Saturday, October 21, 2017

If a Tree Falls in the Forest

In my classes we recently discussed the question of what we mean when we say that something is real? One aspect of our experience we specifically addressed were sensory phenomena like color, fragrance, taste, and sound.

Students often hold the view that these phenomena are objectively real, that sugar is sweet regardless of whether anyone ever tastes sugar, the sky would be blue even if there were never any living things on earth to see it, and so on.

After we had moved on to other topics I came across an article that describes how music is transferred to a computer and then to the listener's ear. The description illustrates the point that a piano, for example, doesn't actually make music. The music is made in our brains. If there's no ear to hear it, no brain to interpret what the ear hears, there simply is no music.

Here's the article's description of the process of recording music for storage on a computer:
  • The acoustic waves were picked up by a microphone and converted to electrical pulses.
  • The pulses were converted by an analogue-to-digital (A-to-D) converter into numbers representing the frequencies and dynamics of the waveforms.
  • The digital signals were compressed by an algorithm into a coded representation storable on an external medium, such as an MP3 file.
  • The code was written as magnetic spots on a hard drive according to a storage algorithm that does not necessarily store them in physical order.
  • On demand, a read head on the drive reconstructed the bits in their proper sequence and transmitted them as electrical pulses to the central processor.
  • The CPU relayed the file to a router, where the file was packetized and sent over the internet to a specified address, possibly traversing electrical wires, the air (radio transmissions), or space via an orbiting satellite along the way.
  • The destination site’s router reassembled the packets into a file for storage on a “cloud” server such as YouTube or SoundCloud.
  • The website embedded the file’s location in its local server, which you, the listener, accessed by means of touch, using a mouse, keypad, or touchscreen.
  • Your computer’s sound card converted the digital signals into audio output through speakers.
Notice that at no point in this process is there the sensation of sound. Nothing is actually heard. The article's description stops here, but if we were to continue the bullet points we could say that,
  • The audio output of the speakers consists of waves of energy travelling through the air like waves in a slinky.
  • When these strike an ear they're transformed into an electrical impulse that travels along the auditory nerve.
  • When that impulse reaches the brain it's converted, in some mysterious, marvelous way that no one understands into the sensation of music.
Until that final event happens there is no music, no sound at all. The music is created by our brain and the relevant sensory apparatus. Sound is a sensation that we experience and without the involvement of a sense there can be no sensation. To insist that sound exists even though no one hears it is like insisting that pain exists even though no one feels it.

And if that's true of sound and pain it must be true of all of our other sensory experiences as well.

And if that's true what would the world be like if we had additional senses, or fewer senses? Why think that the world is exactly the way we perceive it to be, or, for that matter, anything at all like we perceive it to be?

Just something to think about over the weekend.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Fire and Water

The second in a pair of excellent books by geneticist Michael Denton has just been released, and both are very much worth reading. The first was titled Fire-maker, and the second, just-released work, is titled The Wonder of Water. A non-scientist would have no trouble following and understanding either book.

Each of them provides the reader with fascinating information on almost every page as they examine two commonplace phenomena in our environment, fire and water, and explain that if those two phenomena didn't have precisely the properties they do, life would be either very much diminished, or even impossible.Certainly living things as complex as human beings would be impossible.

In Fire-maker, for example, Denton reflects upon all the properties of planet earth that have to be just right for the phenomenon of fire to exist and then recounts all the physical characteristics of an animal such as human beings that have to be just as they are for that animal to be able to use fire. He then examines what that animal's culture would be like were the animal or the earth even slightly different such that fire could not be made or harnessed. It all just leaves one shaking one's head in amazement.

Here are a couple of related videos that'll give you an idea of what the books are about:
The more we learn about the world in which we live the harder it is to think that it's all just a marvelous coincidence that everything has just the properties it does.

For those who may have a stronger background in science and wish to probe more deeply into these matters, I recommend Denton's earlier book Nature's Destiny.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


I recently finished the highly hyped novel Origin, Dan Brown's most recent effort to undermine theistic belief in general and Catholicism in particular. As in his previous works (The daVinci Code, Inferno, Angels and Demons) assaults on religious belief are embedded in a story, but unlike those earlier efforts, which were genuine page-turners that I found hard to put down, the story in Origin was pretty much a snoozer that I had to force myself to finish.

Despite the publicity given to the book, the best thing I can say about it is that it's possible that it's not the worst book I've ever read. Brown's attacks on theism were confused and sophomoric. It seemed as if he couldn't decide whether his target was belief in God or the expression of that belief in organized religion. He frequently conflates criticism of organized religion with atheism which is disconcerting and misleading since antagonism toward religion is not what makes one an atheist.

Throughout the book he advocates a naive 1960s Darwinism and demonstrates very little familiarity with the debate over biogenesis of the last two decades. He seems totally unaware of the developments in philosophy - particularly philosophy of religion, epistemology, the resurgence of Thomism, and the philosophy of science - which render most of his claims about the obsolescence and imminent demise of religious belief seem as if they were lifted from the mid-twentieth century.

For example, Brown has one of his main characters allege that faith, "by its very definition, requires placing your trust in something that is unseeable and indefinable, accepting as fact something for which there is no empirical evidence." This is, however, a tendentious definition of faith. Faith, as most people understand it, is not placing your trust in something for which there is no empirical evidence but rather placing one's trust in something despite the lack of empirical proof. There is in any case plenty of evidence for the existence of God even if proof that would command the assent of every rational person, including those who are averse to accepting that God exists, is hard to come by.

Brown also has his mouthpiece character predict that, "The age of religion is drawing to a close and the age of science is dawning." This assertion could only be made by someone with a very parochial view of the world. One only need look at what's happening around the globe - in the Islamic world, in Central and South America, in Africa - to see that though religion may be fading among the urban elites in Manhattan, it's doing just fine in much of the rest of the world.

One character in the book informs us that, "There are only two schools of thought on where we came from - the religious notion that God created humans fully formed and the Darwinian model in which we crawled out of the primordial ooze and eventually evolved into humans." This is not only simplistic, it's utterly false. Neither intelligent design advocates nor theistic evolutionists fall neatly into either of these two camps. The Darwinian view excludes any non-natural guidance or influence, but there are a lot of very thoughtful and intelligent people who believe that some kind of guided or intelligently influenced "evolutionary" process accounts for life on earth, even though Brown gives these folks little attention.

Add to these passages, and many others like them, a story line involving characters whose behavior seems totally implausible and an ending which is predictable from about a third of the way through the book, and the reader is left with a disappointing sequel to his earlier novels.

For a story in some respects similar to the one told in Origin and which preceded Origin by a year, The Soul of the Matter by Bruce Buff is, at least to my taste, a better reading choice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Peas in a Pod

Harvey Weinstein's fall from power and prominence has been fascinating to behold. Once a highly feted movie producer and mega-donor to liberal political campaigns, Weinstein has suddenly become a social and political leper. The well-substantiated allegations of his brutish behavior that have finally managed to percolate to the surface of our national consciousness are truly loathsome. And they raise questions, among which are these:

How many of those in the media, those in Hollywood and those in academia who are now condemning Weinstein for his repeated harassment, and worse, of women who drifted into his orbit have known of his conduct for years and said nothing?

How many of those who knew and said nothing kept silent because Weinstein was on the "right side" of the issues and was a major contributor to Democrat campaigns?

How many of those who are now distancing themselves from Weinstein, who cannot think of adjectives strong enough with which to vilify him, nevertheless not only voted for Bill Clinton, even after his own sexual predations had become well-known, but actively supported and defended him?

I think it's a safe assumption that everyone on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, and NBC and everyone at The New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, and almost everyone in Hollywood who is currently voicing their disgust and censure of Weinstein nevertheless supported and even admired Mr. Clinton despite the fact that he was credibly accused by numerous women of acts no less despicable and not much different from those Weinstein has been accused of committing.

One thing these questions about this sordid episode illustrates, besides the moral decadence among our cultural elites, is that many of those who posture as advocates for women actually care more about achieving and holding political power than they do about women. They care more about their social standing than they do about their principles.

I don't know which is harder, to read descriptions of Weinstein's behavior or to listen to people who donated to Clinton and threw their considerable influence behind him expressing their repugnance and loathing of Weinstein's behavior. One wonders how they manage to keep a straight face. One also wonders why anyone bothers to listen to what they have to say.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Shoddy Journalism

A brief article at the Daily Mail on how President Trump is undoing what his predecessor tried to accomplish over his eight year tenure illustrates why one must approach what one reads in the media with a critical eye. The writer begins with this lede:
Brick by brick, the demolition job has begun: since taking office less than a year ago, Donald Trump has launched an all-out assault on the legacy of Barack Obama. Climate, free trade, health care, immigration, foreign policy -- the 45th US president has set about undoing just about everything done by the 44th.

All new presidents, of course, break with their predecessor once in the Oval Office, especially if they come from a rival political party. But what is striking is how systematic the hammer blows to Obama's legacy have been.

And rather than throw his weight behind new policies or projects, Trump has shown a willful desire to unpick, shred and erase everything his predecessor accomplished.
Well, why should President Trump be enacting new policies and projects when the old policies are stifling both our economic, political and religious freedom and diminishing the security of our nation? The assumption here seems to be that a president should allow whatever policies his predecessor enacted to remain in place, no matter how toxic those policies may be to the economic and social well-being of our people. Trump is wise to rid us of impediments to our national safety and flourishing imposed by the Obama administration before he moves on to advocate for other programs.
It's worth noting that each time he buries one of the reforms of the man who sat before him at the "Resolute desk," Trump sounds more like a candidate than a president.
"Reforms" is a word intended to persuade the reader that President Obama's executive orders were wise and needful and that President Trump's EOs are spiteful and reckless. In fact, a number of Mr. Obama's "reforms" were either unwise, illegal or usurpations by the executive branch of authority granted by the Constitution to the legislature. Undoing them simply returns us to the rule of law rather than the arbitrary rule of one man.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership? Within days of taking office, Trump signed an order pulling America out of the free trade accord, the fruit of eight years of negotiations between 12 Asia-Pacific countries, from Chile to Canada and Japan.

"We're going to stop the ridiculous trade deals that have taken everybody out of our country and taken companies out of our country, and it's going to be reversed," Trump said.
If Trump can rescind this deal it's only because it was never codified into law by Congress. The Obama administration signed off on it on its own, but the question that the article never raises is not whether Trump is undoing Obama's agreement but rather whether this agreement and others should be undone. If they should then what Trump is doing is good, if they shouldn't then what he's doing is unwise.
The Paris climate accord? Obama played a leading role in attaining that milestone in the effort to combat global warming.

Trump pulled out of the agreement signed by 195 countries, claiming that it "punishes the United States" and declaring: "I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."
Again, Trump could not pull us out of this agreement if Congress had approved it. Is it a good deal for the country or isn't it? Why didn't Congress get to act on it? Those are the questions to which the reader deserves an answer, but the article simply passes them by.
What about Obamacare, the signature legislative achievement of Obama's first term? After trying in vain to get Congress to repeal it, Trump is now working to bring about its collapse through the regulatory process.
What Trump has done here is rescind subsidies to big insurance companies that were not provided for in the Affordable Care Act, which Obama unilaterally granted and which a federal judge had declared to be illegal. You wouldn't know that, though, from reading this article.
And the Iranian nuclear accord? The bid to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon in return for a lifting of sanctions more than any other came to represent Obama's approach to world affairs.

"This deal will have my name on it," the Democratic president said shortly before it was concluded. "Nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise."

While Trump has stopped short of tearing up the Iran deal, as he threatened on the campaign trail, on Friday he warned he could do so "at any time," raising doubts about the fate of an accord born of years of painstaking diplomacy.
Even so, Iran has been cheating on the deal from the day they signed it, a deal that once again, Congress never explicitly approved. Iran is on the road to possessing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Having already threatened to use them once they have the power to do so, a deal that allows for their acquisition is exceedingly foolish, but there's no discussion in the article of the wisdom of the agreement, no explanation of why it should not be abrogated, just the assumption that if it's an agreement, and if it was arrived at painstakingly and signed onto with other countries, then it must be good.
Historian Jeffrey Engel ... sees no equivalent in recent decades to Trump's systematic application of the simple principle that "if the other guy liked it, it must be bad." To Engel, the explanation is that Trump's electoral base "never accepted fully Barack Obama as their president."

"There was a move among Obama's opponents to delegitimize him and to say that this man is not really president and consequently anything that he did, Trump's base is ready to get rid of," said Engel, who heads Southern Methodist University's center for presidential history in Dallas, Texas.
The possibility that President Obama's lurch toward the socialist left and that his embrace of policies which would diminish America's freedom, influence and power are sincerely rejected by a plurality of Americans as unwise is not even considered by either Professor Engel or the writer of the Daily Mail piece. The dismantling of Obama's executive orders is portrayed as mere spite and vengefulness, while the possibility that it is in fact an honest attempt to pull us out of a national "death spiral" after eight years of national vertigo is blithely ignored.

The Daily Mail has given us in this article a shoddy, careless piece of journalism.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Theories of Time

The class discussion recently turned to questions concerning the nature of time and a student dug out this post from 3/7/2014. Since it addresses some of what we talked about in class I thought it might be worthwhile to run it again:

Anthony Aguirre at Big Questions Online discusses the two theories of time. His discussion is difficult to follow unless one is familiar with quantum mechanics and relativity theory, but he does give a clear explanation of the two basic theories on offer. What he calls below the "Unitary Block" theory is sometimes referred to as the B-Theory of time. What he calls the "Experienced World" is the A-Theory.
When we step back, we thus seem to have two rather different and contrary views of time’s nature. In one, the ‘Unitary Block’, spacetime and quantum states are laid out ‘all at once’, specified once and for all by some set of boundary conditions. Everything at any time is uniquely determined by — and thus implicitly contained in — any other time, and the world exhibits no distinction between past and future.

At the same time, the ‘Experienced World’ we actually inhabit and observe has a very clear distinction between past, present, and future, produces entropy, and allows branching between a single present reality and several possible future realities.

Among knowledgeable and thoughtful people, there seem to be three basic views of this paradox:

1.The Unitary Block is the fundamental, and by implication more true description; things such as the arrow of time, definite experimental outcomes, etc., are emergent phenomena that, if we only could make precise enough computations, could be reduced to ‘nothing but’ the fundamental description.

2.The Unitary Block is wrong in some essential way. A more correct view would be much more like — and much more readily reconciled with — the Experienced World.

3.The Experienced World is more fundamental than the Unitary Block, which is just the correct description of regularities in the Experienced World in very particular regimes.

View 1 is by far the most common amongst my theoretical physicist colleagues, but I’ll make three arguments as to why we should think carefully before embracing it.
His arguments for considering the Experienced World (A-Theory) to be fundamental can be read at the link. One might wonder why scientists even think there is a Unitary Block. The answer has to do with Einstein's discoveries about relativity:
Right now, this second, an old man is exhaling his last breath. Elsewhere, two young lovers exchange their first kiss. Farther afield, two asteroids silently collide. Sunrise comes to a planet orbiting a neighboring star. This very second, a supernova detonates in a faraway galaxy.

And yet ‘this very second’ across the universe apparently does not really exist! Our best fundamental theory of space-time, Einstein’s Relativity, expressly precludes a single, objective definition of simultaneity. Events occurring ‘now’ by one observer’s estimation can — with equal validity — be said to occur at different times according to another observer who is far away and/or in motion relative to the first.

We don’t notice this issue much here on Earth, but it becomes very obvious for example in cosmology, where how one defines ‘now’ can determine whether the universe looks uniform or not, and even if it is finite or infinite!
It's all very fascinating stuff with fascinating implications. For example, if the Unitary Block theory is correct I'm not sure what sense it makes to talk about the age of the universe. Every moment of time would have come into being at the instant that the universe was created. If that's so, then what does it mean to say that the universe is 14 billion years old?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Life Does Not Begin at Conception

An article at The Federalist on the recently released U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 2018-2022 Plan contains and perpetuates a confusion. Under the heading of Organizational Structure HHS states that:
HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.
The author of the Federalist article, Heather Prude, interprets this to mean that HHS affirms that life begins at conception, but whether that's the intent of the drafters of the document or not, that's not what the above passage says. The construction of the sentence is such that it clearly affirms that protection of life will begin at conception.

This is an important distinction because too often the debate over abortion has been muddied over fruitless disagreements about "when life begins," and the concept of a person is confused with the concept of a living entity. The fact is, life is a continuum. It doesn't begin with conception, much less birth.

The gametes produced in the bodies of one's parents are living cells. One's parents are themselves living organisms when they produce those cells. The gametes fuse at conception to produce a living conceptus, which develops into a living embryo, fetus, and ultimately a newborn. There is no stage along the way at which life "begins."

The phrase itself makes no sense biologically since, whether one takes the view of a naturalist or of a theist, life had a single, unique beginning in some event in the remote past and has been unbroken and continuous in leading to each one of us ever since.

The real question is not when life begins, but at what point does a living entity become a legal person subject to all the rights and protections of the law, including the right to life? The HHS document establishes that it will be government policy to assume that the onset of personhood occurs at conception. Prude writes:
The debate over the personhood of unborn children has been a central issue of the abortion debate. Ever since Roe v. Wade in 1973, pro-life advocates have been trying to establish constitutionally protected rights for the unborn. In the ruling’s majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that Roe v. Wade would collapse if “the fetus is a person.”
Modern abortion jurisprudence has unfortunately declared personhood to be a de facto consequence of birth. An individual becomes a person when he or she is born and lacks the right to life prior to that. At least half the country thinks that's a philosophically and biologically indefensible position, and now the HHS for the first time in many decades seems to agree with them.

The document is still a draft and is open to public comment for two more weeks. If it's approved, it will supplant the Obama administration’s previous five-year plan.