Archive for the “Science” Category
I have a confession to make. I don’t understand Quantum Mechanics.
Now there’s no shame in that; Richard Feynman famously said “I think it is safe to say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics.” But the reason I mention this is that I’m pretty sure that I don’t understand it less than I used to. This is progress.
I’ve always known that I didn’t understand QM, because my common-sense interpretation of the words that physicists used to describe QM violated … well, common-sense. So I thought to myself, “Which is more likely? (a) My understanding is correct, and it’s OK that it seems absurd, because it’s supposed to seem absurd. Or (b) my understanding is wrong, and the real explanation is quite different. (And still possibly absurd from a common-sense point of view.)” Obviously(?!) (b) seems much more likely, so I put QM aside and tried to make sense of scientific discourse without looking too closely at it.
People are quite good at faking stuff like that – almost as good as they are at holding mutually contradictory beliefs without their heads exploding.
Recently I read The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. In general, I quite liked it, although I thought it a bit repetitious, and less well organized than it could have been. However in one chapter the authors take a crack at explaining the basics of QM, and it was a revelation to me. Specifically, I realized how my common-sense interpretation of the language of QM had led me to the particularly absurd conclusion which I’d correctly rejected. And I understood how the authors’ explanations of the ideas of QM made sense – though not common-sense.
I’m not going to try to reproduce my understanding here – at least, not yet. I’ve taken QM off the shelf, so to speak, and I’m looking forward to reading (and hopefully understanding) more, without those earlier misunderstandings getting in the way. I know that to really make progress I’m going to have to understand at least some of the mathematics, which will be a challenge. I think it will be a worthwhile one.
However the most important thing about this episode for me was that it reinforced something I believe very strongly, and wish that others did too. It’s simply this: common-sense, intuition, instinct, call it what you will, is a function of our evolved human brains. It was selected for, along with other skills that were adaptive for our survival. It applies to the world we experience, and interact with, at our scale: medium size objects, medium sized environment, medium periods of time. It works pretty well for rocks, and foodstuffs, and small groups of people and other animals, and actions like running, catching and throwing. But outside that range, there’s no reason to expect it to be reliable – and it isn’t.
From 1mm to 1km, 1 second to 60 years, 1 gram to 1 tonne, 1 kph to 100 kph, and -20C to 100C, we’re pretty good. But the subatomic world doesn’t behave the same as the rocks or the trees, any more than the larger universe does. The regularity, and even causality, that we build our common-sense view of the world on simply don’t work at radically different sizes or times. And this isn’t simply a matter of faith: we can measure it, and we’ve learned to rely upon what we measure. Every time you use your computer, or consult a sat-nav, or take a modern drug, you are relying on the fact that a bunch of scientists and engineers looked at the data, did the math, created explanatory models, tested them, and relied upon the evidence rather than “common-sense”.
I could add a couple of paragraphs about the relationship between this big idea and religion, particularly the arguments that are offered for the existence of god, but if you’re smart you’ll already understand them, and if not you’ve probably given up by now.
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Andrew Sullivan links to a soothing piece of accommodationism by Francis Collins at BigThink, and announces that it makes complete sense to him. I guess he’s taking things easy on the weekend, because Collins is as illogical as ever. Dissecting the bit that Andrew cited:
Why is it that, for instance, that the constance <sic> that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe. That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.
With all due respect, this is an appallingly naive use of the word “probability”. We have partial (and probably inaccurate) information about some properties of the region of space-time that is accessible to us. We construct models based on this information, from which we hypothesize further properties of the universe. Some of these are potentially testable, as we gain access to new data; others concern things that are intrinsically unknowable: beyond our epistemic horizon.
But probability doesn’t enter into it. If by “probability” Collins means likelihood, is he assuming random distributions of various constants? Since we don’t understand the causal relationships between the various properties involved, we have no way of knowing what kind of variability is possible. And of course there’s the fact that any universe containing sentient observers like us must be complex (otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and so our observations are necessarily constrained. Whether he takes a frequentist or Bayesian view, Collins has no rational basis for assuming a “lack of probability”.
And it does make you think that a mind might have been involved in setting the stage.
Why? We have direct experience of a relatively small number of minds. So far, all are products of neurological activity in animal brains. Depending on how one extends the definition, it’s possible that a mind might have some other kind of substrate, such as a computational system. What is quite clear is that we have no evidence of anything resembling a mind at any larger scale, or using any non-physical implementation. Is Collins claiming to know what it would mean for a mind to change physical laws or constants? I’m not holding my breath….
The most plausible explanation for Collins’ impulse to attribute things to “a mind” is a reversion to animism, to attributing agency to natural forces that we don’t understand. We gave up on the idea that Thor or Vulcan was responsible for catastrophic storms and earthquakes, and most of us no longer think that schizophrenia is due to demonic possession. And yet Collins reverts to the habits of a pre-scientific time by personifying the workings of the cosmos.
At the same time that does not imply necessarily that that mind is controlling the specific manipulations of things that are going on in the natural world. In fact, I would very much resist that idea.
Well at least that’s something. Most religious believers seem quite happy to make the leap from Prime Mover to Jehovah, with no evidence whatsoever. And yet…
I think the laws of nature potentially could be the product of a mind. I think that’s a defensible perspective.
I guess that the question for Collins is exactly what he means by “mind”. What is the relationship between a “mind” as he uses it here and the (evolved) patterns of behavior that we observe in brain-shaped collections of neurons?
Over at Common Sense Atheism, Luke has posted an excellent commentary on the recent decision by several well-known philosophers (Keith Parsons and John Beversluis) to give up on the philosophy of religion:
The problem is not that philosophy of religion has lower standards than other areas of philosophy do. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy in general are (compared to those in science) relatively low.
We need not look very far for examples. Consider the mainstream arguments in philosophy of mind about the possibility of zombies. David Chalmers argues that because he can imagine a world with all the same physical facts but no qualia, therefore physicalism is false. And this argument is highly respected and hotly debated in philosophy of mind, where many of the smartest people in philosophy do their work.
Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of “Come back when you have evidence you idiot!” But standards are considerably lower in analytic philosophy, and such arguments are taken seriously and widely debated.
However Luke suggests that there is reason to hope. He points out,
In fact, one way to see the naturalistic project in philosophy since Quine is that naturalists want to raise the standards of argument and evidence in philosophy. We’ve noticed that the high standards in the physical sciences help make them so productive, and so we want to raise the standards in philosophy so that they are as close to the standards of science as possible. Thus, strict naturalists pay close attention to arguments that are roughly scientific in structure and rise close to the same standards of argumentation and evidence, and we pay less attention to arguments with lower standards, such as those that typify, say, theistic philosophy of religion or moral realism.
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Over at Sentient Developments, Russell Blackford takes on the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and his recent piece on the limits of skeptical inquiry. Russell’s comments in general are quite convincing, but one passage particularly caught my attention.
I’ve been hanging out at various Christian apologist websites recently, contributing the odd comment here and there and scratching my head over some of the crazier assertions that people make. And one of the common moves that apologists make, when a unique and supposedly miraculous claim is challenged, is to say that science is unqualified to judge such things because “with God, all things are possible” Of course, this is really no different from Last-Thursdayism: we can’t trust the evidence for anything, because the universe might have been arranged to create that illusion. So I particularly liked Russell’s robust rejection of such moves:
However, what if somebody replies that God arranged for the Earth to look far older than it really is, in order to test our faith? Here, Pigliucci thinks that science and hence skeptical inquiry reaches a limit. He claims, in effect, that philosophers have a reply, whereas scientists must stand mute.
I disagree with this. The scientist is quite entitled to reject the claim, not because it makes falsified predictions or conflicts directly with observations it doesnt but because it is ad hoc. It is perfectly legitimate for scientists working in the relevant fields to make the judgment that a particular hypothesis is not worth pursuing, and should be treated as false, because it has been introduced merely to avoid falsification of a position that is contrary to the evidence.
Scientists might take some interest in claims about a pre-aged Earth if they were framed in such a way as to make novel and testable predictions, but as long as all such claims are presented as mere ad hoc manoeuvres to avoid falsification of the claim that the universe is really 6,000 years old, a scientist is quite entitled to reject it. A philosopher should reject it for exactly the same reason. Philosophers don’t have any advantage over scientists at this point.
Thus, Pigliucci is unnecessarily limiting the kinds of arguments that are available to scientists. He writes as if they are incapable of using arguments grounded in commonsense reasoning, such as arguments that propose we reject ad hoc thesis-saving hypotheses.
Coming on Wednesday to this part of the world:
WAITING FOR THE ECLIPSE: On July 22nd, the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century will take place in Asia. [...] On Wednesday, the Moon’s shadow will linger over [Shanghai] for nearly six full minutes, giving residents a stunning and lengthy view of the Sun’s ghostly corona. In addition to Shanghai, the path of totality crosses a number of other large cities in India and China–e.g., Surat, Vadodara, Bhopal, Varanasi, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Hefei, Hangzhou–each with populations numbering in the millions. This could be the best-observed solar eclipse in human history.
From SpaceWeather, a website with great content but lousy navigation, which has yet to learn the value of permalinks and RSS/ATOM. The area of totality will be well to the north of us, slicing down from Shanghai to Mumbai, but we should get a decent partial eclipse here in Shenzhen.
I’ve been commenting on a thread over at Thinking Christian about Sean Carroll’s Discovery piece on why science and religion are incompatible. It’s an odd kind of discussion: the resident Christians excoriate Carroll, and in the same breath they assert that Christianity is always, authoritatively correct, which seems to rule out science as a way of answering questions. Anyway, I made a few comments about values being contingent, like language, rather than extra-human absolute truths, and a bunch of people piled on. I wrote:
On values: try substituting, mutatis mutandis the word â€œlanguageâ€ for â€œvaluesâ€. Then your paragraph reads in part:
That we speak a certain language is (let us say) a physical state within the brain. Science can then look into its genesis and perhaps tell a plausible story about how it came to be. But the languages themselves are not physical states
But the last sentence doesnâ€™t follow. In fact, languages are precisely physical states: patterns of utterance and interpretation replicated (with variations) in millions of brains, and transferred from brains to brains by socialization and education. Some have speculated that there are a set of â€œhardwareâ€ mechanisms which facilitate (and, presumably, constrain this process, but thatâ€™s relatively unimportant.
Nobody argues about which the â€œcorrect languageâ€ is. (Well, no sane persons.) We canâ€™t say whether French or English is more correct. We can debate the origins of each, and the relative effectiveness of each in expressing certain things. And we would certainly note the existence of deep commonalities between different languages.
Well, values are languages. They are languages that we use to talk about patterns of behaviour that we collectively approve or disapprove of. Like language, values are contingent, in space and time. Just as it would be difficult to speak with an Elizabethan Englishman, because of the evolution of language, it would be difficult to communicate about values with an Elizabethan Christian, for who slavery, burning heretics at the stake, and treating schizophrenia with exorcism were perfectly Christian values.
Your values are patterns in your brain which influence your response to certain stimuli. Nothing magical, supernatural, or un-scientific about them. Values are not extra-human things that tell us the way things ought to be: they are linguistic expressions that we use to tell each other how we imagine things ought to be.
Most of the comments were silly, but there was one by Franklin Mason that I responded to at some length. After I’d written it, I decided that I liked it so much that I would replay it over here:
So, I take it that you think it impossible for anyone to be incorrect in the values they hold.
Incorrect according to whom? Flip back to the language analogy, and remember â€œMy Fair Ladyâ€. To be an accepted member of a social group is, in part, to use the language of that group. In school children learn what is, and is not, â€œcorrectâ€ spelling, grammar, and usage. Same with values.
Second point: science itself is a value-driven endeavor. It values truth above all else. Moreover, in the construction of scientific theory, youâ€™ll find many values called open: value is placed in simplicity, explanatory power, predictive power, etc.
Yup. Science is a human endeavor, and as such we use the language of values to express many aspects of it.
Lots of value is non-moral in nature. The values Iâ€™ve described above are epistemological in nature, but they are values nonetheless; and like all values, they donâ€™t simply describe how things have gone, rather they describe how things ought to go.
Letâ€™s correct your drift here. We use the language of values to describe how we think things ought to go. Values (and language) are not free-floating absolutes; they are aspects of human thought and communication.
Thus, if all value is contingent and culture-relative (as you seem to wish to say), so too is science. On your view, science, just like morality, would come to be one of a plethora of ways in which one might come to the world, with no objective reason to prefer one over the other.
You know, people seem to think that as soon as something is described as â€œcontingentâ€, all bets are off: that it could be not just different, but anything at all. But â€œcontingentâ€ means â€œdependentâ€, and things like language and culture â€“ and science â€“ are strongly constrained by the facts that they depend on. Case in point: our eyes evolved to be sensitive to particular wavelengths of light and particular types of visual stimuli: theyâ€™re good at detecting vertically symmetrical patterns, not so good at horizontal or rotational patterns. There are good adaptive reasons for this (e.g. threat detection), but itâ€™s not the only kind of vision, as a quick trawl through the evo-devo literature will explain. Itâ€™s contingent: it could have been different. We could have evolved as nocturnal creatures, in which case we might have large eyes like Tarsiers with increased sensitivity to infra-red.
Now the point about this is that while the form of our vision is contingent, itâ€™s not random. We didnâ€™t get to choose our vision. We could tweak it a bit (with glasses), but we couldnâ€™t rewire it. (More on that carefully-chosen verb form later.) And the same is true of things like language and values â€“ and science.
Our language and values are contingent on our biology. If we had evolved with enhanced infra-red vision, we would be able to directly sense many more physiological phenomena â€“ we might be able to â€œseeâ€ certain kinds of emotions and pains. Our languages would reflect this. Or if, as nocturnal creatures, we had evolved an enhanced sense of smell, we might rely on olfactory evidence and prefer it over visual. Now think about all of the ways that vision, and metaphorical uses of â€œseeâ€ and â€œperceiveâ€ crop up in your language â€“ and, yes, in your values. â€œSeeing is believingâ€. How about â€œsmelling is believingâ€?
And of course you use the â€œobjectiveâ€ word, which suggests that you hold true to the obsolete dichotomy that everything is either objective or subjective: absolute, or personal. Sorry: those words donâ€™t really mean very much. They are just another piece of the language of values: ways that we communicate about social preferences.
I take it that most scientists reject this. The values that science exemplifies are quite objectively good, they would say; and if you disagreed, theyâ€™d think you were just flat wrong.
Scientists are human; scientists use human language to communicate about science; when that communication involves â€œhowâ€ and â€œwhyâ€, scientists use those aspects of language which evolved to talk about such things, which is the language of values.
No scientist would say that there are no values. They would (mostly) say that they arenâ€™t what you seem to think they are. Scientists have arrived at the â€œrulesâ€ and â€œvaluesâ€ of science because they work: they lead to repeatable results, and minimize the likelihood of fraud and deception (especially self-deception!).
I said earlier that I would comment on the â€œwe couldnâ€™t rewire our visionâ€ thing. Well, of course we are now getting close to the point where we can, and things are going to get quite interesting. Will our values change as we change? They always have in the past.
We are, understandably, parochial creatures. We pay lots of attention to the time and space around us: the recent past (say, the last couple of thousand years, the next century), and the planet which we inhabit. These preferences are, of course, contingent: contingent on our physical size, our senses, our environment, our natural (i.e. evolved) life span, and historical factors like the invention of writing and social institutions. Humans had a long, rich history stretching over hundreds of thousands of years before writing emerged, but of course we have almost no record of their lives, their societies, their gods, and their values. From this point of view, the last two thousand years is just an historical blip. And if we take an even longer look, weâ€™ll realize that this whole human thing is just a contingent blip; when the next cosmic collision wipes out 90% of life on the planet, as has happened many times in the past, what survives and flourishes isnâ€™t going to be human. But thatâ€™s OK.
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Larry Hamelin (the Barefoot Bum) just posted an important essay on two dichotomies which are frequently confused, identified, misidentified, conflated, linked, and generally misunderstood:
- Natural v. supernatural.
- Materialist v. non-materialist.
There seems to be considerable confusion and equivocation about naturalism and supernaturalism. Naturalism is often confused with materialism, at the methodological and metaphysical level. At the methodological level, the equivocation takes the form that all natural scientific explanations must by definition invoke only forces and causes ascribed to the material world; at the metaphysical level, the equivocation is that naturalism entails an a priori commitment that nothing but the material world exists. Both of these notions are confused, and there is a much better, more precise way of distinguishing naturalism from materialism.
The reason that this is important is because conflation and confusion on these matters lies at the heart of the debate between science and religion. Larry again:
The primary controversy between science and religion is not about what conclusions we draw about the world, it is between how we draw conclusions about the world. The controversy is not primarily ontological, it is an epistemic controversy.
The religious try to shift the issue to an ontological basis to disguise the sad truth that they do not have an alternative epistemological method to talk about a particular ontological domain; the religious have no epistemological method whatsoever.
To counter this obfuscation, I suggest we always keep the distinction clear between natural and supernatural epistemology and materialist and non-materialist ontology, and make it clear that a materialist ontology is the result, not an a priori commitment, of natural scientific epistemology.
I’ve always thought that a few British journals were outstandingly good at conveying complex ideas in an accessible and well-written manner. The Economist did it for economics – even if they have lurched to the right politically – and the New Scientist did the same for science.
How have the mighty fallen.
The once-respected New Scientist has gone completely off the deep end. First, they ran their misleading/pandering “Darwin was wrong” issue. Next they run – and then censor – a perfectly sensible piece on the agenda of pseudo-scientists. And now they’re trying to use their recent “image” as part of their self-promotional material – to say, in effect, “this is who we are”. As Jerry Coyne suggests, it’s time for a boycott to register our disapproval. PZ agrees:
When New Scientist ran their misleading “Darwin was wrong” cover, we hammered at them and pointed out that they were doing us no favors â€” they were giving ammunition to creationists who would never read the contents, but would wave that cover at school board meetings. And they did. We chastised the editor, Roger Highfield, and we had the impression that he was penitent, but it turns out we were completely wrong.
New Scientist is now using that same cover again in their promotional material to flog magazines.
Via the Barefoot Bum, Bobbie-the-Jean gives us 50 hilarious reasons to reject evolution. My three favourites:
12.) Because the fact that science is self-correcting annoys me. Most of my other beliefs are rigidly fixed and uncorrectable.
17.) Because Iâ€™m 100% correct about everything 100% of the time and there is 0% chance that some snooty Oxford educated scientist with numerous honorary doctorates could possibly know something that I donâ€™t.
19.) Because I donâ€™t understand why, if we share common ancestry with chimps, there are still chimps. And when someone with more than three brain cells in their head inevitably replies: â€œfor the same reason Americans share common ancestry with Brits but there are still Brits, I canâ€™t follow the logic. Itâ€™s just too big a leap. Who am I, Evil Knievel?
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Sciencedaily reports on a study of how the brains of believers and non-believers behave under stress:
“We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.“
These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts. [...]
“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” he says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?“
[Via Sully; my emphasis.]
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