Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Corollary to an Infinite Universe

I'm very bothered by the idea that the Universe may be infinite.

If the Universe is infinite, there must be an infinite number of galaxies. And so some of those galaxies must be like ours: some very much like ours, some having stars just like our sun, some of those suns having planets just like our Earth. And on some of those not-Earths, there will be intelligent beings, some of them very like us. Some of them exactly like us. And so somewhere, there's another intelligent not-human, who is exactly like a human, named Casey, sitting and writing a blog post about this very topic. And there isn't one world like this, but an infinite number. But that's not what bothers me.

In addition to the planets exactly like ours, there also must be many that are sort of like ours. Like one's where I'm not a scientist, but an engineer, a doctor, a hockey player, or play some other sport never heard of on our planet. Where I'm not writing this in a blog post, but on Facebook, or Myspace, or Friendster for some reason. And there's an infinite number of combinations, each one existing an infinite number of times. But that's not what bother me either.

But then, due to the laws of probability, there must be planets that are much like ours, but where nothing that happens makes the slightest bit of sense. Events occur that are not impossible, but are so improbable so as to seem so. And this happens over and over and over again, to the point where effects don't logically follow from causes. And the intelligent beings that populate these planets, rather than being used to this, are continually surprised, and live their lives expecting life to make some kind of sense and continually frustrated that it doesn't. And this is what bother me.

Because I realize that maybe those world do exist, and that maybe this is one of them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I've had it up to here with your rules!

We're rolling near to Day 100 of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and while the leak may have stopped, we continue to find out more and more bad news about how the whole thing was handled. First was the revelation that BP had Photoshopped several photos designed to show what a good job they were doing handling the spill. But the US government has also not done all it can. From the Financial Post:

Three days after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, the Netherlands offered the U.S. government ships equipped to handle a major spill, one much larger than the BP spill that then appeared to be underway. "Our system can handle 400 cubic metres per hour," Weird Koops, the chairman of Spill Response Group Holland, told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, giving each Dutch ship more cleanup capacity than all the ships that the U.S. was then employing in the Gulf to combat the spill.

Unbelievably, the US turned down the offer. Why? Because the ships don't remove enough oil from the water.

The voracious Dutch vessels, for example, continuously suck up vast quantities of oily water, extract most of the oil and then spit overboard vast quantities of nearly oil-free water. Nearly oil-free isn't good enough for the U.S. regulators, who have a standard of 15 parts per million -- if water isn't at least 99.9985% pure, it may not be returned to the Gulf of Mexico.

When ships in U.S. waters take in oil-contaminated water, they are forced to store it. As U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the official in charge of the clean-up operation, explained in a press briefing on June 11, "We have skimmed, to date, about 18 million gallons of oily water--the oil has to be decanted from that [and] our yield is usually somewhere around 10% or 15% on that." In other words, U.S. ships have mostly been removing water from the Gulf, requiring them to make up to 10 times as many trips to storage facilities where they off-load their oil-water mixture, an approach Koops calls "crazy."

This is typical of how things seem to work down here, when well-intentioned rules seem to go awry. Worse, nobody ever has the authority, or the courage, to take the side of reason and throw regulation to the wind. Didn't Star Trek teach us that even the Prime Directive could be violated if the circumstances called for it?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Richard Dawkins, Neville Chamberlain, and Tony Blair, part I

So I just finished reading "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. I know, I'm a little late, but in a way the book is even more meaningful now that there is some cultural infamy surrounding it. In this post I will give my thoughts on Dawkins central thesis: that God almost certainly does not exist.

The failure of most of Dawkins' critics to understand his arguments in many ways makes his case even stronger. We're all used to creationists mis-representing science, either out of ignorance or out of deliberate attempts to set up straw men that work in their favor, but it seems that sometimes this applies to agnostics, too [disclosure: I consider myself something between an atheist and an agnostic, and reading this book didn't change my opinions much].

The usual criticism one can use in defense of possibility that God might exist is the universe, after all, exists, and so why something instead of nothing? The most basic problem with this argument is that a universe in which God exists has exactly the same problem: where did God from? Dawkins points this out again and again, and yet some people don't seem to get it. At one point, Dawkins discusses the possibility of multiple universes (the multiverse) as one explanation for how we happen to inhabit a universe that is suited to develop life (this is a variation of the anthropic principle: how is it that the Earth is so perfectly suited for life? Well, if the Earth weren't suited for life, we wouldn't be here, but intelligent life might be on some other of the billions of planets that are suited for life, wondering exactly the same thing).

Robert Stewart, writing for the Journal of Evolutionary Philosophy (whatever that is), seems to be either an agnostic or an evolutionary theist, so we can leave fundamentalism out of it, for now. Yet he seems to employ the same tactic that many of them use:

Dawkins' explanation of the multiverse was short and vague, and his case for cosmological evolution required the reader to see connections between a loose collection of fuzzy concepts.

Throughout the book, he throws the term ‘natural selection’ around like it means the same thing as evolution. But evolution requires ‘random mutation’ as well as natural selection, and Dawkins' failure to address the question of how universes might randomly mutate spells doom for his probability argument.

Biological evolution is only possible because of the laws of nature that govern the universe and give organic molecules their remarkable properties. [emphasis mine] With cosmological evolution, however, there must be no external laws governing how universes behave, otherwise we would be back to square one trying to explain where these higher laws came from.

Every possible way in which a baby universe might be different from its parent would have to be determined by the internal laws that govern the parent. Every universe would have to contain the potential design of every other universe that ultimately descended from it. This would include the seeds for life in our universe.

This addresses one possible variant of the multiverse hypothesis in which new universes are born within black holes of existing universes, but it completely misses the point. The reason Dawkins refers again and again to natural selection is that it has the power to raise our consciousness of how other routes to existence are possible. Before Darwin, the fact extant species were created wasn't proven, it was assumed. The fact that modern physics hasn't explained the origin of the universe is not reason to evoke God as a reasonable alternative. So when Stewart says "Biological evolution is only possible because of the laws of nature that govern the universe and give organic molecules their remarkable properties," it becomes clear whats going on. If Stewart had been around in Darwin's time, he would have argued that biological evolution was impossible because we didn't at the time nature of the organic molecules and their remarkable properties. As we still don't really know really know what the universe is made of, the Darwin of physics is yet to be born. The answer is unlikely to be cosmological evolution, but a creator God that set the universe in motion is even less plausible.

Even so, one problem I had with the book that the supposed central thesis: that there is no God, was largely confined to one chapter. Most of the rest of the book is concerned with the danger that religion poses - I'll cover that in part II of this post.