Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Letter to My Congressman

Dear Representative Allen,

I was shocked at the news yesterday that U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops cleared Lafayette Park of people for the sole purpose of providing President Trump the opportunity of having his picture taken in front of St. John's Church while holding the Holy Bible. The use of St. John's Church as a backdrop for his picture was not authorized by the Episcopal bishop of Washington, Right Rev. Budde, or any other church leader. Other church members providing Christian service on the steps of the church were forcefully removed by U.S. Park Police employing tear gas.

This is a gross violation of religious liberty and a crass disregard of respect for constitutional principles. As a man of faith I was dismayed at the sight of the President of the United States, who took an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, so callously disregarding his oath of office and basic Christian charity for the inconsequential purpose of having his picture taken. To add to it he sought to use the Holy Word of God as a prop for his violation of a sacred space.

Throughout history church buildings have been used as sanctuaries in times of crisis, fear, and violence. Some of the worst atrocities in history have come when political leaders transgressed the sanctity of sacred spaces. While no church buildings were burned yesterday, or believers martyred, the President of the United States did violence to our religious liberty and assailed the wall of protection that provides safety to believers from the encroachments of Government power. The sacred space of a House of Worship should never be used as platform to proclaim violence on the children of God.

For my entire life, when I first came of age, I voted with a conviction that religious liberty must be preserved as a fundamental right. In the 2016 the Republican Party platform it states, "We believe in the Constitution as our founding document." If that was true then, surely the foundation of Republicanism has shifted like sand since then. I find no condemnation of the President's actions, nor of any defense of sacred spaces from those who proclaim the Constitution as their founding document. But as for me and my house, our principles are placed on a sure foundation that will not wash away with the changing tide of political expediency. I believe that constitutional freedoms must be protected and respected, not gassed and harassed.

Representative Allen, you proclaim to be a man of faith. Now is the time to live your religion and make good on your faith. The actions of the President must be condemned and not defended. I cannot in good conscience vote for anyone who provides cover and defense to someone who uses their office to violate the sanctity of a House of Worship. The rights written in our Constitution define the character of our government. How we treat those rights define who we are.


[quantumleap42], PhD

Monday, May 11, 2020

What counts as evidence in science?

Recently a young earth creationist asked me if I had looked at the evidence for a young earth and I said that I had and did not find any of it to be credible evidence for a young earth. He challenged my assertion that there was no evidence for a young earth and said, "you should be ashamed of yourself ... to say there is NO evidence rather than you just disagree with the conclusions of the data." He then listed many things he thought were evidences for a young earth. The problem was his list of "evidence" didn't actually contain evidence. They were attacks on the theory of the old earth, or attempts at finding uncertainty in what we know. There was nothing there that hinted at positive evidence for a young earth.

So what counts as evidence in science and why did I say there was "NO evidence" for a young earth instead of saying that I disagree with how to interpret the evidence? For that we have to look at what was presented as evidence.

One thing usually presented as evidence for a young earth is the argument that there is massive uncertainty in radioisotope dating. One of the ways we date rocks and meteorites is by using the half-life of radioactive isotopes to find out when a rock first formed. This is the most direct evidence that we have for the age of the earth. This of course presents a problem to anyone insisting that the earth is only 6,000(-ish) years old.

Since this counts as strong evidence for an old earth this obstacle must be removed if a young earth is to be proved. Thus the need to call into question the reliability of radioisotope dating. It is true that if the earth really was 6,000 years old then our method of dating rock really is unreliable and cannot be used as evidence for an old earth.

Whether or not you accept the reliability of isotope dating does nothing to provide evidence for a young earth. Unreliable rock dating only removes evidence for an old earth, it does not create evidence for a young earth. Young earth creationists will have to argue persuasively that it is unreliable, but it also means they cannot then use it to argue for a young earth. Without radioisotope dating the age of the earth could just as well be 21 million years instead of 6,000 years.

This kind of argument is presented as "evidence" for a young earth, but it does not provide evidence, it only removes the evidence for an opposing theory. Additionally it does not provide an explanation for why radioisotope decay is the way it is, it only attempts to undermine the reliability of it.

This then gives us an example of what counts as evidence in science. For something to be evidence it must increase our confidence in a particular theory and not just introduce uncertainty into our understanding. Many of the arguments for a young earth are of a similar form and do not actually provide evidence. They only seek to decrease the certainty of the evidence for an opposing theory.

Sometimes it is necessary to argue that certain evidence is not as certain as we think it is, but for that to then count as evidence for a different theory the uncertainty must be resolved in favor of the other theory. The purpose of science is to increase our confidence in how we view the workings of the universe, thus for something to count as evidence it must decrease our uncertainty.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

A New Christian Symbol

Last night President Russell M. Nelson announced a new symbol for the Church of Jesus Christ to use. The new symbol has a depiction of Jesus under an arch symbolically representing the tomb. He is standing upon a corner stone with the name of the Church on it. If we take the simplest form of this symbol there are many other meanings that we can give it. Like many symbols of religions through out the world it is very simple, but can contain intense meanings.

Here are possible interpretations of this symbol:

  • It is the door of the empty tomb after the resurrection of Jesus.
  • It is an open door to the Church, inviting others to enter.
  • It is gateway leading us into the path of Eternal Life. The gateway is baptism, which is symbolic of the grave and of resurrection.
  • It is the windows of heaven.
  • It is a doorway to a new life.
  • It is an open door of fellowship and friendship. Our door is always open.
  • The stone is the corner stone representing Christ.
  • The stone is the Rock upon which we should build.
  • It is the foundation of the Church and the Gospel.
  • It is the welcome mat to our homes.
  • It contains the steps to the doorway to heaven.
It's a very simple symbol but can have many meanings.

Friday, April 3, 2020

What stays the same when science changes?

"Science always changes so there's really no way know what is correct. Years from now everything we think we know could be wrong." -- Anonymous Internet Philosopher
That statement is so generic and I have seen so many countless permutations of it that I have no practical way of counting them. Every single time I have seen statements like that it is a subtle way for the person to say, "I don't want to talk about this anymore and no matter what you say I won't listen to you." This post is not for people like the anonymous commenter, but for people who have sincerely asked the question, "If everything in science can change, then what can we trust?"

So in the midst of the constant change of science what stays the same? Or does anything stay the same?

Let me give an example (I may have shared this story a few years ago). One day I was talking to an acquaintance and he asked me "What if it turns out that gravity isn't real?"

My response was simple, "Rocks still fall down. The Earth continues going around the sun. Gravity doesn't change."

What he was really trying to ask was, "What if gravity doesn't turn out to work the way we think it does?"

There is a difference between the two questions. One deals with what we observe, the other deals with our explanation of why it happened, and how we can predict future events. The former never changes, the latter can change.

One of the earliest explanations of gravity (that we know of) came from Aristotle. His explanation was standard explanation for almost 2,000 years. When Galileo first measured how objects accelerate due to gravity, and Riccioli confirmed his theory and made refinements to his measurement, the universe did not suddenly snap to conform to the new understanding. Things fell towards the Earth as they always had. Their motion remained the same. If you dropped a stone one day and then dropped another the next day the same thing would happen.

These basic observations are the things that do not change when science changes. Over 2,000 years ago Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth and also proved that it was a sphere. Since then our understanding of the shape of the Earth has not changed drastically. We still call it a sphere or a globe, but we have also found that it is not perfectly spherical. It bulges slightly at the equator. Our understanding of the shape of the Earth will change and grow as we make more observations, but our new observations will not change our previous observations. We will still view the Earth as roughly spherical.

What will NOT happen is we will wake up one morning and find that the Earth has been a flat disk all along. It won't suddenly become a doughnut shaped object. So when we say that science will change it means that our previous observations will only become more refined.

This brings us to the age of the Earth, which is almost always the topic that prompts the comments like the one I started with. In the years to come there will be changes and refinements to our understanding of the age and formation of the Earth, but just like the globe, we won't suddenly wake up one morning and find that scientists have figured out that they were wrong all along and that the Earth is actually 6,000 years old.

When changes in science come the changes must explain and agree with our previous observations. If we change the way we view the formation of the Earth, or how life evolved, what won't change is the rocks and fossils we analyzed previously. There are plenty of ways that our understanding of evolution may change in radical ways, but what won't change is the fact that it took millions of years, and that we have a part in it. Any new explanations we have must explain the evidence we have and what we currently observe.

Our explanations will become more refined and there may even be major shifts in our understanding, but the evidence will stay the same. Too often we fall into the trap of wanting the evidence to fit our worldview, but we must first make sure our worldview can accommodate the evidence.

The sentiment expressed by the quote at the beginning is a wish that in the future evidence will be found that makes everyone else conform to the worldview of anonymous, rather than a desire to find a worldview that accommodates all the evidence.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Science Requires Positive Evidence

Finding explanations to what we observe is the essence of what science is. At the simplest level is it looking at the world and making sense of why we see what we see.

The science comes when we seek explanations in a systematic way. We take what we have observed, find an explanation that fits what we have observed and then, and this is the hardest part, question our assumptions to see if we should change our explanation, or more likely, expand our explanation.

While I have written this as a simple processes, understanding this process requires applying the process of science to the process of science itself. In the end you end up with a greatly expanded understanding of how not just science works but also how we interact with the universe.

Explaining this is not something that can be done in a single blog post, or even a single book, but it is a lifetime of learning. What I can do is provide examples of how science is either properly or improperly applied. Here I will give one example of a misapplication of science.

A few years ago an asteroid, that we named ʻOumuamua, from outside our solar system passed through our solar system. This was the first asteroid to be positively identified as having an unbound orbit. It was something that got a lot of attention and there were a few ideas proposed, such as gasses venting from the inside, or even we had measured its shape and mass incorrectly because it was spinning rapidly, or any number of possibilities.

Two astronomers at Harvard proposed the idea that ʻOumuamua was actually a spacecraft from an alien race. Their argument rested on the fact that as ʻOumuamua began its journey out of the solar system its velocity was not changing as we would expect. Its velocity was consistently too high. This would mean that there was something giving ʻOumuamua a push on its way out.

There is nothing wrong with proposing that something is evidence for extra-terrestrial life, it is after all an open question in science. But their motivation for their conclusion was flawed. Their argument rested on the fact that our measurements of ʻOumuamua's motion did not fit with our other measurements of its properties. Put simply, there was a difference between what was measured and what was calculated for its speed.

The problem with the alien spaceship theory was that there was no positive evidence pointing towards that idea. There only existed uncertainty in how it's motion could be explained by our other measurements of ʻOumuamua.

In the measurements of ʻOumuamua there was some uncertainty of its dimensions, spin, composition, and mass. ʻOumuamua's motion was not outside the possibility that it was just an asteroid and nothing else, just unlikely. Thus its motion did not constitute positive evidence for ʻOumuamua being an alien spacecraft.

Something is positive evidence iff its presence, or our knowledge of it, can only be explained by the proposed theory. That is, if the explanations needed to accommodate the new observations break our current understanding and theories at a fundamental level.

In the case of ʻOumuamua the difference between the measurements and calculations did not fundamentally break our understanding of physics. It didn't even make it exceptionally difficult to find other explanations that did not require it to be an alien spacecraft. Hence it could not count as positive evidence for it being an alien spacecraft.

If, for example, ʻOumuamua had been emitting regular radio signals with a defined pattern, then that would be positive evidence. In our understanding of physics there is no way for a hunk of space rock to make radio signals with a regular pattern. But to have its motion be slightly off from what we calculated, that is not positive evidence. Therefore not only is the idea not supported by the evidence, but proposing the idea was not supported by the evidence.

The critical thing that separates new scientific ideas from normal speculation is that there must be positive evidence first. This is a minimum bar to separate science from non-science. Finding evidence of aliens is perfectly within the realm of science, but we must be careful because not all things can be positive evidence for aliens.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Body of the Church is a Temple

In the Church of Jesus Christ we quote 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 to show that we should be respectful to our bodies and not "defile" them. It is a scripture mastery scripture in Seminary, and some of us could quote them from memory. They are the basis of the teaching that our bodies are temples of God and you shouldn't "defile" them with tattoos, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or fornication, an idea that is drilled into the heads of our youth.

But do we really understand these verses? Let's take a closer look at them.

In the King James Version 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 reads as,
"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are."
And 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 reads,
"What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."
A simple reading of these supports the idea that our bodies are temples of God, but if we look at the original Greek we can see an entirely different meaning.

In English when we are talking to someone we use the pronoun "you". And if we are talking to more than one person we also use the pronoun "you". English does not have a formal way to differentiate 2nd person singular from 2nd person plural. In other languages there are two different words (for example, "usted" and "ustedes" in Spanish), or two different verb forms to differentiate singular from plural. Greek has different forms for singular and plural 2nd person.

When these verses are translated from Greek the difference between singular and plural pronouns, verbs, and nouns is lost. To clear this up here are the same verses again (using the NRSV translation), with pronouns, verbs, and nouns explicitly labeled as plural or singular.
Do you (plural) not know that you (p) are God’s temple (singular) and that God’s Spirit (s) dwells in you (p)? If anyone destroys God’s temple (s), God will destroy that person. For God’s temple (s) is holy, and you (p) are that temple (s).
Or do you (p) not know that your (p) body (s) is a temple (s) of the Holy Spirit (s) within you (p), which you (p) have from God, and that you (p) are not your (p) own? For you (p) were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your (p) body (s).
In these verses Paul is addressing multiple people (plural "you") and calls multiple people to all together be a single temple. Also that multiple people have a single "body" which is a single "temple". In this sense he is not talking about everyone's physical body, but Paul is talking about the "body" of the church. The point that Paul was making is that the body of the congregation is a "temple" of God, and that the Holy Spirit dwells among the congregation, not within the physical bodies of the individual members.

Understanding these verses in this way changes how we interpret them and how we apply them to ourselves. This means that we are being exhorted to not defile the body of the church, not our own bodies. This means that the congregation of the church all together is the temple of God, and not our individual bodies. The difference comes from the fundamental rules of English and how the original Greek is translated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Why the Theory of the Multiverse is Unscientific

Note: I wrote this in another place in response to someone's question. We were discussing this video about the theory of multiverses that was posted to YouTube a few days ago.

Sean Carroll explains that there are two possibilities, either the branching is infinite or finite (I think that covers just about everything).

With infinite branching there would have to be an infinite amount of energy and time, because with an infinite amount of branching drawing from a finite pool of energy, at some point the energy would be exhausted. So there would have to be an infinite amount of energy. I heard Sean Carroll make exactly this argument at a talk a few years ago.

By his own admission, if there were an infinite amount of energy and time then ALL possible universes will be seen. This includes our current universe, complete with 13+ billion years of existence, AND it would mean that an exact copy of this universe exists except in that universe Harry Potter, Hogwarts, and magic are all real and part of the universe. There also exists a universe that consists of ONLY the room you are currently in, complete with computer/phone/tablet that give the appearance of you interacting with the outside world, but the outside world doesn't exist. And whenever you leave the room that universe will cease to exist.

Again these are all arguments that Sean Carroll makes himself.

But this means that there exists a universe like our own where there is no such thing as the multiverse and it behaves as if there were only one timeline and absolutely no branching. There would also exist a universe that looks exactly like ours but the multiverse exists just as he describes it.

But how do we know which one we are in? Because if we go looking for evidence and don't find it then we don't know if we are in the universe with no multiverses, or if we could be in a universe where it is impossible to detect the multiverse. Either way we can never know until we find evidence to conclusively show it one way or the other. But that evidence does not exist. So by his own logic, if the branching is infinite, and there is an infinite amount of energy, then we can never know if multiverses don't exist, or if we just haven't seen them yet. Either way the universe remains the same and the concept of multiverses means nothing.

Next, the second possibility he brings up is a finite amount of branching. This solves the infinite energy problem, but without an infinite amount of energy there is only one universe, even if locally it functions like a multiverse. (By local, that can mean just on earth, or within the visible universe 13+ billion lightyears away. On these scales the room around you and all the galaxies 13+ billion lightyears away are all considered local.) A locally branching multiverse would go against our current understanding of physics, but it would still be possible if and only if the things making it possible are beyond our current ability to understand, calculate, or observe.

In the video he admits this (starting at time 14:40) where he says "but the details hinge on quantum gravity, cosmology, the theory of everything, and all that stuff." He is essentially saying that there exists something that we don't know about right now that makes the multiverse work. This is essentially a scientific variation of the God of the Gaps argument. It comes down to "there is no other way for this to work, so there is something, we don't know what it is, that makes it work." You can call it quantum gravity, cosmology, the theory of everything, God, Bob your neighbor, magic, a lazy dog, or anything you want it doesn't matter. It simply is a "thing" that makes it possible for his idea to be correct.

But again, we have nothing that specifically points to a multiverse, so it doesn't matter what you call the thing that makes it possible, because in the end it is something undefined to support something unproven. You could just as easily say, "The magic of Harry Potter is real but the details hinge on quantum gravity, cosmology, the theory of everything, and all that stuff" and be just a scientifically valid. Which means not at all.

"But! There is MATH behind it!"
That's nice. You can put math behind any idea. It doesn't make it real.

There is no evidence that points us specifically towards a multiverse. There is no physical motivation other than to resolve a paradox that we made for ourselves. The paradox does not come from the universe. It comes from how we think about the universe. We do not resolve a paradox that we made ourselves by insisting that the universe change to fit our ideas. Our ideas must change to fit reality.