25 February 2012

Quantum mechanics gets a bit less spooky

Quantum mechanics is a very robust theory of the small-scale phenomena in the universe.  It has been repeatedly verified in the lab, and has been become a fundamental tool to explore the rest of the universe.  But it does imply some rather bizarre things, that certain types of theists have used to attempt to (a) discredit science and simultaneously (b) prove the existence of their fairy tale gods.  New work now suggests multiple ways of reconciling quantum weirdness with the regularity of the human-scale universe - without requiring god.

First of all, if you don't "believe" in quantum mechanics, then you need to understand that the computer you're using this second runs because of quantum effects.  So turn it off, and go check yourself in to the nearest asylum, because that's where you belong.

For those of you who are left, you may know of some of the weird quantum effects that I'm talking about.  Einstein called one of them "spooky action at a distance."  Perhaps the most famous (and irritating) artifact of quantum science is Schrodinger's Cat, which was both alive and dead in a box with a randomly released poison till it was observed.  This led to all manner of new-age nuttiness.  Also, diverse theists immediately tried to interpret quantum weirdness as a sign from or of god.

Eventually, a new concept, decoherence, was developed to reconcile micro-scale quantum effects with meso-scale "reality" as we observe it.  But it was often seen as a bit of a kludge, a spit-and-baling-wire approach to patch together two different and far more elegant systems.

Recently, an alternative to decoherence has been developed by Dagomir Kaszlikowski and colleagues, which is far more elegant than decoherence and yet shows quite neatly how quantum effects combine at the meso-scale to create the kind of reality we observe every day.  It's still early days for Kaszlikowski's theory, so it's too soon to declare it the winner.

But that's not really the point I want to make.

Instead, consider the "society" in which this work has gone on - the scientific community.

In that society, the evidence for quantum mechanics - coming as it does from hundreds of diverse areas of research and consisting of thousands of replications of carefully designed experiments - is overwhelming.  QM both allows the explanation of existent phenomena and the prediction of other phenomena.  A sure sign of a good theory is when it successfully predicts things that couldn't otherwise be predicted.

QM isn't dogma, it's only the best model that fits the facts.  Even Einstein, who couldn't really accept QM, did not deny that it was the best model available for very real physical phenomena.  He might not have liked it, but he knew that the evidence rules.

Some thought the search for connectivity between QM and the Newtonian mechanics of the human-scale universe was a desperate attempt by scientists to justify their "spooky" quantum weirdness.  In fact, however, it was a test: if no connection could be found, then there had to be something substantive wrong with QM.

First, decoherence was developed.  Then, because scientists were not willing to settle for only the decoherence explanation, we also have Kaszlikoski's alternative treatment.

Both developments were driven entirely and only by the evidence, and the cumulative body of scientific knowledge.  Throughout this work, the scientists largely got along, listening attentively to each other, arguing respectfully, pointing out errors in reasoning rather than flaws of character (the latter of which are entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand), never hesitated to cooperate quite selflessly in the interest of discovering an objective truth about the universe.  And they did all this without god.

Now, of course, I'm sure there were disagreements and occasional arguments, rudeness, etc.  After all, scientists are just human beings.  But if one stands back far enough to look at the overall development of QM, one sees a very collaborative and surprisingly orderly movement from a state of relative ignorance to a state of relative knowledge.

Now compare this to the childish bickering, not to mention the suffering and death caused by religion.  From the Taliban to Rick Santorum and every religious nutjob in between, we see every textbook form of irrationality, delusion, and outright malevolence of which human beings are capable on display under the umbrella of god.

That's the point I want to make here.

The name of this blog is "replacing god."  Here's one piece of that puzzle: science and scientific thinking.  Modulo the foibles of human nature, the way in which scientists think and work is far more sensible than any other approach ever devised.  I can say this will full confidence because when compared to every other form of collaborative knowledge development, science is the most robust, most reliable, and least likely to cause harm.  It is, in every measurable way, better than the alternatives.  It's light-years better than anything religion has to offer.

So let's dispose of homily, and of proselytizing, and of witnessing, and conclaves, and of all those other foolish religious trappings of the search for understanding.  Let's use a scientific approach instead.  It'll work.

24 February 2012

What if science were run like a religion?

Religion and science are fundamentally and philosophically at odds with one another.  Please note that I'm not talking about scientists versus religious people here.  I'm not talking about people at all.  I'm talking about the world views, the conceptual frameworks that science and that religion propose.  These frameworks are utterly exclusive of one another, and will never, never be compatible.  Science is based on evidence; religion is not.  In science, one pleads ignorance where evidence is lacking; in religion, one claims some kind of reflective, ineffable, "inner experience" (which I reckon is just unconscious cognitive processing).  In science, facts external to those discussing them are the primary concern; in religion, sentiment, opinion, and personal prestige (aka power) rule.  In science, the only thing that matters is understanding real phenomena; in religion, everything is based on a non-falsifiable assumption for which no evidence exists and against which significant evidence exists.  Science in itself doesn't, hasn't ever, and will never move people to harm others; religion does that all the time.

Ask yourself what would happen if science were run by religion.

Think of something specific, to keep things grounded.  Like, say, the question of faster-than-light neutrinos.

(Quick backgrounder; skip this paragraph if you already know the story. In 2011, some scientists found some experimental evidence that some elementary particles called neutrinos had exceeded the speed of light, which Einstein and many after him argue is not possible, and which has never been observed in nature.  This caused real excitement in the science community.  Most were of the opinion that there was probably an error somewhere.  This was largely because the experiment had been done only once, and scientific consensus only emerges on the basis of many repeated instances of an experiment done exactly to eliminate sources of error and bias.  In the press, the evidence was seen as everything from a catastrophic failure of science to the dawn of a golden age for humanity. By early 2012, however, it had been pretty much worked out that it was only equipment error that resulted in the FTL data.  This means that Relativity, and pretty much all of modern physics, was once again safe.)

Nuns are excommunicated for trying to save lives, holy men stood silent in the face of genocidesoldiers are killed for burning the Quranholy men remain silent in the face of genocide, and even just making fun of a deity is enough to invoke violence.  It seems reasonable to think that if the FTL barrier were dogma as important to religion as it is a principle central to modern physics, then the scientists who recorded the original data would have been excommunicated at least, if not ritually murdered.  It is also likely that any further investigations into the matter would be treated as heresy.  All scientists would be told that such research was forbidden.  Research grants would be denied or withdrawn from researchers who even appeared to be heading in the same general direction as the original heretics.

And, if absolutely necessary, the truth of the FTL claim would be settled not by experiment but by a bunch of old farts who probably wouldn't have done any real science in decades, and who sit around pontificating on whether FTL violations contravene the physics of Ptolemy.

None of this happened, of course.  Sure, some of the scientists got a little… excited at the prospect of FTL particles, but there was no violence, not even harsh language.  And I'm pretty sure that, now, they're all having a pint together and having a good laugh at the scare they gave themselves.  This is because they understand that even if they disagree on specifics, they know they are all working toward the common goal of understanding the universe.

18 February 2012

Why a mandatory religion course in Quebec is a good thing

It was reported today that the Supreme Court has ruled that Quebec students must take a mandatory religion/ethics course.

Why is this a good thing for atheists & humanists?

Here's where it gets interesting.  The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a family wanting their children to be exempt from the course.

I know what you're thinking: the kids' parents are non-religious and don't want their kids to be brainwashed with religious fairy tales.  Right?


You see, the religion/ethics course in question teaches about a number of different religions found among Quebecers, even including aboriginal religion.  One of its main themes is to convince people of different faiths to tolerate each others beliefs through understanding.

And the parents in question don't want their children to know about other religions.  From the CBC article linked above: "They claimed their children would suffer serious harm from contact with a series of beliefs that were mostly incompatible with those of the family."

Sorry - give me a minute; I think I wet myself laughing....

I think this decision by the Supreme Court is an excellent step in the right direction.  One of the biggest causes of the fractious relations between people of different (or no) faiths is bad information about the "other side."  If kids grew up knowing more about multiple religions, they'd be less likely to think along the lines of religious tribalism and moral brinksmanship.  Heck, it might even nudge a few more students towards secularism.

So, I guess the inbred, dumb-fuck parents who brought the case forward have a point.  They want to keep their children ignorant for the sake of keeping them in the fold of their own religion.  They should fear a course like this.  Education can be a terrible thing if you're deeply religious.

15 February 2012

Draft "secularist card"

Catholics are being handed "faith cards."

I find that so surreal that I decided to try my hand at a "secularist card."

I believe the image is publicly usable.  If it isn't, please let me know and I'll change/delete it at once.

The text is all mine, save the "dress rehearsal" line which is courtesy Clive Adams.


13 February 2012

A message to theists

Dear theists,

Do you believe
  • that every single person, regardless of gender, skin colour, race, culture, sexual orientation, income, position, or any other superficial characteristic, should be treated equally under the law?
  • that truth must be based on evidence and not superstition or power or money?
  • that wealth should be measured by the good you do and not by the goods you have?
  • that you should earn in measure to what you actually do and the merits of that work towards the well-being of others as well as yourself?
  • that value means more than cost or price?
  • that no one should go hungry?
  • that health care should be equally available to everyone who needs it?
  • that diversity should be universally celebrated but also tempered by the lessons of the past?
  • that war should be universally recognized as an unacceptable solution under all circumstances?
  • that education should be always free?
  • that our actions should be based on understanding that the earth and humanity are not two different things?
Well, good!  Most atheists believe in exactly the same things!

Of course, not all of you theists will agree.  Some theists are also psychopaths or sociopaths (e.g. Anders Breivik).  Other theists are terrorists (e.g. the Taliban).  Still others are just frickin' nuts (e.g. Santorum, Bachmann, Perry,…).  Still others are malevolent, deluded bigots (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church).  And others are spineless cowards who refuse to stand up for what they themselves believe is right (e.g. the Vatican's silence while Catholics in Africa cause tremendous suffering and death by preventing birth control, allowing people to be burned alive as witches,…).

These malevolent and sickening theists are, however, relatively rare.  They're loud and sometimes very powerful, true; but in numbers they are thankfully few.  Most theists are good, kind, and honourable people.

Similarly, there are some atheists that are useless bags of skin.  They're not really known as such, and they're generally harder to find, but they're out there.  Here's one list of a few evil atheists.  I'm sure there are others.

Thankfully, as with theists, most atheists are good, kind, and honourable people.

It strikes me, considering all this, that the conflict between theist and atheist isn't really one of religion or of god.  It's one of well-being versus suffering.  Among both theist and atheist populations, there are those who would live at the expense of others, who use their belief systems as drivers for intolerable acts of cruelty, pain, and death.  But also among both theist and atheist populations, there are those who care, who work to make the world a better place for everyone, and who understand the tremendous benefits that we all gain from working toward general well-being.

I think the real battle - no matter what the politicians, pundits, and media sensationalists would have you believe - is not between theist and atheist, but between those who wish for a good life for everyone, and those who don't.

If you prefer, it's between good and evil.

So here's my advice: for now, let's understand that any theist can be good or bad - and that any atheist can be good or bad.  We good people need to get together, to set aside differences of faith and religion, and stand together against those that will cause suffering on this earth.  Let's make this earth as good a place as we can, full of people who are, for the most part, happy, healthy, and as fulfilled as we can let them be.

And when we have that world at hand, we can all sit and have a nice cup of tea, and discuss in calm, inoffensive, and rational tones, whether god exists.

Postscript: Those of you who fear I may be losing my anti-theist edge can relax.  I'm still completely convinced the whole notion of god is obsolete.  But I also think that arguing about god isn't going to get us anywhere till we overcome the common areas of concern among both theists and atheists, which all have to do with well-being in this life.