Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Christmas message from your Philistine host.

Following is a holiday-themed op-ed I sat down and wrote one morning that no one wanted, though I did get some interesting feedback. The consensus from my usual outlets for such work was that (a) the piece probably demanded too much background knowledge on the reader's part and (b) I was being a tad presumptuous in setting myself up as a supposed higher authority in these matters than all those Nobel laureates with their profound and collective intellectual horsepower.

Maybe so. Nonetheless, I put it forward for your reading (dis?)pleasure.

Incidentally
lest anyone conclude that I am, in fact, a moronI "get" the idea that things that appear on the surface to be standing still are actually in motion if examined on a different scale. I also get the fact that light appears to act as both a wave and a particle. But those are just appearances. In the case of the moving/non-moving duality, just as in the case of the wave-particle duality, the appearances are deceiving, as there is a deeper truth that has not yet been elucidated. Or there is something else going on entirely. Hence my op-ed.

===========================

EARLIER THIS YEAR, University of California-Santa Barbara physicists caused a good deal of excitement in the scient
ific community's small but highly influential quantum-mechanics ("QM") wing. They took a metal filament the width of a human hair, placed it in a jar, sucked out all air, then jolted it with some juice. The results they announced were stunning: The filament had been observed vibrating and standing still—simultaneously.

I don't claim to be a scientist, nor do I even play one on TV, but this finding, albeit intriguing, sounds suspiciously like observational error: a trick of eye, mind or measurement. In any case, the UCSB episode joins a growing body of theories, equations and experiments churned out by QM researchers that, taken together, supposedly prove that nature is riddled with physical paradoxes. That notion becomes all the more important as we come upon the keynote event of this holiday season, because physicists use evidence of these so-called "multi-state" phenomena in arguing against the very reason for the holidays: God.

Small-scale experiments like the one at UCSB become the substance of monumental propositions that attempt to address the biggest questions of all: How did we get here? How could something come from nothing? Generalizing from lab-work like the foregoing, today's QM brain trust argue that such questions have perfectly rational (that is, secular) answers. Rather than being vexed by contradiction—as a scientist normally would be—they embrace it. They maintain that existence doesn't necessarily preclude nonexistence, that something can be not dead or alive but both or neither (e.g. Schrodinger's apocryphal cat-in-a-box). Some propose parallel universes within our own universe than "run along a different spacetim
e continuum." They tell us that astronauts who've spent a week traveling at a certain velocity in certain regions of space actually return to earth a few milliseconds older or younger (I forget which) than the rest of us who lived through that same nominal week here on earth.

It should not escape anyone's attention that these lab and thought experiments run counter to all observed and measured experience throughout the whole of recorded history. In the world as we know it, things are alive or dead, stationary or mobile, at any given point in time. Speaking of time, in real life it tends to unfold in orderly fashion, and to the best of my knowledge and belief has never failed to do so. Our perception of time may differ depending on circumstances, but time itself is oblivious, independent. All clocks in the same time zone that are accurate and working properly strike noon at the same precise instant.

Nonetheless, we're told that in the subatomic and cosmic realms
which, conveniently enough, just happen to be realms to which only the scientists themselves are privyall bets are off, and the usual rules don't apply. How easy it is to be "unimpeachable" when your theories don't need to pass the acid tests of wide observation and real-world repeatability!

The notion that incongruous explanations for life's mysteries can be plausibly reconciled into a valid whole flies in the face of everything science historically has tried to do in seeking consistent explanations for observed phenomena. Where else would you accept the kind of reasoning that poses that things can be there but not there, dead but alive? ("Mr. Jones, I'm happy to inform you that your wife made it through surgery. On the other hand...") On what basis does science exempt itself from its own rules in promoting such stunningly dichotomous ideas—and why do we buy in? Maybe it's because it all sounds so damned "cool," or because it's so impossibly obscure, involving reasoning and jargon that leaves us average mortals in the cosmic dust.

Today's physics reasons from the circular premise that "there simply can't be anything supernatural going on, so we need an alternate explanation." Among the scientific elite, godly intervention is unacceptable-by-fiat, period. Yet every time I hear a scientist proffer some grandiose theory and then, when pressed for specifics, fall back on, "Well, see, we just don't know that part yet," I'm reminded of what Sister Anne-Marie would say during my confraternity classes: "It's a mystery."

A cynic might easily infer that these quantum theories are attempts to contrive a god-like mechanism of action without the (offending) presence of an actual god. This branch of science, then, becomes a quasi-religion unto itself, where we are asked to accept on faith "truths" that cannot be seen in life and have never been empirically documented through the millennia. Worse, non-believers are marginalized or treated with high-minded disdain. Scientists chortle at supernatural explanations for the universe, turning the argument on its ear: "Oh really? But if God made the Universe, then where did God come from, huh? Huh!?" They play the line as a supercilious trump card, even though it makes the colossal mistake of assuming that God-based explanations must meet the same logical and scientific bar as science-based explanations.

Religion doesn't have to conform to classical notions of logic and physics. Science, however, ought to.

84 comments:

Tyro said...

Steve,

Can you provide links to those studies you were talking about? Let's remember the difference between science reporting which is done by journalists who may know nothing about science and, in a quest to find something "exciting", "revolutionary" or "mysterious" can badly confuse a real story. So many of your problems with science seem to stem from abyssal science reporting and not from science itself.

Wow, so much to say and even trying to be brief I still find the pool overfloweth.

I only have a few years of University physics and math but that's enough to spot many elementary errors. In fact almost everything about science you talk about seems to be mistaken our outright false. To pick but one egregious example, relativistic time dilation:

They tell us that astronauts who've spent a week traveling at a certain velocity in certain regions of space actually return to earth a few milliseconds older or younger (I forget which) than the rest of us who lived through that same nominal week here on earth.

It should not escape anyone's attention that these lab and thought experiments run counter to all observed and measured experience throughout the whole of recorded history.


I'm really turned off by the tone of sneering contempt that you adopt throughout. I've seen physicists avoid talking about a physical theory because it's slightly different than their field of expertise yet you, without skills or training or education, confidently piss on a century of study. You know that you don't have a science background so why didn't you take a couple elementary steps to guard against the simplest errors? You could get an actual science book or find a local physics prof to spend 30 minutes to give you some pointers. Something.

So...

Is time dilation real and is there evidence for it? Yes and you probably have a device which depends on this in your car right now - your GPS. The satellites which are in orbit are moving much faster than us on earth and so their clocks appear to move slightly slower. Since precise timing is what allows our hand-held GPS to give our location, they all have a built-in correction. Without this, GPS would fail.

Tyro said...

It should not escape anyone's attention that these lab and thought experiments run counter to all observed and measured experience throughout the whole of recorded history

They do run counter to what we observe in our day-to-day lives (but absolutely not counter to all observations!), however we live in a narrow range. We don't see the subatomic world, we don't travel close to the speed of light, we don't know what the very massive, the very small or the very fast are like.

So yeah, discoveries which use modern equipment are *of course* going to involve theories which weren't observable without this equipment. What did you expect?

How easy it is to be "unimpeachable" when your theories don't need to pass the acid tests of wide observation and real-world repeatability!

What nonsense! These theories have been replicated and tested countless times. Quantum Mechanics is the most precise, most heavily tested set of theories humans have ever discovered, far more than even gravity. Your facts are totally backwards.

Finally, you conclude with a string of attacks on scientists who have the intellectual honesty to tell you when they don't have answers and you respond with scorn.

What makes you think we should have all the answers? 100 years ago we didn't know there were other galaxies, 150 years ago we hadn't discovered protons, 300 years ago we didn't know what the brain was. Why on Earth should scientists be able to answer your every question? This is an infantile complaint.

As to admitting that they don't know, this is basic intellectual honesty. It takes a peculiar mindset to turn a virtue into a failing for an entire discipline. It's only a problem when someone claims knowledge with no support or with disconfirming evidence - something preachers do all the time but which is all but absent in science.

What science brings isn't just answers (they're a dime a dozen) but a methodology for learning and correcting mistakes. It's the hunt to locate and remove flaws which leads them to say "I don't know" or better yet "I was wrong". Contrast this with religion which has absolutely no means for recognizing flaws or deception (unintentional or otherwise) and consequently is filled with contradictions and lacks any means of distinguishing even the most blatant frauds or deceptions.

If you think science has flaws with all its checks and balances, religion must be an overflowing sewer by now yet you treat it with the most tender of kid gloves. Would be nice to see some hint of balance.

What spurred this writing? It's hard to not see a Christian persecution complex but I don't want to leap to conclusions.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sigh... pots and kettles. I find it amusing that even as Tyro derides Steve for coming to conclusions without the benefit of complete knowledge, he (Tyro) does exactly the same thing rails against "religion which has absolutely no means for recognizing flaws or deception (unintentional or otherwise)."

By the same token, Steve appears to deny the feasibility of things that are observed behaving differently when observed with specific tools than when observed with the naked eye. What was the "common wisdom" regarding the structure of the universe prior to the invention of the telescope?

Perhaps we would do well to simply acknowledge that none of us really know, but that each of us has (to us) good reason to believe. At least then, we wouldn't be wasting so much energy on hostility. We all have questions, and a whole lot of them aren't going to be answered, certainly not in the heat of verbal battle. As the old adage suggests, love the question.

Steve Salerno said...

First of all, there is not unanimity on the question of the relativistic time displacement of GPS devices (and your mention of the problem was not the first time I'd heard it, btw); there are indeed "simple" mechanical explanations, such as this one:

http://tinyurl.com/2ea75ky

Secondly, please understand, Tyro, that the general "feel" of an op-ed must, by definition, be very different (i.e. more simplistic) than the feel of a piece that would be written for an academic audience. Even so, my editors seemed to believe that this piece would be over the heads of a fair number of readers, or just simply "lose" them, or that I would be dismissed--as you dismiss me here--as a "sneering" idiot.

Third, you cannot, simply cannot, have a scientific system that leaves incongruities unresolved and, further, codifies them into the actual scientific system! You cannot have discrete principles like "wave" and "particle" but then say, e.g., that light is sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle. Nonsense. Not if "wave" and "particle" mean anything, and not if science itself means anything. As I say in the third graph of my intro (which you may not have read at first b/c I added it later), there is something deeper going on that, one day, will resolve the apparent particle/wave duality into an overarching concept that makes consistent sense. In a closed system--absent the active hand of a supernatural g/God--everything must make sense and be repeatable. Or else, again, science stands for nothing.

This is also my gripe with evolution. There are so many holes in Darwinistic theory that I don't even know where to begin. But long before that, from my point of view, if you can't explain the fundamental mystery of life--how did something come from nothing?--and if you can't do it in better terms than simply by saying "Well, maybe nothing was also something" or "maybe there was always something" (which is absurd), then you have no real answers for anything.

I'm not a religion person. Understand that. I do believe in God, but I recognize that I'm probably wrong, and I understand that that belief as an emotional, vestigial after-effect of a heavily Catholic upbringing. At the same time, you can't deny that a scientific system that starts from the premise that there are perfectly natural explanations for everything (thus ruling out the idea of a god on an a priori basis) and then contorts all sorts of wild explanations for how things can be moving while not moving, there while not there...come on. It smacks of sophistry and pseudo-intellectualism. And while I'm on the subject, if you've read books by, say, Dawkins, how can you lecture me about smugness? The man is proposing (as fact, or probable truth) scientific schema that are far more outlandish than the idea of a supreme being, and he's crapping all over the deists while doing it!

Steve Salerno said...

I would also ask a question, and I don't intend it to be snide or rhetorical. Just think about it:

Why is it that everything that's big enough for the average person to see and experience behaves more or less predictably and as expected? (And I submit that everything would behave 100% predictably if we knew all the variables involved and could measure them.)

Further, in the visible life, the most minute aberrations have major consequences. If I fire a bullet into a crosswind, and that crosswind causes the slightest deflection in that bullet at the muzzle, the projectile may miss its intended target by feet, if not yards. And yet we are led to believe that at the atomic/sub-atomic level, there are all kinds of bizarre actions and chaotic displacements occurring all the time that--nonetheless--have no effect whatsoever on visible life?

Tyro said...

Steve,

(I'm trying to explain some points without merely dismissing you but it does take a lot of space. I cut out a lot but it still takes more than blogger can handle. Please excuse splitting the posts.)

First of all, there is not unanimity on the question of the relativistic time displacement of GPS devices (and your mention of the problem was not the first time I'd heard it, btw); there are indeed "simple" mechanical explanations, such as this one

A single self-published page and poof, General Relativity is toast? Hmm...

Do you understand that I gave that as just the simplest example that may be familiar to you rather than the sum total of all evidence? There are hundreds of examples and these simplistic explanations do not cut it. All satellites exhibit time dilation, as do airplanes, high-energy particles in colliders and solar radiation. Modern atomic clocks have let us test this over and over. This isn't merely a mistake in the orbital speed as your source implies but varies with relative velocity exactly as Einstein predicted (that it was a prediction is very important). In addition to time dilation, the theory also predicted gravitational lensing (beautiful photos like http://heritage.stsci.edu/2005/20/supplemental.html) and other events which we've confirmed.

You cannot have discrete principles like "wave" and "particle" but then say, e.g., that light is sometimes a wave and sometimes a particle. Nonsense.

If that was a part of a theory it would be nonsense! It isn't a part of the theory of course, but an attempt to make something mathematical and mysterious seem a little less so. Unfortunately they don't behave like anything we're familiar with. They behave strict, mathematical laws which is how all the theories are written.

Here's a video interview with Richard Feynman that I think gets close to the heart of this disconnect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MO0r930Sn_8 Even something as simple as magnets behave in ways which simply have no direct analogs in our world and the only accurate explanation must be math, not analogies.

Physicists have dumbed this down and it's fine to complain that their analogy isn't accurate but you're way off base if you imagine that these analogies are actually the theories themselves.

Tyro said...

there is something deeper going on that, one day, will resolve the apparent particle/wave duality into an overarching concept that makes consistent sense.

That would be nice but you're wrong again. After Relativity, Einstein devoted much of his life to defend your belief and he came up with many creative ideas to attack the weirder bits of QM but ironically each of them led to experiments which further cemented QM and undermined Einstein's (and your) views. In the end it was John Bell who came up with a way of conclusively demonstrating that particles did not (could not!) have any deeper, more fundamental elements which explain their behaviour, unfortunately Einstein died before seeing the theory or the multiple experimental confirmations. We know now that the weirdness is fundamental and there can be no theory which resolves the weirdness in a more mechanistic, classical sense.
This is also my gripe with evolution. There are so many holes in Darwinistic theory that I don't even know where to begin.

Hmm... Again when someone with no education in a field declares it to be full of holes my first reaction is to suspect that it is their lack of education and not some flash of insight which has defeated all of the people in the field. Have you considered that this might be a factor? Have you done anything at all to account for this?

I also take it as a very bad sign when someone changes the topic so wildly, especially after making several bold claims and then not sticking around to defend them. I'm sure it's inadvertent but it looks like a attempt to sow confusion rather than honestly discuss an issue.

I would be delighted to talk about evolution as it's extremely well supported and the evidence is more accessible than than of modern physics but it does feel like a diversion. Can we get some sort of wrap-up in one area before moving onto the next?

Tyro said...

if you can't explain the fundamental mystery of life--how did something come from nothing?--and if you can't do it in better terms than simply by saying "Well, maybe nothing was also something" or "maybe there was always something" (which is absurd), then you have no real answers for anything

If I ask you why rain falls and you talk about the hydrological cycle, do say this is inadequate because you can't explain the ultimate origin of the universe? It seems like these flaws you pick are very selectively applied.

At the same time, you can't deny that a scientific system that starts from the premise that there are perfectly natural explanations for everything (thus ruling out the idea of a god on an a priori basis) and then contorts all sorts of wild explanations for how things can be moving while not moving, there while not there...come on.

This is the first plausible thing you've said so far. I think you're still wrong but far less so :)

Science today uses "methodological naturalism" (MN) which seeks to explain events using naturalistic processes, that's true. But it didn't start from this premise and many scientists have attempted to provide evidence for miracles, God and even ideas like alchemy. There are many scientists who have said we should consider alternatives and have investigate religious claims (ironically this has incurred the wrath of religionists so I guess we can't win). The reason that modern science uses MN is twofold: it has been enormously successful and claims of miracles have always turned out to be easily explained naturalistically or expected gaps in our knowledge rather than "real" supernatural events. Given this, we can ask whether MN may be off the mark and if we found a lot of "contorts all sorts of wild explanations" then we might suspect that there was something we were missing. However, despite this claim, there are not any wild contortions. There are unanswered questions to be sure but there's nothing about them which hints at the supernatural.

Re Dawkins - I don't want to dodge and questions/problems but I'd rather deal with one thing at a time if that's okay.

Tyro said...

Ron,

(Tyro) does exactly the same thing rails against "religion which has absolutely no means for recognizing flaws or deception (unintentional or otherwise)."

I absolutely do not have a full understanding of religious claims but I know enough to support this statement. Indeed, I thought it was pretty obvious - one only needs to observe that revelation, tradition and authority (the methods religion uses to "learn") lead to many contradictions. Is there one god or many, was Jesus divine, does God listen to prayers, does God have a plan for us, does God torture sinners in Hell, does God approve of work on the Sabbath, can we divorce, can we re-marry, are we destined for Heaven/Hell at birth, does faith save or do works matter, is God all powerful, does God care about our sexuality, and on an on. For every question that a person claims to be firmly convinced of on answer there's another group which is firmly convinced of the opposite. How can we possibly resolve these disputes and determine which, if any, is correct?

There is no mechanism for demonstrating the falsehood of a religious claim which is why religious sects keep fragmenting and vary with culture whereas science with is mechanisms for eliminating errors does not vary with culture and constantly unifies. The frontiers are a mesh of possible theories which no one claims to be true but as tests come in, these get pruned back till only one theory survives - the exact opposite of how religion behaves.

Tyro said...

Okay, one last post - I just liked this question.

Why is it that everything that's big enough for the average person to see and experience behaves more or less predictably and as expected?

I think there are two parts: (1) is it true that everything behaves as expected; and (2) why are things predictable?

I think (1) is false and we only need to go back 300 years and look at how disrupting many scientific discoveries really were. Few expected that objects on earth accelerate uniformly, that white light could be split into the spectrum (and recombined), that burning doesn't eliminate mass or that our brain was used for thought yet we observe their effects daily.

What I think is happening is that, (2) things are predictable. We may not know how gravity works but we see how balls move. We can see the sun shining after rain and expect a rainbow without having a clue about refraction or the spectrum. Things seem predictable because nature follows physical laws and perhaps because we don't ask too many questions.

And yet we are led to believe that at the atomic/sub-atomic level, there are all kinds of bizarre actions and chaotic displacements occurring all the time that--nonetheless--have no effect whatsoever on visible life?

It's difficult to convey just how incredibly small these effects really are. What we're seeing is the aggregate of trillions of trillions of atoms whose behaviour averages out. At our level, we can't even perceive that molecules vibrate (a classical phenomenon), instead we just see it as heat and QM is at a far smaller level than this.

It's like (but not exactly) how we don't see pixels on TVs when we stand far back and we're standing very far back indeed.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, first of all, let me thank you for spending so much time on someone whom you view, I think, as a rather dim-witted boor. And no, I'm not being sarcastic in saying that. I do think you; it always amazes me that people invest so much time, energy and thought into engaging me (and others) on this blog, and I am grateful for it. We still have a rather cozy group here, but I'd put our "faithful" up against just about any bunch, anywhere in the blogosphere.

OK, let's back up. Once upon a time we thought the earth was (1) flat, and (2) the center of the universe. We thought those things in part because of religious close-mindedness (that applies to 2 in particular) and also because a lack of proper tools/instrumentation limited our investigational abilities. Once the equipment got better, we were better able to ascertain the (ostensible) truth of the matter. However, we can't be sure we're "there" yet. Wouldn't it be something if all of it--everything in the known universe--is really just a science experiment sitting on some vast cosmic desk somewhere?

Today we say that it has been "demonstrated" that particles could not have any deeper properties. However, those demonstrations are chiefly on lab work: mathematical computations that depend on observations and experiments that, in turn, rely on the instrumentation we now have. I am quite confident that someday, perhaps not in our lifetime, we will develop instrumentation that enables some physicist somewhere to look at light and say, "Wait a minute--there's something else in there! I think I'll call it...a bizuno!" And from that point forward we will have the bizuno theory of the behavior of light, which subsumes all of what was previously wave/particle theory. And that will remain the dominant theory until something else comes along.

I don't have time to address all the points you made (and I apologize for that, especially since you took the time to make them), but I would very much like to address your point about examining evolution independently of the Big Bang, "where did it all come from?", etc. That strikes me as dirty pool. If you are proposing a grand paradigm like evolution, you must--to my mind--be able to trace it back to the very beginnings. If I am doing heart surgery, and I need to try to fix Richard Holbrooke's ruptured aorta, I don't necessarily need to know where his aorta (and all aortas) came from. I have a technique that appears to work on aortas (though in Mr. Holbrooke's case, of course, it didn't), and that's good enough. Just as, if I'm working in a hot zone with rhesus monkeys, trying to find an agent that will kill off the diabolical pathogen that is afoot in their systems, though it might be helpful to know a lot about the origin of the species, such knowledge isn't really relevant to what I'm doing on a practical basis: As long as the stuff with which I inject the monkeys seems to do the trick, that suits me just fine. I'm not really dealing with the why. The what is good enough.

However, discussing evolution is a different matter. Evolution is a theory--in fact, some might say it is really the ultimate theory. And you can't propose a theory that seeks to explain the origins of humanity if you can't regress that theory back to the beginnings. Because really, the ability to regress that theory is what (supposedly) separates science and religion. If all you can do is say, "Well, we came from protozoa," then I can turn around and say, "Fine. But God made the protozoa and set the whole chain in motion." [more...]

Steve Salerno said...

[cont'd]

But more to the point, I'm willing to bet you anything that if no scientist today had ever heard of evolution--let's say it had never even been discussed or theorized--and I brought that theory, intact, to a group of scientists who, as I say, had never heard of it...I'd be laughed out of the room. Their response would be on the order of, "Are you kidding? But how do you explain this and this and this and this...?"

I believe that scientists accept evolution because of what's known in epidemiology as the "Texas sharpshooter" effect: Give people who are predisposed to a certain way of looking at things a framework that seems to confirm that hypothesis, and they'll see it as true. They impose a bulls-eye on the disparate "shots." Today's scientists grew up with evolution in the same way that my parents grew up in the Catholic Church. They were indoctrinated, so they see what they want to see. That is what I believe.

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. I meant to type "I do THANK you." Sorry. Very rushed today.

Steve Salerno said...

P.P.S. I also realize that Darwin had to persuade a lot of people. But the people he was persuading (in his scientific community) were already evolving in that direction. This stuff creeps up on people gradually.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: If we knew all the variables, I believe that everything would be very predictable. You've been here a while, so you know that I'm a mechanist/determinist. I do not believe in chance, randomness, free will, any of that. Everything that happens had to happen. That is not my argument here. My argument is really one of epistemology: CAN we know the variables and how reliable is what we THINK we know about those variables now?

Yes, of course there were things that happened in the past, scientifically, that were seen as disruptive, as you say, but those things were always true and existed in the pristine state, regardless of whether or not we knew them (just as the earth was always round, or at least that's how we view it today, even back when we thought it was flat). What I'm talking about here is more along the lines of: If what scientists tell us about the atom is true, then why are the things we think we already know so predictable? They shouldn't be. There should be spontaneous explosions and fusions and all kinds of catastrophic dislocations occurring all the time, if the behavior of subatomic components is as free, random and/or unpredictable as scientists imply that it is. What I'm proposing is: It isn't free and random. Every last damn neutrino is doing exactly what it must do, in exactly the order it must do it. QM tells us, e.g., that electrons do not follow a specified path within the atom. I believe that is false, and will be revealed as such, someday. But again, this is just one crazy-man spewing crazy ideas, so pay me no mind.

Tyro said...

Tyro, first of all, let me thank you for spending so much time on someone whom you view, I think, as a rather dim-witted boor.

Okay, I deserved that jab. I re-read some of my posts and I realize I was not speaking to you with the respect you deserve. I apologize, I will try to do better.

However, those demonstrations are chiefly on lab work: mathematical computations that depend on observations and experiments that, in turn, rely on the instrumentation we now have. I am quite confident that someday, perhaps not in our lifetime, we will develop instrumentation that enables some physicist somewhere to look at light and say, "Wait a minute--there's something else in there! I think I'll call it...a bizuno!"

Whew, what a tough one. Okay, let's acknowledge that you've got a lot of reason to believe this could be true. After all, this discussion started on the premise that new instruments which can resolve the subatomic realm revealed unknown worlds so why should this be any different?

First, this isn't 1920 where we have a mountain of observations which don't fit our theories or hundreds of "elementary" particles (with more every year). We're down to the standard model of only six quarks which explains all observations so there's good reason to think we've accounted for most of the physical properties.

But I don't want to overemphasize this because, while fascinating, we're beyond hunches or guesses, we're beyond wondering about newer instruments. If it were just that, then I'd agree we can't rule out some new discoveries and, as I've said, even the brightest minds in early quantum physics held out this hope for decades.

In one of the coolest and least well-publicized discoveries, John Bell found that, if there was some hidden structure which we couldn't observe, particles would behave one way and if they did not, they would behave another. He showed that we could conduct tests and if we saw X then there were hidden variables (without saying what these variables might be), and if we saw Y then there could not possibly be any. It took twenty years to properly conduct the tests but since then it has been tested many times and each time it rules out any hidden features which somehow determine quantum events, even if we can't see or measure what these features are.

It's a clever bit of work but not impossible to follow. I'd recommend "The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene which walks through the setup using some alien boxes rather than quantum properties.

If you do have more questions for an article or something more serious, I encourage you to seriously consider that the answers are available if you ask the right sources. At the very least, it would be nice to discuss the consensus, evidence-based view.

Tyro said...

And on to evolution... :)

Evolution is a theory--in fact, some might say it is really the ultimate theory. And you can't propose a theory that seeks to explain the origins of humanity if you can't regress that theory back to the beginnings.

I don't think there's any good reason to say this. Evolution explains life in all of its diversity and complexity but the theory does start with life. We can and should ask "okay, then how did life start" but we should expect the answer to be chemistry and not biology (since there's no bio to logy). We can then ask "where did the oxygen and carbon come from to allow this chemistry?" The answer will now involve stellar fusion and asking where the hydrogen & helium for the start to burn came from will require cosmology. We're shifting our focus to more fundamental questions and we should expect that the answers will be different.

We take it for granted that an explanation of why ice melts can assume the existence of water molecules so I really don't see why evolution is so different. Especially when there are some answers (sometimes very preliminary) to your questions if you just were to ask the right people. It isn't a flaw in evolution that biology isn't cosmology!

"Well, we came from protozoa," then I can turn around and say, "Fine. But God made the protozoa and set the whole chain in motion."

If you like. Certainly this God-of-the-Gaps style of argument has a long history. I don't see that it makes the answer any more plausible though.

Their response would be on the order of, "Are you kidding? But how do you explain this and this and this and this...?"

We don't need to wonder, we can just look back to when the first people started putting together the pieces - Darwin, and others before him. There were a lot of questions and objections just as there are for all theories (that's how science works) but Darwin and Huxley provided very good evidence and time has just provided us with more and more. It's not just similarities amongst living animals, evolution is supported by direct observation, geology, biology, bioregionalism, fossils, taxonomy, and genetics and these are just the broad areas. Within genetics there are things like endogenous retroviruses and the twin-nested hierarchy which wasn't even dreamt of in Darwin's time. We could get rid of every fossil in the world and the evidence for evolution would still be unassailable.

Biologists are still always asking "how do you explain this" but they're also getting answers and no other theory has even come close. At this point, evolution is so well supported that any flaw would be like what happened to Newton's gravity - we'd keep everything about evolution that we know now but just add some exceptions in some unusual conditions.

I don't know why you think this is what scientists wanted to see. Before Darwin, forms of evolution were preached from the pulpits as people thought it was an elegant way for God to bring about creation without poofing everything. Darwin himself was deeply uncomfortable with the theory because of the religious undertones and so sat on his work for years (and even then barely mentioned humans in Origin). Everything points to this as being a theory people were compelled to accept due to the evidence in spite of the philosophical implications, not because of them.

Tyro said...

And taking it home some statistical mechanics...

What I'm talking about here is more along the lines of: If what scientists tell us about the atom is true, then why are the things we think we already know so predictable? They shouldn't be. There should be spontaneous explosions and fusions and all kinds of catastrophic dislocations occurring all the time, if the behavior of subatomic components is as free, random and/or unpredictable as scientists imply that it is.

Could it be that the behaviour of subatomic particles isn't as free, random or unpredictable as you think? Perhaps this is the fault of science communicators or maybe we can get you some better sources but for all its weirdness, things are tightly constrained. There is some chance for quantum tunnelling for instance (and this is a big problem in designing computer circuits) but as the distances grow, the chances decrease exponentially. When we move to even microscopic scales we're dealing with trillions of atoms so if a single electron should jump, it won't be noticed. And since quantum effects aren't directed, the average effect of many quantum interactions averages out.

Let me try to use a slightly more approachable example (which is still not very approachable, sorry). Consider a box with two chambers that are separated by a wall with a hole that's small enough to only allow one gas particle through every second (pick a gas - it doesn't matter which). We put 2,000 gas particles in the right chamber and 10 in the left then we step back and watch. What happens? The motion of the gas particles are classical and deterministic at an individual level and we know that the random bouncing of particles means that any specific particle on the left has the same chance of going through the hole to the right as any particle on the right has to cross over left. Yet over time the gas will spread so there is roughly an equal number of particles in the left and right side.

We're left with a strange situation. At the macro level, we know that gas will always move from a higher pressure to a lower pressure chamber till both chambers are equalized, yet at the micro level each individual particle is moving essentially randomly (chaotically) and there's nothing which makes them go from right to left.

We know that if we drop some cream into hot coffee it will disperse and blend. We also know that the reaction of each coffee and cream molecule is behaving deterministically so, in theory, if they were precisely arranged a cup of creamy coffee could separate all the cream and spit it back out. This doesn't happen because these billions of interactions even out to disperse the cream, not collect it.

Of course, as we've already agreed, there are no good analogies for quantum events. They aren't deterministic like water molecules but like water, they follow statistical, predictable rules so when we study many of them at once, the interactions even out. Sometimes the effects can multiply and reinforce each other rather than averaging out - in the quantum world we get lasers, magnets and diffraction patterns and in the macro world we get waves and noise cancellation.

QM tells us, e.g., that electrons do not follow a specified path within the atom. I believe that is false, and will be revealed as such, someday.

Even without going on about John Bell again, let's just say that the theories which say electrons do not follow a specific path are successful at making predictions and all theories which have electrons following a definite path are not. You should at least understand that your position has no theoretical support and does not agree with observation while the standard QM theories are the most successful, accurate theories we've ever discovered. It's one of the few areas where we have measurements with six, eight or ten significant figures that agree with theory precisely.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, super-pressed for time, but I wasn't being snide in thanking you. I meant it sincerely. I can certainly see where someone such as yourself would respond to me in the manner you have, because on the surface (and perhaps even deeper than that) I might seem like some backwoods rube. However, I have in fact given a great deal of thought to this, and done a commensurate amount of reading, and my basic question is I guess more philosophical than scientific in nature, to wit:

Can we truly depend on observation to yield truth? (And, I would add, how do we know when we've reached the final truth?)

I just posted that question on Twitter with a link to this discussion, so we'll see what (if anything) evolves.

Tyro said...

Can we truly depend on observation to yield truth? (And, I would add, how do we know when we've reached the final truth?)

Good question.

At a simple level, what we observe is "true". At a deeper level, what we observe is only provisionally true since we have many biases, blind spots and cognitive errors so even observations must be confirmed. At an even deeper level, we can never definitively prove that any of our theories of the world are true. (How do you like that, a yes, a sort-of and a no :)


In responding to you & Ron I was careful to say that what distinguishes science from religion (and from other attempts to learn) is that science can tell when something is wrong. That's a hugely powerful feature, and probably it's defining characteristic. Not it's ability to find truth - that's much thornier.

Science is inductive not deductive so we can build theories which explain more and more of the world, which make better and more precise predictions, which have more weight of evidence, but we can't ever say "we're right, we're done."

What I find is that many people get uncomfortable by this and think that since we can't say absolutely for certain that a theory is true this must mean that all theories are nebulous, vague or ripe for being flipped 180 degrees or that if you can't prove relativity, then their pet idea for gravity must be just as good. Neither are correct.

Newton was "wrong" but his equations still work for most cases - we can keep reproducing his tests and use his equations to send probes to the moon or Mars, but under some special cases it breaks down. New discoveries build upon the past and new theories must be at least as good as the old.

I wish all this were different but I don't know any way in which it could be.

Okay, I'm going for a run to leave this desk. Have at 'em :)

roger o'keefe said...

I thank both of you for an airy but interesting discussion. A lot of us do take too much for granted about what we think we know about life and how things work. I do think there are more unknowns than Tyro seems to think there are, though I find it hard to buy Steve's position which sounds like it reduces to "we know nothing". Like I said, interesting.

Tyro said...

Even on the run, I couldn't stop thinking about the hidden variable vs randomness question so here goes an explanation:

Bell realized that the key to this puzzle was to look at places where we uncertainty blocked measurement of three variables like electron spin. They always spin at a single, fixed rate - the axis may change but the rate is fixed. Uncertainty says that we cannot simultaneously measure the spin around more than one axis. When you measure the spin of a ball, it may be at a NW angle sharing the spin between the N and W axis but electrons never, ever have a fractional spin when they're measured. It's as if measurement forces the spin into one of the axis and by so doing this, we lose information about how it was spinning about the other axis prior to measurement. The question now is: does the electron have some amount of spin about each axis prior to measurement but we're unable to measure it, or does it have no definite state until it is measured?

To answer this, we need a second feature of quantum particles: entanglement. Under some conditions, we can generate two particles which are "entangled" which has the effect that their quantum properties are linked. If we measure the spin on the vertical axis of particle A, and the spin on the vertical axis of particle B, they will always be opposites. If we measure the spin on vertical axis of A and a different axis on B, there is no relationship and they appear random. EPR argued that this appearance of randomness is an illusion and there is something hidden which we can't see but which *determines* these apparently random values.

To explain how to answer, I'll borrow Brian Greene's analogy. Imagine you're given two sets of boxes, each box has a number on it and there are matching numbers in each set. Each box has three doors: the top (z-axis), front (x) and side (y). When you open any door, you'll see a sphere which is either red or blue (the direction of spin). A note is attached that says that when you open a door the color will be randomly chosen but that if you open the same door on boxes of the same number they will always be the same color (in qm they're opposite, but this is simpler).

"How do I know they are random?" you ask. "Each box could have a program so that if I opened the the top it would be blue, side blue and front red (call this 'bbr'). If both boxes have the same program then if we open the same door the color will match, no randomness, no mystery!"

But I believe that the boxes really are random and I've got a way to prove it.

Lets say that we each take our set of boxes and we go to separate rooms. I'll open a door on box 1 at random and you'll do the same. We keep doing this for all of the boxes in our set and then we come back together to compare the results. If the boxes are pre-programmed, then we must see the same color >50%, otherwise they can't be pre-programmed. Here's how it works:

Let's say a box has a program bbr. There are nine door combinations: (z,z),(z,x),(z,y),(x,z),... Of this, there are 5 combinations which give matching colors: (z,z), (x,x), (y,y), (z,x) and (x,z). Programs bbr, brb, rbb, rrb, rbr, brr all have 5 matches and bbb/rrr have 9 (and 5/9 > 50%), so if there is a program, we should get >50% matches.

This was tested experimentally in the 1970s-1984 and the results showed that we do not get >50% agreement! There are better, clearer inequalities which have also been tested and further confirmed the ienquality.

But what if, when I open the top of box 1, it sends a message to your box 1 to tell it which color to flash? In 1997, Gisin and his team conducted the experiment with particles 11km apart so that the message would have to travel faster than the speed of light and the results were unchanged. This both removed the last objection to Bell while also introducing a fascinating new wrinkle which is best left for later :)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Forgive me, maybe it's late, maybe I've been at this too long today, maybe I'm just slow, but I confess that I can't even follow the premise of your experiment (which I also confess that I have not encountered before), so I have no idea what it's supposed to show me. Are you out to prove that there is such a thing in nature as randomness? Again, I may be handicapped in some way, but I can't see how that is possible, regardless of what experimentation appears to demonstrate. Nothing in nature can be random, from my point of view, without all of nature being random.

Let me also add that if, just if, everything is mechanistically predetermined (as I believe it to be), then we can't rely on logic to sort out these problems, because the results of our logical analysis is also predetermined, which invalidates that result: If we are incapable of seeing any other result as "true," how then can we know it's true?

Steve Salerno said...

To clarify, what I mean by that is that if we are glorified computers (as I believe we are), and if our software is programmed to add 2 + 2 and get 5, then we cannot see that we have reached an erroneous result. To us the erroneous result "makes sense."

Tyro said...

Steve,

Bell's Inequality was what finally showed conclusively that quantum events are genuinely random and not a result of some hidden values. Particles do not have defined properties like spin, position and momentum but exist in some "limbo" until they are measured (where "measure" doesn't mean *human* measurement of course).

Nothing in nature can be random, from my point of view, without all of nature being random.

Why should this be? A coin flip may be random but billions of flips are predictable. Most of science is on this level anyway - theories make predictions with some accuracy but the noise is always a limiting factor. This noise is small enough that we don't notice it in our normal lives but it's there nonetheless.

So if things are random at a small scale, why should they not appear regular and predictable (within bounds) at a larger level provided the randomness follows some statistical laws as quantum events do?

To clarify, what I mean by that is that if we are glorified computers (as I believe we are), and if our software is programmed to add 2 + 2 and get 5, then we cannot see that we have reached an erroneous result. To us the erroneous result "makes sense."

That's true and as messy, evolved beings we do make regular, predictable mistakes in reasoning. Fortunately, as a community we have been able to spot these errors and find ways to avoid them. Where one brain-computer may think everything is copacetic, another may spot the flaws. We developed methodologies for avoiding errors or identifying and weeding them out when we do slip up.

Maybe I'm not a deep philosopher but this seems to work quite well so I don't let it bug me too much.

I'm reminded of what happened after Newton developed the Calculus. "You can't divide zero by zero and get a number," philosophers would cry yet his math worked and their philosophy didn't. It took a long time before mathematicians learned why it worked. Perhaps in a couple centuries we'll learn more about the brain to understand why it works. For now, isn't it enough to observe that it is capable of great logic but still is prone to common errors?

Steve Salerno said...

Particles do not have defined properties like spin, position and momentum but exist in some "limbo" until they are measured (where "measure" doesn't mean *human* measurement of course)...

Is that true? Or is it just that we're incapable of measuring them by any other means than by taking a fragmentary "snapshot" of them, by which time they're in a slightly different position? This is a measurement error, not a reality error. To my mind, everything has a defined position at all times. Never mind electrons; let's talk about you walking briskly down the street. Is it really possible for me to "fix" your position at any given instant? No. But do you have a fixed position at any given instant? Yes.

A coin flip may be random...
Again, I respectfully disagree. Every coin flip has one and only one possible outcome. We just don't/can't know it. However, if we could indeed know every variable--the precise density of the coin at various points along its surface, wind vectors (if any), gravitational pull, angle of the arm drop as the coin is released, etc., there would be no unpredictable coin flips.

This may sound like sophistry, but it isn't. There are very real and very important implications.

Steve Salerno said...

By the way, I also think there's an awful lot of hubris involved in defining things by whether or not they can be manipulated in some way by mankind. I mean, obviously it's important for mankind to have some sense of how or whether something can be manipulated. But to make it sound as if the thing only truly exists (or has "a position") when we're able to measure it...?

I could be wrong, but I'm fairly certain there are all sorts of things moving through a set of fixed positions around us right now, and we're totally unaware of it, let alone able to measure it. But they're still there, fixed or moving to their own invisible rhythms.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Btw, I'm glad you made that remark about the coin flip, which I think is a lot more significant to this discussion than you probably do. See, the end result of a coin flip seems random to us, so we consider it "random." But it isn't. These are the sorts of anthropocentric views that so often play havoc with science, as I see it.

Tyro said...

Is that true? Or is it just that we're incapable of measuring them by any other means than by taking a fragmentary "snapshot" of them, by which time they're in a slightly different position?

No, it's not a measurement error. There are many predictions from this which have been tested and confirmed. Particles really don't have any definite state until they interact in such a way as to require them to be in one state or another (a "measurement"). At this point, if one aspect is know to greater than a fixed precision, corresponding other values will become more and more uncertain. What's more, this uncertainty is predictable and varies with the measurement not with the instrument.

I know how hard this is to believe and understand which is why I tried to explain Bell's Inequality and what it means. That was really the death knell for the debate and conclusively showed quantum uncertainty was real. If you're serious about understanding this instead of just trying to protect your notions of how the world works, re-read that and ask questions because it's a killer.

To my mind, everything has a defined position at all times. Never mind electrons; let's talk about you walking briskly down the street. Is it really possible for me to "fix" your position at any given instant? No. But do you have a fixed position at any given instant? Yes.

You simply can't reason from how macro objects behave and extrapolate to the subatomic level because the quantum world is nothing like anything we know of in the macro world. Analogies may help us communicate some idea but they're always imprecise and any flaws you spot are certainly flaws in the analogy, not flaws in the theory.

With macroscopic objects, there's no question we can measure their position and momentum with accuracy that's limited only by our instruments. With subatomic particles it's a whole different story.

A coin flip may be random...
Again, I respectfully disagree.


Okay granted but can you imagine that it was random for the sake of the argument? Any random process that has a predictable statistical distribution (like coin flips or quantum events) are not predictable on individual trials but after many trials are highly predictable.

Tyro said...

See, the end result of a coin flip seems random to us, so we consider it "random." But it isn't.

That would be a fun discussion but it's not simple and I'm starting to wonder if we're working off different ground rules. I'm assuming that, when faced with disconfirming evidence you will change your views or at least present a counter-argument which would force me to change my mind or account for the new evidence and back and forth it goes till we find a common ground. Instead you seem to just drop the subject and jump onto some new topic without acknowledging the conflict or trying to understand and learn from it. I'm finding it a little discouraging and I'm not sure how best to respond. Is it something in my presentation which isn't working? Are you looking for more citations and evidence, more philosophy, more arguments from authority, more scriptural quotations, or just generally more succinctness and less verbal diarrhoea? I'm not a gifted writer so if it's something I'm doing wrong, please tell me and I'll try to fix it.

.

I look back and wonder what happened to time dilation - are you still asserting that you're right and all physicists are wrong or did you change your mind? Do you have some arguments or evidence to bring to bear? And what about gravitational lensing, high-energy particles (with their time dilation), and even atomic clocks in airplanes as just the start of the evidence supporting relativity?

You've talked a lot about how you think reality ought to work but have responded little to a century of observations and theories beyond dismissing them as illogical nonsense. Have you thought what it would take to convince you that you are wrong?


Talking about randomness and determinism is another insanely large subject and if we can't figure out why there's the disconnect on these "simple" issues, I don't see much point in talking about deeper matters.

I've enjoyed trying to find a way to explain Bell's Inequality in 4,096 characters or less without using any complex math so if this is going nowhere I'd like to end it on this minor high point :)

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I think you miss my point. I don't think that my mind is too small to wrap it around Bell's inequality; I think that the presentation on your part may have been lacking. I literally didn't follow the "set-up" regarding the boxes and the balls and the colors.

So I'll tell you what: I'll do some independent research on Bell etc. and see where we get.

However, I still maintain that on a philosophical plane, I do not see how it's possible that things could behave on the sub-micro level in a manner that is counter to everything we observe at the macro level. I think we're "missing something." Something important. I think that if what modern physicists (post-Bohr) say about subatomic "life" is true, then macro life as we know it would be impossible. (In a general sense, I think that every time you encounter a paradox, and as a result you seek to codify the paradox into science instead of actually resolving the paradox so that there IS no paradox anymore, then something is wrong somewhere. You've made a mistake.) But as noted, I will immerse myself in this topic over the next week or so, and maybe we can reconvene.

Rational Thinking said...

Just wanted to chip in here how interesting I find all these comments. Tyro, thanks particularly to you for taking the time to explain things as clearly as you have done.

Steve, you made me think of Schrodinger's comment about quantum mechanics - 'I don't like it and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it'!

I wondered whether, so far as evolution is concerned, it might be worth raising the proposition that creationism, intelligent design and evolution are all theories. It's just that evolution has more evidence to support it, at this point in time.

I'm not trying to stir the pot here, just trying to see if we can find some common ground.

Steve Salerno said...

RT: I agree with you about evolution; in fact, it's really the only "theory" that has any evidence for it. I don't dispute that. I just think it still has some major holes in it, if it's true, as Darwin argued, that the basis of evolution is really a series of genetic accidents that prove more viable than what preceded them, and thus become "adaptations."

RevRon's Rants said...

RT - I don't really think that common ground is a particular goal here. IMO, in a brain tennis match, common ground is the net; at the center of every volley, yet avoided like the plague. Keeps the game interesting, but the ultimate - and typically elusive - goal is still to *win.*

The difference between brain tennis and regular tennis is that in the former, each participant can walk away feeling like they won (and equally important, that their opponent lost), when to observers, it's just an overly long draw.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Hmm. Are you saying that Tyro and I bored the crap out of all "spectators"? ;)

In a more serious vein, I don't think that my goal here was to "win." IN fact I know it wasn't. My goal was more on the order of suggesting to the lords of physics that maybe they haven't won, just yet. And it was also a response to the incredible hubris on the part of so many in that community. I can see where someone like Tyro would object to "the tone" of my column, but really, I didn't start this battle. If you want to hear "tone," listen to the supremely arrogant Richard Dawkins, or read some of the stuff churned out through the years by the self-styled gurus of QM, who clearly think they've got it all figured out, even though half of what they postulate dwells in the realm of the hypothesis or the paradox and a lot of them don't even agree with each other in basic areas like "locality," etc.

RevRon's Rants said...

LOL!! I never get bored, Steve (although I own the fact that some of my own participation in brain tennis matches must bore the crap out of others!). When my own interest wanes, I just shift my focus to something else. In this case, I saw the futility of two distinctly different and tightly held perspectives struggling to disprove the perspective of the other, even as I acknowledged the value of the effort.

One request... Please differentiate between "winning" and "making sure the other guy doesn't win" as goals in a debate. I'm not being snide; I really want to know... Well, okay, I'm being snide, but I can't help it. It was predetermined that I would be so. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

In slightly more objective retrospect, I submit that what we have here is a triumvirate of smugness, with each participant assured (at least, to outward appearances) of our "right"-ness, each of us grabbing for the brass ring of objectivity, and none of us acknowledging that objectivity has no place in the discussion.

We'd be a hilarious species, if only we didn't take our collective and individual absurdity so seriously. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Oh, there's a huge difference between winning and "making sure the other guy doesn't win" (though I wouldn't put it that way). It's the difference between asking "how can you be sure you have the answer?" and stating "I'm sure I have the answer." It's just proper skepticism and critical thinking, from my POV.

RevRon's Rants said...

Sounds good in theory, though it rarely makes it into practice. I have to acknowledge you, Steve, for at least making more of an effort to implement "proper skepticism and critical thinking" than do most others.

Who knows? My own preference for "loving the question" over "demanding the answer" could well be a product of my own laziness, or the manifestation of a trait no more noble than apathy. I don't know. Don't really care, either. :-)

Tyro said...

If you want to hear "tone," listen to the supremely arrogant Richard Dawkins, or read some of the stuff churned out through the years by the self-styled gurus of QM, who clearly think they've got it all figured out, even though half of what they postulate dwells in the realm of the hypothesis or the paradox and a lot of them don't even agree with each other in basic areas like "locality," etc.

Why do you say Dawkins is arrogant, can you point to anything in particular? Have you stopped to ask if he's being any better or worse than his opponents (who are, let's face it, insufferable Liars For Jesus).


Of course I don't get the QM thing either. Who are you talking about and what did they say? I can only think of a few quantum physicists who really engaged the public - Feynmann (in the video I linked earlier) who was known for his pranks, jokes and bongo playing and Einstein who was known for his soft-spokenness and his affable eccentricity. Could you possibly be thinking of either of them, I doubt it. But if not them, then who?


And what's this "paradox" thing? Which physicist has ever said that paradoxes exist, ever?

I really wonder if you're getting your info from some fringe kooks with an axe to grind rather than from these physicists directly. I would be grateful if you could give some specifics because none of this meshes with my experience.


Finally, what's with the tone-trolling? Look at your own article which uses mockery and ridicule throughout. Not that this is a bad thing and I love your zingers, just saying that you use rhetoric which is far more caustic and aggressive than Dawkins yet I'll bet you regard your use as being in the best traditions of editorial writing and you would be right. So why then is it that you can write something with a snarky tone which, by your own admission, places you "as a supposed higher authority in these matters than all those Nobel laureates" (the very textbook definition of arrogance) and yet it is everyone else that's arrogant and using the wrong tone, not you?

Again, I don't want you to tone down your writing but it would be nice to back off the hypocrisy and the accusations of arrogance, especially without any specifics or supporting evidence.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Did you read The God Delusion?

Secondly, let's remember, as I say in the post that started this all, science and religion are not parallel schools of thought. Religion is based in arrogance: the idea that there is a Supreme Being and He put you here and you are supposed to do His bidding. Science is not supposed to be based in arrogance, but rather skepticism and humility, and the acknowledgment that there is always more to learn, and there are always prior "facts" that will need correcting.

Steve Salerno said...

In other words, a priest is allowed to say "You have to trust this." It's part and parcel of the enterprise to which he is committed.

A scientist should not have that privilege.

Tyro said...

Steve,

Yes, I have a copy of TGD somewhere around. I can think of a handful of passages which have been quoted as an example of everything from "intolerance" to arrogance but it all eludes me. Can you share what you think is so bad that it should get singled out beyond all the rhetoric we see every day?

In other words, a priest is allowed to say "You have to trust this." It's part and parcel of the enterprise to which he is committed.

Priests certainly *do* say that but have you - or anyone else - ever paused to explain what can justify this double standard? Dawkins biggest sin seems to be to say that this religious reliance on authority and revelation is the reason that falsehoods, irrationality and dogma is perpetuated uncritically. (Hitchens goes further and argues this poisons our thoughts and actions.)

I think he has a point.

A scientist should not have that privilege.

It's not a privilidge, it's a fallacy, a mistake, a cognitive error, a brain fart, a wrong path, a problem, and you're right that it has no place in any pursuit which genuinely cares about truth.

Can you think of any example where one of these errors has crept into science and has not been quickly identified, publicized and eliminated by other scientists in the same field?

What was the last mistake corrected by religion? Have there been any, ever? It is starting to seem less like a privilege and more like a systematic, institutionalized commitment to the status quo over truth.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: I'm not purposely trying to be difficult. But you're making my point in a nutshell: Religion is under no obligation to be, or act like, science. It can be as didactic as it wants...because it's a religion. It is a serious fallacy to attempt to apply science to religion. It's like arguing with a ghost about whether the ghost has a right to exist; you either accept religion or you don't.

Science must meet a MUCH higher bar--in order to BE science. That's all I'm saying. Or--since you seem fond of analogies--I'll bring up love. We can't explain love. We probably can't try to make a science of love. We can analyze brain functions with a CT-scan, but that still doesn't explain the feeling of love when you're in love. You either accept it or you don't.

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps the very act of breathing can provide another slightly more concrete analogy to describe the "cognitive disconnect" between science and religion (and their respective responsibilities for "proof"). Science can effectively qualify and quantify the cyclic process of inspiration, extraction of nutritive elements from the air, followed by expiration, yet is unable to apply the same empiric standards to the joy one feels when they relish the simple act of taking a deep breath on a brisk autumn day. Religion might assert that the pleasure experienced is borne of a momentary sense of communion with the Divine, but remain altogether unconcerned with (and even dismissive of) the more "mundane" mechanics of the respiratory process.

Ironically, both science and religion would assert that their experience and interpretation is the superior one, primarily because each perspective is founded in criteria that is beyond the scope of the other. The real absurdity, IMO, is that such arguments can only exist in a myopic environment where "inexplicable" is held to be synonymous with "nonexistent" - the esoteric equivalent of Sagan's concept of "carbon bias."

Rational Thinking said...

Steve wrote:

'Religion is under no obligation to be, or act like, science. It can be as didactic as it wants...because it's a religion. It is a serious fallacy to attempt to apply science to religion.'

Well I accept that's your opinion, but please explain to me why you think that should be the case? Why should religion get a free pass? I genuinely don't understand why you think, as a subject, it shouldn't be scrutinised by those who choose or wish to do so. Are you saying "if you have no faith, you have no no right to an opinion"? Or simply that without faith, you don't want to listen to that opinion?

Tyro said...

Steve,

If religion wants to say what is real and isn't then why on earth shouldn't we examine its claims critically or at the very least expect some commitment to finding the truth and weeding out falsehoods? If a priest tells us what God wants us to do, why shouldn't we expect some minimal level of evidence or support? What is it about religion that exempts it from basic scepticism? If it shows by its actions that it doesn't care about honesty or truth, surely we should shout it from the rooftops and get support from the priesthood but instead people argue that believers can claim as real whatever fluff pops into their heads and we're supposed to treat this as something magical and special.

The only thing this double standard has achieved is to ossify prejudice, superstition and falsehoods while removing any mechanism for correcting mistakes.

And yes, science does follow a higher standard (well, any standard would be higher, but I digress). You keep saying this and implying that there is a lot of dogma and shady dealings going on. Either spill the beans and talk specifics or maybe just admit that science really does live up to this high standard, as much as any human endeavour can.

We can't explain love. We probably can't try to make a science of love. We can analyze brain functions with a CT-scan, but that still doesn't explain the feeling of love when you're in love.

Maybe you're onto something. You know, I guess we don't fully understand any emotions. Wow, this must mean something. Maybe, maybe God isn't love but God is, like, all emotions. God is jealousy, fear, rage, giddiness and vertigo. It's all clear now! Only religion can bring us love! And giddiness! And boredom and mild irritation and sleepiness. Praise God, I see the light!

Yeah or maybe emotions are governed by our body's chemicals and as such can go badly awry. If someone found they couldn't love their newborn child do you really believe that science would be powerless - she just has to accept it? I don't believe that for a second.


In addition to being a nonsensical emotional appeal is also looks like another attempt to find a gap to shove God into. There are plenty of things we don't have answers for. So what? Asking "why, why, why" is what kids do and surely only kids expect to get an answer to all of them. Lets stop and act like adults and recognize that we've learned a hell of a lot but we don't know everything. This isn't because God did it but because we've only been in the science biz for about 300 years and some questions are inherently difficult. Unanswered questions are magical or divine or spiritual, they're just unanswered questions.

BTW: Which physicist promoted paradoxes and what did he say? How has science dropped basic sceptical checks? That was in the OP and in your reply but you seem very coy in defending these claims.

Matt Dick said...

I wrote a large-ish response to all this and it didn't post and I couldn't retrieve what I'd written. I'll try again but in an abbreviated form.

So much of this debate boils down to something Steve said a few times in a few ways, that Tyro addressed, but maybe nor forcefully enough.

Steve said:

I do not see how it's possible that things could behave on the sub-micro level in a manner that is counter to everything we observe at the macro level.

Steve, you can't see it, it's not intuitive, in fact it can only really be described via metaphor because your brain didn't evolve or grow in a world that could see or experience things on those scales. We can see things about as small as a flea, to about as large as a mountain. We can see things move about as slowly as pouring molasses and about as fast as a hawk flying.

Those are two very thin slices of size and speed. As broad as they look to us, they don't even come close to the full spectrum of possibilities. What happens in scales vastly larger or smaller or faster than what we can see is so different that it's not even really that we can't understand the answers, it's more than even the way we ask the questions is inadequate.

Imagine a flea. A flea is about 3 million times smaller than Mount Everest (in length, not mass, I'm being lazy). Now imagine that a hydrogen atom (not even the smaller particles), is about 3 quadrillion times smaller than that flea.

Now imagine a baseball striking a baseball bat. The idea that the baseball could ever pass through the bat without contacting it is absurd. It wouldn't ever happen. In fact in any real sense it *can't* happen. It violates your well-formed heuristic about what happens here in the macro world.

Finally, imagine yourself quantum-sized, where you're smaller than even the hydrogen atom. You would say to a quantum-sized scientist, "Are you really telling me, that really big things just never pass through each other? I mean mostly they don't pass through each other?"

The tiny scientist would tell you, "It's not that they don't, it's that they *can't*. It's like when the nuclear force repels two items, but not just occasionally, but for *every* atom in a collection of atoms."

You would be incredulous because your intuition would have been shaped by having been in a world of the very tiny. In fact, you wouldn't really be able to discuss the macro world, because before you could even ask the question about the baseball and the bat, you'd first have to wrestle the concept of a "surface" and what a surface is, and why a ball or a bat has such a property. You'd have to result to metaphor to even try to get your mind around how a "material" behaves when it's probably wave vibrates at such a tiny level. To you, it would seem a violation of everything you knew intuitively that everything vibrates and has dualistic properties. You couldn't even ask the questions correctly.

Does that help even a little?

Matt Dick said...

That last should read "probability wave" not "probably wave". There are some other minor typos above, I'm apparently a terrible typist.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro, re the paradoxes: You're kidding me, right? Here's a citation that references a number of paradoxes:

http://tinyurl.com/28gbngf

And:
http://tinyurl.com/2676q84

I would say that Schrodinger's cat is itself a paradox. The wave/particle duality is a paradox (though not described as same by QM theorists). I might say that QM is one big paradox, but I'll reserve that judgment until I have a chance to study further.

RT: I'm saying that by the nature of things, it makes no sense to say to a priest, "But Catholicism defies logic!", because logic and Catholicism have nothing to do with one another. They are different systems. Religion is rooted in the rejection of logic. Science, though, shouldn't be. When science starts trading in articles of faith, then we have a problem.

Matt: I got a number of comments from you, all of which appear to be, in substance, the comment published here. I applaud you for your diligence.

Let me say for starters that it's not that I don't understand what QM is saying (except in the case of Tyro's ball illustration, which I literally could not follow). It's that I'm not buyin' it.

I don't think your analogy holds up, because in this case, we are being told that the "world of the very tiny" is the basis of the "world of the very large." They are not two separate things/societies, but rather, the first thing (tiny) is the substance of the second (large). Let me offer a rebuttal analogy that I think is more on-point: If everything at the micro level were vanilla, and all components of the micro level also, when combined, equaled vanilla...could the macro world possibly be chocolate? I don't think so. And yet that is, in a sense, the scenario we're being asked to accept.

I have long leaned toward the "hidden variables" camp, but as I say, I'm reserving judgment for now.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Lets stop and act like adults and recognize that we've learned a hell of a lot but we don't know everything."

Great idea, Tyro... so long as it's practiced - and arrogant dismissiveness is rejected - by both "sides" of the argument.

"This isn't because God did it but because we've only been in the science biz for about 300 years and some questions are inherently difficult."

To be blunt, you cannot support this statement with the same kind of empiric evidence you demand from believers, yet you proclaim it to be incontrovertible truth. You would have been much better off - and more credible - had you just stopped with the first sentence.

Few things are as annoying as the arrogance and dismissiveness that overshadow reason on both sides of many science vs. religion debates. You are free to believe that there is no such thing as divinity, just as others are entitled to believe there is. The trouble starts when one side demands that the other abandon their conclusions and thoroughly change their perspective. I cannot prove that there is a God, and won't try to force anyone to believe simply because I do. By the same token, for all it's precision and discipline, science cannot definitively prove that there isn't a god, and its devotees would do well recognize this fact and to be equally respectful.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Religion is rooted in the rejection of logic."

I can't buy this, Steve. While,most religions have historically been mechanisms for explaining the unfathomable, I would like to think that there is more of an inclination now for religion to seek a commonality between the sciences and the divine. IMO, physical and spiritual laws sprung from the same divine source, and are not so much separate entities as points on a shared continuum.

It is our challenge to find the pure logic in spirituality, as well as the absolute grace inherent in the laws that govern our existence. We aren't there yet, and I believe it is foolhardy to condemn each other when every one of us is searching for an elusive truth.

Tyro said...

Steve,

Both of these articles directly contradict your arguments. Both in fact talk about how issues which used to appear paradoxical were resolved or were illusions formed because the subatomic world contradicts our intuitions formed in the macro world. This is exactly what all QM physicists say and I've got to suspect that you didn't bother to even understand these articles, just fired blindly at the first things google returned.

Here's a quote from the first page of the first article which convinced me that you didn't even scan them to see what they said:

We call this body of theory quantum mechanics; and by now it has been verified in so many ways that its validity is virtually beyond question. At least as a paradigm for doing precise numerical calculations that can be tested experimentally, quantum mechanics is as accurate and unambiguous as any man made theory is ever likely to be.

This is your source, remember!

Your second source is actually a repetition of something I tried to explain earlier, about how Bell's Inequality showed that something Einstein thought was paradoxical (that quantum particles had hidden state) was proved wrong by Bell and others. If you couldn't follow my simplified analogy I don't believe you followed anything of this more technical article.

I would say that Schrodinger's cat is itself a paradox. The wave/particle duality is a paradox (though not described as same by QM theorists).

You keep saying this and you don't back it up so I'll go fast:

Schrodinger's Cat - this is a thought experiment meant to show how absurd QM would appear if it applied to macro objects. It doesn't apply to macro objects though and there's no paradox.

Wave-Particle Duality - 100 years ago some tests showed light acted like a wave, other tests showed it acted like a particle. In the 1920s we learned it was neither a wave nor a particle but something unlike anything in the macro world but with some properties reminiscent of waves and particles. This "paradox" was resolved 90 years ago and is a fundamental part of all QM. You say you understand QM (ha!) and you don't grasp this? It should be elementary.


Let me say for starters that it's not that I don't understand what QM is saying (except in the case of Tyro's ball illustration, which I literally could not follow). It's that I'm not buyin' it.

I would so like to believe that you do understand QM. Can you explain in your own words what "quanta" means and why it's used? Can you list three properties of the electron which are quantized? I don't really care - just say something which would let us know what you think you know.

I took you at your word and accepted that you understood some of QM but as time goes on I think this has been the source of our disagreements. You think you understand but I think you really understand very little yet are unaware of just how thin your knowledge really is. My knowledge may not be great but at least I know my limits and without that it's no wonder you think you're so much smarter and wiser than 100 years of physicists.

Tyro said...

Let me offer a rebuttal analogy that I think is more on-point: If everything at the micro level were vanilla, and all components of the micro level also, when combined, equaled vanilla...could the macro world possibly be chocolate?

The elements which make up the molecules in vanilla are the same elements which make up chocolate (and every other organic molecule). At the micro level all foods are the same yet with slightly different chemical bonds and slightly different ratios become very different at the macro level.

When we change scales, qualitatively different structures emerge and this example is only going down to the molecular and atomic level - the subatomic world is far stranger still.

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: Ok... If you're starting to suspect that I have absolutely no understanding of QM, I'm starting to suspect that you and I went to different schools of reading. I read the first piece, on paradoxes, quite closely, and I think it proves my point exquisitely. And it even further proves my point (though unintentionally) through its tissue-thin pronouncements every now and then that such-and-such is settled science.

I say again: The problem is not that I don't grasp the medium. The problem is that I don't buy the medium. (Another problem we have here is that you won't accept any rebuttal I give you that isn't stated in your terms, which would require that I buy into your medium, which I'm not prepared to do.) But give me a little time and I will come back to you either with a (qualified) mea culpa, or a more direct assertion of why I think a lot of this stuff is high-minded smoke-and-mirrors. Fair enough?

Steve Salerno said...

Tyro: You know, I have not done any of what you've done to me in the latter course of this debate. I have criticized your realm without attacking you personally or calling you ignorant. I am a reasonably intelligent adult and I am allowed to make up my own mind. I don't call you "stupid" because you subscribe to a realm that offers a contrived menu of 10 possible cosmic beginnings (as per Michael Shermer's recent column: http://tinyurl.com/287cwbt) rather than settling on what many people consider the one "obvious" explanation: God. (For the record, I'm not sure I believe that. And I'm not sure I disbelieve that.) I don't try to force-fit explanations, claiming for the sake of debating points that something is settled science, when in fact there remains significant disagreement even among the top dogs of the realm. I don't imply that you're mentally defective somehow for reading the same materials I read and coming away with a somewhat different interpretation (or for failing to see the "meta-interpretation" that I see in the strained attempts to reconcile what cannot be reconciled.)

Again, I'll be back to you in a week or two.

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps you're just sitting in Sheldon's spot, Steve. Bazinga! :-)

Tyro said...

@Steve

What do you mean by "paradox" in this context? How do you spot one?

I think "paradox" means that the theory/method/premises/axioms result in to mutually incompatible conclusions or some fundamental inconsistency. That would be fatal to any theory.

There are nothing like this in QM, there are just apparent paradoxes, illusions which arise when we naively apply our macro intuitions to the quantum world. Both of your sources make this point, both show how apparent paradoxes are resolved without any incompatibility.

through its tissue-thin pronouncements every now and then that such-and-such is settled science.

I don't get this at all. It's your expert source that you picked to support your claims and yet you act like we should disbelieve everything it says. What gives?

If you'd already shown that QM was a pack of hooey then sure, lets go on to ask why they're defending it. But QM isn't tissue-thin, it is the most precise, most well supported theory of all time in any discipline, ever. There's an incompatibility between gravity and QM and guess what, virtually all physicists think that it's gravity which must change, not QM!

But give me a little time and I will come back to you either with a (qualified) mea culpa, or a more direct assertion of why I think a lot of this stuff is high-minded smoke-and-mirrors. Fair enough?

Sounds great.

It'd be interesting to hear if you have any ideas on what could convince you that these theories are right.

I have criticized your realm without attacking you personally or calling you ignorant.

We're both ignorant of most of QM, that's just a fact and not an attack. It would be laughable if either of us claimed different unless we had some fancy degrees to back it up. For the moment I've got a tiny leg up on you, perhaps only because I recognize how much broad the field really is and you seem to think it is closer to some notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin in an LSD fugue than an empirical science. There are many things to get upset about but ignorance isn't one of them.

I don't call you "stupid" because you subscribe to a realm that offers a contrived menu of 10 possible cosmic beginnings

No one has called anyone stupid - you're putting words in my mouth.

As for Shermer's article - I don't subscribe to any dogma, least of all Shermer's. He's not a scientists and can say some very silly, gullible, uninformed things. Besides, you've left plenty of dangling, unsupported accusations without adding more so why don't we just deal with what we've served. If you want to attack Shermer at a later date, I may jump on the bandwagon, who knows :)

Tyro said...

@ron

"This isn't because God did it but because we've only been in the science biz for about 300 years and some questions are inherently difficult."

To be blunt, you cannot support this statement with the same kind of empiric evidence you demand from believers, yet you proclaim it to be incontrovertible truth.


What can't I support? The scientific revolution is only about 300 years old, I'd think that wasn't heavily contested. And I think that it's also pretty well accepted that some questions are very difficult - insanely complex chemical and biological systems like the brain for one.

Some people act like the mere fact that we don't know something yet means that God did it. I think this is ridiculous, what do you think?

Perhaps God does exist and did do some things but there's no way anyone but a professional apologist would argue that not knowing is sufficient to say that God did it.

The trouble starts when one side demands that the other abandon their conclusions and thoroughly change their perspective.

How exactly are atheists today demanding or forcing people to change their mind? Perhaps you're confusing writing persuasive books and editorials with a demand or a force. If atheists were acting like even modern theocracies and imprisoning people, lashing their skin off, or stoning them to death for blasphemy then maybe you've got a point but sadly no, not even the Hitch is proposing anything other than vibrant debate.

By the same token, for all it's precision and discipline, science cannot definitively prove that there isn't a god, and its devotees would do well recognize this fact and to be equally respectful.

We can't strictly prove anything at all. So what? This isn't an argument for believing whatever pops into your head.

You're right, people *do* believe, atheists do respect their rights and freedoms and have spoken out when their rights are infringed. What I don't accept is that anyone should reflexively respect an idea.

I don't think you believe your own argument. Tell me, what do you respect more: freedom of speech and thought or the protection of religious ideas?

RevRon's Rants said...

"there's no way anyone but a professional apologist would argue that not knowing is sufficient to say that God did it."

"Neither could anyone who claims to rely upon empiric evidence state with anything resembling credibility that "This isn't because God did it..." Perhaps substituting, "I don't think that God did this..." would indicate at least a degree of humility to offset the hubris. And if you're going to challenge what I say, please at least be accurate in your characterizations. My belief - like most people's - is not dependent upon "not knowing."

I am no professional apologist. Neither am I so arrogant as to dismiss another's beliefs outright when I have no basis for my assumption other than... my assumption.

"I don't think you believe your own argument." Do you think that should concern me? It does not. My "argument" is simply an entreaty to allow that others' ideas just might have some validity, even (or especially) if they do not mirror your own.

"Tell me, what do you respect more: freedom of speech and thought or the protection of religious ideas?"

I respect the freedom of thought, speech, and belief so much that I'm willing to defend another's right to express their religious ideas without being belittled by an arrogant boor who insists upon capitulation to *his* religious ideas. And whether you realize it or not, your willingness to browbeat others and question their reasoning abilities in the attempt to inflict your "rightness" is consistent with the behaviors of the worst religious fundamentalists.

He's all yours, Steve. Though it's been fun, I've no more time to waste.

Matt Dick said...

The wave/particle duality is a paradox (though not described as same by QM theorists).

No, it's not. Perhaps this is another fundamental issue with this debate. If photons *were* waves and particles then there would be a paradox. But they aren't both. Just like an elephant isn't a snake and a tree trunk. It's an elephant.

A photon is a thing. It's a thing that isn't in one place going a particular speed. It's a smear of potentiality across a limited space and along a limited time. If we could experience it clearly we'd understand that it's not a tree and not a snake, but something that can seem like either one, depending on our way of observing it.

*If* the tiny world behaved like the macro world, the way a photon behaves would be a paradox. As it is, the tiny world does not behave that way, and the photon is neither a wave nor a particle, but something else entirely, that we only partly understand how to observer.

Not a paradox.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: It seems to me, again, that QM has long been in the business of expressing uncertainty in the form of esoterica, creating elaborate labels for perplexing and unexpected phenomena when in fact the proper answer to questions about those phenomena should be, "We really don't know." However, if you, like Tyro, will permit me to investigate this further, and will agree to sustain your interest in this topic (and your patience with me) long enough to wait for that moment, I will come back with a final position on all this. IN NO WAY am I implying that my "final position" should be interpreted as THE final position on QM or physics or any of it! I'm simply saying that I will invest some time in reading and reflection and return to this topic and tell you how I then feel, if you still care. Fair enough?

Matt Dick said...

I'm more than happy to revisit this later. Thanks for being willing to stay engaged.

Dimension Skipper said...

Science fiction site io9 does these "Ask a physicist" columns and today's happens to be...

What the hell is spin?

I read it, but I don't understand it. Then again I didn't understand anything of what was being said in this thread here either, so I thought I'd post the link anyway in case better minds than mine can make any sense of it.

For the record, science fiction is 99% of what I've read in my lifetime. Doesn't mean I understand the science, though. Guess I mainly enjoy the fiction aspect. The "science" is often just so much technobabble.

I also loved math and got A's and A+'s for the most part at all levels until I hit ordinary differential equations in college and it stopped being fun. (I still got B's, but it just wasn't enjoyable anymore.) I pretty much remember squat now.

Even at lower math levels, though, I admit I never got the concept of imaginary numbers either. That always equated in my mind to "just making stuff up to fit."

Dimension Skipper said...

Actually, the wiki page I linked to for "imaginary numbers" was for "imaginary unit," but apparently they're closely related. Here's the imaginary numbers wiki.

"The name 'imaginary number' was originally coined in the seventeenth century as a derogatory term as such numbers were regarded by some as fictitious or useless, but..."

. . . .

"...imaginary numbers have essential concrete applications in a variety of scientific and related areas such as signal processing, control theory, electromagnetism, fluid dynamics, quantum mechanics, cartography, and vibration analysis.

"In electrical engineering, for example, the voltage produced by a battery is characterized by one real number called potential (e.g +12 volts or –12 volts), but the alternating current (AC) voltage in a home requires two parameters—potential and an angle called phase. The AC voltage is, therefore, said to have two dimensions. A two dimensional quantity can be represented mathematically as either a vector or as a complex number (known in the engineering context as phasor). In the vector representation, the rectangular coordinates are typically referred to simply as X and Y. But in the complex number representation, the same components are referred to as real and imaginary. When the complex number is purely imaginary, such as a real part of 0 and an imaginary part of 120, it means the voltage has a potential of 120 volts and a phase of 90°, which is physically very real.
"


OK. If they say so. Now I don't think I believe in electricity anymore.

Tyro said...

@Ron,

Perhaps substituting, "I don't think that God did this..." would indicate at least a degree of humility to offset the hubris

I think you're misreading me. I wasn't saying that God definitely didn't do this or that, I said that the mere fact that we don't know something is not sufficient grounds to say that God definitely did do it. When we don't know something, then we don't know it. Period. That seems as banal a statement of logical fact as any other and, as I said, will be accepted by anyone with any training in logic.

The alternative is madness. God really did create the thunder and lightning and when we discover a natural explanation then God stops. God really did create the Earth from the void but when we discovered the solar system coalesced from the dust of a supernova, then what, the history of the Earth changed and God really didn't do it? When we don't know how something happened, we should say so. When we finally have some evidence to show that God did do something, then we can make the claim and expect it to stand up. Otherwise we look like fools, always crying "God did it" whenever something surprising happens only to get shown to be wrong later.

And whether you realize it or not, your willingness to browbeat others and question their reasoning abilities in the attempt to inflict your "rightness" is consistent with the behaviors of the worst religious fundamentalists.

LOL! If the worst that fundies did was to ask impertinent questions and defend their opinions in print I think few people would be bothered. In fact, if they made a nuisance out of themselves by demanding evidence before accepting claims we wouldn't have any fundies left. Instead, I suspect that it has actually been the legalizing of their morality onto others, forcing their religion into the schools, or physically punishing those who do not subscribe to their religion which is the real problem with fundamentalists.

But, you know, maybe you aren't as bothered by that.

Dimension Skipper said...

Of course, there's always Arthur C. Clarke to fall back on...

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

Tyro said...

Science fiction site io9 does these "Ask a physicist" columns and today's happens to be...

What the hell is spin?

I read it, but I don't understand it.


LOL, no kidding.

As Richard Feynman said, "I think I can safely say that nobody understands Quantum Mechanics". You might know the equations and what they predict but what's actually going on? Fugedaboutit.

Steve Salerno said...

Now you say this!?!

Matt Dick said...

It's not a retraction or inconsistent, Steve, knowing *why* gravity does what it does is something we don't know. But we do know very, very, very precisely how things accelerate and what mass does to make that happen. Same with Quantum, but ever so much more so.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: I'm trying to defer getting back into this. I was just playing off Tyro's last remark in, well, a playful manner. However, I don't agree with you that knowing the "what" without knowing the "why" quite cuts it. If I stood in front of you and tossed a coin and it landed heads 8 straight times, which is unlikely but possible, you might easily conclude--having never before seen a coin toss--that "coins always land heads." Or Fleming might have concluded that something other than the penicillin mold killed the staph colonies.

The lack of the "why" is what causes all the revisionism, wherein waves become particles, and then wave-particles, and then quantum packets, and then...?

Matt Dick said...

True enough Steve, but in a sense, you've hit the nail on the head. Science can't tell you what's true. It can only tell you what's false, and by inference, what's likely to be true.

So if you flipped that coin eight times and it always came up heads, what we'd conclude, preliminarily, is that coins definitely sometimes land heads, and that it it might be true that they always land heads.

If you flipped it 100 times and it was heads 100 times, we might conclude that it is very, very likely that coins always land heads up. We'd be wrong, we'd just be in a very unlikely situation--that the first 100 times we flipped a coin we hit a random sequence of 100 heads in a row.

If we flipped the coin ten million times and it always landed heads, it would be a denial of reality to conclude that coins ever land anything other than heads up. We *could* be wrong--science cannot tell you what is true--but the most likely scenario is that we're not wrong, because the hypothesis that coins always land heads up had been true so often that we *should* consider it a law.

The hypothesis that photons are some kind of thing that behaves like a wave and a particle but are neither has been tested so thoroughly that we *should* consider it to be true.

But I need to stop now, because you've agreed to go read up on it, and I'm not as good a science educator as any number of writers on the subject.

Tyro said...

The lack of the "why" is what causes all the revisionism, wherein waves become particles, and then wave-particles, and then quantum packets, and then...?

I wish I understood why you have such a problem with this. It was a period of over 30 years when researchers kept coming up with new, interesting and seemingly contradictory discoveries. In the late 1800s it was well known that light formed interference patterns just like waves but in the early 1900s, Einstein's work on the photo-electric effect showed that light would always arrive in discrete packets like particles. Big confusion, what did it all mean? By the 1920s and 30s, the work of Einstein, Plank and Heisenberg showed conclusively that light was a new form of matter. It had some properties of waves, some of particles but wasn't either a wave or a particle but something else entirely, call it a quantum particle if you like.

Now this seems to evoke hostility, derision or frustration in you but seriously, how could things have played out any different? It's history, what's done is done, our understanding hasn't changed substantially in 90 years so maybe it's about time to stop acting like this is still in flux and that this is all the fault of a bunch of physicists too stupid to see what's plainly obvious to you.

As for answering "why" or "what" questions, Matt raised a good point with gravity - questions about fundamental forces can not be answered in terms of something simpler, by definition. With biology we can answer in terms of chemistry, chemistry in terms of atomic physics, atomic physics in terms of quantum mechanics but the ride ends there - we're down to the level of elementary particles, the fundamental building blocks of nature. A photon or electron isn't made up of anything smaller (let's leave M-theory aside) so asking how or why they do what they do just doesn't have an answer.

Steve Salerno said...

OK fellas. A temporary truce, in honor of the holiday? We'll adjourn to a later date/venue.

Dimension Skipper said...

I think today's SMBC, by Zach Weiner, pretty much sums up this whole debate.

The pop-up "after" panel (which you can also view by hovering your mouse pointer over the red button under the comic on the official page) provides the real kicker...

;-)

Steve Salerno said...

That is absolutely hilarious.

Jenny said...

The main issue I take with all of this is that people are the ones who speak on behalf of both science and religion, neither of which has a voice of its own. This is why the conversations seem to break down when people attempt to place themselves in one "camp" or another, religionist or scientist. Ideas are not people. Science and religion don't have personalities and no individual or group can truly claim either domain as his or her or their own.

Another thought: When I asked my husband (a scientist) about the notion that "the scientific revolution is only about 300 years old," his response was that science is as old as survival. I know "science" and "scientific revolution" are not the same thing, but still, it makes sense to me that science started when survival became necessary.

Just another .02 tossed into the fray!

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, those are very wise observations, and highly on-point, from where I sit. For some reason we all "get" that the human factor plays havoc with religion, but we don't seem quite so self-aware when it comes to science, or the interpretation of same.

Tyro said...

When I asked my husband (a scientist) about the notion that "the scientific revolution is only about 300 years old," his response was that science is as old as survival. I know "science" and "scientific revolution" are not the same thing, but still, it makes sense to me that science started when survival became necessary.

I don't know your husband but what we recognize as science is relatively new and upset many people so I've got to disagree. For most of our past, humans were superstitious, revered authority, and had little respect for (or knowledge of) scepticism and open inquiry, least of all evidence. This works well enough for survival but is not scientific.

One of the earliest examples of someone that tried to act empirically ends up showing how unscientific people have been. Galen tried to conduct empirical studies of human anatomy and did a good job considering the conditions however he leapt to many unsupportable conclusions and because he became an authority, no one dared challenge his conclusions for almost 2,000 years. This is directly opposed to many scientific principles that we accept today.

When the first natural philosophers started to lay down the scientific principles in the mid 1500s, people finally began to question (and ultimately overthrow) the ideas of the Greeks. If people had been scientific all this time, there would be no need for this shift and the bad ideas wouldn't have persisted for 2,000 years based on "authority".

The main issue I take with all of this is that people are the ones who speak on behalf of both science and religion, neither of which has a voice of its own.

That's true and I cringe a bit whenever I write it but it's hard enough talking about the concepts and conclusions of different studies without adopting some shorthand. That's an especially big issue when trying to squeeze everything into 4096 characters or less!

Can you suggest a solution?

My guess is that, despite claims to the contrary, the problems people have with modern scientific theories isn't with the theory, the evidence, the math or the consensus which are excellent, but with the popular science writing which is often terrible. If you can suggest any ways to communicate better, I'm all ears.

Anonymous said...

Thank God, I didn't buy your book. You haven't an iota of an inkling about scientific methods. I was actually looking forward to reading SHAM. I have been looking for a good book that systematically dismantles the the self-help industry. Reading the responses here, I am pretty sure you have no ability to do that.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:13, well, in fairness to me, you probably ought to read a bit more of the blog before forming that conclusion--there are numerous invocations and defenses of the scientific method on SHAMblog. But hey, we can't please everyone. I do think it's a mistake to regard atheism (or at least the rejection of religion/"genesis") as a marker for intelligence (as many do), and I get a slight whiff of that attitude in your comment. Then again, maybe I'm being overly sensitive. Sniffle.

On the bright side: "an iota of an inkling." I like it!

Tyro said...

@anon - as you might guess, Steve & I disagree on his approach to science and I'm happy to express this so believe me when I tell you that "SHAM" is an exceptional, memorable book. If you are determined to not buy it, at least do yourself the favour of getting it from the library. You won't regret it and if you're anything like me, you'll recommend it loudly to your friends and family.

Unlike the Chopra malarky, Steve's insights do not cite quantum mechanics!

Matt Dick said...

Anon 3:13 (like the bible verse), SHAM was a well-reasoned, finely-written take-down of the self-help industry. I agree with you that Steve is just dead wrong in not seeing quantum mechanics for the foundational science that it is, but don't jump to conclusions--his work in SHAM stands on its own.

You shouldn't confine yourself to reading/learning from only those group of people who share your every understanding already.

Steve Salerno said...

I want to post a note of gratitude to those who've rallied to my defense (as well as those who may--or may not--defend me henceforth). This would probably be a good place to make clear that I never intended to argue that QM is "wrong." All I was ever trying to say was that it didn't add up for me--and it frankly didn't sound that much more "scientific" than Genesis itself. So I'm not so much denying the scientific method as questioning whether it was correctly applied, and whether the proper inferences have been drawn, in the case of QM.

I will concede that during the course of that (this) whole debate, I probably have been snarkier and more off-the-cuff than I should have been--sort of like Bill Maher, last night on Anderson Cooper, when he denounced the entire NRA as the "National Assassins Association." (I'd like to see more gun control, too, but that was over the top, and doesn't help when you're trying to reach consensus.) But look, that kind of stuff tends to happen in the course of animated, on-the-fly discussions. I try to guard against it; I'm not always successful. None of us is.

Though I'm put in the position of moderating the comments of others, there's no question there are times when I could use a moderator myself.