Category Archives: Science

The “Transcension Hypothesis” and the “Fermi Paradox”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 5, 2016.)

John Smart, a colleague of mine in the Evolution, Cognition and Complexity Group, has advanced the transcension hypothesis. In Smart’s words:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination.

An important implications of the transcension hypothesis is as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox—the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials along with high probability estimates given for their existence by the Drake equation. (I have previously written about the Fermi paradox here and here.)

What all of this means is that rather than exploring the outer space of the universe, advanced civilization explore their inner space and eventually disappear from our view. And this is why the SETI Institute hasn’t found evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This two-minute video explains this clearly.

While the transcension hypothesis is speculative, it is also quite reasonable. An implication of the hypothesis is that, if true, there is more to reality than we know. And this suggests the possibility that there may be better realities than our current one. Perhaps our descendants will escape to such realities and somehow bring us along, maybe by running ancestor simulation? Who knows. But one thing we can say for sure; much is hidden from our ape-like minds, and this should cause us to be humble.

Lisa Randall: Dark Matter

Lisa Randall is professor of physics at Harvard and author of the just released Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Randall also just penned an essay in the Boston Globe “Seeing dark matter as the key to the universe — and human empathy.” I thought it one of the best I’ve read this year. She begins the essay:

I liken dark matter — matter present throughout the universe that is invisible to us because it doesn’t emit or absorb light — to other entities that remain unnoticed but influence the workings of the world, from the bacterial cells in our bodies, which outnumber human cells by a factor of ten, to the myriad Internet communities and subcultures that thrive outside our awareness. The goal was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality.

She extends her metaphor by pointing to other things that are transparent to us, “people, phenomena, particles, and forces that we don’t necessarily appreciate but that are important to our shared reality.” In the scientific realm, these blindspots are relatively obvious. For example, we don’t see or understand the rules of quantum mechanics which are counter-intuitive and esoteric. And dark matter is like this too, even though it is,

the dominant form of matter in the universe … people tend to perceive it as irrelevant or even dangerous … Dark matter’s existence perplexes people who find it implausible that the vast majority of matter in the universe would be undetectable by our senses and their technological extensions. Some even wonder if it’s a sort of mistake. To me it would be even more astonishing if the matter we can see with our eyes were all the matter there is.

Now if we turn the metaphor toward racial or class differences we see that,

Most people mistake their own perspective, shaped by their subjective and limited perception, for the absolute reality of the external world. Questioning this assumption is what advanced our research on dark matter. It is also the only thing that has ever advanced human empathy.

Empathy is important to help us understand things we can’t see or experience. If we recognize”the limitations of our senses and the subjectivity of our experiences” then we might be able to transcend them.  Yes, we necessarily see the world from our own point of view, but we should remember that ours is only one way to see the world so we should be empathic.

Empathy is difficult. It is also crucial to the progress of both science and society. It demands that we make a deliberate and consistent effort to step out of our familiar frames of reference. Only then can we synthesize different perspectives, observations, and experiences — the very act at the heart of creativity, which will be essential to solving the increasingly complex problems that beset our world.

There is dark matter and energy around us that we don’t see; there is light and sound that we don’t see or hear. Our thoughts are but grains of sand in a universal ocean of thought. We should be humble about them and empathic toward others.

Mario Livio: The Hubble Telescope and Our Immense Universe

The Hubble Telescope has revealed an unimaginably immense and beautiful universe. The video above, produced by Dr. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, concerns the philosophical implications of what we’ve seen with Hubble. This first one is called “In an Immense Universe, Small is Significant. The key idea is that, although we are extraordinarily small in this immense universe, that does not mean we are insignificant.

In this next short video Livio speaks to the beauty and power of science itself.

Livio is also the author of popular books including:

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe
,

The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number,

Is God a Mathematician?

The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant, and the Beauty of the Cosmos, and

 

Black Holes and Truth in Science

Theoretical Physics

Two days ago I wrote a post about “the recent discussion that black holes might not exist.” I was careful to use the word “might,” because I knew that preliminary scientific ideas are typically sensationalized in the media. As it turns out this was a classic example. While news reports made this out to be definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.

As the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Assistant Professor for High Energy Physics at The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm wrote yesterday:

… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.

As I pointed out in my post, many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

Other Areas of Science

Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar and trans fats are bad. And of course there is much we don’t yet know.  Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.

Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.” Of course scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories were basically mistaken. Radical change in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare.

So the next time you hear that vitamin D will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist and a world-class researcher and authority on lupus.  After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by earning a PhD, doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He did this by the careful employment of the scientific method. Anyone can proclaim truth; actually searching for it is much harder.

My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits and athletes combined. We should all thank him.

Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space?

George Johnson is a prolific science writer—the author of nine books and hundreds of articles. (He has written 14 articles for the New York Times in 2014 alone.)  He is also, by all accounts, a fine man. Last week in the New York Times he wrote “Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space.” Here is a brief summary of that piece.

Human may have been demoted from their central place in the heavens by modern science, writes Johnson, but we still believe that we will eventually figure out the how the universe works. It is generally believed we will do this by utilizing four basic concepts: matter and energy interacting in space and time. But there are some skeptics who think we might need a few more concepts, notes Johnson.

The first is the philosopher Thomas Nagel. He thinks there is more to the universe than physical forces, and that evolutionary laws need to be expanded to explain sentient life. Needless to say Nagel’s views have caused consternation. The psychologist Steven Pinker, denounced Nagel’s latest book as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Nagel, for his part, is an atheist who is not promoting non-scientific ideas like intelligent design. Instead he argues that science must continue to expand to find more complete answers. Nagel writes: “Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning … but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.” (Any thoughtful scientist would agree.) 

The discovery or invention of a mathematics so in tune with reality also amazes Nagel. (Many evolutionary epistemologists are not surprised that brains, which evolve from nature, are thus in tune with nature.) Even neuroscientists cannot yet explain how mind emerges from the electronic circuitry of the brain. (That “they can’t explain that” posits some as yet unknown explanation. It is one thing to say this explanation is supernatural and by definition such explanations are outside the purview of science. It is another to say that further explanation is needed, and no scientist would disagree with that.)

To fully explain mind, Nagel argues, requires another scientific revolution. Such a revolution posits mind as fundamental and a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” This would require directional, possibly even purposeful evolution, and would expand on the model random mutations and environmental selection. “Above all,” Nagel writes, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.” (Again few scientists would disagree. Thus Nagel’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear.)

In addition, notes Johnson, the biologist Stuart Kauffman also suggests that Darwinian theory must be expanded to explain the emergence of intelligent creatures like ourselves. (There is nothing surprising about this. My article on “Piaget’s Biology” in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy)notes multiple biologists who argue similarly.) And David Chalmers, an important philosopher of mind, has seriously considered panpsychism–the idea that rudimentary consciousness pervades everything in the universe. (However Chalmers does not say that panpsychism and the physicalism underlying contemporary biology conflict, although he does say, in this interview, that panpsychism “is a radical form of physicalism precisely because it introduces mental properties as fundamental.” So Chalmer’s views are not as revolutionary as they appear. It seems to me that panpsychism might even be expected given the evolution of higher intelligences from lower one. It also seems, on briefest reflection, that this does not mean mind more fundamental than matter, but rather that it is an emergent property in evolution. My basic point is that the reference to panpsychism doesn’t clearly challenge scientific orthodoxy.)

Johnson also notes that the renowned physicist Max Tegmark argues that mathematics is an irreducible part of nature–perhaps the most fundamental part. Johnson marvels at mathematics’ effectiveness in describing reality. (Piaget wrote extensively about how children’s reflective abstractions largely explain how the mind evolves, as well as the correspondence of mathematics and reality. And there are Platonic, evolutionary and other explanations of this correspondence.) Tegmark argues the universe is a mathematical structure from which matter, energy, space and time emerge. Other mathematicians note that most mathematics doesn’t describe reality at all. But for Johnson, Tegmark provides another example of a challenge to scientific orthodoxy.

Johnson conclusion from all this is mixed. On the one hand we’ve come a long way in understanding our universe in the 5,000 years or so of civilization. On the other hand, from the vantage point of 5,000 years hence, our science today will be primitive. So Johnson is not sure of the extent to which challenges to the orthodoxy are substantive.

My conclusion is that Johnson is correct about the former claim—we have come a long way since the dawn of civilization, but I’m not sure about his latter claim—that today’s science will be primitive in retrospect. In some ways this is true, but in others it may not be. There is a good chance that evolutionary, quantum, relativity, gravitational and atomic theories will survive almost intact. Why? Because while revolutionary disruptions occasionally happen in science, as Kuhn suggested, more often change is slow. Change is mostly gradual, evolutionary change, not radical, revolutionary change. Newton’s theory of gravity is not wrong—it works fine at speeds much slower than light—although Einstein’s theory of gravity is more complete.  The ancient atomists were correct that atoms are small indeed even though they didn’t have a modern atomic theory. And Euclidean geometry is not invalid because of non-Euclidean geometry–parallel lines still don’t meet in Euclidean space! In the far future we may find out we knew  a lot more than we thought we knew.

As for new ideas that challenge scientific orthodoxy I think Carl Sagan said it best: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”