or moves smoothly with our gaze. But the eye is also constantly making small movements, or saccades; our visual system has to subtract that background jitter from what we see.

“Automatic suppressive types of mechanisms take place … through large swaths of the brain,” said Richard Krauzlis, a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. “Basically all over the place.”

“And automatic background subtraction, it turns out, can also manifest in intriguing, unexpected ways. Take a counterintuitive finding that Tadin and his colleagues made in 2003: We’re good at perceiving the movements of small objects, but if those objects are simply made bigger, we find it much more difficult to detect their motion.”

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the sheer amount of information available to our senses would swamp any brain, supercomputer, quantum computer, you name it. So, we necessarily must dump a very high percentage of the information (bits and bytes) coming in because we have neither a way to store it nor process it. (Read the book The User Illusion by Tor Norretranders if you are interested in this topic.)

Apparently there are many, many mechanisms used to sort and prune away superfluous information. One of those is that our eyes actually have a very small cone of focus (<10°) in which our vision is sharp and detailed. Visual acuity declines by about 50% every 2.5° from the center up to 30°, at which point visual acuity declines more steeply. Consequently, our visual sense flits about, usually caused by something moving. Our attention brings the moving thing center stage where we can see it clearly. This is why TV screens in a bar or another room keep pulling on our attention. The flashing lights simulate things moving, so our eyes flick there . . . over and over and over.

The light entering our eyes, as I have mentioned, is taking 3-D information and projecting it upon a 2-D surface (the retina) losing the information from the 3rd dimension. Well, and the optics of the eye flip the images upside down and . . . and . . . well, suffice it to say, a fair amount of “post capture” video processing needs to occur.

I recommend the article to you if you are interested in how our senses do not (and really, cannot) detect “reality.” And, those who are alarmed at how much our senses fail to detect “reality,’ well, I think they doth protest too much.

Our senses can be trusted to be what they are. In that they are quite trustworthy . . . flawed but trustworthy. And just because we are not immediately aware of what is going on, that doesn’t prevent us from actually learning what is going on, so as to appreciate it for what it is and not just what we think it is.

 

September 24, 2019

The Fermi Paradox and Other Aspects of Wishful Thinking About Aliens

Filed under: Reason,Science,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 12:17 pm
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Famous physicist Enrico Fermi once uttered something along the lines of “Well, then, where are they?” in a discussion of the possibilities of there being alien life. Fermi’s exact quote is uncertain, but the gist of it is plain. Since there are so many other places in the universe in which life could develop, why haven’t we been visited by aliens at this point?

Let’s look at this because there is so much bullstuff circulating.

Let’s consider time first. A recent Netflix documentary discussing this topic pointed out that the universe was 14-15 billion years old and the Earth was about a third of that old, 4.543 billion years old. So, there has been plenty of time for aliens to have visited us. WTF? No!

If aliens had visited us 2 billion years ago, how would we have any record of that? Maybe if an enduring alien spacecraft had crashed here and avoided being subducted below ground, there might be such evidence, but that is a rather far fetched scenario. We need to be reasonable and consider that Homo sapiens have been around for probably less than 300,000 years. Any prior visitation would not be noted in any way. We also have had a written language for less than 10,000 years, so any prior visitation could only have been recorded in the form of petroglyphs or cave paintings, and there are some rather bizarre figures that could represent such visitants, but I don’t see any consensus in the scientific community as to whether these are factual representations or imaginative ones.

And, it has only been in the last couple of centuries that we have had the means of recording images of such visitants and the images we have suggesting that possibility are of relatively low quality. Recently, some higher quality recordings have led to the possibility that we have, indeed been visited, but that enquiry is still going on.

So, when it comes to time . . . we have been in a position to document such a visitation for a few hundred years out of the 15 billion years of the universe’s existence, a very tiny (tiny!) fraction of the time involved. So, the time factor is quite disfavorable to the argument that we should have seen something by now.

Also, as a factor of time, have you seen the tiny blue dot illustration? Here it is.

The tiny blue dot represents how far radio waves (and TV, etc.) could have traveled since their invention here. Aliens traversing this blue zone would be able to pick up those signs of intelligent life. Again, this is about 200 years in time, 200 light-years in space. Look at how small that zone is compared to the volume of the entire galaxy. Prior to that time or outside of that space, those aliens would be looking for “signs” of life as we are doing now: indications of water in its liquid form and things like carbon dioxide or methane in planetary atmospheres. These searches may turn up “signs” but no conclusive proof of intelligent life.

Now let’s talk space. Clearly any aliens in other galaxies are just too far away to consider making a trip here. Our closest neighboring galaxy is the Andromeda galaxy which is 2.537 million light years away. If these aliens could travel at the speed of light, they would be entertaining a trip of two and a half million years . . . one way! If they could do 1000 times the speed of light, they would still be looking at a 2500 year journey . . . one way. So, intergalactic aliens should be considered to be completely isolated by time and space (unless wormholes of some other similar phenomena are proven to exist).

So, how about aliens inside our own galaxy? With hundreds of billions of stars and trillions of planets in our galaxy, surely . . . surely what exactly? Our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy, is 105,700 light years wide. Traveling at the speed of light, currently thought to be impossible, would require 100,000+ years to go from one edge to the opposite edge, but let’s assume that “our aliens” are not that far away, that they are at least on our side of the galaxy, so their trip would be less, less than 50,000 years at the speed of light. Let’s be honest. If the trip takes more than a decade or so, what benefit would there be in making it? Trade is out of the question as the distances are too far. Trading technology with a less advanced species, again hardly worth the trip. So the only motivation would be a voyage of exploration, or maybe a desperate attempt to find a new place to live. Excluding the latter, because it would be problematic in the extreme (I would venture that those aliens no one wants to meet), let’s consider a voyage of exploration/discovery.

It doesn’t seem plausible that on such a voyage there would be just one stop, here. If I were planning such a voyage, there would be many stops, amplifying my chances of encountering something new. This would go a long way towards justifying the cost of such a voyage. Even if profit or money were not involved (say our aliens are a hive mind, to which such things would be incomprehensible) the amount of effort to be put into the creation of such a ship only to send it off on an “iffy” mission, possibly to be never seen again is an additional barrier to such a voyage. Think back on how many billions of U.S. dollars were expended sending astronauts to the moon, just 250,000 miles away. Imagine what would happen if President Trump were to announce an ambitious new project to explore some of the rest of the galaxy. The projected budgets surely would go into the trillions of dollars and the howls of fiscal irresponsibility would be heard on the moon.

So, the answers to the Fermi paradox seem rather straightforward.

  1. They came but were too early to see anything promising.
  2. They came and met some sapient Earthlings, but those Earthlings had no way of leaving an enduring, credible record of their visit.
  3. They came but we do not count the reports of their visits as being credible “alien encounters.”
  4. They are coming but haven’t gotten here yet.
  5. They looked for places to go, but outside of the tiny blue dot, there were only vague signs of life, certainly none of intelligent life, so we were just one of myriad possible sites to check out and they chose other places to visit.
  6. They considered coming but nixed the idea as there was no “upside” in the form of trade or technology transfers to warrant the trip.
  7. They have taken such voyages but we are too far away to travel here or to even communicate via EMR signaling.
  8. We were so far beneath them that visiting us would be the equivalent of us trying to communicate with a slime mold.
  9. They were planning such a voyage but the early cost overruns were too scary and they backed out of the project. (They are more advanced than us, remember.)
  10. They were on their way but had an accident and had to limp home.
  11. And, of course, the old tried and true opinion of many theists: “They don’t exist; we are alone in the universe, because . . . we . . . are . . . special!”

Of course, there is also the “Ancient Aliens theorists” conjecture that they came a long time ago and jiggered with our DNA to help create another sentient species in the galaxy. Would you want to meet such a species, one that would take such liberties with lower life forms, to whom we would surely still be a lower life form?

September 18, 2019

More on Senses (Can We Trust Them?)

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:35 am
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This topic struck a nerve, to some extent, And, it may be a manifestation of “the green car effect” but having written recently about whether we can trust our senses, I ran across the following book. Here are the title, author, and Amazon.com’s blurb for that book:

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes by Donald Hoffman

Can we trust our senses to tell us the truth?

Challenging leading scientific theories that claim that our senses report back objective reality, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman argues that while we should take our perceptions seriously, we should not take them literally. How can it be possible that the world we see is not objective reality? And how can our senses be useful if they are not communicating the truth? Hoffman grapples with these questions and more over the course of this eye-opening work.

Ever since Homo sapiens has walked the earth, natural selection has favored perception that hides the truth and guides us toward useful action, shaping our senses to keep us alive and reproducing. We observe a speeding car and do not walk in front of it; we see mold growing on bread and do not eat it. These impressions, though, are not objective reality. Just like a file icon on a desktop screen is a useful symbol rather than a genuine representation of what a computer file looks like, the objects we see every day are merely icons, allowing us to navigate the world safely and with ease.

The real-world implications for this discovery are huge. From examining why fashion designers create clothes that give the illusion of a more “attractive” body shape to studying how companies use color to elicit specific emotions in consumers, and even dismantling the very notion that spacetime is objective reality, The Case Against Reality dares us to question everything we thought we knew about the world we see.

It’s a frickin’ conspiracy that is what it is!

Uh, no. I have not read this book and probably will not and while the author may not have written the blurb but there are a number of things disturbing about it. For one “Challenging leading scientific theories that claim that our senses report back objective reality . . .” WTF? What “leading scientific theories” are these? I am aware of none of these. The literature on optical illusions goes back a couple of millennia at least, so I don’t think anyone was going to make such a claim in the face of those. And just what the heck is objective reality? Philosophers talk about such things, but scientists? Scientists are forever devising replacements for our senses to expand our observation capabilities. Why would they be looking for those if our senses were thought to portray “objective reality” all by themselves?

“Ever since Homo sapiens has walked the earth, natural selection has favored perception that hides the truth and guides us toward useful action, shaping our senses to keep us alive and reproducing.” If you take “hides the truth and” out, this is quite correct. But scientists aren’t interested in truth, not even a little bit. And evolution did nothing to hide anything, certainly not “the truth.” Anything that did happen that increased our reproductive success was kept and anything that did not was not. It was not about perfecting one’s senses or hiding the truth or whatever. This is deceptive use of language, making evolution out to be a villain which is “hiding the truth,” the truth of a revealed god, perhaps?

“The real-world implications for this discovery are huge.” No they are not. Don’t be silly. We have known much of this for quite some time. Have you noticed people going crazy in the streets? The stock market in turmoil? (Check that, the stock market is always in turmoil.) Animals retreating into the hills? Babies crying continuously?

People, this is all quite simple. All animals perceive the world around them. This is a requirement for the ability to move. All of these perceptions are limited. Eagles have much better visual acuity than do humans. So effing what? Whatever our visual acuity is, it will not be perfect. Our ability to distinguish different pitches of sound provides us with the ability to communicate vocally. But bats and dolphins hear quite different kinds of sounds. So what? Whatever that ability, it will be limited by the mechanism used to transmit the physical stimulus (compressed waves in the air) into signals our brains can deal with. We cannot hear high pitched sounds and very low pitched sounds, but other animals can. BFD. None are perfect.

And for every sense we have, our brain has to come up with some kind of system to codify them, just as we do socially. (We have an Orange Alert for Southern California! Shoppers we have a Grocery Department Special on Aisle 7!)

There is no real or imagined sensory input system that reveals whatever the heck objective reality is. So, yes, reality is a matter of opinion. We spend a great deal of time interacting with other people and sharing our realities, only to find ourselves perplexed as to how some people just can’t see the truth right in front of their faces. This also is why we have so many people who believe imaginary supernatural beings and events are “real.” If their reality were not subjective, would they still be able to cling to their fantasies?

September 15, 2019

More on Meaning

In a recent post I said this: “I suggest that ‘meaning’ doesn’t really exist. Whenever someone asks ‘But what does it all mean?’ they are asking for a comforting story to wrap around events that makes them feel ‘better.’” That this opinion irked John Branyan is to its credit, I think, although I may have been too subtle; “doesn’t really exist” refers to the common understanding of the term. I offered a better definition of the term in my quote, so it “exists” to that extent.

People make good money dispensing “meanings” and I am not just referring to the religious. Our current political commentariat is riddled with people who are constantly telling us what really is going on, what this or that really “means.” We end up feeling as if we understand the political situation and thus feel more in control of our lives.

“Wishful thinking spill cleanup on Aisle 8, Please!”

As further evidence for my opinion, please consider . . . dreams. For all of human history (and I must assume the rest of human existence), people have felt and claimed that dreams “mean” something. Kings and other potentates took major actions based upon their dream interpreted meanings. An entire cottage industry, sometimes breaching over into academic psychology, was created to help people decipher the meanings of their dreams (and has done so for thousands of years).

But we have come to the realization that dream sequences are cobbled together from our very own memories. People have actually exerted some control over what occurs in their dreams (I have done this myself). Dreams seem to play a role in reinforcement of the memories we feel to be important and the pruning away of memories not thought to be important. A hypothetical process for this is for memories to be replayed in a dream and our emotional state is monitored by a subsystem. If there is a significant emotional reaction, the memory is kept, if not it is pruned. Pruning is quite important as it provides capacity for future memories. (Memory pruning has been observed as has memory reinforcement but this entire process is not fully understood as of yet. We are also aware that memories are very, very malleable and change more often than not.)

So, what do dreams mean? They mean absolutely nothing. The fact that people did and still do think they have “meaning” is evidence that “meanings” are what computer science calls “vaporware,” which is software for which there is marketing material, but there actually is no code operating.

If you want there to be meaning in your life, you need to create it. (You certainly do not want to leave this exercise to others, just as those who fear the biographies that might be written about them, often rush to get an autobiography into print.) This is a fiction writing exercise which creates a comforting story that you can wrap around the events of your life. It also has to ring “true” to your inner ear, so you can’t bullshit yourself in a major way, but minor exaggerations are always acceptable.

If the meanings most people think are real actually were real, the odds are we wouldn’t recognize them anyway. In a fit of retrospection I reviewed all of my speculations regarding why “so-and-so did what.” Somebody at work, for example, did a thing. On the way home or at home I would speculate upon why they did that thing. In reflection, I could not remember a time when my speculations were right (and I do enjoy being right so if I had been I am sure I would recall that). I was “oh-fer . . .. many” in this regard. After that, for many years, I continued to speculate as to why “so-and-so did such-and-such” and to date I have been oh-for-a-zillion, I think. I also tried to check on how good others were on determining the rationale or motivation for others’ actions and I didn’t find anyone any better at that than I was, which was abysmal. “Meanings,” as others claim them to be, seem much like reasons to me and as such are as opaque to others as I found them. This means we have no way to check whether another’s “meaning” is valid or even coherent. No fact-checking here, so I have very low expectations regarding what anyone says about the “meaning” they find in X, Y, or Z. I accept that they said something. What they believe and what is actually the case is not readily available.

 

September 14, 2019

Oh, This is a Really Bad Idea

Here’s the blurb announcing a new video game! Hurry, hurry, read all about it. . . .

“The newly released Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey is an open world survival game where you control a group of “hominins” – our first ancestors – and explore, expand, and lock in new knowledge so your “clan” can evolve. It takes the players from 10 m years ago, and the common ancestor of both chimpanzee and hominins, to 2 m years ago, when you can play as an early version of Homo erectus. The aim of the game is ultimately to evolve to the point when humans began to leave Africa.”

* * *

No matter how much time is involved in the virtual world that has been created, the amount of time in our world that this game takes will be in hours and days, not millions of years. That will leave a subliminal impression. But, too many people now have the impression that evolution should be visible now to us, when in fact it is glacially slow, in fact evolution makes glaciers seem really, really fast. While the process is continuous (some people think that evolution stopped because it had the objective of creating us) being so slow makes it essentially invisible to ordinary observations.

The vast majority of events (mutations, etc.) are either neutral or detrimental, so such a game has to accelerate in the player’s minds the actual causes of positive changes. And the phrase in the blurb “you control a group of ‘hominins’ – our first ancestors – and explore, expand, and lock in new knowledge so your ‘clan’ can evolve” seems to indicate that the game developers do not even have even a foggy notion of how evolution, a mindless unguided process, works. The earliest point at which human “knowledge” might affect our evolution is right about now where we have the ability to modify genes in human embryos. Or possibly, our ability to control our environment will affect our ecological niche and we will adapt over long periods of time to that. (Those who think we can “evolve” to adapt to climate change or our strange new diet are smoking something barely legal.)

Hey, maybe it is part of a Christian misinformation campaign to discredit the theory of evolution. That might explain the existence of this “game.” Hey, if evolution can be guided, then there just has to be a “Big Guider in the Sky,” right?

Sometimes a Blurb is Enough, Part ???

Filed under: Religion,Science,Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 7:35 am
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I see a great many books recommended by Amazon.com based upon my reading tastes (as indicated by my searches and purchases, I assume). This one caught my eye: Genesis and the Big Bang Theory: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science and The Bible. This is the blurb accompanying that title:

A ground-breaking book that takes on skeptics from both sides of the cosmological debate, arguing that science and the Bible are not at odds concerning the origin of the universe.

The culmination of a physicist’s thirty-five-year journey from MIT to Jerusalem, Genesis and the Big Bang presents a compelling argument that the events of the billions of years that cosmologists say followed the Big Bang and those of the first six days described in Genesis are, in fact, one and the same—identical realities described in vastly different terms. In engaging, accessible language, Dr. Schroeder reconciles the observable facts of science with the very essence of Western religion: the biblical account of Creation.

Carefully reviewing and interpreting accepted scientific principles, analogous passages of Scripture, and biblical scholarship, Dr. Schroeder arrives at a conclusion so lucid that one wonders why it has taken this long in coming. The result for the reader—whether believer or skeptic, Jewish or Christian—is a totally fresh understanding of the key events in the life of the universe.

* * *

Why the author had to go to Jerusalem on his “thirty-five year journey” is mysterious. The creation didn’t take place there, Genesis is available on the Internet as are several tons of discussion of it, so. . . ?

I have not yet read this beast, but it is a common approach of apologists to establish a correspondence between what we perceive as reality and their scriptures. Since their scriptures have a poor track record in such comparisons it is easy to scoff, but I decided to give this a go. I will report back.

Of course, there are a few minor foundational issues with all such comparisons. While one may establish that the order of the steps of creation as described in scripture is the same as actually occurred, in scripture the process by which they occurred is magic, something that has never been observed. As a colleague of Daniel Dennett put it (approximately) is that “real magic is fake and fake magic is real.” And any sort of physical explanation for a manifestation of nature must include not only the event but the process by which is occurred and “God did it” is not so much an explanation but an admission that one doesn’t know why or how it happened. And, it would be much more convincing if the scriptural account differed from reality and later, our view of reality had to be corrected due to mistakes being made and it came into alignment with scripture. This never happens. More often apologists claim that scripture corresponds with reality perfectly and then we find errors in our picture of reality and this is followed by some other apologist claiming that scripture was in perfect agreement with the new reality. (Note that Christian scripture corresponded exactly with Babylonian cosmogony and then Aristotelian cosmogony and then modern cosmogony (apparently), all three of which are vastly different. But I get ahead of myself. As I said I will attempt to read this book and report back.

For those who object that Yahweh “speaking” the universe into existence shouldn’t be characterized as magic, I offer this definition: magic (noun): the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. If the scriptural creation account is not mysterious and didn’t involve supernatural forces, then it was a natural thing and we don’t need a god to account for it, so scriptural creation is magical, almost by definition.

September 7, 2019

Beware of Throw Away Lines

I am working my way through Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking and I encountered this:

Live is amazing. When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly lifeless, it is amazing that there is any way of being alive at all. (Chapter 38)

Now, Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, possibly because he eschews the normal jargon rich representations of philosophers for ordinary language, thereby becoming a public intellectual, with all of the negatives that are associated with that position. So, I am not sure why he was saying such a stupid thing.

He seems better educated and more knowledgeable than I, and I am sure he is aware of the basic facts. There are now estimated to be about two trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. This means that there are at least  200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 “solar systems” or thereabouts. Of these, we have explored exactly one and that one only partially. So far,

Solar Systems Explored = 1 (kinda sorta)
Solar Systems Which Contain Life =1

I call that a 100% hit rate. This means “not rare,’ “not uncommon,” “not unusual,” etc. so far anyway.

Will life prove to be rare elsewhere or not, that is whether life can be found in other solar systems, is entirely unknown. Not only that but we don’t have a way of expanding our knowledge much at all. Even were we to develop the technology to explore other solar systems in our neighborhood of our galaxy, we would still have a very parochial sampling. Other galaxies are, well, far, far away.

Q: So, is life rare? A: We do not know.

Q: Will we encounter life on other planets? A: We do not know.

Q: Will billions of solar systems found to be lifeless? A: We do not know.

We suspect that with 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 solar systems a few billion (0.00000000000000001% or so) might be lifeless, certainly, but that does not warrant “When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly lifeless it is amazing that there is any way of being alive at all.” because one could also, based upon probabilities, say “When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly full of life. . . .”

This was a throwaway line, a poor one at that, used to make life sound as if it were unusual (and, as always, us special).

Q: So, is life unusual? A: We do not know, but certainly not on this planet.

 

August 22, 2019

What’s the difference between science and the supernatural?

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:06 am
Tags: , , ,

The title of this post was a question asked on the Quora website which had, at the time of my viewing, 52 answers. I was shocked at how many of them implied that science was incapable of studying the “supernatural,” whatever the heck that is. Here is but one example:

“Take a look at the word supernatural. It means above or beyond the natural order. Science by its very nature deals only with the natural order, and cannot even directly detect or deal with the supernatural order. Science can only deal with the natural order, which is why scientists tend to be naturalists in their approach and worldview and treat the supernatural order as nonexistent, because science doesn’t have the tools to measure and test the supernatural order. Only recently with the advent of the field of quantum mechanics, some theoretical physicists have reason to believe there are higher dimensions in addition to the three dimensions we tend to think is the sum total of reality. These theorists being naturalists shy away from terms like supernatural because of its association with the ideas of the spooky or religion, but use similar and other terms to articulate their work.”

Since there were so many such comments, I have to accept that there are many who support claims that “the supernatural” exists. Some of the comments refer to the miracles of Jesus, others with just unexplained phenomena. (One was batshit crazy.)

I was expecting most of the responses to be similar to this one:

“Science explains the ways in which the things we see around us in nature work and behave.

It does this by examining closely the actual data in as much detail as is available, proposing some experiments and some theories and then testing those theories to see if they fit and explain and predict the phenomenon.

The theories are then reviewed by your colleagues around the world rigorously, who test the theory to see if there are holes, or better explanations – and to ensure that they too get the same results. It then becomes accepted scientific understanding which we then build on.

Science deals with what is actually happening.

The supernatural – is a what happens when people don’t do science. People instead ‘make up’ explanations for things that they can’t immediately explain.

The larva coming out of the ground becomes the gateway to hell, until science explains it and then it doesn’t. Old women who live on their own and who provide herbal remedies become witches to burn at the stake whenever something unusual happens in the village that can’t be explained. An old house which will naturally be creaky and have lots of drafty spaces, will become haunted at night, when people see and hear things move.

The supernatural is not real and it is how humans existed before we discovered how to do science right.”

But responses like these were not the majority.

The Supernatural—Real or Not?
So, are supernatural phenomena real or not? Seems a simple question, but of which I have more questions. For example: If someone claims that something is a supernatural phenomenon, how do they know this? Apparently something that cannot easily be explained is observed. The first thing I would challenge is my ability to explain, but. . . . We can rule out the common mis-identifications of old women collecting herbs being witches (would that they had not suffered from that label) and old ramshackle houses creaking in the wind at night being haunted (what else can a loose house do but creak, rot, and eventually fall down?). So, there seem to be many such phenomena that are clearly not supernatural, yet were claimed to be. Let us set those aside for now.

If someone says: “it was clearly a supernatural phenomenon” we have to ask “why do you think this?” If this phenomenon is “beyond nature” then how can we even perceive it as we are “in nature.” How does the supernatural impinge upon the natural? Some dodge this question by stating that supernatural phenomena are just those that do not obey the normal rules of nature. How they know this is also subject to question, but let’s ride with this for a minute, treating it as we would any other hypothesis. So, something is observed and that observation shows a violation of natural laws (the laws of physics, chemistry, etc.). How does the observer know this to be such a violation? Doesn’t one need to know what those laws are to claim the event violated them? How many advocates of supernaturalism know the laws of say, physics, for example.

It seems that people, like Deepak Chopra, are only too willing to claim support for their worldviews by plucking quantum mechanical events out of current theory and use them as justification for their beliefs. For example, the multiverse shows that there are “higher dimensions of existence.” No, it doesn’t. The existence of a multiverse is entirely hypothetical at the moment and thus cannot be used to prove anything. Another example is “quantum leaps.” These are leaps in energy (not space per se) which are incredibly tiny in size. They are grabbed by these folks to explain jumps of large scale objects through space and time. Cherry picking concepts out of a field of science, then misunderstanding and misrepresenting those concepts, seems to be rife in the “supernatural community.” But I diverge from my main point.

How does the observer of a “supernatural event” know this to be a violation of natural laws? Seeing, for example, a disembodied human head floating in front of you is a violation of the principles of gravity and wouldn’t need a theoretical understanding to recognize that fact. But how does one rule out other interpretations? We humans have become adept at showing all kinds of violations of physical laws in movies. These images, being entertaining and graphic, may just get stored away in our heads. Anyone who has ever seen the first Alien movie cannot get the image of the little beastie bursting out of the crewman’s chest. Can you? Could you erase that memory? (If you can, I want to know how you did it. I have a couple of ex-wives I wish to expunge.)

How do you know that you haven’t had a hallucination or a waking dream or even a sleeping dream that you had forgot but for some reason got triggered and you just recalled it (along with all of the associated emotions it evokes)?

It is interesting that these experiences are rarely shared (except, for obvious reasons, by crowds of the religious gathered at, say, a religious shrine, expecting a miraculous event and then after standing out in the hot sun getting dehydrated, someone shouts “I see it, do you?”). Since these experiences are rarely shared and, obviously, not repeatable, we end up discussing personal events which cannot be studied further, which supernaturalists turn around and claim is a weakness of science.

Scientists have studied supernatural claims scientifically many, many times. And nothing comes out of those studies, just <cricket, cricket, cricket>. Telekinesis studies, ESP studies, past life regression studies, on and on.

This is why supernaturalists are now claiming that science “cannot” study these events science is only suitable for studying nature. This is akin to the game of hide and seek played by god believers. Their gods start out walking around being sighted by people and interacting with them. (Consider how many times both Yahweh and Jesus are quoted (Quoted!) in the Bible. You can’t quote someone unless you have “heard” them. But these gods invariably end up in a locale such as “beyond all time and space” whatever that means. (Without space, nothing can move. Without time, nothing can change. Without space and time <cricket, cricket, cricket>.)

If supernatural events can affect people inside of nature, they aren’t supernatural. They could be evidence of advanced aliens invoking Clarke’s Third Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.), and, gosh, don’t you know, that is being claimed right now, right here in River City, as I write this!

Supernatural claims are easy to make. One just opens one’s mouth and poof, out one comes. “I have a theory . . .” No, you don’t, you have an opinion.

The supernatural began in human history as explanations for things not understood. Brooks, rivers, oceans, mountains, you name it, all had gods in them, controlling them. Later gods became more human-like, appearing as human figures (often modified to make sure those gods wouldn’t be mis-recognized as actually being human). We no longer have brook gods, river gods, tree gods, and angels who push the planets along on their heavenly paths. Why? Because we found out what really was happening and we gave up our fantasies. But thousands of years living with fantasies has made us adept . . . at living with fantasies. (Religions, of course, are teaching each new generation that fantasies are believable!) The fantasy of the supernatural is another zombie idea that won’t die, partly because of people wanting to believe that they understand what really is going on. (I do. You do. We all do.) But, at some point, if we want to mature intellectually, we have to ask questions like “How do we know that. . . ?”

August 19, 2019

Book Report—Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?

Filed under: History,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:10 am
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This book, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William G. Dever addresses the actual archaeological evidence for the existence and behaviors of the early Israelites. I was drawn to this book by a couple of things that have troubled me regarding the “history” of that region. First, is the escape from bondage in Egypt. The story has been dramatized a great many times, even in movies, and so we are all familiar with the story. In the later 1800’s and early 1900’s “biblical archeologists” swarmed all over the Holy Land to discover all of the evidence for these “historical” events. What they actually found were two things: wish fulfillments and <cricket, cricket, . . .>. There is basically little to no evidence to back up the biblical story of the “escape from Egypt” or the “conquest of Canaan.” But then, over and over again, Yahweh states that he was the deliverer of the people from Egypt. So, does Yahweh lie? Actually there is linguistic evidence that indicates that the words used could mean “delivered from Egyptian (or just foreign) rule.”

You can see where this is going: the Israelites were never in Egypt in the numbers claimed, nor did Moses lead them to the Promised Land, nor did they spend 40 years in the desert, etc. But a god claim to have delivered the ancient Israelites from Egyptian rule, could easily be attached any time Egypt weakened their grip on their surrounding provinces. (Religions are well known for taking credit for things they did not do.)

But, then, this means that the Israelites were there all of the time and, in effect, they were Canaanites (people who lived in Canaan). Which creates a whole storm of other questions, beginning with “is there any evidence for this claim?”

The answer provided by Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? isn’t definitive but of all of the possible scenarios hypothesized so far, this is the one most supported by the evidence. So, way back when the Israelites were basically indistinguishable from what are called Canaanites (even in the Bible). The Canaanites worshiped many gods (as did the Israelites), the foremost of whom was El (Sound familiar?) whose consort/wife was Asherah. Some claim that they had 70 god-children, one of whom was named Yahweh. Over a period of time, a subculture of Israelites grew up as Yahweh worshipers. Over a considerable amount of time, these people were pushed into the hill country where the “first Israelites” were evident. The proximate causes for this migration seem to have been wars along the coast that caused the coastal cities to descend into anarchy and a number of other causes. The dwellings built by those early Israelites in the hills used Canaanite designs, as did the pottery, etc., etc.

When monotheism was being promoted, the Yahwists had to get rid of all of the other gods who they and many of their neighbors worshiped. Yahweh replaces El as the god most high. Asherah becomes Yahweh’s consort for a short period, and then even she had to go. There are references in the Hebrew Bible to these processes. The “old worshipping ways” were condemned over and over. The old gods were condemned over and over. This has all been supported (not confirmed per se, but supported by more evidence that the other “scenarios”).

Then the biblical narrative process began. People remember lessons better when they are attached to a story, e.g. Aesop’s fables, Nursery Rhymes, other examples ad nauseum. So, all of the Yahwists’ spiritual conquests (they drove out the other religions from their regions) were transformed into quasi-historical stories. The subjugation by Egypt became being enslaved there. Their freedom from Egyptian rule became the escape and journey to the Promised Land. the triumph of Yahweh worship over the old Canaanite religion became Joshua and the mighty Israelite host which conquered all of those other cities and slaughtered and enslaved their occupants. (See what you get if you don’t worship the right god! They got what they deserved.)

Possibly the first audiences for these “narratives” understood they were fictional, but over time and space that feeling was lost, so now we have millions upon millions of people who believe those stories are true. (I would love to see a Pew Religion Survey question, regarding the flight from Egypt (True or False or MC).)

Now, these archaeological efforts (once the biased Biblical Archaeologists were gotten out of the way) finally provide a coherent picture of what might have happened. But the really scary part is that the priests or scribes, whoever, who crafted these stories with all of their horrific details, who believed that those atrocities were a good way to introduce the True Nature™ of the One True God™ to one and all. (“I know Shechem, let’s have the soldiers kill all of the babies and rape all of the women!” “Good idea, let’s go with that!”)

Now, for those of you who say “Oh, that can’t have happened,” consider that the whole process was replicated in the formation of the New Testament. Prior to the writing of the gospels (at least 40+ to 100+ years after the events claimed to be being described), all of the epistles never mention an earthly or historical Jesus, not . . . one . . . mention. The Jesus of the epistles is a spiritual being who resides in Heaven (and their concept of Heaven wasn’t clouds and harp music, but a world just like this one, but perfected). So, the gospels are fictional “wisdom literature” crafted to teach the lessons needed by the flock. And, once again, non-historical events are front and center of these writings . . .. but millions upon billions of Christians accept them as being historical, if not every word being holy truth.

Postscript For any who feel that “once the biased Biblical Archaeologists were gotten out of the way” was too strong of a statement, it is clear now that the vast majority of these “scientists” went to their research sites knowing that the events in the Bible were true (had to be true) and they were just looking for confirmation. Do you know what a scientist who assumes a thing to be true and then goes looking for confirmation is called? An abomination, that’s what they are called.

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