Category Archives: Science

How the Pre-Scientific Mind Can Fall into Dogmatism

There is snow at the North Pole. Where there is snow, bears are white. What color are bears at the North Pole?

You probably knew how to navigate that logic before you were 10 years old. However, when researcher Alexander Luria asked Russian peasants to complete that syllogism in the 1930s, a typical response was, “Well, I’ve only seen brown bears. And only if a person came from the North Pole with testimony would I believe that the bears there are white.”

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God versus the Multiverse

When I lost my belief in God, the near-universal reaction from my Christian friends was to sweep a hand at the marvelous world around us and say, “Where did all this come from, then?” For them, God was the only possible explanation.

The Hidden RealityAmong scientists, the hypothesis that our universe was born from a larger multiverse has steadily been gaining credence. There are several ways this could be true. As one possibility, the Big Bang could have been a quantum fluctuation in another universe, which in turn could have been born in the same way from its parent, stretching back forever. With this model, the multiverse is like an eternal froth of bubble universes. There are other models, too. I recommend Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos if you’re curious.

As an answer to “Where did all this come from, then?” the multiverse model may seem to be on equal footing with “God did it.” By definition, we cannot reach out and touch other universes to prove they (and therefore a multiverse) exist, much less can we prove that our universe arose from the multiverse by some natural process.

It’s true that we can neither prove that God did it, nor that the multiverse and the laws of physics did it. But as I outlined last time, just because competing explanations are uncertain does not mean they are on equal footing.

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What Makes a Good Explanation?

Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:

  1. A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
  2. A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
  3. The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.

Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?

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It’s Official: My Phone Has Become My Only Brain

Last weekend, I was running an errand in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge is not an easy place to find a parking spot, so when I came across one I nabbed it.

I was in a hurry so I jogged to my destination without taking much note of what was around me. I just followed Google Maps on my phone. It turned out to be much farther than I thought — about 15 minutes at a brisk pace.

I finished my shopping and headed back to my car. There was only one problem: I was not entirely sure where it was! I headed in the general direction (at least I knew that much) and explored the unfamiliar streets of the city. They were all very quaint but as far as I was concerned one was exactly like the other.

After 20 minutes of that, I called to tell my daughter, who I was scheduled to visit that evening, that I would probably be late and might be wandering the streets of Cambridge all night.

Then I had an idea. Sammi, my Samsung Galaxy phone, had helped me out on so many occasions before. Maybe she could help now.

I pressed the button to activate voice recognition. “Where have I been today?” I asked.

Instantly, Sammi told me how to use a feature of Google Maps that I had not known about: Menu / Your Timeline. Up came a map that allowed me to retrace my drive from earlier that day. I recognized the corner where I had parked, and was at my car in two minutes.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to willingly submit to our digital overlords just as soon as they arrive.

An Upcoming Ethical Dilemma for Parents

You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?

Trolley_problem

This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.

The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]

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Our Dystopian Future as Immortals

Zoltan IstvanZoltan Istvan was my favorite presidential candidate in 2016. He toured the country in a bus modeled to look like a coffin, with the message that death is a curable disease.

And it’s not just people on the fringe who are involved in the anti-aging cause. There is a sister company of Google called Calico whose goal is “tackling aging.”

Ray Kurzweil, inventor, senior engineer at Google and holder of 21 honorary doctorates, has written a book called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. At age 69, he expects technology to improve enough in his lifetime that he will live forever. (In the meantime, he takes extremely good care of himself!)

But hold on a second. While we’re waiting for Istvan, Calico, and Kurzweil succeed, let’s take a moment to ponder the possible dystopian consequences.

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Laplace’s Demon Meets Quantum Mechanics

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace published A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. He said that given complete knowledge of the present, one could perfectly predict the future:

LaplaceWe may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough … nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Makes sense, right? If atoms are nothing more than tiny billiard balls bouncing around then, in principle, our lives are as predictable and determined as the activity on a pool table.

A century later, along came quantum mechanics, which showed that the activity of the universe at the smallest scales is probabilistic. Laplace’s Demon (as the all-knowing intellect in the quotation above has come to be known) can’t be so sure after all!

What a relief! There is wiggle room for free will after all! By inserting the lever of our wills at this fulcrum of indeterminacy, we can move the world.

Or, as argued in books such as Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, God can influence what happens without violating the laws of physics.

Except that’s not how it works. Both of these views misunderstand what the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is.

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