Review: good book!

Title: GOD and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos 
Author: Victor J. Stenger 
Publisher: Prometheus Books 2014 
 

Review by Bob Lane 

“I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of 

  nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of 

  phenomena are IMPOSSIBLE.”  – William James 

  

 “Modern science should indeed arouse in all of us a humility before the 

  immensity of the unexplored and a tolerance for crazy hypotheses.” 

  • Martin Gardner 

All the world says: yes we know what’s written in the books but now let’s see what our eyes tell us.”  

Bertolt Brecht, A Life of Galileo  

************************************************************************ 

Imagine our pre-civilization ancestors trying to cope with the difficulties of survival. They would have had to discover that there is some sort of causal relationship between actions and events. They would have paid attention to their surroundings and would have begun early on to perceive a relationship between temporal events. They would have wondered about the life-giving sun, wondered why on certain days it was covered with thick clouds that on occasion provided life-giving rain to drop from the sky. Injuries, sickness, hunger, dangers of all sorts were about. 

One can easily imagine the response was to try to assign some agency to the causal pattern observed, and then to try to influence that agent in one’s own interests. That seems to me to describe a rudimentary human approach to gathering information and for trying to predict and influence future events. Survival is the mother of science. Observation, hypothesis, prediction, verifiability and falsifiability become the best way we humans have of explaining our selves and our world. With limited knowledge and limited senses we would have been hard pressed to understand molecular processes let alone atomic and sub-atomic actions. What caused the death of my seemingly healthy children? Why did we get no rain this season? How did our enemies find us? 

Hypothesis: some invisible agent is at work. And so forth … one can see how easily and naturally we developed a scientific method, at first quite rudimentary, but the beginnings of a way of knowing about the world that worked from time to time. We posited agents, named them, placed them as hypotheticals in an imaginary world that soon became populated with these gods. As we learned more and more about the way the natural world works we started to depopulate the other world. Many spirits became a regimented set of kings and princes. But still it seemed even they were subject to a higher power. Maybe there was only one all-powerful spirit who controlled the thousands of things that are: a hypothesis that seemed beyond testing. (Source) 

The Aether (ether) and the Michelson/Morley experiment  

From Aristotle on it was believed that an invisible, weightless stuff without any sensible properties MUST exist to fill all space. Why?  Because the gods abhorred a vacuum. This stuff, called ether, was later believed to be the medium for light waves to travel through in a way similar to sound waves travelling through the air. The reasoning went something like this:  

If light is a wave and not a particle it must travel through something and that something is ether. We cannot see ether or test for it with our senses but it must exist or we couldn’t, for example, see the sunlight. We do see the sunlight, so ether exists. 

We think of sound waves as waves of compression in air. Actually, that is only one case–sound will also travel through liquids, like water, and solids, like a steel bar. We have found experimentally that, other things being equal, sound travels faster through a medium that is harder to compress—the material just springs back faster and the wave moves through more rapidly. For media of equal springiness, the sound goes faster through the less heavy medium, essentially because the same amount of springiness can push things along faster in a lighter material. So when a sound wave passes, the material—air, water or solid—waves as it goes through. Taking this as a hint, it was natural to suppose that light must be just waves in some mysterious material, which was called the aether, surrounding and permeating everything. This aether must also fill all of space, out to the stars, because we can see them, so the medium must be there to carry the light. (We could never hear an explosion on the moon, however loud, because there is no air to carry the sound to us.) Let us think a bit about what properties this aether must have. Since light travels so fast, it must be very light, and very hard to compress. Yet, as mentioned above, it must allow solid bodies to pass through it freely, without aether resistance, or the planets would be slowing down. Thus we can picture it as a kind of ghostly wind blowing through the earth. But how can we prove any of this? Can we detect it?  

While in Europe, Michelson began constructing an interferometer, a device designed to split a beam of light in two, send the parts along perpendicular paths, then bring them back together. If the light waves had, in the interim, fallen out of step, interference fringes of alternating light and dark bands would be obtained. From the width and number of those fringes, unprecedently delicate measurements could be made, comparing the velocity of light rays travelling at right angles to each other.  

It was Michelson’s intention to use the interferometer to measure the Earth’s velocity against the “ether” that was then thought to make up the basic substratum of the universe. If the Earth were travelling through the light-conducting ether, then the speed of the light travelling in the same direction would be expected to be equal to the velocity of light plus the velocity of the Earth, whereas the speed of light travelling at right angles to the Earth’s path would be expected to travel only at the velocity of light.  

At this point, Michelson had a very clever idea for detecting the aether wind. As he explained to his children (according to his daughter), it was based on the following puzzle:  

Suppose we have a river of width w (say, 100 feet), and two swimmers who both swim at the same speed v feet per second (say, 5 feet per second). The river is flowing at a steady rate, say 3 feet per second. The swimmers race in the following way: they both start at the same point on one bank. One swims directly across the river to the closest point on the opposite bank, then turns around and swims back. The other stays on one side of the river, swimming upstream a distance (measured along the bank) exactly equal to the width of the river, then swims back to the start. Who wins?  

Michelson’s great idea was to construct an exactly similar race for pulses of light, with the aether wind playing the part of the river. The scheme of the experiment is as follows: a pulse of light is directed at an angle of 45 degrees at a half-silvered, half transparent mirror, so that half the pulse goes on through the glass, half is reflected. These two half pulses are the two swimmers. They both go on to distant mirrors which reflect them back to the half-silvered mirror. At this point, they are again half reflected and half transmitted, but a telescope is placed behind the half-silvered mirror as shown in the figure so that half of each half-pulse will arrive in this telescope. Now, if there is an aether wind blowing, someone looking through the telescope should see the halves of the two half-pulses to arrive at slightly different times, since one would have gone more upstream and back, one more across stream in general. To maximize the effect, the whole apparatus, including the distant mirrors, was placed on a large turntable so it could be swung around. His earliest experiments in Berlin showed no interference fringes, however, which seemed to signify that there was no difference in the speed of the light rays, and, therefore, no Earth motion relative to the ether.  

In Cleveland he concentrated his efforts on improving the delicacy of his interferometer experiment. By 1887, with the help of his colleague, American chemist Edward Williams Morley, he was ready to announce the results of what has since come to be called the Michelson-Morley experiment. Those results were still negative; there were no interference fringes and apparently no motion of the Earth relative to the ether. [Source; go here for an excellent animated flashlet of the experiment.] 

They didn’t immediately conclude that the aether does not exist. In fact, they were so certain of its existence, its necessary existence, that they concluded there must be something wrong with their equipment!  

This experiment brings out certain features of the scientific method to keep in mind when considering Dr. Stenger’si book, God and the Multiverse.ii Given the empirical facts available at a given time the scientist uses those facts to propose a hypothesis that fits the facts and produces new knowledge when tested. Facts, hypothesis, prediction, test, falsifiability – are the components of a theory.  One of Stenger’s recurring themes in all of his booksiii is the importance of observation by humans on our walk from mythology to science. In this sense the book is history: it is a history of our beliefs about the cosmos and a history of scientific discoveries. The other theme in this and all his books is that the existence of God is not required for an understanding of the cosmos. Throughout his many books and public debates he has presented his position that God, like the aether, has been believed to exist but cannot be discovered by any observational experiment, and indeed is not required to explain the deep mysteries of the cosmos.  He offers in this, his final book, experimental results to explain the origin and the ongoing nature of the ever expanding eternal cosmos. 

The evidence is presented in several chapters in which Stenger reviews the development of modern physics – its methodology, discoveries, techniques – from Copernicus to the present. The necessary mathematics is fairly simple and even a non-physicist can follow the arguments. Stenger was, after all, a distinguished teacher and public intellectual and knows how to communicate. He is a writer among a small group of scientists who can write books that are readable as well as important. 

This book has traced the history of humanity’s view of the cosmos from the distant past to the present. We have seen that plausible scenarios exist for a natural origin of our universe – many worked out fully mathematically and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We now have a surprisingly simple model of cosmology that combines with the standard model of elementary particles to provide not only a description of the physical world that is fully consistent with all observations but also, in many cases, successful quantitative predictions of exquisite precision. Of course, neither should be taken as the final word. [Stenger, p. 372] 

In the essay “Science and the Sense of the Holy,” Loren Eiseley writes, “In the end, science as we know it has two basic types of practitioners. One is the educated man who still has a controlled sense of wonder before the universal mystery, whether it hides in a snail’s eye or within the light that impinges on that delicate organ. The second kind of observer is the extreme reductionist who is so busy stripping things apart that the tremendous mystery has been reduced to a trifle, to intangibles not worth troubling one’s head about. The world of the secondary qualities–color, sound, thought–is reduced to illusion. The only true reality becomes the chill void of ever-streaming particles….Blaise Pascal, as far back as the seventeenth century, foresaw our two opposed methods. Of them he said: “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” It is the reductionist who, too frequently, would claim that the end justifies the means, who would assert reason as his defense and let that mysterium which guards man’s moral nature fall away in indifference, a phantom without reality.” [Source

Stenger’s book employs observation, experiment, reason, and logic while maintaining a reverence for the “mysterium” which is the cosmos. 

Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. 

The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.

Science Quiz

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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3 Quick Reads

Mean surface temperature change for 1999–2008 ...

Mean surface temperature change for 1999–2008 relative to the average temperatures from 1940 to 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some items I found worth reading:

Everyone (else) is a hypocrite

rkWe’re all hypocrites. Why? Hypocrisy is the natural state of the human mind.

Robert Kurzban shows us that the key to understanding our behavioral inconsistencies lies in understanding the mind’s design. The human mind consists of many specialized units designed by the process of evolution by natural selection. While these modules sometimes work together seamlessly, they don’t always, resulting in impossibly contradictory beliefs, vacillations between patience and impulsiveness, violations of our supposed moral principles, and overinflated views of ourselves.

This modular, evolutionary psychological view of the mind undermines deeply held intuitions about ourselves, as well as a range of scientific theories that require a “self” with consistent beliefs and preferences. Modularity suggests that there is no “I.” Instead, each of us is a contentious “we”–a collection of discrete but interacting systems whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.

In clear language, full of wit and rich in examples, Kurzban explains the roots and implications of our inconsistent minds, and why it is perfectly natural to believe that everyone else is a hypocrite.

Watch a video here.

Read a New Yorker piece here.