Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Existence from nothingness

The subject of 'nothing' isn't simple.  The question is often asked: 'why is there something rather than nothing?', but then what does 'nothing' actually mean in such a question?  

For some 'nothing' means a void: an infinite, eternal emptiness, but even such a void has properties - space and time are flexible, and infinity is only one possibility for their structure.  

For others 'nothing' means an absence of space and time, but what does that mean?  Without space and without time, how can an absence have meaning?  

It has been suggested that nothing is unstable, that it will fall apart because of quantum effects and produce universes, but then why are there quantum effects?  If we accept the quantum nature of reality, then why is the measure of uncertainty what it is against something else? 

The problem of why there is something could well be insoluble because it's not easy to see how we can deal with the subject of existence, because 'existence' isn't a measurable property like size or electrical charge.  But, there may be some clue as to what is going on from Relativity.  Consider the existence of a beam of light.  From the 'point of view' of the beam, there is no reality, because time does not flow for something travelling at the speed of light.  Perhaps existence itself is relative: there are no absolutes.  There is always a point of view from which anything that we experience as existing doesn't exist at all.

Perhaps 'nothing' is always there, if you look in the right way.

Monday, 29 July 2013


Faith: I know what it is like. I can say what faith meant for me when I was a believer. Faith was a struggle. It was squeezing my eyes shut and trying to listen to the darkness to hear a voice – anything – even a whisper, some sign of a response from someone; from something. Faith was constantly trying to tell myself what I should believe. Internal apologetics, excuses for ignoring inconsistencies in scripture, defences against logical impossibilities, apologetics that always ended with me saying sorry to myself for coming up empty.

I have to admit that I'm a lazy atheist, which is fortunate because atheism doesn't need any effort. There is no struggle to look for reasons to not have belief. There aren't any atheist apologetics because when it comes to belief because there are no scriptures to recite, no prayers to say, nothing to work at. Because I'm lazy, when I want to find something out, I ask those who know about that thing. The best way to do this is to find those whose ideas work:

If I want to know why the Earth orbits the Sun, I ask a physicist. I ask a physicist because physicists come up with miracles that work, everyday miracles that work so often we stop calling them miracles. Time and space twist in Relativity, but I don't need to have faith in them because my SatNav works.

If I want to know how life evolved I ask a biologist. I ask a biologist because a biologist shows us magic that is real. The sparks of mutation fuel the explosion of evolution, and the results are millions of species. Evolution happens so often that I don't need to have faith it in biology, I just need to wait and watch the species appear, both from the rocks and in the world around us.

If I want to know about mind I ask a neuroscientist. I ask a neuroscientist because a neuroscientist watches the threads of neurons as they weave the tapestry of mind on a fabric of little grey cells. A neuroscientist shows us the soul in action. I don't need to have faith in neuroscience, I can watch the MRI scan read minds.

If I want to understand meaning I ask a philosopher. I ask a philosopher because philosophy is fun, and shows how magnificent the human mind can be at exploring its own abilities and limitations. I adore the fluent sarcasm of Hume, the dry wit of Russell, the intensity of Kant, the precision of Dennett. I don't need to have faith in philosophy, because philosophy is words and words exist (whatever Derrida says).

At no time do I ask a theologian. It's just too much effort. I don't want to have to work at faith with all the bother of apologetics and the struggle for meaning, and the hunting down of the correct verses and the historical interpretations. I don't want to have to go back to wishing with all my wishing cells that the communion wafer really was some sort of body of Christ, that prayers did get to heaven, that the Pope would actually start to say reasonable things about sex and love.

I understand faith. Faith is the scaffolding that helps build hope, hope for things unseen. Hope for life after death, for ultimate justice, for celestial meaning. But, faith does tend to falter, and with good reason. Faith is its own antidote for many – that faith is needed is evidence against that which is hoped for. Some people – many, many people – learn to treasure life and don't need the hope for more. We realise we have to make our own justice, our own meaning, because justice and meaning that are real are better than those which are hoped for.

Perhaps it's just me: faith uses up energy. I'm too lazy to even be the kind of atheist that others often are. I have other uses of that energy: meals to cook, books to write, games to play, people to love.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

What are the limits of science?

What are the limits of science?  That's a common question.  Fortunately the answer is simple: there aren't any.  There is no aspect of reality that is hidden from science. Science isn't a region with boundaries, and it isn't limited to a set of rules or a philosophy.  Science is beautifully simple; it's trying to answer questions about what is real by looking to see what is real.  That's all science is, and yet that is it's power.  Science asks the questions by going to actually look for the answers.  This may seem so obvious that there should be no dispute, and yet there is constant controversy, for several reasons.

One reason is that science often reveals answers that people don't want to hear.  Science has made it perfectly clear for centuries that there is no life force, and so no supernatural soul, but there are many religions and philosophical traditions that start from the contrary position.

Another reason is that science doesn't give answers about matters that are falsely believed to be about reality.  An example of this is morality.  Science can't say what we should do when it comes to moral questions because morality is a fiction.  A necessary fiction, a shared fiction, but still not anything that can be measured.  Science can, and should, inform moral decisions, as science can certainly help us to understand the metrics of physical well-being and mental health, but that is not the same as coming to a moral decision.  

Finally, science may not always tell us useful stories.  Science can investigate the reality of an artistic experience by revealing brain activity, but that probably won't tell us anything of interest.

However, there is no domain of reality, which includes everything real about humanity, that isn't open to science, and that's partly because science has told us so much about what humanity actually is - an evolved African ape, with a material body and a neurological soul.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Beyond the neutron star

Neutron stars are incredible objects.  They are the result of the collapse of large stars after those stars have used up their nuclear fuel and can no longer maintain their size due to heat.  The core of a star collapses until the pressure forces the electrons and protons together to form neutrons.  This happens very quickly.  The rest of the star bounces off the surface of this tiny remnant - mere tens of km in diameter - and expands towards a colossal explosion.  The explosion comes close to failing, but then happens because during the formation of the neutrons a tiny and almost massless particle - the neutrino - is given off in vast numbers.  Neutrinos usually pass through just about anything, but the density of the material that has bounced of the neutron star is so great and the neutrinos so numerous that the incredible explosion of a supernova results.

Neutron stars are stable because the incredible force of gravity is resisted by a quantum-mechanical effect called the Fermi Exclusion Principle which does not allow particles such as neutrons to superimpose.  If there is enough mass in a collapsing star and not even that quantum effect can resist gravity, and the result is a black hole.

Or maybe not.

There may be smaller and stranger objects than neutron stars.  One of these is called a 'quark star', in which the structure of neutrons is no longer present, but the particles that make up protons and neutrons - quarks - can still resist collapse.  Stranger still is an 'Electroweak star':  it's known that electromagnetism and the weak force responsible for neutrinos interacting with other particles, and also for some radioactive decays, are different aspects of the same force: the 'electroweak' force.  Given enough energy the electroweak force can start to act by converting quarks into leptons (such as electrons).  This process gives off lots of energy, so much that it may be able to prevent the collapse of some stars to black holes, at least for a while.  For millions of years such strange dense objects may resist the final stage of collapse.   But eventually, even these objects will crunch down into the bottomless pit that is a black hole.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Second Law isn't a Law

First, let's deal with terms: the second law of thermodynamics isn't a law!  The overall increase in disorder - the tendency of things to 'fall apart' - is just a statistical thing: it's about probabilities, not rules.  Given enough time, anything can and will happen.

Think of a sealed box full of air.  The air is spread out, filling the box evenly.  This is the situation known as 'equilibrium'.  The air will tend to stay like this, but not always, just on average.  The random movements of the air molecules mean that all throughout the box there are tiny volumes in which air is above average density and there are other volumes in which are is below average density.  These fluctuations quickly disappear almost all the time.  But not forever.  Suppose there was a random fluctuation of density which meant that, overall, one half of the box had slightly more air in than the other half.  It's overwhelmingly likely the next few random fluctuations will reverse this situation.  But it might not happen.  It might be that another fluctuation makes the air even denser in the denser half, and even less dense in the other half.  And so on.  The probabilities are astronomically crazy, but it's entirely possible that after enough time all the air will have moved to one half of the box.  Of course, it's very unlikely to stay there.  Quicker than the eye can see it will spread throughout the box again.  Probably.

So, the second law of thermodynamics isn't a law at all - it's just a tendency based on statistics.  Given enough time and a system full of randomly moving particles anything is possible, and everything possible will actually happen.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Why human consciousness isn't involved in quantum stuff

It was the early quantum physicists who are guilty.  They struggled with what quantum mechanics was all about and in doing so came up with thought experiments (such as Schrodinger's Cat) and phrases ('the observer effect') that messed up thinking about quantum mechanics for close to a century; a mess that shows little sign of fading.

One of the worst aspects of all this is the supposed connections between quantum mechanics and minds.  It's very easy to clear this up, and the connection between quantum mechanics and minds is very easy to express: none at all.  There is no connection between minds and consciousness and weird quantum effects, and observations by human minds aren't at all relevant to quantum measurement or wavefunction collapses or anything else.  The reason is clear: human minds don't operate on a quantum scale, and with very good reason: quantum mechanical effects are to do with probabilities while human brains need to deal with accuracy.  Fortunately for human mental processes the building blocks of the human brain - cells - are so large as to be beyond the scale of quantum strangeness.  What can happen in individual molecules within cells, such as transmission of energy in light capturing systems in plants, can involve quantum mechanics, but on the overall scale of cells, quantum strangeness doesn't happen.  This is good for the brain - it means it can use cells to wire things up in intricate patterns and get reliable results from signal processing by such cells.  Cells are the building blocks of the brain, but the basic units of operation of the brain are though to be larger - they are neural networks, consisting of connected groups of brain cells.  Neural networks are robust, and their functioning can survive both the death of individual cells and the addition of new cells.  So, if the removal and replacement of entire cells doesn't significantly effect what goes on in the brain, there is no way at all that any tiny, brief and incredibly fragile quantum effect is going to do anything at all.

So, we can't experience quantum effects, and there is also a good reason why we can't be 'quantum observers':  we are made of atoms.    At the smallest scale, we are made of parts that are absolutely typical of what the universe is made up on.  A quantum state that encounters our bodies doesn't experience anything different than if it encountered a brick wall.  There is no special 'observer' nature to the atoms of our bodies, and so to our cells, and so to our brains and so to our minds.  Because we aren't made of anything that is in anyway different from the rest of the universe, there is no reason to believe we have any effect on quantum systems that is in anyway different from the rest of the universe.

What we observe is what comes in through our senses.  Our senses can't pick up individual quantum events (with some very rare exceptions - astronauts can experience flashes of light which are the result of cosmic rays colliding with their eyes!).

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Mystery and ineffability do not mix

Conciousness is said, by some, to be both mysterious and ineffable.  It is both beyond our present-day understanding and it has aspects that will be always beyond our explanation.  One of those aspects is the quale, the unit of the quality of experience, the atom of what-it-is-likeness.  It's clearly impossible that qualia can be reduced to an explanation which involves only the movement of particles, as, after all, how can the redness and scent of a rose, and the pain of its thorns, ever be expressed in the language of physics?

This argument has the feel of truth, because it's hard to deny the feeling of the inexplicable when we think of our conscious lives.  And yet, feeling isn't proof.   Feeling isn't evidence for anything but the feeling itself.  Feeling doesn't inform.

The argument is a mistake, an incorrect use of labels.  Mystery isn't an attribute of consciousness - it describes our beliefs.  Mystery is always provisional, because part of the nature of mystery is that you can never know when the mystery disappears.  While there is mystery there can be no claims to ineffability, as this is a claim of knowledge, knowledge that mystery denies.  A path cannot be claimed to be beyond navigation while there is no knowledge of the route of the path.

When it comes to consciousness, we don't know if a physical explanation will satisfy, but we do know that we aren't able to make judgements yet.  Until the physical is explored in great detail, insistence that consciousness is beyond the physical are hugely premature, even assuming this position is coherent.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Skepticism and Mr Deity

In this video Brian Dalton (Mr Deity) satirises the idea that one can be both a believer and an atheist.  He's witty, but I don't agree with him about atheism.  I also don't agree with him about skepticism and astrology.  Skepticism is an approach to looking at reality.  Encouraging people to be skeptics is about showing them how they can start on a journey that's never ending.  You don't reject people who are thinking about starting on the journey because they haven't arrived at where you happen to be.  I have many positions based on skepticism and reason that I know other skeptics don't agree with.  I believe in criminalising gun ownership.  I don't believe in physical dualism.  I don't believe in deism.  Does my not believing in deism mean I should reject as a false skeptic someone who does?  What about a gun owner?

We skeptics are all on a journey, and the decision to take that journey is important; too important to reject those who are slower or who haven't travelled as far.