I’ve seen a few debates about religion, theism (believing in an active deity) and atheism (denial of the existence of such a deity).
Yes, I’ve read the debates between “well, believing in God is good for you” versus “no, it isn’t”.
Of course, I have an opinion (which I think is evidence based) on whether or not religion or religious belief (or “spirituality”, whatever that means) is good or not, but, that is NOT the point of this post. It could be that, say, believing in Jesus makes you as smart as Stephen Hawking and being an atheist makes you, oh deeply depressed.
But that has nothing to do with “truth” though it might have something to do with “what one WANTS to be true”.
And no, I am not talking about the power of suggestion or the value of religious myth (here, “myth” means “story with deep personal meaning” rather than “falsehood”).
What I am talking about: does it make any sense to believe that some deity intentionally created humans and “cares” (in a human like way) about the welfare of humans (e. g., “loves us”)
Yes, I know about evolution being a directionless process and a belief in “guided evolution” really isn’t compatible with science.
So, yes, that is one reason that theism makes no sense to me; we were put together by a bunch of jerry-rigged steps (e. g. the Vagus Nerve) As an aside, I can recommend Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish for an excellent discussion of how humans are put together.
But perhaps there is some clever “work around” this.
But consider this: get a grip on the massive scale of the univers (this is a cool, well put together tool)
And you can watch this:
Now we are one planet orbiting a rather ordinary star in a rather ordinary galaxy. Each galaxy has roughly between 10 million (dwarf galaxy) and 100 TRILLION stars, and we know that there are, visible to us, over 170 BILLION galaxies.
So on an emotional level: am I to swallow that Bronze Age people, who knew so little, got such an immense question right? What is more likely: WE (what are “we” anyway: Homosapiens? Or all the other members of hominidae included too?) are the center of some creation, or that, well, we just aren’t that special? Why our life form? What about other life forms on other planets, or even other galaxies?
To me, theistic belief, as I have seen it practiced, is VERY ego-centric. Oh sure, “God centered, not me centered” I hear. But you are assuming that there is some super awesome “thing” that cares about you. Please.
It makes far more sense to assume that rather dull humans (as in: human beings, on the whole, really don’t know that much; not that believers are substantially dumber than anyone else) are just making stuff up so they can feel better about themselves.
I also wonder about all of the other gods relegated to the waste bin and wonder about a time when the current ones will be as well.
PS: if you say “see, you SAID that “humans don’t know that much”! True, I did. But “humans don’t know that much” in no way implies “therefore my conception of a deity is correct” or even “therefore my conception of a deity is plausible”.
Physics and Cosmology
Physics is not my specialty but I do follow it on a popular level. So when the cosmologists started babbling about “dark matter” I kind of wondered “is “the aether” making a comeback”? Well….no.
Yes, there is a similarity: neither has been directly detected; its existence has been inferred by observed effects. However both have been examined…and “the aether” has been discarded because experiments designed to detect it have failed (e. g. Michelson-Morley experiment)…in fact have provided evidence to show that it did NOT exist.
Roughly speaking, “the aether” was conjectured to provide some medium for light-electromagnetic waves to propagate in; at the time these waves were thought to be like sound waves (disturbances of some sort). Modern physics (relativity theory and quantum mechanics) have shown that these waves are very different from sound waves, though there are similarities.
On the other hand, evidence continues to pour in for dark matter and dark energy, as Sean Carroll explains:
Dark matter, in particular, is nothing at all like the aether. It’s something that seems to behave exactly like an ordinary particle of matter, just one with no electric charge or strong interaction with known matter particles. Those aren’t hard to invent; particle physicists have approximately a billion different candidate ideas, and experiments are making great progress in trying to detect them directly. But the idea didn’t come along because theorists had all sorts of irresistible ideas; we were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting dark matter after decades of observations of galaxies and clusters convinced people that regular matter simply wasn’t enough. And once that idea is accepted, you can go out and make new predictions based on the dark matter model, and they keep coming true — for example in studies of gravitational lensing and the cosmic microwave background. If the aether had this much experimental support, it would have been enshrined in textbooks years ago.
Dark energy is conceptually closer to the aether idea — like the aether, it’s not a particle, it’s a smooth component that fills space. Unlike the aether, it does not have a “frame of rest” (as far as we can tell); the dark energy looks the same no matter how you move through it. (Not to mention that it has nothing to do with electromagnetic radiation — it’s dark!) And of course, it was forced on us by observations, especially the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating, which ended up winning the Nobel Prize in 2011. That discovery took theoretical physicists around the world by surprise — we knew it was possible in principle, but almost nobody actually believed it was true. But when the data speak, a smart scientist listens. Subsequent to that amazing finding, cosmologists have made other predictions based on the dark energy idea, which (as with dark matter) keep coming true: for the cosmic microwave background again, as well as for the distribution of large-scale structure in the universe.
Of course, there is a long way to go in developing this theory.
Physics and Philosophy
Here is yet another “play nice” plea to physicists (Jim Holt in the New York Times):
Why do physicists have to be so churlish toward philosophy? Philosophers, on the whole, have been much nicer about science. “Philosophy consists in stopping when the torch of science fails us,” Voltaire wrote back in the 18th century. And in the last few decades, philosophers have come to see their enterprise as continuous with that of science. It is noteworthy that the “moronic” philosopher who kicked up the recent shindy by dismissing the physicist’s book himself holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves.
Here is my take. Physics is hard. Only the smartest among us do original research in physics and these people spend years in training to able to start. In fact, it takes an intelligent person with great math/science aptitude years of focused effort to even become conversant on the questions.
Those who haven’t spent that much concentrated time (and frankly, who have a lower aptitude for this subject) really don’t know what they are talking about; they really aren’t qualified to give comments that are worth listening to.
Note: I am talking about the science itself and its interpretation; I am NOT talking about, say, the ethical issues that come up (e. g., the use of nuclear weapons, the production of weapons of mass destruction, experimentation on humans, animal research, etc.) On these issues, I am happy to listen to philosophers because in these areas THEY have put in the concentrated long term effort and they have displayed some aptitude for this sort of thinking.
Statistics and Data: what does one consider when one tries to make sense of data?
Here is a baby case: suppose you want “the average household income of a neighborhood”; what do you use?
Well, it depends on what question you are interested in. If you are interested in, say, how the typical person lives (spending habits, energy use, etc.) then median income might be what you want, especially if the standard deviation (minus an outlier or two) is small.
If you are talking about, say, the total money that is spent from that region, then perhaps the mean (average) is better.
One uses the data germane to the problem at hand.
Paul Krugman patiently explains this:
Just a quick note on a question that comes up in some comments: why do I sometimes look at percentage changes in unemployment, sometimes at changes in absolute levels? Isn’t that inconsistent?
The answer, of course, is no. When you do stuff with data, here is the universal rule: do what makes sense given the question you’re trying to answer. It’s like the issue of where the y-axis in a diagram starts — it depends on context. Starting at zero isn’t a universal rule, certainly not when changes of a few percent up or down are in fact crucially important for the policy discussion.
So on unemployment, one favorite story out there is that we have lots of unemployment, and must have lots of unemployment, because the pre-crisis structure of the economy was unsustainable: too many people were building houses in Nevada, too few doing other stuff in other places, so there has to be unemployment as workers move from the occupations/localities that were oversized to those that were undersized.
OK, so what would be the “signature” if this story were true? There would be lots of job losses among construction workers in Nevada, of course; but for the story to make sense there should be rising employment in those other sectors people are supposedly moving to.
But of course, that’s not at all what you see. Instead, you see job losses everywhere, with most of the total job loss taking place in sectors that were clearly not overinflated by the bubble. And that is the relevant comparison: if non-bubble sectors are losing rather than gaining jobs, and in fact account for most of the job losses, then this story is just wrong.
But as I said, the universal rule for using data is to think about the question you’re trying to answer. A foolish consistency here really is the hobgoblin of little minds.
The problem here is
1. All (or at least 99.99 percent, myself included) of those who comment on his blog are significantly below him in intellectual level and many are completely unaware of this and
2. The pundit class does not constitute our finest minds. And from what I can tell, our pundits are blissfully unaware of this as well (left and right, I am sorry to say). Just read what they have to say about ANY technical matter; they almost always get it wrong.
Workout notes: prior to leaving St. Joseph, I ran 3 miles on the Wobegone bike path. in 32:22 (15:47 second 1.5 miles) It was 52 and drizzly….where was this weather yesterday?
That is the one good thing about a bad marathon: I am not that beat up.
Major lesson: I didn’t have enough WALKING miles to race this distance. Next time: no matter how many running miles I do per week, I need to walk more. I had enough 20+ mile walks, but I didn’t have the faster 10-14 mile tempo walks or longer intervals.
Paul Krugman: points out that in TODAY’S political climate,
it is the Republicans that moved to the extreme
This is a Daily Kos article that gives an example of how to have a political conversation.. I am not good at this.
What are the major mysteries of the universe? Check out the Smithsonian Magazine’s Top Ten.
What is the difference between Intelligent Design and theistic evolution? Jerry Coyne argues that it is really a matter of degree. I am no expert, but to me the difference is this: theistic evolution either says that some deity created the laws of science OR that the interaction of the deity with the evolutionary process is impossible to detect, whereas ID claims that one can deduce “design” FROM the laws of science, together with mathematics and logic.
Or, put another way, theistic evolution is really a faith based religious claim.
Click on the thumbnail to see this cool photo of an eclipse (courtesy of NASA; photo by Dr. Armando Lee)
More Jerry Coyne: Harsh, but there is some truth here. Too many people (and not just religious people) have the attitude: if it doesn’t make sense to me, it must be BS.
Is there a new addition to the tree of life?
Via Jennifer Welsh from MSNBC:
Talk about extended family: A single-celled organism in Norway has been called “mankind’s furthest relative.” It is so far removed from the organisms we know that researchers claim it belongs to a new base group, called a kingdom, on the tree of life.
“We have found an unknown branch of the tree of life that lives in this lake. It is unique! So far we know of no other group of organisms that descend from closer to the roots of the tree of life than this species,” study researcher Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi, of the University of Oslo, in Norway, said in a statement.
The primordial animal from As lake, 30 km south of Oslo, does not fit on any of the main branches of the tree of life. Kamran Shalchian-Tabrizi had to create a new main branch, called Collodictyon.
The organism, a type of protozoan, was found by researchers in a lake near Oslo. Protozoans have been known to science since 1865, but because they are difficult to culture in the lab, researchers haven’t been able to get a grip on their genetic makeup. They were placed in the protist kingdom on the tree of life mostly based on observations of their size and shape.
In this study, published March 21 in the journal Molecular Biology Evolution, the researchers were able to grow enough of the protozoans, called Collodictyon, in the lab to analyze its genome. They found it doesn’t genetically fit into any of the previously discovered kingdoms of life. It’s an organism with membrane-bound internal structures, called a eukaryote, but genetically it isn’t an animal, plant, fungus, alga or protist (the five main groups of eukaryotes).
Particle Physics Taxonomy
From Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:
(click to see the large picture, or go to the blog post)
Of course, figuring out the mysteries of science is, well, hard…and many…even educated people don’t understand how it all works.
Though this talk is long, there is a point in which Ricard Dawkins points out that “common sense” is insufficient to understand science:
This might sound arrogant. But let me try to explain it this way: “common sense” is what many use to get through their lives on a day to day basis. For example: if someone in your day-to-day life is trying to sell you on something that seems strange to you (e. g., “doesn’t pass the smell test”), then you are probably wise to reject it. However, in science, many of the strange sounding things happen to be true!
I still remember one of my college physics classes: we were studying how light is polarized and the effects of filters. There was some positing of filters such that when two of these filters were in series, no light got through. But if you put a third polarizing filter in front of those two, light appeared to get through….I said something and my physics professor said “it doesn’t make sense, does it Mr. Nanyes?”
But…it worked, just as the mathematics said it would.
I’ll give another example of how “what makes sense in our day-to-day lives” is nonsense; this one is very concrete. This comes from General Curtis LeMay’s book: Mission with LeMay.
Then Colonel LeMay was in charge of a B-17 unit in Germany; the B-17 was a bomber which carried several 50 caliber machine guns for defense against fighter attacks.
The guns were operated in turrets, blisters or windows, and the gunners were in charge of their guns. The gunners were told to NOT oil their guns because the oil would freeze at the altitudes at which the B-17 flew and fought. They were told to clean their guns with gasoline. But, as LeMay said “everyone knows that oil is good for gun” and though that they knew better (many hunted prior to the war or were skilled with other guns). And much to their sorrow and horror…the oiled guns….froze up when they had to shoot at attacking fighters.
“Common sense” (thought that worked well in day-to-day life) was nonsense in this foreign environment!
So what about Jon Stewart’s point about “faith”? Well, it is true that scientists are VERY reluctant to overturn a long established theory that has worked very well for a long time. It does happen (quantum mechanics and relativity theory superseded classical mechanics….in a way) but only after a great deal of checking and rechecking.
Here is an example of what typically happens: way back when, people used classical mechanics to predict the orbits of planets. But the predictions for Uranus were a bit off; one possibility was that classical mechanics was wrong (unlikely…and classical mechanics works very well for planetary orbit predictions). The other possibility: something out there had a large mass and was throwing things off. That lead to the discovery of Neptune. Click the link to Greg Mayer’s article at Why Evolution is True for the detailed story; it is fascinating.
First, a new result was announced. A new subatomic particle has been discovered by a team working at the super-collider. Particles of this type had been discovered, but in ground states. This was the first discovery of this type of particle at an excited state.
The “something rather than nothing controversy: one question we have is this: why do we have something (our universe) rather than nothing? The debate has some smart people talking past each other: one group says “quantum mechanics allows for this possibility” whereas the other group says “hey, why do the laws of quantum mechanics even work to begin with?” They are really two different questions. Sean Carrol talks about this here; this is what I like:
Quantum mechanics, in particular, is a specific yet very versatile implementation of this scheme. (And quantum field theory is just a particular example of quantum mechanics, not an entirely new way of thinking.) The states are “wave functions,” and the collection of every possible wave function for some given system is “Hilbert space.” The nice thing about Hilbert space is that it’s a very restrictive set of possibilities (because it’s a vector space, for you experts); once you tell me how big it is (how many dimensions), you’ve specified your Hilbert space completely. This is in stark contrast with classical mechanics, where the space of states can get extraordinarily complicated. And then there is a little machine — “the Hamiltonian” — that tells you how to evolve from one state to another as time passes. Again, there aren’t really that many kinds of Hamiltonians you can have; once you write down a certain list of numbers (the energy eigenvalues, for you pesky experts) you are completely done.
We should be open-minded about what form the ultimate laws of physics will take, but almost all modern attempts to get at them take quantum mechanics for granted. That’s true for string theory and other approaches to quantum gravity — they might take very different views of what constitutes “spacetime” or “matter,” but very rarely do they muck about with the essentials of quantum mechanics. It’s certainly the case for all of the scenarios Lawrence considers in his book. Within this framework, specifying “the laws of physics” is just a matter of picking a Hilbert space (which is just a matter of specifying how big it is) and picking a Hamiltonian. One of the great things about quantum mechanics is how extremely restrictive it is; we don’t have a lot of room for creativity in choosing what kinds of laws of physics might exist. It seems like there’s a lot of creativity, because Hilbert space can be extremely big and the underlying simplicity of the Hamiltonian can be obscured by our (as subsets of the universe) complicated interactions with the rest of the world, but it’s always the same basic recipe.
So within that framework, what does it mean to talk about “a universe from nothing”? We still have to distinguish between two possibilities, but at least this two-element list exhausts all of them.
He then goes on to talk about how the two different questions are about different thing: a non-zero Hamiltonian operator (one that really does evolve the states) and the possibility of one that is zero…that just admits many “non-zero” cross sections.
But read the above to see linear algebra concepts being used all over the place. Here is a one-dimensional explanation of what is going on: A Hilbert space is really a normed vector space (the vectors are functions whose SQUARE have a convergent improper integral on and whose vector space addition and inner product is consistent with infinite sums. Allowable observable values are the eigenvalues associated with the eigenvectors associated with linear operators (linear transformations that respect the infinite sum process) and the probability of making one of these observations is related to the expected value (expectation) of the eigenvectors (normed to 1); this is exactly the expected value of a density function that you saw in your probability and statistics class.
Here is a series of notes I wrote for those who have had calculus, linear algebra and probability/statistics but if you want a readable source, I can recommend the out-of-print book by Gillespie called A quantum mechanics primer.
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