Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Weaponizing science writing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, natural theology, philosophy, poetic naturalism, polemics

A few years ago it was fashionable to coin terms using the word "challenged" to euphemize various handicaps and other perceived drawbacks. For example, the words "moron", "idiot" and so forth were to be replaced by "mentally challenged" or "intellectually challenged", and criminals were to be described as "ethically challenged". Soon humorous neologisms arose such as "vertically challenged" for "short" and "financially challenged" for "underpaid" or even "poor". One day I said to someone, "Yeah, and Christians are Politically Challenged", by which I was referring to concerted efforts (that continue) to remove First Amendment rights from Bible believers.

About 3% of Americans claim to be Atheists. But the word has gained political overtones. A noisy contingent of American atheists are what I call "evangelical atheists", those who try to get all matters of faith driven underground. (Just as an aside: take a look at China and Russia, the two major nations to make atheism the official "religion".) But I have said, and continue to say, most "atheists" actually do believe in God, but they know that He disagrees with some major factor in their life, so they deny His existence to brush the conflict under the rug. I have met very few honest Nontheists, as I prefer to call them. These are the ones I actually respect.

Sean Carroll appears to be one such. A number of shriekingly polemical books have been written, if not to change the faith of the faithful, at least to keep most questioning folks from seeking for faith. Dr. Carroll (a physicist) is much more measured in his approach. I understand him as a gently evangelical nontheist. His recent book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. I would call it the most effective gospel of nontheism I have yet to see. It is a big book, more than 440 pages, dense with meaning, and my slow and careful perusal is the primary reason I spent nearly a month reading it (Sorry for the long silence, followers of my blog!).

The fifty chapters make up six parts: Cosmos, Understanding, Essence, Complexity, Thinking, and Caring. Boiled down into a near-criminal over-simplification, the author promotes Poetic Naturalism as a philosophy that can accept multiple levels of description, from the quantum-mechanical to the chemical to biological to psychological and even to the cosmic level. As he makes clear numerous times, language that is appropriate to various emergent phenomena is meaningless when it is applied at a different level. Even though we do that all the time!

For example, when my cousin was teaching basic electronics to a class of raw privates in the Army, he'd begin discussing semiconductor electronics thus: "See, N-type material is full of extra electrons, and P-type is full of holes, and they've all been eating eggs, so they want each other." With a bunch of guys "just off the farm" it would jump start their understanding of electromagnetic forces between charged particles.

In The Big Picture, Dr. Carroll had the unenviable task of using language with exceeding precision. Generally speaking, each Part of the book explains things at a different level, and each succeeding level is emergent from the one(s) before. He starts with the Core Theory, which used to be called the Standard Model of Physics. It bases everything on a handful of fermions (particles of matter) and bosons (particles that convey forces). The Higgs Boson that was finally detected in action last year at the Large Hadron Collider is the last of the expected boson particles, and completes the theory.

In order to make the Core Theory of physics intelligible, the author has to work through the concepts slowly. There are several of them. They obey the "rules" of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Even though those two theories seem to us to be incompatible, the fermions and bosons just go along doing their thing without distress (there I go, anthropomorphizing quarks and neutrinos!).

I looked up the Core Theory and found that it is a pretty new term (2014), that is more satisfying than Standard Model, which has always sounded somehow temporary. Now, to a Theist, whatever you call the theory, it is temporary, because we believe God is able to operate outside of physics as we know it. The author does his best to show that such a belief is contradictory. As a scientist who is also a theist, indeed a Christian, and a Christian mystic at that, I recognize the argument as an effective filter. How real is the faith in which you claim to believe? If this book can shake your faith, then it ought to be shaken. Someone who has experienced divine things cannot be argued out of those experiences. Someone who has been "argued into faith" can just as easily be argued out of it.

At the most basic level, all known physical effects are particle interactions according to the Core Theory. For example, you can look at Chemistry as a complicated set of rules for the multitude of ways atoms react to form or unform molecules. Or you can peek under the covers to see the particle interactions that dictate why Sodium can easily either release or share an electron, but that no known chemical reactions have extracted a second electron. But each level of description must use appropriate language to convey what is going on, or what is theorized to go on in many cases. The terms "ionization" and "covalent sharing" just don't go together with the wave-statistical language of the Schrödinger Equation that describes what the electron can do when a Sodium atom and an Oxygen molecule come into proximity…or, rather, what the relevant electrons in outer orbitals of the various atoms can or might "do". Even the word "do" gets problematic at a Core Theory level!

Jumping to the human level: Are our thoughts simply a bunch of electrochemically-mediated, deterministic activities that would run in exactly the same way if all the relevant atoms could be re-assembled into the same starting positions? In the case of a random cubic millimeter (one milligram) of brain tissue, that comes to about 600 billion trillion nucleons (neutrons plus protons) and about half as many electrons; or at three quarks per nucleon, and who knows how many gluons, you can multiply that by a factor of about ten. I suspect the average "thought" or "memory" seldom takes up more than a cubic millimeter, so you'd be faced with putting that many "things" in just the right places, to see if the same thought would recur in exactly the same way.

"Wait a minute! Just a darn minute! What about quantum mechanics?" you might ask. Well, yeah. There is a bit of a paradox there. To what extent is there an element of randomness in our thoughts, and do they constitute an element of what we call "free will." Every "explanation" I have encountered about that has eventually sidestepped the matter. We just don't know, and it may be that we can't know. This is as good a place as any to remind my readers of the three limits of science: Heisenberg Uncertainty, Schrödinger Undecidability (is the cat dead?), and Gödel Incompleteness.

It is also a good place to bring up a related matter I've been thinking of for a few years. If you wanted to put those billions of trillions of atoms back into place, assuming that their subcomponents would not misbehave so this can work, just how accurately do they have to be placed? What are the acceptable errors of placement? This is analogous to the placement accuracy of the Transporter in Star Trek. Get too large a percentage of the atoms out of place by too large a distance, and as Scotty said on one occasion, "I canna guarantee brain function." Let's assume an Ångstrom unit (0.1 nm) is the maximum allowable displacement. That means the device used to nudge each atom back into place—and all of them have to get into place in the same billionth or possibly trillionth of a second—needs to have Ångstrom-level precision. Laser "tweezers" are typically used to move single atoms about, such as nudging one after another into a Bose condensate. Light that can place an atom with that accuracy has to have a wavelength of no more than 2Å, which is a pretty hard X-ray, one with an energy of 6,200 eV. Thus, the minimum energy expenditure to re-align those atoms is a few times 6,200 eV per particle. OK, folks, 6,200 (eV to place an atom)×(roughly)1020 (atoms)÷6.2×1018 (eV per Joule) comes to 100,000 Joules…and actual energy needed is several times that much. The 100kJ is 23,900 calories, and the total energy needed is probably much, much more. It would heat that milligram of brain tissue to tens of thousands of degrees, exploding the poor head in which that brain resided.

This is why, even if we had the help of Laplace's Demon (who is responsible to know where the atoms were) and Maxwell's Demon (who is responsible for putting them into place), there is no hope of trying such an experiment. No wonder Hell is hot, of those demons can wield such energies so freely! By the way, Laplace's Demon needs to exercise similar levels of energy just to know those atomic positions. Just sayin'.

Another side thought, based on Chapter 42, "Are Photons Conscious?" If they are, it is wasted on them. Remember time dilation? Photons always zip along at exactly the speed of light, and so they experience no time whatever. A photon formed by some electronic transition may travel billions of light years before being absorbed and triggering an electronic transition. To the photon, were it conscious, its awakening would be simultaneous with its annihilation. No time even to think, "Oh, crap, here comes an atom to …" To photons, there is no time, no space, no nothing. We are the conscious ones. They exist for us! And that is where Poetic Naturalism leads. We speak in experiential terms because we experience things. At the level of human experience, of caring and feeling, the Core Theory is as remote as some distant galaxy. With four or five emergent levels between, we paraphrase Descartes, "I think and feel and love and hate and care about meaning and purpose…and therefore, I am." And is God also, who named himself "I AM"? One day we all will know, if we know anything at all.

As trying as the book was to read, it was enjoyable. The author writes very well, explains things with great clarity, and makes quite the air-tight case. In the face of such powerful arguments, how can I resist the siren call of Nontheism? I think of Isaiah 45:15, "Surely you are a God who hides himself…" To date, God has not submitted himself for scientific analysis. Why should he? In the Bible that he inspired, we read of a soul and spirit within us, and that our spirit can interact with the Holy Spirit. That is how he chooses to interact with us…with me.

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