The Scientific World-view needs an Update

We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
— John Archibald Wheeler

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
— Mrs Haine, my 6th Grade teacher (1961)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
— erroneously attributed to Mark Twain

Yesterday, I posted at ScienceBlog an essay that I won’t reproduce here. The gist was

  • Parapsychology research has solid findings, consistent enough that physicists should stand up and pay attention.
  • The smartest people looking for a physical Theory of Everything are limiting themselves to reductionist theories, while the parapsychology research is pointing in other directions.
  • Mainstream science treats mind as an epiphenomenon, arising from computation by some yet-to-be-discovered mechanisms. But there is evidence from parapsychology and more mainstream research that mind is a fundamental constituent of the Universe, with effects including non-local physical interactions and (perhaps) determining the very physical laws that keep the whole show running.

I go on to speculate that the mechanical world-view derived from 19th century physics has never been replaced, even though it is inconsistent with 20th century quantum physics; and that the mechanistic/reductionist world-view has taken the meaning out of our lives and spawned the existential angst and chronic depression that are epidemic in modern Western socieities.

Finally, I speculate on the future of quantum biology. Life is a bulk quantum state, continually monitored from the inside by a chunk of consciousness that has taken up residence.

Please read and comment if you’re interested in such things.


The mothering you wish you had had

The psychotherapy that offers the deepest healing is the perfect mothering you missed the first time around, according to an Aeon article by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska.

(There are other useful modes of therapy (123) that address symptoms, and can change your life more quickly, if less deeply.)

(Others promote guided psychedelic journeys as a shortcut to spiritual transformation and an unexpectedly effective remedy for despair.)

Applied Parapsychology

In 2013, a University of Colorado professor of quantum engineering organized a project with his class, based on precognition. “I’m going to show you a picture this time tomorrow, and I want you to describe what you will see at that time.”

The picture was chosen by chance from two possible pictures, and, as frequently happens with such experiments, the students’ descriptions fit better with the picture that they were actually to be shown than the one they would never be shown (even though at the time they were describing the picture, they had not yet seen it).

Prof. Moddel added a variation:  He decided in advance that if the stock market goes up tomorrow, he will show the student Picture A, and if the stock market goes down, Picture B.

Result: The students correctly predicted the picture 7 out of 7 times, and Prof Moddel’s investment in DJIA futures made $4,000.

write-up in the Journal of Scientific Exploration

Comment: I believe such things happen far more often than chance would predict (in this case, 1 time in 128). But I also think they are less consistent than the “7 for 7” would indicate, otherwise the research field of parapsychology would not remain underfunded, as it chronically is ☺.

As the article describes the investment, they would have made $28,000 instead of $4000 if they had invested just as they had planned to do, but they mistimed their 7th and last trade, and suffered a large loss.

If you believe it possible that people can sense in advance what picture they will see tomorrow, you probably also think it possible that human events are arranged so as to warn people away from life paths that are venal and unrewarding.

Even if precognition lacks sufficient consistency to support a hedge fund, the phenomenon is consistent enough to justify a rethinking of the foundation of Western science.    — JJM


Leibniz was no dummy

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

— Jonathan Swift: Poetry, a Rhapsody

Gottfried Leibniz was a Renaissance genius on a par with Isaac Newton, and in fact he developed an equivalent formulation of what we now call “calculus” at the same time Newton was doing it.

Both Leibniz and Newton inherited a Christian-animist view of the world that was so embedded in their culture that they would not wholly reject it. They both came to believe that motions of the heavenly bodies and also objects on earth were governed by universal laws that predicted behavior. How did they reconcile that with a God who made the world go ’round and with the living beings that appear to be acting from their free will?

Image result for mechanical universe

Leibniz struggled deeply with this question, and connected it to his concept of the infinitely small, which was an essential epiphany on the way to the calculus. His solution was that non-living things have a finite chain of causation. In other words (he didn’t imagine atoms), at a very small scale, water or air or a rock were just uniform substances.

The special thing about life is that it is subject to infinite chains of causality. Living things are mechanical, like the non-living world, but the mechanisms cannot be traced to a first cause, because their is no first cause. At each level, there is another level beneath it that is responsible for the behavior at the next level up. “And so proceed ad infinitum.

Justin E. H. Smith’s review of Ohad Nachtomy’s book on Leibniz

We may think of this as a mistake, or we may think of it as an ingenious solution to a problem that is not fully resolved in 21st Century physics. Modern approaches to the question of free will tend to start from quantum mechanics, but who knows but that a hundred years from now, scientists might believe that Leibniz was closer to the truth in the 17th Century than we are in the 21st.

In this quote, Leibniz sounds like a panpsychist.

My philosophical views approach somewhat closely those of the late Countess of Conway, and hold a middle position between Plato and Democritus, because I hold that all things take place mechanically as Democritus and Descartes contend against the views of Henry More and his followers, and hold too, nevertheless, that everything takes place according to a living principle and according to final causes — all things are full of life and consciousness, contrary to the views of the Atomists.

Chaque substance est comme un monde à part, indépendant de toute autre chose, hors de Dieu…
(Every substance is as a world apart, independent of everything else except God.)

…and here he sounds more like an Platonist or perhaps a Kastrup-style idealist.

Although the whole of this life were said to be nothing but a dream and the physical world nothing but a phantasm, I should call this dream or phantasm real enough, if, using reason well, we were never deceived by it.

He took seriously the question that every atheist asks today, “If God is all-good and all-powerful, how come the human world is so fucked-up?”

Il y a deux labyrinthes fameux où notre raison s’égare bien souvent : l’un regarde la grande question du libre et du nécessaire, surtout dans la production et dans l’origine du mal ; l’autre consiste dans la discussion de la continuité et des indivisibles qui en paraissent les éléments, et où doit entrer la considération de l’infini.

There are two famous labyrinths where our reason very often goes astray. One concerns the great question of the free and the necessary, above all in the production and the origin of Evil. The other consists in the discussion of continuity, and of the indivisibles which appear to be the elements thereof, and where the consideration of the infinite must enter in.

Image result for devil cartoon

I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted. The combination of all the tendencies to the good has produced the best; but as there are goods that are incompatible together, this combination and this result can introduce the destruction of some good, and as a result some evil.

Leibniz also foreshadowed the modern penchant for many universes, which has become the mainstream approach to the Anthropic Coincidences, and which only Max Tegmark carries to its logical conclusion.

Omne possibile exigit existere. (Everything that is possible demands to exist.)


In other cultures, schizophrenia is a gift

I have sometimes wondered why schizophrenia survives in the human gene pool.  Perhaps it is a way of knowing things that are not accessible to the five senses, but that are supremely useful to a community (even if that knowledge is less dependable than the five senses).

Phil Borges tells about visiting shamans the world over, experiencing firsthand their trances and the knowledge that comes through them, asking their stories and (usually) traumatic childhoods.

Cosmologists shaking in their boots

Cosmology is arguably the most ambitious of all the sciences. It is built on astronomy, to be sure, but also a great deal of particle physics and quantum theory in energy regions where we have little or no data. 

Learning anything about the universe as a whole requires enormous investments in astronomical observations at all wavelengths and statistical analysis of the collected data. On the back end, these results are compared to computer simulations that start with a few simple assumptions and then follow the physics from the Big Bang to the present, and, finally translate the large-scale picture to a prediction of what we should be seeing as we look out from our present vantage.

Every fact that we have about the universe as a whole was obtained at enormous cost in time, dollars, and effort.  Because the facts we have about the universe are few, in good faith we can only entertain theories that are very simple. For example, if we have 7 measured facts about the universe and a theory with 6 free parameters, the theory is on shaky ground.  If we need 7 free parameters to explain 7 observations, then we are open to the charge that any other theory might serve just as well.

The heyday of physical cosmology began with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 and continued through 1997.  Back in the 1970s and 80s, when I was studying astrophysics, there was an enormous sense of excitement and pride because of one agreement between theory and observation.

28% of matter in stars (and interstellar clouds) is hydrogen, and the rest is helium. If we extrapolate the present temperature of the universe (3 degrees above absolute zero as inferred from the cosmic microwave background) back to the big bang, then we could calculate what nuclear reactions would have occurred in the first three minutes that the universe existed. The answer we got was 28% helium, 72% hydrogen. (This story is related in Steven Weinberg’s very readable (but dated) book, The First Three Minutes.)

What happened in 1997 is that two independent measurements of the expansion of the universe both showed that the expansion is speeding up, and this required a negative gravity to explain it. A negative gravity substance was postulated and given the name “dark energy”, and another kind of matter, “dark matter” was needed as well, partially to make up for the dark energy.  We know absolutely nothing about either DM or DE except that they utterly resist detection by any means outside these observations of the structure of galaxies and clusters of galaxies.  

Since 1997, cosmology has been in an uncomfortable zone where science really can’t do business: there are more assumptions that go into the model than there are facts that the model can explain.  Clearly, we need more observations, more facts, more opportunities to test and constrain existing theories.

This has been a golden age for automated observation of the heavens and sophisticated data analysis.  As the new observations come in, The problem has been getting worse. Sober, conservative leaders in the field speak of a crisis in cosmology. Two such articles have appeared in recent months. The one that I just linked (by my Harvard classmate of 50 years ago, Joseph Silk) notes that theorists have indulged in a kind of cheating to make their models appear consistent with the data. They have chosen parameters for the expansion and the density of the universe that are halfway between values measured by two kinds of methodologies. If you compare Observation A to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible. If you compare Observation B to the model, it is just on the edge of being plausible in the other direction. But, as Dr Silk points out, if you compare Observation A directly to Observation B, you realize that the two are too far apart to be compatible, and that our research and analysis methods must be called into question.

Dr Becky Smethurst emphasizes that one implication of the new perspective is that the universe is closed and finite and will not expand forever.

The other recent article notes that all of the measurements that pointed to speed-up in the expansion (and the need for dark energy) came from one direction in the sky.  If you look in the opposite direction, the epansion is slowing down. Maybe it’s not that the whold universe is changing its expansion at all, but only that our little neighborhood has shifted direction. But we’re out of the frying pan, into the fire, because the same evidence suggests that the universe may not be completely uniform and symmetrical, as theories have always assumed. The trouble with asymmetrical models is that they call into question the very simple equations that are our hope for staying within 6 or 7 free parameters. There’s a worse problem, actually: The equations of gravity (Einstein’s General Relativity) are so insanely complicated that they cannot be solved even with the largest supercomputers we have except in the case where the equations are enormously simplified either by (1) a very high degree of symmetry that vastly reduces the complexity, or (2) weak fields, called the “Newtonian limit”. If this situation persists, we will have 

Sabine Hossenfelder does a good job of explaining the context in this video.

Sustainable Agriculture

Everybody knows that the predominant agricultural practices around the world are unsustainable. We are losing topsoil every year. The energy cost of fertilizers and transportation has become a large and growing part of the price of food. We need larger and larger applications of pesticides as insects evolve pesticide resistance.

But what can we do? With 7½ billion people to be fed, the human race has become addicted to the high levels of productivity that only high-tech agricultural can provide.

What if it isn’t true?  Suppose that permaculture could be practiced in a way that actually produces more food per acre than monoculture.  That would be one of the most optimistic and hopeful directions for the human future, second only (perhaps) to direct interventions by ET.

Here’s someone who thinks permaculture can beat the “green revolution” at its own game.

Here’s a more fleshed-out version of the argument, in print with footnotes.  Chapter 8