Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Natural Model of the Universe

I was reminded by SecularOutpost about a paper from Physicist Sean M. Carroll titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists.

I’ve reread the entire paper twice in the last several days because I admire what Carroll says AND how he says it. One paragraph has always jumped out at me. Read it for yourself below, then I’ll explain why.

The essence of materialism is to model the world as a formal system, which is both unambiguous and complete as a description of reality. A materialist model may be said to consist of four elements. First, we model the world as some formal (mathematical) structure. (General relativity describes the world as a curved manifold with a Lorentzian metric, while quantum mechanics describes the world as a state in some Hilbert space. As a more trivial example, we could imagine a universe which consisted of nothing other that an infinitely long list of ”bits” taking on the values 0 or 1.) Second, this structure exhibits patterns (the ”laws of nature”), so that the amount of information needed to express the world is dramatically less than the structure would in principle allow. (In a world described by a string of bits, we might for example find that the bits were an infinitely repeated series of a single one followed by two zeroes: 100100100100…) Third, we need boundary conditions which specify the specific realization of the pattern. (The first bit in our list is a one.) Note that the distinction between the patterns and their boundary conditions is not perfectly well-defined; this is an issue which becomes relevant in cosmology, and we’ll discuss it more later. Finally, we need a way to relate this formal system to the world we see: an ”interpretation.”

Back when I stopped being Christian in the ’70’s, I still retained this slight suspicion that reality still contained some supernatural aspect. Years later, as I tried to assemble a somewhat accurate picture of reality, I backed in to the idea that the universe that I can observe consists of space and time (later, “spacetime”), matter and energy, and exhibits behaviors that could be observed, and could help me to validate my mental picture of it. Naturally, I tried to imagine where supernatural things might fit into this picture.

I once thought it obvious that there could be only a few ways to reconcile the supernatural with the natural. 1) the supernatural is the framework upon which the other things rest. 2) we exist wholly within some supernatural environment. 3) the supernatural is separate, but somehow meaningful in ways that are unclear. 4) we - and the universe - ARE wholly supernatural, and we just don’t recognize it (Or refuse to acknowledge it). Clearly some of these ideas overlap, but that’s what I can recall.

Once I had my framework for thinking about the universe to validate my (4) suspicions on what the supernatural might be, ideas of supernatural agency in the universe started to drop by the wayside. By the start of the new millenium, this informal process was complete - I was functionally - if not consciously - atheist. So what’s that have to do with Carroll’s paper?

When I read Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists a few years ago, it validated the approach I had taken to arrive at a naturalistic world view. The specific paragraph that I quote above, although more eloquent and more complete than I was thinking, essentially turns into this for laypeople like me:
  1. describe what entities there are in your system
  2. describe how they behave
  3. define the extent of the system
  4. compare your model to reality and articulate it for review

Easy as pie!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Objective Moral Values - the 2016 Edition

I tried to post the following on The Secular Outpost , but Disqus yakked up a hairball when I tried to log in, so I’m posting it here. Read the post first, if you’d like context. Jeffrey Jay Lowder was inviting an open discussion on objective moral values.

I’m with the “approachable scientifically” contingent.

As a non-philosopher, I get stuck on the term “objective”. Given that objective means true or false regardless of what people think about it, and that morality is a body of standards regarding right and wrong behavior, then I can imagine some spongy “globally recognized standards” that might obtain for long periods of time. I find truly objective morality - true or false regardless of what observers think about it, presumably eternally - impossible to pin down without stipulating some bedrock thing(s) that we agree not to investigate further.

I can envision it boiling down to this: We procreate, and adopt behaviors that make procreation more likely. To become social, we adopted more complex behavior to help families, kin, clans and communities thrive. So, I might be able to derive some objective moral values and duties that apply universally, eternally to basic social creatures.

If that is what we’re trying to discover, then yes, I’m convinced that objective moral values exist, as a set of properties and behaviors of biological creatures that succeed at being social.

Once we move beyond that, it starts to appear to this untrained eye as a bunch of engineering exercises performed by people with different outlooks and goals. Thought-provoking, but abstract.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lrrr's Toothpick

I can’t remember what caused this to pop into my head, but it’s stuck. So I need to get it out.

Russell’s Teapot

is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others, specifically in the case of religion.

It (kinda) takes the form “I claim there’s a china teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars. You can’t disprove it, therefore I expect you to accept that my assertion is true”.

Since claims of God and lesser supernatural things often take this general form, it surprised me to hear - not too long ago - a theistically-inclined correspondent claim that you could in principle prove that said teapot does not orbit the sun as described, thus the analogy does not apply to God (so if Russell's Teapot is your go-to rejoinder to the claim that God exists, well, you’ve failed, Mister Godless Heathen).


When Russell first brought this analogy into the public consciousness c. 1952, it was in practice impossible to disprove the existence of the teapot. The technology didn’t yet exist, and certainly the will and resources to undertake such a low reward endeavor didn’t (and still don’t) exist. But wait - there’s more!

The Russell's Teapot analogy is actually too narrow in scope, given what we know about the cosmos today, if you take it literally. Which you shouldn’t. Because it’s an analogy.

Scale the analogy up to fit the cosmos that we observe today, and you could claim that there’s a pure diamond toothpick that was once owned by Lrrr, Ruler of Omicron Persei 8, that now floats freely between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy. In principle, it could be verified. In practice - extremely unlikely!

That crystallizes what I think is the point. You - Miss Straw Woman That I Constructed For This Exposition - want me to accept that God exists because I can’t prove she doesn’t. You - Miss SWTICFTE (for short) - present me with 2 equally fruitless options: believe in something that has never been verifiably observed in history, or commence my search of the cosmos to prove that it doesn't exist. That pisses me off. You're trying to get me to waste my life, and I won’t do it. There are other alternatives in life, and THAT is where I may find a fruitful path.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Investigating the World

Today, this blog is as good a place as any to jot down an idea that is probably in the foundation of any religious person's world view. I 'm presuming that to be religious in the way that I once was decades ago, one has to accept the following premises:
  1. There is a Supernatural component to reality
  2. The Supernatural contains entities that can affect our existence
  3. Humans have souls
  4. The Supernatural realm has some relationship to the soul.
  5. Supernatural entities have some effect on human souls
  6. Humans should think and behave in a way that is most likely to bring about the kind treatment of us in the physical world ... and/or ...
  7. Humans should think and behave in a way that is most likely to bring about the kind treatment of our souls in the supernatural world

Obviously, the religiously and/or philosophically inclined might find more or less about this brief brain dump that they'd include in the consideration of the world - whatever they conceive it to be - but it seems like a good place to start the investigation.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How's Your Soul?

I’m sure that there are other concepts of religion, but the ones that most of us think of (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, etc) include some idea of a soul and an afterlife.

When was the last time you had a soul check-up?

I bet if you went to the doctor and asked for a soul check-up, you’d be told politely that they don't do that.

Try a chiropractor. Or a dentist. Don’t laugh - a dentist is a perfectly sensible choice to check your soul, given that we don’t know where a soul might reside. Maybe your opthamologist knows. Maybe not. A palm reader? Maybe they’d take your money. Your pastor? You never know, but he or she might offer to pray with you about the health of your soul.

Try an auto mechanic. Or a appliance repair man. I bet these guys don’t know soul from shinola. Nor do I. Which brings me to my point:

Shouldn’t we stop being touchy-feely-spiritual procrastinators and get that soul check up right away? And shouldn’t we stop worrying about it after the verdict comes back that souls are bronze-age fabrications?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

String Theory is what?

String Theory is - as a theory - a topic of controversy this week, as articles by Ethan Siegel and Sabine Hossenfelder attest. I recommend reading both posts and following links within them for a full morning's reading!

What does it mean for the working stiff?

Physics still explains all of the fundamental features of reality that affect us.

Do I care about features that are smaller than protons, electrons and neutrons? Intellectually I do, but practically, not so much.

Do I care about features that are larger than our galaxy? Intellectually I do, but practically, again it has little meaning.

So why do I even care enough to write a few words about it? Because I still think that experiencing life as fully as I am able is one of the driving forces of my human existence. And the work of the theoreticians and experimentalists helps me to expand the scope of what I consider conceivable, and thus expand the scope of what might be experienced.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Letter from God

I was musing about how we might react if we received a sign that God exists. Imagine that I send a letter to my sister. It’s hand-written, and signed “Love, Johnny”. My sister receives the letter in the mail, opens it up, reads it, recognizes my handwriting, sees my signature, and instantly knows that the letter came from me. After all, she knows that I exist (we DID grow up together!) and she knows I can write. She’s 99.999,999,999% sure that Johnny wrote her a letter. She has good reasons to.

In contrast, suppose my sister receives a letter, and it’s signed “Love, God". If God is the “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power” that some theologians posit, then it would presumably be capable of writing and sending a letter to my sister. But how sure can she be that the supreme, no-lie, it's-really-her God actually did this?

If you’ve thought about this sort of thing before, then that last sentence is where it gets interesting. You see, Sis can know that Johnny sent her a letter signed “Love, Johnny” because she knows to a very high degree of certainty that I exist prior to any scenario involving a letter. She’s seen me. She’s yelled at me. She’s tried to hit me. She’s even kissed me. Unless her senses and intellect are unreliable, she knows I exist and that I am capable of writing letters. This should bolster her belief that she currently is in receipt of a letter from me. But she has no such experience with God. If God fell out of the sky and landed on her head, she wouldn’t know him/her/it from shinola. There’s nothing in her experience that demonstrates to her that an actual entity in this world is God. She has to rely on her ability to mentally picture what God might be, and to feel some certainty that he/she/it exists in the form she imagines, without having a concrete demonstration that it actually does. Is writing a letter that demonstration?

In fact, she can’t confidently associate this piece of evidence (no matter what it points to) with God unless God is either 1) a known entity with a propensity to write letters to pretty ladies, or 2) her conception of God is a better explanation for a letter that is signed “Love, God” than all competing explanations. The evidence points to a letter-writer. That’s all. And here is the crux of the problem for most arguments that God exists. That “uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power” that theologians posit cannot be established as a sensible concept in isolation from other concepts. There are no observations, hypotheses or theories that point to such a being existing as part of physical reality. Here in the twenty-first century, ideas such as “there must be a cause of the universe, or a designer, or a fine-tuner, or a being of greatest perfection” do not lead us to find an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power. In fact, finding a place where this thing might be situated is not even sensible. As cold as it sounds to people hoping there is a personal god behind the scenes, it appears that physical features are all there is. Space-time, matter, energy, the laws governing them and the attributes, behaviors and relationships that allow what we observe to be observed. There may always be that nagging question: “but what caused THAT?” - but the god-thingy doesn’t help us answer that question. It doesn’t stand on its own. Mankind continues to look for answers, and continues to find hypotheses such as the god-thingy useless in the search.

So, a letter signed “Love, God” ends up being better explained by a human letter-writer than an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being of unimaginable power that also writes letters. It turns out that Sis has no good reason to believe she got a letter from God, because there’s no good reason to think God exists, based solely on this letter. I'm not suggesting that she can't believe in God, or have some other reasons to believe that don't rely on (weak) evidence like this. But this letter from God isn't a good reason. When you apply this type of thinking to the bigger questions - the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the existence of moral values, you find that those are not good reasons to think that God exists, either.