Tag Archives: Science

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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How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 3

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip across the country. Back then, I was firmly in the evangelical Christian camp. They were not, so we had some lively discussions.

During one of them, my grandfather asked what credentials one of my sources had earned. “Where had he gone to college? How about graduate school?”

“What does that matter?” I thought. “What’s important is whether his arguments are sound.”

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The Most Beautiful Moment

Why do we think something is beautiful?

Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”

But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.


rsz_24_colors_for_blinky

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Molecular Evidence for Evolution

If you’re just joining my story, here’s a quick catch-up. Once upon a time, I was an evangelical Christian. Although I was not a die-hard creationist, I considered creationists to be “my team” and evolutionists to be the godless “other team.” I trusted creationists because they were fellow Christians, and conservative ones at that. A decision my wife and I had to make forced me to investigate the creation/evolution issue more closely.

I hope the last few posts have given you a window into why I was appalled at how dishonest the creationist arguments turned out to have been. Now I’d like to give just a glimpse into the sort of arguments that I discovered on the side of evolution.

Most remarkable was the way completely independent lines of evidence all pointed to the same conclusion.  This graph is an example. It’s from the book that opened my eyes to the power of the evolutionary explanation for life, Scientists Confront Creationism.

Protein Evolution

I’ll walk you through it, and then I’ll say why I found it so compelling.

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A Truth-Loving Test for Amateur Scientists

Last time, we saw how we can miss the truth when we think we know what’s in other people’s heads — when we play Amateur Psychologist. Not to pick on David Sereda, but in the same video he also serves as a foil for this post’s Truth-Loving Test for Amateur Scientists:

A truth-loving amateur scientist has a keen nose for baloney from other amateur scientists.

If you’re just joining the discussion, it’s about the video below that “proves” UFOs were out in space with the shuttle Columbia.

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The Comforts of the Multiverse

I’ve  been reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. What a wonderful book! This is my third or fourth time through it and I find something new to appreciate each time.

In all likelihood, there are not only multiple universes, but an infinite number of them. This is what most versions of eternal inflation entail. The evidence for inflation grows stronger every year, and eternal inflation is the most likely variety of it.

Greene’s book explores half a dozen versions of the multiverse (multiple, or parallel, universes), and most of them are not mutually exclusive. There could be several flavors of parallelism at work simultaneously.

One likely aspect of the multiverse is what Greene calls the Swiss cheese model, in which our universe is like one of the bubbles in a block of Swiss cheese. The block has always existed, and has always been infinite in extent. (To those who ask, “Where did it come from?” I would reply, “Why should nothing be the default state? If there were nothing, we would be asking, ‘Who took everything away?’ …except we would not be here to ask that.”) The block expands due to processes that I only started to understand on this reading of the book and which I won’t attempt to explain here. In fact, it has always been expanding (but has always been infinite — infinity is a strange thing). Once in a while, a quantum fluctuation causes a “bubble” to form, one of which is our universe. These bubbles are carried away from each other in the expanding block, keeping them as isolated and distinct universes.

Because this has been happening forever, the number of bubble universes is already infinite. An infinite number are yet to come.

This post is not about how all that might work. For now, I only want to dwell on why I find this idea of infinite universes so comforting.

To appreciate it, you first must grasp just what infinity entails. Think of repeating an experiment an infinite number of times. If your experiment is to roll a pair of dice, then every possible outcome would happen at least once. In fact, it would happen an infinite number of times. Double-sixes? An infinite number of them. That’s amazing, but we’re just getting started.

Suppose your experiment is to thoroughly shuffle a deck of cards. Any outcome you can think of will be represented, including the outcome of the deck sorted just as it was when the box was opened: all the spades, followed by all the diamonds, clubs and hearts, and sorted by rank within suit. In fact, that will happen an infinite number of times. It’s harder to believe than getting an infinite number of double-sixes, but it’s true for exactly the same reason. Infinity is really big!

It’s so big that if instead of dice or cards, you were to play with a finite number of atoms arranged in a finite space, then every physically possible arrangement would be among the outcomes of the experiment. What is our universe, but a finite number of atoms in a finite space? Yes, if there are infinitely many universes, then others exactly identical to ours appear an infinite number of times (assuming, Greene hastens to add, that there’s nothing special about ours, and there is no reason to think there is).

Not only that, but there are others identical to ours except for that one detail of ours that bothers you the most.

That is the first comfort: If things have gone badly here, there’s a universe where they went well. An infinite number of them, in fact.

Of course, there’s also a place where they went much, much worse, so in case you’re a glass-half-empty sort of person let’s turn to the second comfort.

The nice thing about eternal inflation is that it will go on without us. Not only that, but when our universe has finally turned cold and dark, other universes will just be getting started, while in others the first life-forms will be starting to stir, just beginning their billion-year climb up the evolutionary ladder first to sentience, then to full awareness of their world, and finally to awestruck wonder at the universe they inhabit.

Why is this a comfort? Sometimes I feel responsible for so much. I have a family that is undergoing a lot of stress at the moment, a job in which I’m behind schedule, a book I’m writing, and even a musical instrument I have neglected for several months. I take my responsibilities seriously, but it’s nice to know that regardless of how well or poorly I do, the multiverse will go on without me.

It does not all depend on me or on you, even though sometimes it feels that way.

Look to the sky on the darkest, starriest night. Think about everything you see repeated in every possible variation, an infinite number of times. Think about the entire history of this universe, again repeated with infinite variations, more beautiful than the simultaneous play of a million kaleidoscopes. To think that all that beauty will continue to multiply with or without you … doesn’t that lighten the load?