Monday, April 23, 2012

From Eternity to Here has made me see a silver lining to the heat death of the universe

Note: I referred several times in this blog post to the idea of entropy "increasing forever", when of course it does no such thing. What I meant to refer to was an inflationary cosmology. I knew I would get some technical details wrong, and worse yet, my other fear -- that this post is redundant -- also seems to be true as well: Carroll tackles a similar scenario just a few pages later in Eternity than where I was when I wrote this. Still, there is some difference: Carroll is arguing that a non-inflationary universe is in contradiction with our observations; whereas I am pointing out that even if, in a misguided attempt to salvage the universe from a future of eternal emptiness, we invoke the anthropic principle to wave away the problematic observations, the universe we find ourselves in is far worse than one which ends with eternal emptiness. Carroll is saying, "This can't be true," while I am saying, "Even though we might fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we really don't even want this to be true."

Well lookie here, Sean Carroll noticed my preliminary comments about From Eternity to Here, and he blogged about it. I am frankly honored, a bit star-struck even -- though if I'd known this would happen I wish I had put more time into that post! Sean's response in a nutshell seems to be, "Maybe it's a fair cop, but it's difficult to see any way to do better." I think I agree with that. I still think that a reader for whom this book is her first exposure to relativity and quantum mechanics (and logarithms, yeesh) is not going to follow a lot of it... but a lot of the review material is welcome anyway. Good popular science writing is immensely difficult, and Eternity is a truly stellar example of it. I really can't recommend this book enough!

I'm still not quite to the end of the book (I'm a little over 75% of the way through), so perhaps my thinking in this post is wrong-headed, or possibly redundant... but in any case, I think this book has incidentally given me a somewhat more positive view of the heat death of the universe.

Let's face it, the idea that the universe will end not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with a gradual diffusion into a sea of unstructured particles is downright depressing. Making it worse is the idea of proton decay, a concept that was introduced to me by the light and fun book Death from the Skies. ("Don't be a dick", Phil? Maybe you could start by not telling me the most fucking depressing fact in all of cosmology... dick!)

But I am beginning to think that, if we really take seriously the conclusions of entropy and statistical dynamics, a universe in which we did not expect the arrow of time to point monotonically and irrevocably from the Big Bang towards heat death is even worse.

I am thinking back to what Sean Carroll refers to as the "Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario" (naming it jointly after the brilliant physicist and the renowned poet and philosopher, as each suggested a similar idea about infinite random recurrences of the universe). In this scenario, the universe as we know it, with it's apparent low entropy state, is the result of a random fluctuation from a high entropy state in an eternal universe. The Poincaré recurrence theorem implies that, in an eternal universe of flat spacetime, it is not just possible but inevitable that every possible state will eventually be arrived at by random chance -- including the exact state of the universe in which we find ourselves right now.

Carroll handily disposes of this idea, pointing out that there are all sorts of features we would expect to see in such a random fluctuation which we do not in fact see in our universe; and that, conversely, the features we do see are far more consistent with the idea of our universe having evolved from a low entropy boundary condition.

But hold on there for a moment, let's not just leave it at that. Let's say we have indeed convinced ourselves that the Big Bang really was a low entropy boundary condition, and that this explains the arrow of time (what Carroll calls "the Past Hypothesis"). Yet, having accepted that conclusion -- and therefore having at least nominally disposed of the Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario -- now let's also say that, since we find the idea of the universe dissipating into a uniform quantum soup to be distasteful, we've convinced ourselves that we ain't going out like that. We started out from a low entropy boundary condition called the Big Bang, which defines the arrow of time for us, but we'll eventually settle into a flat universe, where, although the average entropy remains constant, "stuff can still happen". The alternative is too depressing, right?

The second part of that hypothesis may be just wishful thinking, but even still, we ought to be careful what we wish for... because if I'm not mistaken, the consequences of such a universe are epistemologically devastating. Our dear frenemy Poincaré (don't be a dick, Poincaré!) has proven that, even if we accept that there was at one point a nice orderly universe which evolved naturally from a low entropy boundary condition to a state of high entropy, if we don't allow the entropy to keep increasing indefinitely then there would then follow an infinite series of universes that only seemed to have started from a low entropy boundary condition, but really they were merely random departures from equilibrium.

Even if we believed there had been one very nice existentially satisfying Big Bang-bounded universe, the most parsimonious explanation for our current situation would be Last Thursdayism. Sure, it looks like we are living in that very special and orderly "first universe" possessing a nice clear arrow of time leading from a low entropy big bang to a high entropy "future"... but it's far more likely we are in reality in one of the infinite number of "later" universes which happened to randomly fluctuate into a state that just sort of "looked like" it came from a Big Bang.

Except it's even worse than that. Since, in such a universe, all history is an illusion, there is no way to lean on inductive reasoning in order to predict what will happen at any other moment in time. In such a reality, the most parsimonious explanation for the sensations we are experiencing at any given instant in our lives is that we came into being only a picosecond "ago" due to a random fluctuation of the eternal equilibrium end state of the universe, and we will cease to exist a picosecond "later". Sure, we might be in one of the many universes which are evolving from a random low entropy fluctuation that occurred Last Thursday, putting us in a state that approximated a particular Thursday in the "first universe"; but it's inconceivably more likely that we are in a much more local deviation that simply created the illusion of all of that for one infinitesimal moment. It is a nigh certainty that nothing you see is real; with overwhelming probability, you are nothing more than a Boltzmann brain that perceived for an instant the illusion of being in that special "first universe", and then evaporated an instant later.

So yeah, the fact that an expanding universe allows entropy to increase indefinitely sounds depressing... maybe it is a bit depressing... but the alternative is far, far worse. In a universe that will at some point reach a state of eternal thermal equilibrium, with the accompanying random fluctuations into low entropy states, nothing is knowable, nothing can be believed. The heat death of the universe makes me sad, but if it weren't inevitable then the only logically defensible world view would be nihilism.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Some brief comments on From Eternity to Here

I am currently reading From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. Excellent stuff; although I'm only a little less than halfway through, I think I can say with confidence that if I were to write a review, it would be a very positive one.

But one small complaint is I'm not sure if he's quite exactly worked out his audience. Early in the book, I was starting to fear it would be a rehash of stuff I already knew. It's not. But there were some elementary rehashes that, frankly, I think if someone went into the book not having that knowledge already, they aren't going to be able to grok the rest. This is not a mathematically demanding book, but it is a conceptually demanding book, and I am not sure if someone who doesn't have some limited grounding in the mathematics side will be able to make it through the conceptual side without missing a lot.

Carroll spends a good chapter or two explaining the rudiments of general relativity. At one point, he expends a few paragraphs for the benefit of people who don't know what a logarithm is. And then on page 176, he tosses this out:

Boltzmann has told us a compelling story about why entropy increases: There are more ways to be high entropy than low entropy, so most microstates in a low-entropy macrostate will evolve toward higher-entropy macrostates. But that argument makes no reference to the direction of time. Following that logic, most microstates within some macrostate will increase in entropy toward the future but will also have evolved from a higher-entropy condition in the past.

Emphasis is mine. Now, Carroll has been hinting at this for dozens of pages, and I've been anticipating it... but it's also been kinda bending my mind. Perhaps I am being a bit elitist, but I don't see someone who does not already have a deep gut feeling for mathematics understanding the profundity of that statement.

Now, I'm not saying I think someone needs to be an expert in general relativity, or a pro at computing logarithms, to understand this book. The treatment Carroll gives them is quite sufficient for his aims. Nevertheless, there is a certain math-y way of thinking which Carroll seems to take for granted, and I am skeptical that there are many people out there who are able to follow along with that assumed paradigm and yet who don't already know (at least conceptually) what a logarithm is.

It's not like the simpler material is entirely unwelcome: For me personally, I can always use a review of the rudiments of general relativity, as it's a concept my educational background unfortunately has given me very little time to explore. I can't exactly call curved spacetime "old hack", y'know? I'm just sorta wondering, does Carroll really think that someone who doesn't already have a firm grounding in basic math and physics is going to follow along with some of his more esoteric philosophical explorations of the nature of entropy? I'm skeptical.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A pro-choice argument that really drives me batty

So everybody knows I'm maximally pro-choice, right? I oppose restrictions on abortion at any time during pregnancy. My reasoning is three fold: 1) Before 20-odd weeks or so, the fetus is clearly not a person by any reasonable standard, so there is no good reason whatsoever to oppose abortion in this interval; 2) the vast majority of very late abortions are performed for legitimate medical reasons, and any attempt to legislate against the few truly elective abortions that occur in this time frame would be exploited by theocratic assholes who have a very different definition of "legitimate medical reasons" than I do; and 3) even if that weren't the case, The Famous Violinist thought experiment provides a pretty compelling argument against restricting abortions at any time.1

But there's a pro-choice argument that I hear from time to time which makes my spine crawl. Namely, it's the whole "if you don't like abortion, don't get one" thing. I've heard people I really respect repeat this howler, I think my wife even said it in passing one time, yet I have to say, it really gets my dander up.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to address any of the arguments being made by anti-choice advocates, and in fact it fails in such a way that it could suggest to them that we simply haven't understood what they are trying to tell us, and if only they just showed us one more gruesome picture...

To see the absurdity of this argument, all we have to do is apply it to other scenarios: "If you don't like drunk driving, don't do it." "If you think Trayvon Martin's killing was wrong, don't go shooting yourself a black boy." "If you think fracking is wrong, don't do it." You see my point.

Now, this form of argument is valid in certain contexts where all sides agree that what is being legislated is solely an individual's moral choice, with no effect on any other individuals. It's a mostly valid argument in terms of drug laws, for example. It's entirely valid when it comes to most types of censorship. It's still not a knock-down argument even in those cases, because those endorsing those draconian prohibitions are at least nominally arguing that there are secondary effects which harm society at large. (And in the case of drug use, they are technically correct; if everybody stopped using recreational drugs tomorrow, it would be a tremendous savings to health care -- not that drug laws could ever accomplish that, but let me stop before I digress too much) It is a knock-down argument when it comes to same-sex marriage. In this case, it is agreed by all parties that the harm is not some tangible effect of the act, but that the harm is the act itself -- and in those cases, the "if you don't like it, don't do it" argument is valid.

"Ah," says my fellow pro-choice advocate, "but this is exactly like those cases, because a fetus is not a person. So no other 'people' are being affected!" Well, yes, I agree. (Well, I think it's trickier when you get past 20-odd weeks, but I will steer away from this because, as I hope I made clear in my opening paragraph, I consider that to be a philosophical question not relevant to public policy) But the point is, anti-choice advocates don't agree with that, or at the very least that is not the argument they are making. I am not aware of any anti-choicer whose talking points consist of, "Yeah, a fetus isn't a person, but abortion is bad anyway and I don't like it so people should stop!" (That, sadly, is the basic gist of the talking points made by censorious prudes, but once again I am needlessly digressing...)

By making the "if you don't like it, don't get one" argument, the message you are sending to anti-choice advocates is that you haven't even considered the idea that a fetus might be a person, that this is a new concept for you. I imagine that must be pretty emboldening to them. All they have to do is show you that a fetus is a person, and you'll realize that your entire reason for being pro-choice is as silly as "if you don't like 'stand your ground' laws, don't stand your ground!"

And even if I am wrong about how this argument is received by anti-choicers, it's still a dumb argument and verges on arguing in bad faith. It pretends that the other sides' arguments are something other than what they are. The fact that the other sides' real arguments are equally bad does not excuse this. If I argue that the video evidence of the moon landing must be fake because the moon is made of green cheese and we don't see green cheese in the videos, you cannot respond by simply reiterating the existence of the videos. That does not address my (clearly absurd) premise, nor does it address the resulting argument, which is that despite the videos' appearance of legitimacy, we know it must be fake because it failed to show sufficient evidence of emerald fromagerie. You must start by first telling me the moon is not made of green cheese, or else you have failed to tell me anything of value.

In order to address mainstream anti-choice arguments, you must either go after the idea that a fetus is a person, or you must make an argument in favor of personal bodily autonomy a la the Famous Violinist. When you make the silly argument I attacked here, all you are saying (in the minds of an anti-choice advocate) is, "If you don't like murder, don't kill anybody." Come on, people, we are actually right here, we ought to be able to do better!!

1It occurred to me after writing this that my position is informed by quite a few pragmatic arguments as well, e.g. legal abortion and availability of contraception decreases both abortions and all types of unwanted pregnancies; illegal abortions are dangerous and will happen anyway (i.e. even if you thought abortion was an outright evil, there would still be an argument for legalization in terms of harm reduction), etc. I don't feel these arguments are philosophically necessary for my position, but they are important nonetheless and I only really omitted them in the interest of space: This post is not about why one should be pro-choice (in fact I am assuming most everyone who ever reads this already is), it is about one particularly bad pro-choice argument. Still, I feel bad giving short shrift to these additional pragmatic arguments in my opening paragraph.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Skepticism and Fracking

There seems to be little doubt that fracking can be an unmitigated environmental disaster. I know quite a few people, some of whom I respect, who are opposed to fracking in any and all forms. But I have also heard it said -- though now I can't recall where -- that fracking, if properly regulated, can be reasonably environmentally-friendly (as environmentally-friendly as any technique whose sole purpose is to harvest fossil fuels, of course...). And it doesn't help matters that there has been some anti-fracking hysteria which is just clearly bullshit.

Whether fracking is ever a good idea turns out to be a pretty technical topic, and I just don't know where to start on it. I honestly have no idea. I know there are at least some people on the anti-fracking side who are completely full of it, and I know there are at least some people on the pro-fracking side who are perfectly willing to tell egregious and damaging lies to make a buck. In such a situation, facts must be the ultimate arbiter, but I just don't know the facts.

I haven't read barely anything about fracking in the skeptical blogosphere. I know it is distinctly anti-skeptical to want other bloggers to tell me what to think... but, hell, I'll be honest: I just sorta hope somebody else -- hopefully somebody whose work I already trust so I can be reasonably sure they aren't cherry-picking -- does the legwork so that I can bone up on the facts with having to, you know, find them for myself.

Really, given the prominence of the controversy in the media, I'm somewhat surprised I haven't read about it on, e.g. Bad Astronomy or something. Anybody got any links?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

I feel bad for George Zimmerman, I really do

The latest news has George Zimmerman completely flipping out and ditching his lawyers, putting together a poorly-designed website1, and talking to the media without clearing it with his legal team. I'm surprised only to the extent that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often when people find themselves, whether by their own fault or not, placed under an intense media spotlight. I mean jeez, I'm on the verge of a mental health breakdown over just some stupid medical bills and back property taxes that, if I had my shit together, should be easy for me to take care of with my salary. I can't imagine what it would be like to be subject to that kind of scrutiny, to have real problems.

And to be honest, I really do feel kinda bad for George Zimmerman. Before going further I must point out that, as should be clear from my previous writing on the topic, I think that a crime was committed here, and that the way people are parsing the story is being tremendously influenced by race in a manner that is downright disgraceful. Reverse the races of the participants, and this is a non-story, because Zimmerman is sitting comfortably in jail (and possibly in better mental health, for what it's worth...).

But Zimmerman is still a human being, the media treatment of him has not been entirely fair, and I do believe that he was most likely trying (though failing) to do the right thing when this terrible tragedy took place.

I find it unlikely that Zimmerman is what I would call an "explicit racist", i.e. although it is clear that, like of all us, his thoughts on race are subconsciously influenced by the context of institutionalized racism in which he finds himself (and Zimmerman probably more than most), still I tend to seriously doubt that he's the kind of guy who would explicitly talk about the inferiority of people of different races or explicit disparage African-Americans without using "dog whistle" language. Zimmerman is probably baffled at the accusations that he was behaving in a racist fashion. He does not have the framework to be able to recognize that one (and even oneself) can behave in a racist manner without explicit racist intent. While there's little doubt that Zimmerman was engaging in a shameful and deadly display of racial profiling, I think it's unlikely he sees it that way, and since (I imagine) he lacks the tools to be able to confront this about himself, it is probably very painful for him.

Moreover, I'm not even sure I would call Zimmerman a "murderer" per se. There are some important details that we just don't know yet, of course, but there are a lot of plausible narratives in which this would be (in common law; I must ignore Florida's absurd "stand your ground" law here) manslaughter rather than murder.

One such narrative that I find particularly plausible: Zimmerman is following Trayvon -- which nobody denies -- and both men are getting increasingly worked up. Zimmerman is angry because he feels like he is going to once again fail to "defeat the bad guy" in his quest to be neighborhood superhero; and Trayvon is angry because he is once again being reminded that he's a black kid in a hoodie, and is being shamed into shuffling his feet lest he face imminent danger. After this goes on for a while and both mens' nerves are at the breaking point, Zimmerman gets out of the car to confront Trayvon face-to-face. It almost immediately erupts into a scuffle, and even if there were witnesses it would not be clear who threw the first punch -- I'm sure we've all seen a fight erupt just like this, with the antagonists so wound up that something as simple as a slight twitch of the arm causes a confrontation to explode into fisticuffs before anybody even knows what happened.

This next part of my "imagined" narrative is somewhat called into question by recent vocal analysis suggesting it was in fact Trayvon who was screaming on the 911 tapes, but nevertheless, given the reports of injuries, etc., I don't find it implausible that Trayvon was "winning" the resulting brawl. Much has been made of Zimmerman's size and age advantage, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm built about like Zimmerman, and although admittedly I'm five years older than he is, if I got in a fistfight with a wiry 17-year-old football player, I'm pretty sure I'd get my ass kicked. Zimmerman panics, pulls a gun, he shoots.

Again remembering that I am referring to common law rather than Florida's screwed up gun laws, a story like that is what we would call manslaughter: Zimmerman provoked the fight but did not necessarily throw the first punch, and in the ensuing brawl he escalated to lethal force. Think of two guys (white guys let's say, just to separate it from the racial politics) who are arguing inside a biker bar. They take it outside, nobody's sure who threw the first punch, one dude gets stabbed to death. That's manslaughter.

Now I filled in a lot of details there that we simply don't know. It's quite possible that Zimmerman unambiguously jumped Trayvon, or Trayvon unambiguously jumped Zimmerman, and in either case that changes the common law implications a lot. And we don't know that Trayvon was "winning" the fight; as I mentioned, it does appear pretty conclusive at this point that it was the kid and not the shooter who was yelling for help on the 911 tape. If it was Zimmerman who was kicking Trayvon's ass at the time he pulled the gun, and assuming Trayvon did not unambiguously start the fight, it is much harder to frame it as anything less than murder.

My point is simply that it might not be full-on murder. The narrative I constructed doesn't contradict any of the details we know. Some of the details it fills in may be unknowable, e.g. we don't appear to have any witnesses to the start of the fight. (With that in mind, if Zimmerman is ever charged, the prosecutors may have a better chance of making a manslaughter charge stick for exactly this reason.)

So yeah, I feel a lot of pity for Zimmerman. I don't think he was a sadistic murder, I think he was more likely a racially-ignorant dumb-ass with a hero complex. And as harsh as that sounds, many people are dumb-asses, and I would say most people are probably fairly ignorant about race issues, so aside from the hero complex this doesn't exactly distinguish him from your average Joe (or George).

Zimmerman is less evil, and more average. If/when he is brought to justice, it will be a good thing, since it seems fairly clear a crime was committed here (at least under common law). But it's still a tragedy on both sides. One life was extinguished, another it seems now may be largely wasted. All because of some racial ignorance and some dumb decision-making. I'm sad for everybody in this.

1The gratuitous and terribly-placed American flag on his website partially negates the sentiment I express in the title to this post, but only partially.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Why you should always practice humility if you are in the majority position

In my opinion one of the most important additions to Freethought Blogs has been Natalie Reed. At least it's been important to me, and the reason is because her opinions and her life circumstances very much challenge me. No, I don't stand up and cheer at everything Natalie says, the way I do with a lot of the other FtB bloggers. While I've been comfortable with the idea of gender as a fluid concept for quite some time, there are some trans issues that Natalie brings up which are foreign to me, are difficult for me, cause me to sometimes react by saying, "No no, that can't be right."

And what do I do when that happens? I just listen. And today, it struck me exactly why that is the right thing to do.

You know how annoying it is when a theist thinks they've got some knock-down argument for the existence of God, and it turns out to be some dumb crap that we've all heard a thousand times before and was refuted a million times before any of us were even born? The reason the theist does this is a unique property of being the majority: They don't realize that we've heard all of those arguments before.

It is a feature of being in the minority in regards to a controversial topic that -- independently of whether one is actually right or wrong -- one has probably heard all of the majority's arguments ad nauseum. Again, this does not automatically make the minority position right: The majority may have a knock-down irrefutable argument, and you've heard it but for whatever reason don't accept it. But the idea that someone in a distinctly minority position hasn't even heard the majority's arguments? Pretty silly.

Sometimes Natalie writes something and my initial reaction is, "No no no, that's not right at all! And here's why..." But before I say anything, I try to remember that she's almost certainly heard all of that before. And sure enough, more often than not my objections wind up being addressed at some point.

Trans issues are pretty frikkin' complicated (check out this mind-blowing post from Natalie on how the issue of "coming out" relates so differently to trans individuals than it does to cisgendered gay people, for example) and sometimes it is just too much for me to wrap my head around from the isolated position from which I sit. The best I can do sometimes is to just sit and listen. I don't always agree. But you know what? Natalie all the time brings me enlightenment in regards to these issues, whereas the odds that I am going to say something that will "enlighten" her in regards to trans issues are approximately zero.

So yeah, if you're in the majority... try to be humble about your great insights. Those in the minority have almost certainly heard them all before, and won't find them particularly clever.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

No Jesus, No Peas at Freethought Blogs!

Since apparently every blogger at FtB is leaving on the same day -- curiously, none of them announcing it on their own blogs -- that has created a vacuum, which, I am happy to say, will be partially filled by No Jesus, No Peas. There's actually a pretty good synergy going on here, since in addition to the sudden desperate need for more bloggers, it dovetails nicely with the diversity efforts that FtB has been engaged in. Finally, heterosexual college-educated white males in their mid-thirties will be given a prominent voice within the skepticism community. It's a historic day!