Monday, August 31, 2009

Anselm's Method of Metaphysics

Metaphysics deals with "the questions science must ask but cannot answer." Philosophy gave up the quest for metaphysics around 1799, but modern physics took up the slack around 1905 and has only dived deeper into the unanswerables since. Those titans of science, Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr, wrestled with the fundamental nature of the universe in the 1930s by means of "thought experiments" that explored the implications of quantum physics. Einstein's motive and his method both fit with something Anselm of Canterbury laid out nine centuries earlier.

Anselm of Canterbury made two great contributions to Christian thought. In Cur Deus Homo, he explicated the "substitutionary theory of the Atonement" which is foundational to all Catholic and most Protestant teaching on the reason for Christ's death. He is more famous for his "ontological proof of the existence of God," which begins with a definition of God as "that being greater than which nothing can be imagined." It is that definition of God that makes it possible to harness the human imagination in pursuit of truths that lie beyond the bounds of science.

Note that Anselm does not define God to be "the greatest being that can be imagined." That would be blasphemy--an infinite God can never fit within a finite mind! Anselm's definition does not enable us to prove that any particular idea about God is true--but it does provide evidence that some idea about God is false. When one compares two speculative ideas about God, the less glorious one is not "that being greater than which nothing can be imagined." Using Anselm's method, that being is therefore not God.

Thus, for example, one could posit that the universe spontaneously emerged out of nothing by a fluke of physics or that it was all arbitrarily created by a flying spaghetti monster. Anselm's method would rule out the Pastafarian doctrine in favor of the more secular answer. While there may be no scientific way to prove that the universe was not created by a touch of His Noodly Appendage, this metaphysical method provides a definite (albeit non-scientific) answer.

Albert Einstein is the clearest example of a modern scientist who relied on this approach on a regular basis. Einstein's "religion" did not include a traditional belief in a conscious, personal God, but his reverence for Nature itself is well known. Every collection of Einstein quotes shows his "spiritual" emphasis. Here are just a few examples:
  • "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details."
  • "God is subtle but he is not malicious."
  • "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."
Einstein routinely dismissed those interpretations of the universe that seemed less "beautiful" than others. He famously rejected the (subsequently proven) claim that quantum effects were truly random by insisting, "God does not play dice with the universe." His "biggest blunder" was when he inserted a "fudge factor" into his equations which otherwise showed that the entire universe was expanding. Einstein's aesthetic preference for a "steady-state universe" kept him from predicting the expansion of the universe before the astronomer, Edwin Hubble, reported that all other galaxies seemed to be moving away from ours.

Einstein's "blunders" highlight the weakness of this metaphysical method. "Greater" and "lesser" are subjective terms that import human value judgments into a discussion of the universe. Einstein preferred "defined" over "undefined" and "static" over "expanding," and these preferences directed his science.

Whether or not it tells us anything about the universe, this method of metaphysics should help thinkers clarify their own values. Einstein rejected the faith of his Hebrew fathers. The Torah said that God created the universe out of nothing and judged humans for their choices; Einstein believed the universe was eternal and that moral judgments were meaningless in a fully-determined universe. Einstein's metaphysics led him to make what proved to be mistakes about science, but those mistakes enable us reevaluate Einstein's values. In hindsight, Einstein got his science wrong because he had his values wrong.

In light of Anselm's definition and Einstein's example, I propose the following method of metaphysics:
  1. Pick some fact that is more-or-less explained by the "standard model" of current science.
  2. Generate a "speculative model" which explains this fact in some alternative manner at least as well as the standard model.
  3. Define at least one "human value" which makes the speculative model "greater."
  4. Make a "metaphysical claim" that the speculative model is "greater" than the standard model in terms of at least one human value.
  5. Permit others to critique this metaphysical claim by falsifying the science or by articulating countervailing values in which the standard model is "greater."
  6. If the speculative model can be falsified, return to step 2.
  7. If the standard model is "greater" in some ways and the speculative model is "greater" in others, focus on what these value differences reveal about human beings.
  8. If the speculative model is in all ways "greater" than the standard model and accounts for all the facts, focus on what this reveals about reality. Metaphysics would say, at this point, that the standard model is wrong, and would encourage science to develop new ways to falsify it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Future Bits

If you could get information from the future for $1000 per bit per day:
  • which bits would you buy?
  • how would it change society?
  • would the human race remain the same?
Not that I have such information for sale. (Yet.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I finally managed to be persuaded that I so completely misunderstood quantum physics that I should just drop the whole topic when this came out:

Now what? Am I required to read it before I'm allowed to drop this topic forever, or can I just assume that they are wrong, too?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Difference Would Life in Space Make?

They've now officially identified an amino acid, glycine, in the tail of Comet Wild-2. That's one small step for man, one giant leap towards figuring out where humans fall on the cosmic game of Life. It will be a while, I suppose, before we find more conclusive proof of life--or the absence of it--beyond Earth, but I'd like to ask what difference such a finding would make while there's still time to do it blind.

A lot of Christians have trouble reconciling a "jot and tittle literal" understanding of Genesis with the latest scientific evidence. One way to resolve the problem is to raise doubts about Darwin. Until we develop a time machine that can run the tape backwards, there's no way to prove God didn't create the heavens and the earth with an "apparent age" of "billions of years" even though they all came into being exactly 6,000 years (or so) ago.

Would single-celled life in outer space would shake Young Earth Creationism? I can't see why it should. The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth--it doesn't say anything about what He chose to do on other planets. Intelligent life on other planets would raise more interesting issues--but I'm persuaded by the Fermi Paradox that we won't discover intelligent life on other planets for a LONG time.

So I don't think finding single-celled life in outer space would shake a Young Earth Creationist one way or the other.

How about an ardent Darwinist? If we found life with a completely different chemical structure, the Darwinist could and should say that this disproves the Intelligent Design hypothesis. After all, if life can arise independently and repeatedly by chance, how hard can it be? The ID argument is that the statistical odds make it impossible to take "mere time and chance" seriously as an explanation for the appearance of biology.

If we found life in space with the same essential chemical structure that we find here on Earth, the Darwinist would have to do a little adjusting. Finding DNA-based life with left-handed amino acids in space would well-nigh prove that life as we know it didn't originate on Earth. I wouldn't expect that to fundamentally change the Darwinist paradigm, but I would hope some people would take back a few of the nasty things they've said about panspermia over the years. (I'm not holding my breath.)

What would really throw everybody for a loop would be finding pollen grains from flowering plants. There's a "jot and tittle literal" reading of Genesis 1 that predicts that, but it's so fantastically unlikely to be the case that I'm not even going to explain what it is. I'll just say that if we find pollen grains out past Pluto--past the heliopause, rather--then it will be time to read Genesis 1 in a whole new way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Embarrassing Allies and Worthy Opponents

Michael Ruse provides some excellent examples for Sean Carroll's "Grid of Disputation." In "Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster," Ruse explains why he thinks arch-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins are doing more harm than good to the skeptic's cause.

One quote to note:
Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to keep Creationism out of the schools. The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion. That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If teaching "God exists" is teaching religion - and it is - then why is teaching "God does not exist" not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment. Perhaps indeed teaching Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism. This is the claim of the new atheists. If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our strategy about Creationism and the schools. [Emphasis supplied.]
Ruse makes good points. I'm happy to call him a "worthy adversary."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Grid of Disputation

Sean Carroll, at Cosmic Variance, has produced a lovely graphic he calls the "Grid of Disputation." (HT to Ken at Open Parachute for spotting this one.)

This box-of-four makes it easy to sort out who says what on a blog. If they agree with you AND are rational, they are "friends." If they agree with you but commit some crime against reason, they are "embarrassing allies." If they disagree with you and don't make sense, they're "crackpots." And if they disagree with you yet are sensible, they are "worthy opponents."

I love this little grid, although I don't view the "worthy opponents" category quite the way Sean does. It's the people who don't agree with me who do make sense who are most likely to teach me something I don't know.

That reminds me of one of the standard refrains from our homeschool years. When a child would make a mistake on math or some other subject, they tended to be discouraged by their error. I would always say, "This is an exciting moment! LEARNING is about to occur!" You can't learn what you already know, and you can't learn until you realize there's something you don't know already. It takes a mistake (or a disagreement) to get to the place where more knowledge can appear.

So--I think I might change Sean's grid to read "Potential teachers" where it now says "Worthy opponents."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Delighting in Disagreement

If you think in terms of a hyperdimensional phase space defined by every human neuron (which I call "human cognitive space"), there's something marvelous about a disagreement.

It's like parallax, in astronomy. Most stars are so far away that we can't directly measure their distance. Some stars are close enough, though, that we can detect a tiny shift across the background sky as the Earth orbits around the sun. If we measure the exact position of a star in January and find it has slightly in July, we can triangulate and calculate how far away it is.

I visualize a disagreement as a rectangle defined by two corners. The further apart the upper left corner is from the bottom right of such a rectangle, the bigger the area. That's a good thing, in cognitive space. The area inside the rectangle is one might discover something new!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vocabulary and Vantage Point in Genesis

This blog is devoted to questions science must ask but cannot answer, but I have one little question about the Bible which is more grammatical than theological. It has to do with the perspective of the narrator in two passages in Genesis.

Genesis 1 tells about six days of creation. Genesis 7:19 tells how the waters of Noah's flood covered all the high hills and mountains under the sky. The original observer of the events in Genesis 1 could not have been a human being, since humans weren't created until day 6. The original observer in Genesis 7 could easily have been a human; either Noah or a member of his family.

By contrast, the passage from Genesis 6:9-9:29 is a story that is all about human beings. Although God speaks in this story, it is only and always to Noah. There's nothing in this text that needed to come from any other source than Noah himself except the very last sentence, which says that Noah died. For purposes of this argument, I'm going to assume that Genesis 7 is not fiction, but is instead an oral tradition passed down from Noah himself to some scribe at a much later date.

Here's the question: should we interpret these two passages as stories told by a human observer from a particular frame of reference, or as the report of an "omniscient observer" who sees all and knows all? To be specific, are the "days" in Genesis defined by the sunrise and sunset on planet Earth? And are "all the high hills and mountains under the sky" the mountains that Noah could see out to his horizon, or everything an angel could observe, including Mount Everest?

If we assume both passages were narrated by an angel, we should treat them both the same way. An angel who can see every mountain under the Earth's atmosphere may or may not use the term "day" to mean 24 hours. The "angel only" model of Genesis would lead one to predict a world-wide Flood but does not necessitate a young earth.

If we assume both passages were narrated by a human, the Genesis 1 account must be "poetic," to put it nicely. By its terms, there weren't any humans around for the first five days. That means we should look for a regional flood and take the "six days of Creation" as poetry, symbolism, or just plain fraud.

If we assume Genesis 1 originally came from a non-human source, we should look for a word-for-word correlation with what human science can detect about the origins of the universe, Earth, and life... but not within a human frame of reference.

If Genesis 7 began as an oral report by a faithful human witness, we shouldn't require Mt. Everest to be covered with water. If it was Noah telling the story, then "All the mountains under the sky" literally meant "every mountain Noah could see." It takes at least an angelic narrator to provide a reliable first-hand report of a global flood.

I don't have any problem with the text of Genesis. I do believe that people who take strong positions about the meaning of that text should be willing to explicitly state their assumptions. In this case, it seems like Young Earth Creationists who believe in a world-wide flood assume that the super-human narrator of Genesis 1 spoke from a human frame of reference, while the arguably human narrator of Genesis 7 reported things that only an angel (or better) could know.

Blogs and Brains

If the notion of a "human cognitive space" (the phase space formed by every human neuron) makes any sense at all, then it should be obvious that new technologies affect it. Writing, printing, the telegraph, and the Internet have all changed history. I suspect it's because they each reshaped human cognitive space.

We're now in a phase where technological changes are reshaping that space almost daily. Facebook is so out of date. Twitter is in. Or is it? Did I miss the latest big new thing? Cognitive space used to change about the speed of continental drift. Now we're on a roller coaster.

This article calls for changes to the way blogs work to keep up with the new shared stream of consciousness. Om Malik wants to combine the speed of Twitter with the depth of blogs. I don't know whether we'll go that direction, but the fact that one can suggest such a thing reveals how much more change is possible.

What would a fully-wired human race look like?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Multiversal Utilitarianism

Open Parachute skips lightly from epistemology to ethics. What fun they're having in New Zealand! There's no way I'm going to float the following on that forum... they're moving too fast to annoy them with new ideas. But the discussion reminds me of the unresolved riddle of ethics in a multiverse.

In The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch argues that life as we know it is best explained by Hugh Everett's "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Deutsch says that every possible world is real; by which he means that every real choice you face leads you down two different timelines. You hear the Gospel at a revival meeting and you feel a strange stirring. In Deutsch's model, one "you" goes up front to the altar and ends up gloriously saved, while the other rejects the invitation and goes out to a life of crime.

Deutsch's theory gets a little exotic--he not only argues that every common-sense timeline is real, but every physically-possible timeline is real. Given the weirdness of quantum mechanics, that's a LOT of timelines, including ones (according to Deutsch) where people fly around on brooms playing Quidditch. It's not the laws of physics change in such Harry Potter universes--it's just that there's a statistical possibility that every atom in the broom will go up at the same moment. Over and over. All the way through a Quidditch tournament!

That's an extreme position, but it opens up another possibility that Deutsch seems not to have thought about. Frank Tippler has a different take on quantum mechanics. In The Omega Point, Tippler argues that there is only one timeline but that it must maintain an "observer" forever, and will therefore at some point produce a super-scientific race that is able to reconstruct human minds through technology. I'm not persuaded by Tippler's reasoning, but I'm impressed by his imagination--and the super-scientific resurrection technology he describes would appear to be a whole lot easier to produce than a well-played Quidditch match. So it only seems fair to add Tippler's resurrection technology to Deutsch's multiverse.

Which brings us to the ethical issue. It would seem to me that any rational "Fabric of Reality" fan should make a utilitarian calculation designed to maximiz his personal happiness over all possible worlds. He needs to balance his short-term pleasures in this life against the knowledge that he must certainly endure an eternal conscious existence in a future resurrection. To make things more complex, it won't be just one resurrection. He must assume that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all have their own super-technological worlds where he will be raised to face their form of judgment.

If you only have one life to live here and now, how do you prepare yourself for a hundred different hells? Deutch doesn't. (My attempt to raise this question on the Fabric of Reality yahoo group met with the thundering silence it deserved.) But the beauty of a thought experiment is that it generates interesting new insights without ever having to shop for lab equipment.

If you knew you had to face the judgment of every possible creed and cult and endure eternal conscious torment if they didn't like the choices you make today, how would you live?

My own answer is sincere, but probably won't satisfy any readers. I'd rather follow Jesus, even if I knew that I would be tormented for it forever, than any other option. This is not just because most of the other major religions give Jesus a pass (although they do), but because I think I might be able to face an endless eternity of agony if I did it for Him.

What is Knowledge?

I've been delighting in meeting new people on the other side of the world. Open Parachute and MandM are a couple of New Zealand blogs that seem to maintain a surprisingly intelligent level of discourse. Open Parachute is an atheist/non-theist site and MandM is run by a Christian couple.

There's a hot thread happening on Open Parachute right now. It started with a book review but it has turned into a discussion of the nature of knowledge. I'm not expecting that many pearls of wisdom to start flying (if they do, watch out for pigs!), but it's a pleasure to hang out with people who debate the nature of knowledge for the fun of it.

I have nothing to contribute to the debate right now, so I'm retreating to a neutral corner to think about the physical basis of human knowledge. I'm more-or-less committed to the concept that human knowledge has a physical basis. All my ideas have a physical component to them--there's a certain number of neurons in some particular state. I'm not saying that's what knowledge "is," but every idea in every human brain has a physical aspect.

I'm interested in abstracting this physical aspect of human knowledge out of its biological, neurological context. It would seem that a fully-developed-technology could replicate the entire neural network of a living human brain in a medium besides protoplasm. I've long thought that one could represent electronic neural nets as a multi-dimensional phase space. (I use the term "hyperdimensional" to refer to any phase space big enough to include a separate dimension for each of about 100,000,000,000 neurons.) Just to make things interesting, I see no reason to limit my hyperdimensional space to any single human brain. Two heads are better than one--and a phase space of 200,000,000,000 neurons makes just as much sense as a phase space for one hundred billion.

But why stop there? My real interest is in the phase space composed of every human neuron out there. The topology of that space should be filled with fascinating features. What does the word "banana" look like, when you say it to the whole human race? There are so many neurons firing all at once--neurons associated with "sweet," "yellow," "shopping cart," "colonial exploiters," "fruit flies," and a million other connotations. The whole human experience of a "banana," put all together, is different from any actual banana, just as it is different from any individual's understanding of the word--yet each individual has a real understanding of a real fruit.

I can't visualize a phase space with 600,000,000,000,000,000,000 (six hundred quintillion) dimensions, of course, so I just imagine little dots in outer space. Each time somebody interacts with a banana, I light up a little spot in space. As more and more people interact with more and more bananas (banana splits, banana peels, banana boats, etc., etc.) more dots light up. I picture these dots beginning to cluster. Eventually, there should be enough data points that one could say, "This cluster is 'banana' in human conceptual space."

"Banana" is a trivial example, of course. Nobody needs to go through this much work to talk about bananas. The concept of conceptual space gets more interesting when we move on to words like "beauty," "justice," "truth," "love," or "God." Would a hyperdimensional map of these terms produce a meaningful pattern, the way "banana" does--or would it be a chaotic smear with no distinct features?

Wood, Hay, and Stubble

What if...
  • Jesus really rose from the dead and is really coming back to judge the Earth
  • And some scientific genius could prove that everything the Bible says and promises is true?
Should that person:
  1. Use every effort to spread the good news (like the Apostle Paul) or
  2. Seal up the vision (like the prophet Daniel)?
The parable of Lazarus suggests that scientific proof won't convert people. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers of the coming judgment, but Abraham said, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to one risen from the dead."

That throws a bucket of cold water on a Christian's urge to find the scientific answers to the riddles of Creation. Even if you could answer every question the skeptics raise, you wouldn't change their minds. In the meantime, you're bound to hunt down a lot of dead ends and bark up a lot of wrong trees. Why go to all that effort if it doesn't save souls and can't add to what the Bible already says? It's like teaching a pig to whistle--it doesn't work, and it annoys the pig.

My personal reasons for digging into science are not to convince others. I ask questions because I can't not. I am curiously made--and I was made curious! But being curious and imaginative doesn't make me right. My brain tells me that every new idea I come up with is 99.99% likely to be wrong (at least!). My Bible tells me all my own ideas will be burned up on the Day of Judgment, along with all the other wood, hay, and stubble.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Kindred Spirit

Frank Wilczek won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum chromodynamics. I love his take on life and science.