Monday, May 28, 2012

From nothing to something to nothing

Why is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun and the distance from Earth to Mars between 34 and 250 million miles? Questions like these, that seek the underlying purpose, are the sort of questions that theology falsely claims to answer. Such questions assume that there is a purpose behind everything and then assume that we can discern that purpose. But this flies in the face of all of the empirical evidence that there is no such purpose associated with everything and that, in any case, we have no way to discern any such purpose.

And so it is also with one of the favorite question of theists: Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no human focused, purpose based, explanation since humans are not the goal, and purpose is not the essential, or foundational, property of reality. So as long theists keep falsely insisting, a-priori, and contrary to the evidence we have, that the only "satisfactory" answers to the "why" questions must provide ultimate purpose from a human-centric perspective, they will continue to give priority to their own make-believe version of reality over the evidence.

We can fruitfully address the related "how" questions, such as what physical processes led to the Earth ending up in its present position. Most of theology, with it's insistence on finding the imaginary holy grail of the ultimate purpose, is non-productive. Unlike science, theology never has produced, and we have every reason to think cannot, and therefore never will produce, any knowledge.

Lawrence M. Krauss, in his new book, "A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing", advocates for the productive, empirical evidence first, skepticism based approach of science to resolve the mysteries of origins. He summarizes what we know, including what we know we don't know, about the origin of our universe, and he also discusses the possibility that there are mysteries about origins that we will never be able answer.

There is no way around the fact that the laws of physics are counter-intuitive and can only be understood by people who spend years learning the mathematics and studying the subject. So, for example, it turns out that empty space has gravitationally repulsive energy "... because it causes empty space to have "negative" pressure. As a result of this negative pressure, the universe actually does work on empty space as it expands". The end result is an initial period of inflation, after which "... one ends up with a universe full of stuff (matter and radiation), and the total Newtonian gravitational energy of that stuff will be as close as one can ever imagine to zero". Starting with "an infinitesimally small region of empty space" with a vacuum energy, we end up with an arbitrarily large and flat universe, without costing any energy. Our best measurements of our universe's curvature favor the conclusion that our universe is flat, exactly as predicated for a universe born from a tiny empty space.

The book has 11 chapters plus an epilogue. In chapter 9 he states: "Just as Darwin, albeit reluctantly, removed the need for divine intervention in the evolution of the modern world, teeming with diverse life throughout the planet ..., our current understanding of the universe, it's past, and it's future make it more plausible that "something" can arise out of nothing without the need for any divine guidance." But so far we have assumed a starting point of an infinitesimally tiny empty space. Where did that tiny empty space come from?

It turns out that everything happens that is not forbidden by the laws of physics. And according to the laws of physics, nothingness is an unstable condition, nothing always produces something. Not only can nothing become something, it is required to, but in a way that balances negative and positive energy so that they sum to zero.

At this point we encounter several of the big unresolved mysteries of cosmology. One question is what generated the asymmetry between matter and anti-matter? Dr. Krauss emphasizes that "independent of this uncertainty [regarding how our universe became dominated by matter], however, is the remarkable fact that a feature of the underlying laws of physics can allow quantum process to drive the universe away from a featureless state".

Another unresolved question is whether or not "small, possibly compact spaces ... themselves pop in and out existence?" And here Dr. Krauss follows the general principle that anything "not proscribed by the laws of physics must actually happen...". Citing Stephen Hawking, Dr. Krauss says "a quantum theory of gravity [which we currently do not have] allows for the creation, albeit perhaps momentarily, of space itself where none existed before." Furthermore, "a compact universe with zero total energy" could spontaneously appear and remain for a long time, without violating the Uncertainty Principle (a basic principle of quantum mechanics).

This suggests that our universe not only has total Newtonian gravitational energy of zero, and is therefore geometrically flat, but also has total energy, including the mass energy (e=mc2), of zero, and therefore our universe was initially geometrically closed. In other words, an initially tiny, closed universe can pop into existence, rapidly and exponentially expand (inflate) into an infinitely large flat universe, spontaneously, with impunity, carrying no net energy.

It is said that "out of nothing nothing comes". This has no foundation in science. Instead, the laws of physics imply there is a multiverse, with the other universes existing either in extra dimensions or in a context of eternal inflation within three dimensional space [the existence of extra dimensions is another unresolved question of cosmology]. The laws of nature in each universe may be set stochastically and randomly. It is even possible that there is no fundamental theory. It could be that "there is something simply because, if there was nothing, we wouldn't find ourselves living here." The question why is there something rather than nothing "... may be no more significant or profound than asking why some flowers are red and some are blue."

It may be that in the multiverse there are an infinite set of different laws of nature, or there may be a very restricted combination of laws that results in viable universes. Lawrence Krauss has clearly given considerable thought to the subject of origins, and he makes winning and important arguments on behalf of the conclusion in his epilogue that "I find oddly satisfying the conclusion that, in either scenario [infinite or restricted set of laws of nature], a seemingly omnipotent God would have no freedom in the creation of our universe. No doubt because it further suggests that God is unnecessary - or at best redundant."

This book received a strongly negative review in the NY Times. Having read the book, I can say that that negative book review was unfair. This is a very good book.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Aerodynamics? No, I don't have enough faith

Dr C. Destum gives us: "Ultimately, if you accept the aerodynamic lift theory, you dismiss accountability, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes." Adding that if you accept aerodynamic lift theory, "you have no reason for things such as good behavior".

Sitting in his study with mechanical engineer C. Destum (CD), the United Nations liaison for the One-Week Departurist Church (DC) engaged him in conversation, and the discussion turned to the subject of aerodynamics and accountability. As they faced each other between the erudite tomes on the bookcase and the modern technological equipment on the desk, it felt appropriate to think about our incentives and airborne transportation.

C. Destum: Like this computer: If you came into this room and saw the computer, you wouldn't think it had just planted itself here. It didn't arrive here by random events.

DC: So why do so many people prefer to believe in the undeserved distribution of goods? Or to put it another way, Why is the matter of aerodynamic lift so important?

CD: It comes down to a matter of property ownership. Who distributes the property, who deserves the property, who is given ownership of the property? Those who believe in aerodynamic lift, and in a naturalistic explanation of the universe, ultimately see themselves as self-distributers -- as the creator and ultimate source of the distribution of goods. In this way they answer to nothing and nobody, for there is nothing higher than themselves.

DC: How does this happen? What are the consequences of accepting aerodynamic lift views of accountability? How does this affect society and the way we see ourselves?

CD: By believing that wealth is a product of random acts, we eliminate accountability and the basis of ethical behavior. For if there is no such thing as accountability, you can do anything you want. You make everything relative, and there's no reason for any of our higher values.

DC: If we are all the owners of property by chance, the random assortment of atoms, living in a deterministic universe that is simply the consequence of physical interactions, doesn't it all seem so futile?

CD: Yes, in my education I had to learn aeordynamical theories, and as a God-fearing Christian I wondered how to make God and aerodynamics mesh. The truth is that you can't make them mesh--you have to choose one or the other.

DC: Too many Christians have given up too much to "science," conceding not just the observed data but the anti-God interpretations. Are you often questioned about being both a logical engineer and a Christian?

CD: Yes, my answer is that the more you understand science, the less you can believe all this is an accident! Just look at the unbreakable antler, with its vascular skin providing oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone, until it is fully grown, and the velvet is lost, and the bone dies, the antler falls off, and the process repeats every year.

DC: Unbreakable? This does not seem to be a correct portrayal of some antlers at least! Antlers have been known to break.

CD: Put a probe on the antlers of an 18 year old reindeer, and those antlers are just as strong as his first antlers. Reindeers have died of old age without breaking any of their antlers. This is a highly complex and sophisticated organ. Not a likely result of chance processes.

DC: Not even by slow degrees?

CD: Even if you allow the distribution of a single millimeter of bone. And a single millimeter of bone is amazingly important -- every millimeter of antler can be the difference between success and failure in finding a mate.... Plus, we give aerodynamicists too much if we start with a millimeter of bone. Try starting with a single cell of bone.

DC: But just supposing that one cell wasn't God's reward for good behavior?

CD: Even if you accept aerodynamic lift theory, requiring an increase in the speed of the fluid occurring simultaneously with a decrease in pressure or a decrease in the fluid's potential energy, then there should be a best shape for flying. And why does flying occur with so many shapes -- birds, insects, bats, planes, helicopters, balloons, kites -- if there is some principle that reindeers cannot fly? Why isn't everything a hummingbird - superior hummingbirds? Daniel Bernoulli specifically stated that his theory hung on the the principle of conservation of energy, and was sure that we would find that energy was conserved.

Also, there's the whole subject of the Big Bang, the idea that something came from nothing. If energy was conserved, how could we get all the energy from nothing at the moment of creation?

DC: Would so many scientists who disagree with your views be a concern to you? After all, 99 percent may say you're wrong!

CD: Before Bernoulli most scientists were Christian. Even Bernoulli was brought up a Christian, but he became embittered. He set out to prove another explanation for the distribution of property ownership. I have to give the man credit -- he was a powerful measurer. He found a way to measure blood-pressure and published a book about the measurement of risk. He worked with Euler on measuring elasticity. He concluded that vaccination was efficacious based on measurements of outcomes. He was right that vaccinated people did better - the doctors prayed for their patients.

DC: A few closing thoughts?

CD: Ultimately, if you accept the aerodynamic lift theory, you dismiss accountability, you don't have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own wealth accumulation based on your own desires. You have no reason for things such as good behavior, when children help out with chores - without being asked!! You can trash Santa Claus as irrelevant, just silly fables, since you believe that it does not conform to scientific thought. You can be like Lucifer, who said, "I will make myself like the Most High."

Can you prove aerodynamics? No. Can you prove flying reindeer? No. Can you use the intellect God has given you to decide whether something is logical or illogical? Yes, absolutely. It all comes down to "faith"--and I don't have enough to believe in aerodynamics. I'm too logical!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

About tactics and framing

People learn about secular humanism and atheism from their family, local clerics, national clerics, their neighbors, various commercial sources of information, and the like.  In a religious society such as ours the portrayals from such sources will tend to be negative.  People are also taught to adopt a closed, circular mode of belief, where faith in the religious based beliefs is considered to be a high value, where related sets of religious based beliefs are characterized as being true because they are deemed to be necessary for human morality or for an eternal after-life, where self-identity and purpose are deemed to be products of the beliefs. These sets of self-justifying beliefs and negative misunderstandings of the people who reject the beliefs, including its theistic underpinnings, are what I have in mind when I refer to prejudices.

So it shouldn't be surprising that when psychologists examine people's reactions to criticisms of their religious beliefs it is found many people react negatively.  Good people, with the best of intentions, fear losing their beliefs and fear those who don't share their beliefs.    There is an argument that we should avoid arousing these defense mechanisms when communicating to the public. It is argued that we should avoid the topics that promote anxiety, that arouse suspicions, prejudices, disgust, feelings of being under attack. In this view, the new atheists have it all wrong, their plain and direct discussion of taboo subjects, including their rejection of theism, is too radical for the public and counter-productive.   I consider this conclusion to be mistaken and I am going to try explain why here.

There is another way of looking at this psychology.   When trying to treat a phobia, psychologists have concluded that it is usually best to adopt two elements:  1. exposure to the feared situation/object and 2. dealing with the frightening thoughts that are associated with the anxiety.  Prejudice has some of the characteristics of phobia and it is reasonable to think that, at least for adults, exposure to the contexts that arouse the prejudice is often going to part of any process that defeats the prejudice.

Furthermore, prejudice against secular humanism, and against atheism, is a substantial obstacle to promoting more secular government. People who associate only negative concepts to what it means to not share their religious beliefs, including their monotheism, are going to be inclined to judge as bad the policies that they think conflict with those religious beliefs, such as teaching modern knowledge in public schools that describes our universe as functioning without divine intervention. It would be nice if we could frame the policy disputes to hide the conflicts with religious doctrines so that people's prejudices against the non-religious are not aroused.  But even if we could do that, as long as the prejudices against the non-religious persist, secularists will be forever operating in a fire department mode. Furthermore, there are constraints against not arousing the prejudices, such as the opposing institutions that are committed to fighting secularism and inciting against secularism. The prejudices against the non-religious keep igniting and re-igniting the efforts against secular government. This problem is alleviated some by the presence of many liberal religionists within the ranks of secularists, but it is still a problem.

So I think it is a mistake to only focus on the "important" policy issues and to avoid addressing the underlying thinking that constitute the prejudices against the non-religious.  Furthermore, there is no way to do this effectively without confronting those prejudices and thus arousing them.  But instead of being counter-productive, this is actually a necessary step to making progress over the longer term.   It would be nice if we could dissolve, or even just attenuate, the prejudices while avoiding confronting the prejudices without the risk of arousing the prejudices.  But tip-toeing around the tulips isn't a good approach here, it has little chance of being effective.

In my view the "new atheists" are right, we need straight talk that communicates honestly and directly why we don't have, and don't want to have, religious beliefs, or any beliefs more generally that fail to comport with how the world functions.  This is not a negative message, it is more of a mixed message.  It is a message that we are vulnerable to fooling ourselves but also that we can anchor our beliefs so as to more reliably match how the world functions than we do when we follow our imaginations, intuitions, biases, feelings, and historical, tribal, myths.

We don't need to convert many people away from religion to make significant progress.  But we do need to melt away some of that closed-minded over-confidence (or maybe it is as symptom of lack of self-confidence?) by exposing more people to the different, and for many people alien, perspectives of non-theists.  Philosophical naturalists have good arguments and strong justifications for our belief that there is no supernatural realm.  Good enough to make our perspective sufficiently competitive in the minds of more of the public to undermine our isolation.  And that is all we need to achieve.  To get there we have to be willing to express strong convictions while being nuanced, to be judgmental and principled without being harsh, and to be persistent.  But we can't do this if we fear offending people who are too easily offended and if we value avoiding conflict over taking risks to achieve longer term objectives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Avoiding conflict is not a primary value

The argument goes something like this: Many people, as a result of evolution, have a genetic predisposition to dogmatically hold onto their existing beliefs, to fear any challenge to their beliefs, to fight against any challenge to their beliefs, to acquire their beliefs for reasons that fail to properly justify the believers conviction that the beliefs are true. This is particularly true of conservatives who hold conservative beliefs. Therefore, liberals shouldn't challenge mistaken conservative beliefs because challenging conservative people's beliefs can only be counterproductive given the innate, genetic psychology of conservatives.

Let's say that historically everyone followed that advice. Then we would have no women's suffrage movement, because that movement upset many conservative people (including some conservative females) who strongly believed that females were insufficiently competent to vote. Then we would have no movement to protect the rights of workers to form unions and strike, because many conservative people (including some conservative wage workers) strongly believed that striking workers and unions were irresponsible and dangerous. And on and on. Every liberal movement against the status quo was supposedly destined to fail because by challenging the status quo such movements only anger biologically intransigent conservatives and are therefore counter-productive. Psychology and sociology scientifically demonstrate liberalism is futile and counter-productive, so don't even try, liberals should surrender and keep silent.

Absolutely, let's try to be reasonable and friendly and nice. But don't try to argue that psychology and sociology shows that liberals shouldn't voice their disagreements with conservatives. The fact is that public opinion does change. It does not change easily. It takes time and it takes effort. Change begins with a few people expressing unpopular truths. Anyone who thinks that popular and mistaken beliefs are going to change without argument, without debate, and without any of the conflict, risks, and inconveniences that this entails, isn't being real. Our civic responsibility is not to avoid upsetting people, our civic responsibility is not to express only agreement with majority opinion, our civic responsibility is not to be uninvolved, third party, objective, non-judgemental, observers. Our civic responsibility is to properly identify and favor the beliefs, policies, and laws that are better on the merits.

When we say we believe something exists we are making a claim about what is true or false. So merit in the context of belief isn't measured by how good it feels to have the belief, or by whether the belief expresses tendencies that were favored by evolution, or by tribal utility, or by anything other than whether the belief is more likely to be true than competing beliefs. Furthermore, the only method we have that we have any good reasons to conclude succeeds in justifying belief is best fit with the weight and direction of the overall available empirical evidence.

Being judgmental is an essential foundation for merit and ethics, and a refusal to be judgmental, an insistence that all epistimologies have equal merit, that beliefs are styles, that everything anyone believes is a product of evolution and therefore equally valid, that merit of beliefs is measured by its other effects, not by its veracity, is to sacrifice merit as the measure of belief justification. You are free to take that path if you want, but if you are someone who expects other people to adopt such an outlook, think again, that isn't a reasonable expectation. People are not going to stop arguing for what they believe is correct on the merits because other people are intolerant and react negatively. If you want people to stop arguing for their beliefs then you need to convince them to change their beliefs. Convincing me that people are intolerant of atheism isn't going to convince me to stop publicly arguing for atheism. On the contrary, the evidence that many people are intolerant of atheism refutes the argument that this is a trivial disagreement so we should focus on the other more important issues instead. I have said this before and I will keep saying it: If people were not so intolerant and fearful of atheism then fewer of the policy issues that secular humanists agree are important would be in dispute. The opposition to secularism is fed in part by intolerance and fear of atheism, so by confronting and challenging that fear and intolerance we are also promoting secularism more generally.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sean Carroll on Naturalism

A ten minute video defense of philosophical naturalism. Sean Carroll, for those who do not know, is a theoretical physicist/cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology.

Colorado Day of Prayer ruled illegal

Today the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against the state's Day of Prayer. They concluded that "the six Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations at issue here are governmental conduct that violates the Preference Clause" of the Colorado constitution. "We reach that conclusion because the purpose of these particular proclamations is to express the Governor’s support for their content; their content is predominantly religious; they lack a secular context; and their effect is government endorsement of religion as preferred over non religion". The judges correctly observe that “religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer" and 'an individual’s right to choose his or her religion “is the counterpart of [his or her] right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority"'.

The Establishment Clause principle is unpopular and it is absent from the law of many other nations. It is also a valuable legal principle that protects individual liberty and the common welfare. Kudos to the judges for siding with the principle.