Occam’s bludgeon

I’ve been reading a lot lately on the nature of time and space from the perspective of physics, and I cannot help thinking of the drunk looking for his car keys under a streetlamp. Asked by a passerby where he last saw them, he replies, “In that dark alley.”

“Really?” asks the bystander. “Then why are you looking here?”

“Because the light’s better!”

To a physicist, mathematics is the light. It is the hammer for which all problems resemble a nail. It is the hail and farewell of a journey not taken.

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware and appreciative of the power of mathematics.  Without it, I couldn’t be “writing” this post — tapping on plastic bumps, confident that not only will the resultant deviations of light on an entirely separate slab in front of me configure themselves to reflect my thoughts, but also send mysterious invisible waves into the night so that you can see those same squiggles on your slab.  But the formulas that describe these processes are not identical to the processes themselves, as phenomena in the real world.  They are models, or

… task-driven, purposeful simplification[s] and abstraction[s] of a perception of reality … [emphasis mine]

In other words, take out all the messy, inconvenient bits and see if you can’t come up with something useful.  There have been powerful models of reality throughout history that have enabled marvelous results, and that we have since decided are inaccurate.  I need only mention shamanism and acupuncture.  And even physicists, despite all their rhapsodizing about mathematics, still can’t make all their theories play well with each other without imaginative gymnastics.

Mathematical models are by far the most universal and fruitful of these, but are they real, in the sense that the universe works that way a priori?  Not according to Raymond Tallis:

The mathematics of light does not get anywhere near the experience of yellow, nor does the mathematical description of patterns of nerve impulses reach pain itself. This is sometimes seen as evidence that neither the colour nor the pain are really real – although it might be difficult to sell this claim to the man looking at a daffodil or a woman with toothache.

I have no quibble with the idea that models, mathematical or otherwise, are indispensable for our understanding of the real world, but physicists have been insisting that they are the real world.  They cite Occam’s Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is always not only the most likely to be true, but is actually true.

Ironically, William of Occam, the late medieval monk for whom this principle is named, did not believe in the existence of universal laws of nature.  Humans, he thought, had made them all up for convenience.

Go figure.


Congratulations: the incredibly improbable you

You’ve made it this far.  There were never any guarantees, were there?

Take the Big Bang, for instance.  By all accounts, this event should have resulted in equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and we all know what that means.  Nothing.  A big, fat zero.  You put the two together, and that’s what you get, so for physicists, the old chestnut of why there’s something rather than nothing takes on a whole new significance.  For some reason, after the Big Annihilation, there was this miniscule (comparatively) amount of stuff left over; that’s us, and all we are in and around.

Even so, a lot of different things could have happened from there.  The laws of nature could have been different.  If gravity was just a tiny bit stronger, no sooner would the universe have begun to expand, than it would have collapsed back on itself.  No time for matter to come together slowly, forming stars while waiting for the Great Dissipation of entropy.  Which brings up another thing: if entropy is a law, if everything ends up at the lowest, most uniform possible state of energy, why wasn’t that the case immediately before the Big Bang?  It could have been.  It should have been.  But it wasn’t; big chunk of luck for us!

Even taking all of that ultimate origin stuff as a given, it’s been no cakewalk.  You start with a bunch of protons and electrons whizzing about the fledgeling universe, but because it’s not uniform, some of them clump together due to our friend gravity.  Actually, enormous clumps of them, so huge the pressure pushes them into units composed of two protons and electron each: helium atoms.  It’s fusion, and lumps of it were happening all over.  Altogether disorderly and un-entropic.  Worse yet, all that energy causes flares, explosions, various ways of ripping it all apart, with the result that bits of stars are flung out, kind of like bits of fur in a cosmic cat fight.  More and more atoms are forced together, and eventually you get all the elements we are familiar with, including the ones we are composed of ourselves.  Stars have clouds of gases and debris swirling around them.  Sooner or later, the same thing that brought the original matter together to make the stars begins happening in the debris clouds.  They start clumping up, and some get rather large, at least by our standards.  We call them planets.

Of course most planets, even the ones in our own little star system, with the notable exception of Earth, are places completely inhospitable for life.  The bulk of them are like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, great gassy blobs with no place to even stand on, let alone survive.  Even most that are solid enough to stand on are inhospitable, like Mercury, or Venus.  Just our little Earth is perfect, and it causes us huge headaches on occasion.  True, in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, there are doubtless others like it, maybe even some better equipped for life.  But they are in a minority.  Just our luck we’re here.

Although, to be honest, even Earth was no picnic for much of its history.  Our lump of clay is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, and for almost the first half of that, its atmosphere was largely nitrogen and methane.  Don’t get me wrong; it was buzzing with life, little anaerobic  specs happily bathed in the major component of our modern farts.  How they came to be is a matter still hotly debated, but we’ll leave that, and the odds of it happening, aside.  Earth was a very warm place, indeed.  Then, catastrophe!

Evil, wicked, cyanobacteria arose, making energy directly from the sun via photosynthesis, and giving off as a waste product — oxygen.  It was a deadly poison, and the tiny microscopic newspapers of the day were full of dire predictions.  Just kidding.  Had they been, though, their predictions would have been all too true.  It’s said that this was by far the greatest extinction event the world has ever witnessed, killing off almost all of the existing life, leaving only the new photosynthesizers and a smattering of the older bits near ocean vents and the like.  Even they had it rough, though, because the sudden burst of oxygen turned almost all the methane into carbon dioxide.  The Earth cooled, and remained encased in ice – snowball Earth – for millions of years.

Well, there it is.  They’re still with us; they’ve become all the rich and glorious diversity of plants.  From our perverse point of view, or course.  We are essentially what’s become of alien invaders wallowing about in their own waste products.

I can’t begin to tell you all the trials and tribulations that followed.  For the next couple of billion years, the Earth vacillated between toasty warm and crippling cold, and all the range between, each shift engendering a new catastrophe for whatever life had grown accustomed to the previous conditions, and a marvelous opportunity for those few misfits who had managed to survive in spite of it.  You really should check out some of the incredible trials and errors along the way: hard-shelled predators with razor like appendages; floating masses of jello; tiny diatoms whose gazillions of weeny skeletons form the vast limestone deposits of Earth.  But let’s cut to the chase.

What with one thing and another, bilaterally symmetrical soft-bodied creatures with internal structures of calcium carbonate evolved: the vertebrates.  I mean, anyone care to calculate the odds?  One major theory of the evolution of skeletons is that organisms found a way to sequester the deadly calcium in their environment, and that that eventually was pressed into service as the internal skeleton, providing rigidity and support for locomotion and other kinetic activities.  Talk about making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given.

You may think that by this point, we are well on the way to the obvious: us and all the clever world about us.  Not so fast.

Although you could make a case that in such a changeable, unreliable world as Earth, it was just a matter of time before an intelligent, generalized creature like the primates would evolve, we’re still a long way from ourselves here.  Even today, there are hundreds of primate species, with hundreds more having gone extinct.  It is said that at one point, about 60-50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was down to a breeding population of fewer than a couple of hundred individuals.  We’ve all been squeezed through a very narrow funnel, my friends, which explains why we’re so damned alike.

Think of it.  A species comprised of many thousands, culled to a couple hundred.  Most humans died back then.

But not your ancestors, or mine.  The odds against any one of us being here are astronomical.  Since then, of course, we’ve burgeoned to a population of something over 7 billion.  All the same, countless ancestral lines have gone extinct since the big crunch of 60-50k alone.

But not yours, and not mine.  At any point along the vast expanse of time, from the first flicker of life to now, your personal ancestor organism might have been one of the countless gazillions that died without issue.  Congratulations.

Now, about those horrendous odds you say you’re up against…

Don’t beam me up, please

It’s an old dream, the ability to move instantly from one place to another, far off.  Only shamans were ever able to do it, though.  But now, there’s a chance it might actually happen for all of us, in the not too ridiculously distant future.

Technically, there is no reason why we can’t eventually have teleporters – little booths you can walk into and walk out of thousands of miles away at the speed of light, providing there’s one at each end.  Sort of.

You knew there was a catch, didn’t you?  Using existing technology, the process involves reading all the information of which you are composed at one end, and reassembling you at the other end by dumping it.  This does involve your complete destruction at the transmitting end, of course.

That’s the interesting part.  The reassembled you at the destination would have all your cells, synapses, and nerve endings reproduced exactly as they were at the moment of your dismantling.  This includes your brain, where everything you know is stored in the precise configuration of its parts.  The original you may be destroyed, but the new you will remember going into the transmission booth, and coming out unscathed at the end.  So, is that you, or isn’t it?  What exactly do we mean by “you” anyway?

To an outside observer (scientist, friend, mother) it would be indistinguishable from you.  Come to that, to an inside observer (the reassembled you), the same would be true, since it would contain all that defined the earlier you.  But the original you was destroyed in the process.  What we always knew as you is dead, my friend.  It has been reduced to its constituent components, little electrons whizzing around little protons and neutrons, completely devoid of the patterning we came to love all those years before the experiment.

Here’s the weird part: because the teleportation involved reading all the information that constituted you, then transmitting it to a new location, it could presumably be saved.  You could be stored on a disc and not reassembled until later.  Much later.  Multiple copies of you could be made, all of which would insist it was the real you.  Each of them would be the real you, by any existing standards of evidence.

So, we end in a situation in which you are dead, because we killed you to get at your information, but you are still walking around in multiple iterations, perhaps having violent confrontations with each other over their authenticity.

Here’s the real question, which is so bizarre I’m having difficulty putting it into words:  Would you, that entity which now lives in and looks out at the world from your body, which is the experiencer of your history, which debates with itself over the nature of the reality presented it by your senses, would you inhabit any or all of your new selves?


Open letter to the Director, Department of Intelligent Design

Dear Sir,

It is my belief that, the prototype having been in production for some 6,000 years, some issues might be addressed which have come to my attention.

First, although it may have seemed a good idea at the time, it is increasingly clear that it was a mistake to make the universe seem so much older than it really is.  I was not present at the meeting when this was discussed, so I cannot say what the purpose may have been.  There has been talk of some sort of test to be administered to a transient species near the end of the process, but it now seems rather a lot of trouble to have gone to, for what could only have been some sort of joke.

Second, I thought it had been agreed that the order and harmony principles behind the design would obviate any further tinkering down the line.  It now seems that suspension of the rules which govern things is so frequently required that there is even a name for it: “miracle.”  I don’t suppose it occurred to whomever authorized the first miracle that it would set off a chain of events requiring more and more of them as more time went by.  Can you say butterfly effect?  I understand it has even gotten to the point where sporting events can no longer be decided without intervention.

Third, biology.  I don’t know where to start.  Who was in charge of biology?  I mean, it started out fine, lots of diversity there, plenty of fun, but did somebody go on vacation, or what?  I get a column with four protrusions.  Nice symmetry, good locomotor possibilities, sound basic engineering.  But why stand it up?  Do that, and the load structure goes all wrong, you get joint issues, and the column goes all to hell.  ME 101.  Hell, might as well just have evolution if we’re going to be that sloppy.  And don’t even get me started on bacteria; they’ve got security issues you could push a planet through.  We need a change of leadership there, for sure.

Fourth, and in my opinion, most disturbing, we seem to have pushed all our error down into the nano level.  I completely see the reasoning behind this: sweep it under the great cosmic rug, and hope nobody trips over it.  But they will, you can count on it.  Already, people have found out that we’ve got stuff popping in and out of existence down there all the time to keep things in balance, and they’ve been poking around anti-this and dark-that for years.  It’s only a matter of time.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I hope there is still time to address these issues.  I know, we can always create more time if we run out, but is that really the right way to run things?

With all due respect,

God, Sr. (Retired)

What I think I believe: A prose poem

To say there is no duality is to concede there is.

To say God has a list is ignorance.

To say you know anything for sure is naive.

To believe in a separate, personal God is nothing short of ridiculous.

Every religion tells us that God is immutable, omnipotent, and utterly ungraspable by the human mind.  Every religion goes on to tell us exactly what is in the mind of God.

Do you think your one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has droned the same immutable message since it rose from the ashes of the Roman Empire?  Do you really believe your free-thinking, free-wheeling nihilistic Buddha is the same one who sat, perplexed, tormented and impatient under the Bodhi tree?  Can it be your quibbling, etymological Yaweh is the same brutal partisan of the Torah?  Is your pitiless prophet the same one who forgave the Meccans for trying to destroy him?

Congratulations, you have mastered the difficult art of intransigent gullibility.  Nothing is changeless, not even the divine genealogies your ancestors would find disturbing without their context.

Yes, there is a God, created and lovingly maintained by his human masters.  How could it be the opposite?  Does God shave?  What does he eat?  What use would he have of testicles?  Where does he get his clothes?  How can he have demands?

In my universe, there is no god but All.  There are no demands, no rewards, no punishment.  Leave that kind of stuff for humanity.  The meaning of life is life.  The meaning of death is life.  The meaning of humanity is arrogance.  The meaning of good is evil.  The meaning of my right hand is my left hand.

How can it be otherwise?


Levers.  To me, they hold the key to all the mysteries of the universe.  Why does one thing follow the last?  Why is the speed of light – the speed of it, not light itself – immutable?  How can an attribute be more fundamental than the thing itself?  How can something come from nothing, and return to it?  How can two things as different as mass and distance be so intimately intertwined?

Everyone knows the formulae involved; that’s not what I’m talking about.  That work equals force times distance is definitional, and intuitively satisfying, given the ordinary meanings of the words in the equation.  We can relate to pushing a one ton weight a distance of, say, ten meters.  That’s work, by god!  But just between you and me, those aren’t really words; in this case, they’re mathematical terms masquerading as words:

 F = ma
W = Fd

For example, we accelerate a mass some distance by applying force to produce work, but we would never think of producing mass by dividing work by the product of acceleration and distance.  How would we even go about such a division?  Words literally fail us here!  Not so mathematics:

m = W/ad

The disturbing thing here is that it’s perfectly true.