Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Scientific Epistemology

Near the end of a long discussion of "privilege" on Facebook today, I said that there is an "epistemology" that offers something better than telling white males to shut up because their "privilege" is showing. "Epistemology" is the branch of philosophy that deals with truth and knowledge--what can we know and how do we know it? I argue that 21st century science provides a new way of thinking about "knowledge" that opens the door to a more deeply human way of thinking. Buckle your seat belts!
Philosophers have been talking about "ideas" for thousands of years, but scientists have only began to figure out the PHYSICAL nature of ideas in the last few decades. The science of "neural networks" has analyzed how nerves interact to enable creatures with brains to react and adapt. Engineers have been able to build devices that use this science to identify objects, make choices, and adapt to changes. While no artificial neural network is even remotely up to human cognition, the basic building blocks are increasingly well understood.
One may think of two nerve cells as defining a two-dimensional plane (scientists refer to this as a "phase space") in which all the possible states of these two nerves may be charted out. Add another nerve cell and you need a third dimension. Add more nerves and you need more dimensions--lots more. By the time you try to map out a human brain, you need 100 billion dimensions. This "hyperdimensional phase space" describes an ENORMOUS set of possible brain states. The WAY the nerves are connected affects the "shape" of this space, so one human mind may be described as a hyperdimensional space with a shape far more unique than any fingerprint.
Words, in this model, are individual locations within this space. When you read the word "banana," a set pf nerve cells start to signal. These signals can be "mapped" to one area in your unique phase space. The same word causes my nerve cells to start signalling, too, but of course the wiring in my brain is very different from yours. Your hundred billion cells are firing in one way; my hundred billion are firing in a different way; which adds up to TWO hundred billion cells firing at the same time in an even more complex pattern.
The key to my alternative epistemology is to knock down the barrier between brains. When two minds are both processing the same word ("banana" or anything else) they are both part of a TWO-hundred-billion dimensional phase space. Add another human and you add another hundred billion dimensions. In this model, a word, phrase, or statement "means" one particular point in a phase space made up of multiple minds.
That's the SCIENCE behind this new way of thinking about thinking. Let's look at the implications.
When I say "banana," you may visualize bright green fruits with bright yellow stickers under bright lights at the local Trader Joes, or mashed bits of slime all over your toddler's plastic tray, or browny-black shriveled lumps in the fruit bowl that you can't stand to touch long enough to throw away. That's a suburban American take on "banana." But a Central American farmer might see a whole world of different images--slimy slick banana shoots; huge scary spiders; cash on the table for the rent. "Banana" means the ENTIRETY of these images, not just MY experience, or yours, or the peasant farmer's.
The "check your privilege" approach that I challenged earlier today tends to discount the suburban view of "banana," preferring the viewpoint of the oppressed or under-represented. My approach, in my opinion, keeps the GOOD part of the "check your privilege" approach without silencing the "privileged" in the process. It is GOOD for the affluent white American male to expand his understanding of "banana" (or anything else), but he doesn't have to disclaim his OWN experience to do so.
Bananas aren't really all that exciting--as food or philosophy. How about a more controversial word, like "rhubarb"? Some people love rhubarb, others hate it. We tend to treat "I hate rhubarb" as a SUBJECTIVE statement, with no "right" or "wrong" content. But our neural network approach allows us to see that "I hate rhubarb" reveals a richer, truer grasp on reality. The hyperdimensional space made up of many different minds includes a point labeled "rhubarb" which powerfully connects with "I love rhubarb" AND with "I hate rhubarb." One might visualize this as two roads intersecting at one junction. This tells us something real and important about rhubarb--which the simpler characterization of "subjective" left out.
The point of this post, of course, is not to talk about fruits and vegetables, but about truth and justice. "Justice," like "rhubarb" is a word that seems "subjective." If "rhubarb" was an intersection of two roads in the hyperdimensional phase space made up of all our minds, "justice" is Grand Central Station--there are roads, rails, buses, and subways coming in from all directions at this point. That does not mean that "justice" is "subjective." It just means that it takes ALL our minds to grasp every nuance of the word.
Whether you agree with any of what I have outlined above, you'll find that I try to apply this philosophical approach to meaning, knowledge, truth in all my FaceBook posts. I am eager to hear what you have to say, even if you disagree with me--in fact, especially if you disagree with me!--because I view this FaceBook page as hyperdimensional phase space where our many minds create a single conversation. If you LIKE the way that conversation goes here, you might take a longer look at the REASON it goes this way.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah and the Nephilim

The new "Noah" movie has people talking about "Nephilim" (the rock monsters in the movie), which are supposed to be fallen angels which have taken on physical form. This may seem like the most fantastic part of an extraordinarily far-fetched plot, but I have been persuaded that it is probably the correct reading of some obscure bits of the Bible. Passages in Second Peter and Jude all persuade me that some of the New Testament writers actually believed that demons had taken on physical form before the Flood.

If you don't believe in demons, that makes the New Testament that much more mythological, but if you are open to the possibility that angels (and by extension, demons) might exist, then it fits into the broader story of the Bible reasonably well. The Gospels and the Book of Acts are full of references to demons and/or "demonized" humans, who routinely confess that Jesus is Lord and then are cast out. The letters of Paul are full of references to the "powers and principalities" and "forces of darkness," which he unquestionably intended to mean hostile, non-human intelligences. If you believe the Bible, you believe in demons.

But does that mean that demons can "incarnate," i.e., take on physical forms of their own as opposed to manipulating human beings? This has been an open question for centuries, as theologians have struggled with Genesis 6:2, which says that "the sons of God" took "the daughters of men" and produced offspring called the "Nephilim." The primary competing theories about this passage are (a) the "sons of God" are the line of God-fearing descendants of Adam's son Seth or (b) the "sons of God" are angels (specifically, fallen angels; see Job 1).

While I have the greatest respect for the orthodox Evangelical theologians who believe that the "sons of God" were human, I think St. Peter and St. Jude believed they were fallen angels. Given the choice between any modern theologian and an apostle, I'm going to side with the apostle. So I read Genesis 6 to say that demons took on physical form in the days before the Flood.

If you don't believe Genesis, that makes the Old Testament that much more mythological, but... what if this is one of those cases where history became legend, and legend became myth, and things that should have been remembered were washed away in the Flood? That is the premise of Ellen Gunderson Traylor's book, "Noah," which casts Poseidon as a major character--an incarnated demon whose body is destroyed by the Flood.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

My dearest far-left friend is holding an anti-Creationist rant on her Facebook page today, so I will take the bait and post my current working hypothesis on human origins. I know I'm just trolling for trolls, but life is too short to lurk. I will begin with my two reasons for questioning the conventional Darwinian wisdom.

The evidence of the occult

First, I am persuaded by the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. If that happened, then there is more to this universe than mere time, space, matter, and energy. I'm not going to try to persuade today's readers that I am right, but I will note that the "methodological materialists" who refuse to even consider the possibility of any other entities necessarily rule out all testimony about occult or supernatural events.

If we decide in advance that ghost stories are necessarily false, then we don't need to question whether materialism explains everything. If we are willing to listen to stories about hauntings and other immaterial events, however, then we do need to question mere materialism.  Since I believe the story about the resurrection of Jesus, I am open to events that can't be explained by physics. When I listen to the stories from people throughout time and around the world, I find as much reason to believe the "spiritualists" as I do to believe the "materialists."

The mathematical problem

Second, I used to believe that Darwinian evolution was an elegant hypothesis that explained the evidence--until I did the math. I won't bore you with calculations here, but I'll state the issue: evolution can't begin until there is something that is capable of both (a) replication and (b) mutation. John von Neumann (who invented the modern computer) did a series of lectures at Harvard in the 1950s which treated life as a form of information, and he computed the theoretical minimum length of "cellular automata" that could reproduce after a mutation. He came up with a minimum "program" of 1400 bits. 

If you accept von Neumann's number and can do math involving exponents, you will conclude, as I did, that either (a) there is a single universe and the existence of life is proof of the existence of God, or (b) this is just one of an infinite number of universes and life is a mathematical necessity (since an infinite number of chances will give you every possible outcome, including this one).

My current working hypothesis of origins

My own hypothesis combines the evidence of immaterial activity with the possibility of multiple universes. It is a variation of a hypothesis of John Wheeler (who coined the term "black hole"), which he called the "participatory anthropic principle." 

The participatory anthropic principle starts with the principle of quantum physics that holds that any system of particles is a cloud of overlapping possibilities until that system is "observed," at which point it "collapses" into an actual state. Wheeler asked, "what happens in a universe that has no observers?" It would seem that the entire universe would be a system of particles in a cloud of overlapping possibilities until an "observer" emerged to "collapse" it all. Wheeler suggested that the "observer' was one of the possibilities, and that the observer's own observation was the reason the universe has an actual state (with an observer in it) rather than remaining as a quantum cloud.

Wheeler's suggestion was brilliant, but it isn't "science." Science consists of questions that can be answered through some experimental method, not "just-so stories" that are necessarily untestable, no matter how well-supported they may as a matter of theory..

The hypothesis that I am about to advance pushes Wheeler's hunch a bit further in order to make it testable. Note--I am not arguing that my hypothesis is better than Wheeler's hunch, just that my hypothesis is "scientific" (because it can be tested) whereas Wheeler's is not. Ironically, my "scientific" hypothesis comes directly from the text of Genesis 1.

Genesis does not tell us that humankind popped into being in a single participatory leap from the Big Bang. It spells out six steps, with man as the last. This led me to question Wheeler's hunch--if the universe is a vast quantum computer "programmed" to produce an "observer," why should that "observer" do anything more than flare into existence for one moment of consciousness and then vanish just as quickly? A cloud of perfectly arranged ions in space might function as a neural network for one instant--and the universe would "collapse" into the kind of universe that has ion clouds. But the next moment, the ions would disperse and we would be left with an "unobserved" system for a long time.

I call this the "bowl of petunias" problem, named after the scene in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" where the infinite improbability drive creates a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias miles above the surface of a planet. 
Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.
As you can see, my hypothesis explains exactly why the bowl of petunias thought this--in a participatory anthropic universe, the existence of consciousness does not imply its continuation. "I think, therefore I am--briefly!"

My hypothesis is that the six days of Genesis 1 refer to six "observer-driven" events. The first two involve the emergence of what the Bible calls "angels" and "demons." I don't expect anyone reading this to buy into that, but I do note that the existence of immaterial intelligences would explain why anybody should bother with anything the book of Genesis says. If there are intelligent aliens (of any sort) and if they have ever communicated with humans, that communication is worth examining. My proposal  explains where the aliens came from and how they have communicated with us--but this part is not a "scientific" hypothesis because there is no way to test it.

The scientific part kicks in with the third through sixth days of Genesis, which deal with biological life. According to my hypothesis, plant life emerged on some other planet on Day Three--and these plants were "observers." Imagine a sentient pomegranate on a distant planet, drinking in sunshine and pondering the meaning of life. It's a peaceful scene, although an intelligent fruit isn't able to "observe" much beyond its own consciousness, and therefore has little effect on the overall unfolding of the quantum cloud.

Pollen grains are fascinating items--I will spare my readers any discussion of the "alternation of generations" or the interstellar potential of such genetic carriers. It is enough to suggest that pollen grains could seed an entire galaxy with life in a version of panspermia. A single haploid pollen grain falling into a lifeless ocean might colonize an entire planet. If two haploid units came together into the full diploid form, the sentient fruit would cause the system to collapse into a form capable of supporting multicellular life, but would not otherwise affect its environment.

In Genesis, Day Four describes the appearance of the sun and moon, with stars for "signs and seasons." In my hypothesis, this event occurred during the Cambrian explosion when a squid-like creature looked up through its remarkable eye and saw the skies. Octopi are fantastically intelligent--but have tragically short life-spans.  For one reason or another, the first octopus observer was also the last--and since then, octopi have been bait for faster predators.

Day Five of Genesis says the oceans swarmed with fish and the skies with birds. Parrots are as intelligent, in their way, as any other animal. An African Grey  parrot named Alex was able to count, do simple arithmetic, and use words in context. In my hypothesis, birds arose before the therapsid dinosaurs, which are their simple-minded, warm-blooded descendants.

On Day Six, humans and other land animals arose. I picture a set of footsteps across a sandy beach of the Black Sea punctuated by an instant in which a hominid became a human. I'll skip the scene where a human and a "serpent" and a fruit tree come together--that's religion, or history, or both--in order to explain why all this is science.

Testing the Punctuated Participatory Anthropic Hypothesis

Science can be tested by experimental means. Other ideas, no matter how closely associated they may be with scientific knowledge, are philosophy (or theology), not science. Thus, the claim that the universe consists exclusively of space, time, matter, and energy is a philosophical statement, not a scientific statement--because it cannot be put to a scientific test.

By contrast, the claim that birds were created after squids but before humans in a punctuated participatory anthropic fashion is testable. Observer-driven evolution (ODE) has a distinct pattern of development which is quite different from neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE). ODE is characterized by a statistically-impossible accumulation of changes leading to intelligence, with "adaptive radiation" outwards from the main line of evolutionary advance. It "looks" like an umbrella, with a handle going "up" and species all coming "down" from the most advanced line. NDE is characterized by  broad horizontal diversity with agonizingly slow upward creep--visually, a very wide upside-down pyramid.

In the past, there wasn't much scientists could do to tell whether living species better fit the umbrella or upside-down pyramid model, but DNA sequencing now enables us to see which model is the better fit. Michael Denton's 1985 book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, did not have the punctuated participatory anthropic hypothesis to guide his work, but he notes a number of anomalies that led him to question the neo-Darwinian model. I submit that the evidence Denton noted supports the punctuated participatory anthropic model and suggests further study along those lines.


Genetic comparison of mammalian, avian, and cephalopod fossils and DNA could support or undermine these fundamentally different models of evolution. If the evidence does suggest that birds came first and that octopus eyes are genetically related (not merely functionally similar) to mammalian eyes, then perhaps we should reexamine human stories of occult events. It may turn out that ghost stories are evidence, too.