Friday, October 29, 2010

Another [--------] for Paladino/Edwards

I previously blogged about my confusion regarding a sign that said "Another Democrat for Paladino/Edwards", but was placed on a freeway off-ramp where clearly there was no Democrat for it to be referring to.

I now think I was on to something much more significant -- and to my surprise, I cannot see that any other bloggers or news sites have described this curious issue:

That appears to be the only official campaign sign the Paladino camp has released since naming a running mate.

Prior to the running mates being named, I saw similar numbers of Cuomo and Paladino signs. Since I live in a fairly liberal part of town, it was slanted a but more in the Cuomo direction, but I still saw a sprinkling of the old "I'm mad too, Carl!" signs.

In the first couple of weeks after Edwards was named as Paladino's running mate, I only saw a single Paladino/Edwards sign (the aforementioned one from the freeway offramp). Now they are starting to appear, albeit in smaller numbers than I would have expected -- and here's the crazy thing: All but one or two of the signs I have seen have either had "Democrat" blacked out with marker, or the "Another Democrat for" area of the sign (which is in a small font) cut out. (I'll try to get some pictures tomorrow)

That's right. Some genius decided to only print campaign signs that said "Another Democrat for...", and of course given the left/right polarization we are in right now, no Paladino supporter wants to identify themselves as a god-hatin' Democrat! And FWIW, I can understand: I had an Obama sign up in my yard in the run-up to the '08 prez election, and I try to think back and imagine if the only sign available had said, "Another Republican for Obama/Biden"... would I put that in my yard? FUCK. NO.

What the hell were they thinking?! Seriously, I am now seeing a massive skew towards Cuomo/Duffy signs, even in more conservative parts of town, in my opinion most likely because conservatives wouldn't be caught dead with the current Paladino campaign material. Not that Paladino had much of a chance to begin with (these populist nutbags tend to flounder once they get enough public exposure, because then even the easily-deceived start to notice that they are batshit insane) but could it be that this boneheaded "Another Democrat for" decision is enough to put the nail in the coffin for his campaign?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Egnor's questions

Bjørn inspires me to answer Michael Egnor's questions. It's actually not a bad summation of the "Big Questions", even though some of the ordering and phrasing is clearly meant to have a polemical element. Still, probably worth each individual going through it.

Before I start, I do have to say that, first, as Bjørn points out, all that is required to be an atheist is a lack of belief in gods. The way Egnor begins his post is analogous to a philately club president asking, "If aphilatelists don't collect stamps, just what the fuck do they collect?" Clearly a dumb question. Even if we are charitable and assume Engor is specifically trying to understand the Gnu Aphilatelists, who have made a lot of press lately opposing the influence of stamp-collecting on public policy, and pointing out rampant examples of misogyny, homophobia, and child abuse that have been regularly occurring at philately clubs... he implies that "[i]f New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others," that this is inherently a bad thing. It's not. If I protest against Canada's sanctioned baby seal harvest, that position can only be expressed as the negation of another's -- so what? When you are opposing something you believe to be damaging, naturally that opposition must be described as, um, er, an opposition. I don't see a way around that.

Lastly, Egnor's "New Atheism Cliff Notes", while I realize they were meant to be tongue-in-cheek, contains a very objectionable one: "Theists are IDiots". No, many theists are not IDiots. IDiots are idiots. Some theists (like Egnor) are indeed IDiots; some theists are idiots but not IDiots; hell, some atheists are idiots but not IDiots; and of course, many theists are neither idiots nor IDiots. I think all brands of theistic belief are kinda silly at best, and usually rather, well, idiotic.. but that doesn't mean the people who believe them are idiots. I do some idiotic things, too; we all do. But the difference is, while I may do idiotic things like I dunno, drink too much at band practice when I know I have an early meeting the next morning (not that that would ever happen...since last Thursday), I'm not out there demanding that any political candidate that gets my vote must also be foolish about how much they have to drink on a work night. In fact, it would be better if they didn't, eh? In any case, Egnor is being unfair. We only think he is an IDiot, not all theists.

Okay, with the caveats out of the way, each individual Gnu -- each individual thinking person, for that matter -- ought to at least give some thought to these sorts of existential questions, and Egnor's list, while it contains some red herrings, is not a bad jumping off point. Let's do it!

1) Why is there anything?
Coincidentally, I revisited this question in a recent post. This is a difficult question, and I have a few ways of approaching it. I will reserve one type of approach for Egnor's second question, but for this one, I think I will use a new tactic I developed in that recent post.

So what are we really asking? Any answer to this question which falls in the subset of "anything" would, by definition, fail to answer the question. Why do bananas grow on trees? Because of banana trees. No, not an answer. So really, what are we asking? We are asking, "What is the nothing that caused there to be anything?" Well that's easy! Nothing.

Of course, this comes off a bit snarky, but I think it's a better answer than anything else you will get. Physics might give us some pretty satisfying answers for how the universe came to be given very simple laws (I'll tackle that in the next question) but by definition it must start out with something, some law or way of evolving the "anything." If you want to know why that exists, you're out of luck. And God is not an answer; in fact it's a rather stupid answer because God is most definitely "something". Don't give me this Uncaused Cause bullshit, because that's just an assertion. Why do bananas grow on trees? Because of an Uncaused Cause that caused them to appear there. Yeah, you lose, try again.

2) What caused the Universe?
Here I will fall back on the physics-oriented answers. A popular one is that "nothing" (as in nothingness) is unstable. Another similar answer is that even in nothingness, there are constantly virtual particle/anti-particle pairs being created and then annihilated as result of the natural fluctuating of the quantum field. Certain rare events could conceivably cause those fluctuations to result in a spontaneous symmetry breaking, and thus the Big Bang. Stephen Hawking appears to mount yet another answer in his new book, one which seems to be similar to multiverse theory, and which he claims only depends on gravity.

Moreover, logic is not a fundamental law of the universe; it is an emergent property that works rather well at the macroscopic level. It just may be that in the first few picoseconds after the Big Bang, asking what "caused" a thing is just using misleading language. Sure, things still had to obey physical laws, and the math seems to describe those crucial existential moments pretty damn well so far. But to try to take a high level logic of "event A caused event B, which in turn caused event C" etc., and apply it to that time in the history of the universe... I suspect it's a futile endeavor. Might as well ask about the tensile strength of an electron. Both concepts are real, but... the former does not apply at the scale of the latter.

So, more directly: What caused the Universe? I don't know, and nobody is sure... But physics is beginning to offer some rather mathematically elegant answers. Those answers may turn out not to be particularly existentially satisfying -- but the Universe is not here for our existential edification, we're responsible for working that one out on our own.

And given the context of Egnor's questions, I have to add: "Goddidit" is en even less existentially satisfying answer, at least for me. "Fluctuations in the quantum foam" leaves the romantic part of my brain asking, "That's it?" But "Goddidit" leaves the romantic part of my brain asking, "That's it?" and the logical part of my brain crying, "You've got to be fucking kidding me..."

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
Taken in isolation, this question is a tough one, and as I already hinted at in my answer to the first question, I suspect it might be unanswerable.

A modified question, though, is quite answerable: "Which poses greater explanatory difficulty: regularity or irregularity?"

If we think about the types of answers that would be required to explain regularity and/or the existential challenges posed by the lack of any satisfying answer, those answers/challenges pale in comparison to what would be required for an irregular/lawless universe. For our universe, the only question is why it should obey this small set of mathematically simple laws -- a set which is shrinking all the time, as we find how to derive more complex behavior from simpler behavior. For a lawless universe, every single event has a "why" attached to it! And even worse, if a lawless universe developed organisms stable enough to ask these sorts of questions, then you have some serious explaining to do. Why should all of these random lawless events result in humans?! That's just bizarre.

Again I cannot escape returning to the theistic subtext of Egnor's questions: I always find it surprising that people think an ordered universe obeying simple laws is evidence of a god. I think quite the opposite! One of the most convincing pieces of evidence I can imagine for a theistic explanation of the universe would be if matter and energy obeyed no consistent laws whatsoever, and yet still we had humans and trees and rocks and dirt (and two horses)... well holy shit, that would pretty much imply there had to be some sort of Intelligent Designer orchestrating the whole thing, wouldn't it?

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
Okay, I'm going to need to look this one up, because I'm not familiar with the Four Causes... but before I do, first I need to point out that Aristotle's achievement was in practicing an unprecedentedly rigorous brand of philosophy, in tackling questions where before the best answers had been of the "zeusdidit" variety. His achievement was not in having outlined a particularly good philosophy, not by modern standards. So before I even Wikipedia this, my expectation is that it will be a big shrug.

Okay, looked it up. It's not as bad as I expected, and I think that Aristotle's classification of causes is just reasonable enough that I can answer Egnor's question: I believe in the first three as properties of the physical world (with caveats -- Aristotle's understanding of 20th century physics is weak at best :p ). I believe that "final causes" exist only as abstractions in the mind of sentient beings -- and that those minds only exist (again with caveats) as a result of the first three causes. (Note that something which approximates "final causes" exists in nature as a result of natural selection... but it's not really the same thing. As Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini so impetuously and unceasingly point out in their recent aggravating book, you can never formally say with perfect certainty that a particular trait was "selected for" in order to satisfy a particular selective pressure. There's always the theoretical possibility of a pleiotropy, genetic drift, or whatever as the actual "cause". And as F&P also point out -- like people didn't know this? -- natural selection has no mind, and therefore can have no intention in mind. No, "final causes" do not exist in nature. A seed does not exist for the purpose of becoming an adult plant -- the seed just exists, and natural selection has caused it to be a thing which turns into an adult plant. Purposes are the exclusive realm of sentient beings.)

I think I've satisfactorily answered the question, but before I move on, a comment about Aristotle and physics... yeah, the first three causes were an awesome attempt at a taxonomy of physical causation -- for c. 350 BC. But now we know it's pretty wrong. For instance, the first cause, "material cause", is really a subset of "formal cause" -- the material a thing is made of is a function of the form of it's subatomic particles. And in order to make the causes comprehensive, we have to stretch -- really stretch them. Does "efficient cause" cover quantum chromodynamics? Hmmmm....

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
Now that's the sixty-four thousand dollar question, in'n't it? I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this one, mostly because it requires a book-length treatment to even approach the question. (See Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop for an excellent, if flawed, attempt. Although I have not yet had the pleasure, I understand Daniel Dennett has done great work on this topic as well.) For now, suffice it to say that, at the very least, we have some damn good explanations for how a purely objective reality could give rise to beings who looked, acted, and quacked like conscious beings with subjective experience... and since I think Chalmer's P-zombies don't hold up to scrutiny, I suspect it might just be philosophical fair game to say that the positive result on the Duck Test justifies the existence of subjective experience.

I also am questioning to what extent subjective experience is real to begin with. We already know that personal identity is somewhat of a hallucination. The difficulty in isolating a true present makes me wonder if you even need to posit the existence of the hallucination. I don't know. These are very difficult existential questions, and almost by definition we cannot be equipped to know the answer.

In any case, I'm going to dodge this one for now just because it's too damn long and deep. Again in the theistic context: Even if I were convinced that some sort of immaterial soul was somehow "responsible" for subjective experience, these same questions would remain. After all, we already have a physical mechanism to explain how an organism could act as if it had subjective experience... why would a spiritual explanation of that same thing be any better?

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
This post is getting long... but I have to say, given a material answer to question 5, I don't see how this is even a question. The brain is a naturally selected aboutness machine... isn't it? It would be like asking how the pixels on my computer screen can be about something. They're built to do that. What's the question here? I guess I'm just not a good philosopher...

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
I've written quite a long post on this, so I'll merely direct there. In a nutshell: Mostly the latter, and there is no problem with that. (Nor does that make it relative... the fact that the sole reason I don't like to be kicked in the balls is because of an artifact of natural selection does not diminish the absolute fact that if you kick me in the balls for no reason, you are a fucking asshole! Some "morality" is purely relative, though in most cases I question whether that is truly moral. Most worthwhile morality is relative to our species, but not relative to culture or individuals -- within our species, it is absolute! And that's why I will not apologize for saying, for example, that FGM is a disgusting and barbaric practice, and "cultural tolerance" is not a valid reason to allow sick fucks to chop off little girl's clitorises. kthxbye)

The post I directed to has some ideas for a species-transcendent morality... but it's just that, an idea. I dunno if it makes sense. In any case, even if my ideas for a species-transcendent morality are sound, it still exists only as an inherent artifact of natural selection... it still requires natural selection to exist.

Notice that this is a much better answer than God-says-so. Even theologians agree that morality must exist independent of God, or else it's not morality. If the only reason child-rapin' is wrong is because you're afraid of getting burned in hell, that is not moral (and it's offensive to say so, by the way!). Even if we accept a belief in God, morality must exist independent of Her, with God helping us to determine what is moral rather than dictating it. Otherwise, it is not, by definition, moral.

8) Why is there evil?
Yo mama.

Sorry, post is long. On the home stretch now!

First of all, does Egnor mean "evil" or "Evil"? If he means the latter, then I don't believe in it. If he means the former, does he mean natural evil, like earthquakes and shit; or human-caused evil, like the Holocaust and New Country music; or both? I'll divide it up.

Natural evil exists because the universe doesn't care about us. In fact, in a way, natural selection could not work without natural evil... we are what we are because the universe is constantly randomly killing us, and it turns out that an error-prone digital method of replication allows us to develop better survival mechanisms in the face of this unending danger.

Human-caused evil exists, first, because of the same reason as natural evil. Humans are part of the universe, and there's no magic wand being waved with the incantation, "Universe, don't kill stuff." Moreover, there are all sorts of reasons for humans to behave in immoral ways. For one, it appears that fairly simple genetic mutations or brain injuries can "break" that mechanism, e.g. in the case of sociopaths. For another, there are models which predict evolutionary stable states (ESS) where some fixed portion of the population "cheats" due to their genetic makeup. And even those of us who are normally functioning "moral" humans have still evolved to only be moral some of the time... there are competing impulses, as well as a likely selective advantage to cheating "some" of the time. Lastly, our modern conceptions of morality and ethics are a prioritization and synthesis of our often contradictory and self-defeating naturally-selected moral imperatives -- so obviously our naturally-selected selves are not always going to be driven to behave according to this modern conception.

This again is a question that I think is fairly boring if you already have a material view of the universe. Why wouldn't there be bad shit in an unguided universe? It would be like asking, "Why is there yellow?" Well, there's a certain range of wavelengths of light... So what?

So there you have it. My answers to Egnor's questions. But notice, while I may have some answers in common with other Gnus, these are my own answers. You will tend to see the Gnus giving materially-oriented answers, but what form those take will vary highly from individual to individual. The Gnu Atheism is about opposing the destructive social and public policy influence of religion. Yes, Egnor, the Gnu Atheism is defined as a negative -- so what?

What Egnor asks would be like asking a bunch of anti-war protesters about their views on abortion. Oh sure, you might tend to get a high percentage of them being pro-choice, just because of the left-leaning association... but it will be by no means uniform. Anti-war protesters are defined as those who oppose war, not as those who have pro-choice views, etc. That opposition is made up of individuals, just like Gnu Atheism.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Can there be evidence for God? Can there be evidence for a Halting Oracle? For the Hidden Variables Interpretation?

The volley between Jerry and PZ over whether there could even in principle be evidence of a "god" continues apace, with other bloggers weighing in as well. Okay, my turn!

First of all, I think Jerry and PZ are both failing to define their terms clearly enough. Both of them seem to recognize this problem, but then just go on ignoring it, like everybody "knows what they mean." PZ has made a whole lot of noise, some of it surprisingly sloppy (am I mistaken, or in one post did he argue that "I haven't ever seen any of this evidence" implies that "no such evidence could even in principle exist"?!), but if I may, I think I can boil his argument down to two assumptions, the first of which I definitely agree with, the other which I think is controversial:

1) Anything "supernatural" by definition does not exist, because if something we previously though were supernatural were shown to exist in the physical world, then it would be, by definition, "natural."

2) A necessary feature of a prospective god is that it must be supernatural.

Fair enough, but it seems to me to be begging the question.

Jerry, on the other hand, seems to reject the first premise! He seems to think there is a definition of "supernatural" that would allow a thing with that trait to exist -- even though it wouldn't exist as part of the "natural" world? I don't understand that, and I would need a pretty specific definition of "supernatural" before I would accept it. A number of commenters at WEIT have mounted attempts, but I remain unconvinced by all of them.

So my opinion had been somewhere in between... I reject the possibility of the supernatural (by definition!), but I don't think that possessing supernatural traits is a prerequisite to godhood. Therefore, I thought that, while the evidence would have to be pretty staggering, we might imagine sufficient evidence to convince me of the existence of a being worthy of the appellation "god".

An exchange with Ben Goren has altered my thinking with this somewhat. I still think it's a question of definition, but he has convinced me that there is a particular aspect that is rather fundamental to most useful definitions of "god(s)", and that if I accept that as part of the definition, I must state that I cannot imagine any evidence that would convince me of the existence of god(s). I will stop just short of saying there can never be such evidence, but a case for this type of god(s) would have to first address some important theoretical objections before the evidential case could even begin.

First, the critical aspect of the definition. Let me try and state it as specifically and formally as I can:

Any being which is referred to as a "god" must either a) have created sui generis everything that exists, or b) be part of a pantheon that is either collectively responsible for creating or contains one or more members who created sui generis everything that exists.

If we further assume that said "god" has any type of volition, which seems reasonable given the apparent features of all major religions (oh noes, apophatic theology FTW!), then Ben Goren argues -- and I agree -- that such a god cannot by definition exist. If it exists, and it created everything that exists, then it must have created itself sui generis, and there is not even in principle a way by which a being with volition could create itself sui generis. It just doesn't make sense. It would have to have had volition first, and volition is something, therefore it's not sui generis!

Of course, this is a logical proof, and apparently sound logical proofs have turned out to be wrong before based on hidden assumptions that were not apparent until some new leap forward in understanding was achieved. So I don't reject the possibility that it could be wrong. And FWIW, I stand by that, despite the fact that I am about to constrain it even more.

Ben Goren responds that this may be so, but that the soundness of this proof is comparable to the soundness of the proof of the Halting Problem. Of course, I have not formalized it (probably someone somewhere has?) but in general I agree with Ben. So could there be evidence that would convince me that a Halting Oracle could be implemented in a Turing machine? Well, maybe, but I can't imagine it.

I'd prefer to talk about the Hidden Variables Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, mostly because it's fresher in my mind than the Halting Problem. Bell's Theorem proves that, unless QM is just plain wrong, there can be no hidden variables. (And we're not talking wrong like "Newtonian mechanics is wrong because it over-generalizes a special case of general relativity", we're talking wrong like "Aristotelean physics is wrong") It does so by making predictions on the behavior of entangled particles, known as Bell's Inequalities.

In a nutshell: If there were some hidden variable, then the sum of the probabilities of a certain set of outcomes should be greater than or equal to the probability of another outcome -- because if that latter outcome were true due to some hidden variable, it would entail that all of the other outcomes would also necessarily have been true, if that's what we had been measuring for.

Turns out Bell's Inequalities are violated all the frakkin' time in quantum mechanics, and we can confirm this with observation. And confirm it we have -- again, and again, and again, and again. Bell's Inequalities just plain aren't obeyed. This is a fact of reality.

So any consistent theory of physics which attempted to predict the outcome of quantum interactions based on a heretofore unknown variable -- some trait or state of the particle that we didn't yet know about -- would have to begin by explaining how Bell's Inequalities were violated. If it couldn't do that, then regardless of whatever kinds of copious evidence is amassed in its favor, we would be justified in discounting its accuracy.

(That said, if somebody was able to, say, consistently predict a priori where an individual electron would hit the screen in the double-slit experiment, and this experiment were easily replicated... then we'd be wise to listen up to her theoretical explanation, even if that explanation failed to address Bell's Theorem. Unless and until that were addressed, though, I think we would still provisionally assume that there was some other phenomenon facilitating the prediction, rather than a heretofore hidden variable.)

So it is with a Creator god. I cannot imagine what evidence would convince me of the existence of a Creator god, and any such case would have to begin by mounting a satisfying explanation of the apparent existential contradiction discussed above. Unless and until that contradiction were satisfactorily addressed, we would have to provisionally assume that said god(s) came into existence via some natural process, rather than the other way around -- regardless of any other evidence. That includes your 900 foot Jesus scenarios. Heal as many amputees as you want, turn the Pacific Ocean into 2001 vintage California Cabernet Savignon, prove to me the existence of an afterlife, maybe even show me that you are powerful and benevolent enough to be worthy of worship -- I still ain't buying the Creator thing until you explain that part of it to me.

Now, maybe the Creator aspect is not entirely necessary. It depends on your definitions, of course. I think that's part of where Jerry's going with it (though I think he fails in refusing to nail down what he means by "supernatural" in a meaningful way) and I think that's okay. It leaves you vulnerable to challenges like "are the programmers of the Matrix gods?" or "Is Q from Star Trek a god?", but I don't necessarily think those challenges are insurmountable. (If the programmers of the Matrix made me sing crappy songs, asked for ten percent of my income, and played mean tricks like "Stab your son -- psyche!", then yeah, that pretty much sounds like Yahweh to me...)

So there's my final answer: If you mean the Creator god, then no, I cannot imagine any evidence that would convince me -- although there is an important caveat that my inability to imagine such evidence does not necessarily rule out its existence, though it puts some pretty strict conditions on what form the evidence would have to take. If your definition of god is more expansive, of course, then all bets are off.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I try my hand at explaining part of the double-slit experiment

Having read quite a bit of Elsevier's quantum physics series (and experiencing the accompanying existential crisis), I feel like I have a way of explaining some of the more baffling aspects of the double-slit experiment in a way that ought to make sense to someone with just a minimal amount of background in physics and math.

Wikipedia has a decent resource on the double-slit experiment, so if you are unfamiliar with it and want detailed information, please go there. I want to focus on two particular aspects of it: the "spooky" effect of a single electron interfering with itself, and the fact that observing which slit the electron passes through eliminates the effect. So I will describe in my own words just enough of the experiment to cover those aspects. If you are already familiar with that, you can skip below the fold.

Feynman has famously said that all of quantum mechanics can be deduced from the double-slit experiment, but it is usually presented to students as an illustration of wave-particle duality -- that fundamental particles "behave like particles some of the time, behave like waves other times." (Really it would be more accurate to say that the macroscopic approximations of "particle" and "wave" both bear some resemblance to the true reality of the quantum field, but I digress...) The basic setup of the double-slit experiment is that you shoot a beam of electrons or photons or whatever through a screen with two very narrow slits cut in it, and project that onto another screen.

With both slits open, the interference pattern you see on the second screen is what you would expect to see if you sent a wave at the screen. There are ways of modifying the setup to also make it seem like it is particles (hence the "duality" notion) but I'm going to skip ahead some hundred-plus years and mention a more recent experiment that ought to really blow your mind: This interference pattern shows up even if you only fire one electron at a time. You see one electron hitting the second screen at one place a time, so that seems like it's a particle. But if you keep firing them, the place where these individual particles end up will eventually form a wave-like interference pattern -- as if each electron was interfering with itself somehow.

The other mind-blowing part of the experiment I want to talk about is what happens if you put a detector at one of the slits, so that it still lets the electron pass through, but now you know for each electron which slit it passed through. Suddenly, the interference pattern disappears! Why would observing it have any effect? Spooky, right?

And now, I will try to present what I think is a fairly easy to grasp explanation of how this is happening, by talking about the concepts of configuration space and decoherence. In order to make the explanation very simple, I am going to say a few things that I know are flat-out wrong, but that I think are "close enough" to the gist of things so as to illustrate the idea -- so be kind. This is not meant to instruct in quantum physics (like I'd be even remotely qualified!) but rather to show how something "kind of like" quantum physics could demystify these apparently bizarre effects.

Okay, so first the idea of configuration space. Imagine we have a 2-dimensional universe with only two particles in it. And for simplicity, let's say that the physics in this universe only care about the position of the particles. We could describe the entire state of that universe with a 4-component vector: (xa, ya, xb, yb). Those four numbers would tell us everything there was to know about that universe.

So now let's imagine a 4-dimensional space where the four axis are xa, ya, xb, and yb. Each point in this 4-dimensional space corresponds to one possible state of our little mini-universe.

Okay, now let's "imagine" (yeah right) a space with some 1080-odd dimensions, corresponding to everything there is to know about every single particle in the known universe. (It really should represent the state of the quantum field, but whatever) Any point in this "configuration space" corresponds to one possible state for the known universe to be in.

It turns out that one of the things quantum physics tells us is that -- very roughly speaking -- if your universe starts out at a particular point in this configuration space, what happens next is dependent on information about other parallel universes in nearby points in the configuration space. Well, somewhere a quantum physicist is having a heart attack right now, because it's not really like that at all -- but close enough for now. The point is that another possible universe that is very "close" in configuration space can affect what happens in your universe, but possible universes that are farther away exert little to no effect.

Okay then! On to the double-slit experiment. When I fire an electron -- a single electron -- at the screen, it could pass through the left slit or the right slit, apparently at random. Think of those two possibilities as two possible universes -- really, it's two massive sets of possible universes corresponding to all the other random shit that is happening at that time, but for now, just pretend it's only two. Those two universes are really damn close together in configuration space, since the only thing that is different between them is whether one single electron veered left or veered right. And as we already stated, quantum physics tells us, very roughly speaking, that two universes that are close together in configuration space can have an influence on each other.

Conceptually speaking, it's not that the electron in "our" universe is interfering with itself... instead, it is being interfered with by the electron in that other parallel universe! (IMO, the notion of subjectivity here -- "our" universe, a "parallel" universe -- is a complete illusion, but I think it is fine to visualize it this way for the purposes of this post)

That can only happen, remember, because the universes are so close together in configuration space. If for some reason those two possible universes got separated from each other in configuration space, then they wouldn't be able to interfere with each other anymore, because they'd be too far away.

Enter the sensor. We put a sensor at one of the slits, call it the left one. Now, we have one universe (really a set of universes) where the electron goes left and the sensor is triggered; and another universe (again, really an unimaginably large set of universes) where the electron goes right and the sensor is not triggered. This sensor does not exist sui generis outside of either of the universes -- it is part of the universes themselves. It is made of particles, and probably quite a few of them, even if it's a very small and simple sensor. And as such, when the sensor triggers or doesn't trigger, that affects where said universe finds itself in configuration space.

Furthermore, it doesn't take a particularly complicated sensor to put those two universes so far apart in configuration space that they can no longer affect each other. Even more so if a human happens to read the sensor! That phenomenon -- when a small divergence in configuration space (i.e. one particle going left or right) snowballs into a large divergence in configuration space (i.e. by causing a sensor to trigger or not trigger) is called quantum decoherence.

And it's happening all the time. In fact, it's the normal state of things. That's why we usually "don't observe quantum effects" at the macroscopic level. Usually, two universes (or really, sets of universes) don't stay close enough together for long enough to influence each other in any way that we humans can later observe. It's only by carefully constructed setups, like the double-slit experiment, that we are able to get "our" universe to cruise along close enough to a "parallel" universe for a sufficient amount of time to notice them affecting each other.

But they do effect each other, all the time. And if they didn't, the laws of physics as we know them wouldn't work.

I've got one more mental picture for you, somewhat ripped off from a diagram Elsevier drew, but simplified enough to describe in words. Imagine a 3-dimensional space. The Z-axis represents time, and the X and Y axes are stand-ins for what's really a gazillion different dimensions that we aren't going to visualize: Namely, the quantum state of the electron, and the sensor.

We fire an electron at the screen. Even before it hits the slit, there's still a bunch of possible different quantum states of the sensor, the electron, etc., so we're not just talking about one universe... but for our purposes, it's one pretty coherent thread. So visualize this universe-thread as a tube in our 3-space, forming a circular cross-section in the X/Y axes, and travelling upwards in the Z-axis (i.e. forward in time).

Now we hit one slit or the other. Our universe-thread now splits into two tubes, one corresponding to the left slit, and the other corresponding to the right slit. But that's such a tiny difference, that even though the center of the tubes has shifted a bit, they still overlap -- a lot. In fact, it's not really two tubes, it's more like a figure-8, or like a standard AC power cord. The overlap allows them to influence each other in "quantum"-like ways, like the weird phenomenon of an electron apparently interfering with itself.

Suddenly, one universe-thread encounters a sensor. Uh-oh. A whole shitload of particles change states in rapid succession, and WHAM! that tube splits off from the figure-8 and goes shooting off into the sunset. Now we really have two distinct tubes, two completely independent universe-threads. One of them (where the sensor didn't trip) is still going straight-up the Z-axis, but the other suddenly had a violent diagonal shift that sends it off to another part of the X/Y plane altogether. Now they don't overlap, so they can't interfere with each other. And hence, that spooky "observer" effect.

Again, I reiterate that I was speaking very approximately throughout. For instance, to say that the universes "interfere with" each other is really not quite right -- it's really about quantum amplitudes (which are represented by a complex number) flowing through configuration space. But for everything in my account, I think you could at least make an analogy to quantum physics.

My hope is that by avoiding talking about the specifics, I've presented it in a way that makes intuitive sense. The idea of parallel universes affecting each other is still freaky shit, but at least now it all seems like physics, rather than weird uncaused phenomena and consciousness-causes-collapse nonsense. (In fact, I am now convinced that the very phenomenon of "wavefunction collapse" is, as Wikipedia puts it, "just an epiphenomenon of...quantum decoherence." Which is rather unfortunate, since one of the songs my band plays uses the sudden collapse of a quantum waveform as the central metaphor, but whatever...)

Comments are welcome.

What "Democrat for Paladino?"

I saw a campaign sign for that jerkoff Carl Paladino yesterday, in his bizarrely-chosen dark-red-on-black color scheme. This wasn't the usually "I'm mad too, Carl!" (is the reference to The Network intentional???) Instead, it said "Another Democrat for Paladino." Presumably whoever's yard it is in is proclaiming they are a Democrat who has chosen for some bizarre reason (racism? classism? homophobia? outright stupidity?) to support Paladino.

Only it wasn't in someone's yard. Or in front of a business. Or anything like that.

It was in the patch of grass surrounded by one arm of a cloverleaf-style expressway offramp.

Hence my question: What Democrat?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Perhaps I'm finally reaching that existential crisis...

I've been reading an excellent series on quantum physics the last couple of days. It's really helping me intuitively grasp some of the ideas there, at least as much as it's possible to intuitively grasp the quantum (i.e. real) world.

I've noted before that some people -- like myself -- feel liberated by an atheistic/scientific worldview, that it is simultaneously a relief (because the theistic worldview is so terrifying) and a sense of wonderment; whereas others -- like my wife -- while willing to accept the truth, feel a great existential disappointment about the whole thing.

One of the things Elezier's series pushes is that he is a proponent of the Many-Worlds hypothesis. All fine and good; in many ways I already found that the most reasonable of the many quantum interpretations (I wanted it to be the Hidden Variables hypothesis, but Bell's Theorem handily disposes of that). Still, it didn't particularly trouble me, because even if there would be an uncountable number of separate "me"s a picosecond from now, at this exact moment in time it still seemed there was one definite "me" -- perhaps with a gazillion twins in other alternate worlds, but there still seemed a certain subjective reality to the "now-me", even if there was no objective preference for this particular possible reality.

But Elezier's writings, in particular this post, has me now sort of discounting even the subjective reality of the instantaneous "now-me". It is difficult to put this into words... but somehow I was more or less okay with the thought of there being a single thread of "me-ness" hurtling through a vast space of possible histories, as opposed to the picture Elezier is painting in my head: That this idea of "possible histories" is itself an illusion, a hallucination brought about by the decoherence of various volumes of configuration space.

My mental image before was of a vast infinitesimally branching tree, an uncountable number of timelines springing out of each other, with parallel "me"s riding along each possible branch. Now I just see a static volume within an uncountable-dimensioned configuration space -- for which I might arbitrarily choose a cross-section and call that a subjective reality, but which doesn't exist independently of the rest of the configuration space in any sense whatsoever.

I guess, ironically perhaps, the most disturbing change in thinking is from a quantized tree of possible realities into a great smeared smudge of a single reality -- a reality that is sans even an instantaneously identifiable subjectivity. You could not take every "possible reality" and give it a serial number, and then choose a particular serial number and look up all of the serial numbers of the parent realities that led to it.

And that's the loss, I guess. I used to think that if I could pause reality and somehow "step outside of it" (this is a thought experiment, remember), that I could pick out one unbroken line of the infinite possible histories and say, "This is 'me', right at this moment, and this here is 'my past.'" It doesn't work that way. It's just one great big smudge. If I wanted to pause reality and "step outside of it", I couldn't just choose a point in configuration space and extract a "me" from it, I'd have to choose a compact volume of arbitrary size that hadn't yet decohered -- and even then that particular smeared-out "me" (which is already a much less satisfying "me" than an enumerated point would be) could not trace a line through configuration space -- or even a multi-dimensional tube throw configuration space, for that matter -- and say, "This was 'my past.'" "I" have no past. Just a big smear of quantum amplitudes.

Finally, that existential angst hits me. I'm going to go have some coffee; I may be nothing more than a smear of particles with no past and no future, but coffee still seems to taste good.

Addendum: Wow, the very next post in Elsevier's series deals with this problem of there being no "objective population count," as he puts it. GMTA or something. He's mostly dealing with it in showing that it is not a valid objection to the idea of decoherence, though. Still leaves me with the existential crisis. Jerk...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Importance of Being a Dick, Part II

If I get a chance today, I'd like to spend quite a bit of time poring over Phillip Kitcher's recent essay on "militant" atheism, as well as Dan Dennett's response (posted at WEIT for the time-being). Both of these guys are serious thinkers, and despite Kitcher's facepalm-inspiring invocation of the "militant" canard, he seems to be saying some mostly downright reasonable things.

But even before I get a chance to read it in depth, I want to point something out: The content of Kitcher's essay, though it purports to be a critique of the Gnu Atheism, is actually a huge win for our side. We are seeing the Overton Window in action here folks. As Dennett points out right in the first paragraph of his response:

I went to some lengths in Breaking the Spell to distinguish two spells one might consider breaking: the taboo against looking "too closely" at religion, holding it up to the same harsh light of rational probing to which we subject all other important phenomena, and the spell of religion itself....Kitcher ignores my distinction but in fact is in nearly perfect harmony with my positions on them. His essay is an example of breaking the first spell: he writes with unflinching candor about the shaky status of any religion adopted on what he calls the belief model, and uses that spell-broken perspective to look hard at the prospects for keeping...perhaps the only surviving mode of religion that can provide the benefits he wants to preserve...

(italics in original, bold added)

This is exactly right -- while Kitcher is kinder to the institution of religion than most Gnu Atheists (myself included), he does not pull any punches in regards to the implausibility of the truth claims of religion. And as a result of the visibility of the Gnu Atheism over the past several years, he can write this and still seem downright conciliatory. Imagine if he had written this in, say, 2000 -- Kitcher would have come off as the strident and shrill one!

Although Kitcher's use of the word "militant" and his digs at a somewhat strawmanny version of Gnu Atheism are unfortunate, overall it seems to be a very candid and mature discussion of the role of religion in society. Just as with the media reaction to Stephen Hawking's comments on God, it is the Gnu Atheists who have paved the way for that kind of public discussion.

Keep it up, dicks!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Various answers to "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

My favorite answer to the question is, I'm afraid, ripped off from a commenter on some blog or other (maybe WEIT) whose name I can't recall. (Edit: Mikko K. points out it was a commenter going by the handle AnswersInGenitals over at Jason Rosenhouse's blog. Thanks!) So with apologies due credit finally:

In order to properly frame the question, we must remember that, at this very moment, there are non-existent philosophers in a non-existent universe asking themselves why there is nothing rather than something.

In order to get a more serious answer, I think we need to try rewording the question. First attempt: "What caused there to be something rather than nothing?"

I think that as we peel back the cosmological onion, it becomes difficult to meaningfully speak about "causes". I recognize this is somewhat of an evasion, and it is admittedly a deeply unsatisfying answer. But it may be the most technically accurate answer. Take multiverse theory: It may turn out to be ridiculous to try to apply the concept of cause-and-effect outside of any given universe -- in which case, asking "What caused the multiverse to exist?" would be one of those phrases that is syntactically correct but semantically meaningless.

Because this is so unsatisfying, let's try one more attempt at rewording the question: "What is the 'nothing' that caused there to be something?"

The Ultimate Answer is below the fold.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Why is it legal for insurance companies to charge a co-pay for flu shots?

This seems like a no-brainer. For healthy and relatively young (31) people like me, my personal benefit from getting the flu shot is in many ways less than the net benefit incurred by other more vulnerable people in the population. There is a huge societal benefit to having as many people get flu shots as possible, whereas my personal benefit is more modest.

As I understand it, co-pays don't directly affect insurance companies' bottom lines all that much. (Instead, they make their profit by denying coverage as often as possible, but that's a separate rant) The main purpose of co-pays is to make it so that the insured has a personal cost as well, with the idea being that they will be less likely to get unnecessary treatments. In other words, it is an attempt to bring the insured's personal cost-benefit tradeoff more in line with the overall cost-benefit.

But for a treatment in which there is a major positive externality, a co-pay is just ridiculous. You're moving the insured's personal cost-benefit tradeoff in the wrong direction.

To be honest, I'm baffled that insurance companies don't voluntarily fix this. Surely, getting all of their insured to get flu shots would reduce their overall costs? But if the insurance companies won't do it, the gov't should. It should not be legal for a health insurance company to charge a co-pay for a flu shot, or for any type of vaccination for that matter.

So much for Spinoza...

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reveals shocking new information about "Einstein's God."