People who don’t know what they’re talking about should keep their mouth shut. But who can be arsed with that? This blog post will see me pontificating about things I know very little about. I make no apology for that. What I want to do is to laugh in the face of my writer’s block by simply exploring ideas I have been thinking about, some of which might be on the verge of something interesting. I lack the time to double (or even single) check everything. So, if someone wants to tell me I have made a series of major mistakes, I’m cool with that. Knock yourself out. I take it for granted that most of the things that I find most interesting are ideas that have been put forward by others (possibly which I have come across elsewhere and have lingered somewhere in my subconscious), either confirmed or, more likely, shot down in flames. I am, in other words, thinking out loud. Please bear with me.
I want to address some of the big questions in life, the universe and everything. Science or religion? Which side are you on? I think a certain kind of atheist (Richard Dawkins is the champion of these people, someone who used to be a great hero of mine, but whose obsessions have started to clowd his good judgement, and is now in danger of playing into the hands of ultra-dangerous reactionaries). These people have been pushing a project that has trapped many well-meaning humanists into the wrong side of this debate. I want to explore this.
When it comes to religion, I am on the side of Karl Marx. It is the opium of the people. But it is also other things. It is the heart in a heartless world. It is the sigh of the oppressed. Religious faith is something naïve and/or desperate people cling to when life is made intolerable by others. Atheists who prioritize winning this battle of ideas are making a very serious mistake. Live and let live.
What atheists should restrict themselves to is fighting for a level playing field when it comes to ideas. In other words, fight for a secular state, one that gives equality to all those of every faith, and to those of no faith in any supernatural entities whatsoever. And let’s fight for space for agnostics, those who are not ready to climb off the fence. What’s wrong with that? Can’t we be respectful to those who disagree with our indifference or positive hostility to particular aspects of every particular faith? That is no more than good manners. Fight all forms of apartheid based on irrational ideas, including faith schools, which are a form of child abuse. Deny every believer the ‘right’ to stop their children or anyone else being subject to alternative sets of ideas. Within those constraints, let believers go their own way.
What exactly is religion?
Religion has evolved everywhere and it won’t disappear overnight. Religion offers myths which act as parables, with messages that affect group psychology, making rules for behaviour that make societies socially cohesive. This has been going on from the beginning of recorded history. Not all the messages in these parables are reactionary. Most religions offer to their believers social rules that are universally accepted, including by humanists. Children probably do need to have their early behaviour circumscribed by less than rational methods, which will inevitably fall on the deaf ears of those who are but a short step from wailing, vomiting crap machines. Short cut methods which involve games about supernatural entities looking after them, looking over them, spying on them, keeping them on the straight and narrow is probably no bad thing. That at any rate is my opinion. Convince me I’m wrong, if you feel able.
The difference between science and religion is that the former relies on mathematics and experiment to test hypotheses. This is key. Why do many scientists hold on to religious ideas? Does it matter? Clearly they have a psychological attachment to things they learnt at points in their lives, memories they share with their parents, siblings, extended families, communities, ethnic group. They don’t want to let all these traditions go. Leave them in peace. If they can live with contradictions in a particular faith without directly harming anyone else, what is wrong with that? Making a big fuss about that is like rock musicians going to a folk or jazz club to start a punch up.
There has been a never-ending battle between science and religion that is, as far as I am concerned, a complete waste of everybody’s time. People of faith will always be able to ask questions that undermine that latest scientific results. Matter is made of atoms. Atoms are made of protons and electrons. These are separated by mostly empty space with the protons sharing a tiny space at the centre alongside neutrons. These nucleus particles are made of quarks. And the entire particle zoo of dozens of particles and anti-particles, force particles, virtual particles are made (possibly) of tiny vibrating bands of one dimensional strings of energy that are billions of billions of times smaller than a proton? Possibly?
The earth is not the centre of the universe? Even our solar system is not unique? Even the milky way is not the only galaxy? The universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies of hundreds of billions of stars had a beginning, and most of the substance of the universe is not even made of matter we can see? Even the universe is/may be one of many in an infinite number of universes inside an infinite multiverse? Jesus Christ!
Even if we do ever manage to verify the existence of these strings and the multiverse, what are strings made of? Who created the multiverse? Science only ever pushes our understanding beyond what exists, posing new questions in a never ending quest for the ultimate truth. We use maths and experiment to understand more and more of what we know. But the game of explaining things will never stop the god botherers asking the next question down. The question of what strings are made of and what caused the multiverse are not even scientific questions until we know if either of them exists. But if and when we know they do in fact exist, both are perfectly legitimate questions. The difference is these questions will only have become legitimate thanks to the work of scientists, not at all people of faith using their dodgier than dodgy methods. People of faith can teach the rest of us nothing when it comes to questions of ultimate truths. What they can teach us is poetry. And they can teach us to pose ethical problems. But atheists can play this game too. And we do. We should get together and talk about what we have in common. And atheists and people of faith are divided within themselves. The real coalitions of interests cut across the religious-atheist divide. That divide is a distraction for scientists.
I now turn to more speculative ideas. What is the meaning of life if you are interested in science? In my opinion scientists are stuck with an intelligent creator unless we embrace the anthropic principle that appeals to many universes, with ours being one of those with universal constants that make it possible for intelligent life to evolve to then ask such questions. People of faith now know enough, thanks to the work of scientists, to know there is a puzzle here. The more scientifically educated of them now realize the importance of the bizarre the improbabilities are of life forming in the universe. They need to ridicule each version of the multiverse. If scientists want to defend space for atheists, I think we need to appeal to the multiverse. One alternative to doing that is to suggest that the universal constants are not variable and that, for reasons we can’t begin to understand, life is just an inevitable by-product given those un-alterable universal constants in the only universe that can and does exist. I find this too improbable for words. It is another way to introduce some kind of deity.
I want to explore the meaning of life being an inevitable part of a single universe with the constants being fixed in this most improbable of improbable universes. But before doing that, consider another of the puzzles that makes me opt for the idea of parallel universes. Hugh Everett III’s many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics gets us out of the terrible mess left behind by Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics. The alternative to quantum mechanics that Einstein fought against cannot possibly be right. If experiment suggests it is, then there is something wrong with our experiments. Am I being anti-scientific in suggesting such a thing? Let me explain what I mean.
The double slit experiment poses questions that defy logic. Why is that? Why don’t scientists work harder to explain the paradoxes to the general public? They do their best of course, but the media isn’t interested. And people of faith use scientists’ inability to address these questions to imply science cannot answer the big question any more than they can. I think the problem is with our senses and with our brains that evolved to solve particular problems making use of our senses. Our brains can get together and work out how to build tools that help our senses gain access to new experiences. We can build telescopes, and microscopes, to see what would otherwise by invisible. We can develop instruments that allow us to access wavelengths above and below that of visible light. What is the problem with the double slit experiment? Why can we not get sensible answers?
I think the problem has to do with extra-dimensions to which evolution has given us no access. We can’t build the right equipment because we don’t even know what we are looking for. Our brains are filling in the gaps and producing the mental equivalent of optical illusions, which are like jokes or Escher paintings. This might never be solvable because we will never know what the right question is because to ask it we would need access to these hidden dimensions.
The hidden dimensions have to be explained by Klein-Kaluza ‘compactification’, surely? What if that was true? Could a particle appearing and disappearing be explained by waves moving in and out of our slice of a broader reality, at a subatomic scale?
The time line of an electron orbiting a proton in a hydrogen atom is a helix. And a helix seen on its side looks like a wave. But when examined head-on, looks like a circle, like a billiard ball, like our common picture of a particle. Can this have any bearing on wave-particle duality? Time lines are 2D representations of 4D phenomena. How could wave particle duality be explained by examining a representation of a particle examined from beyond space-time? We don’t examine the world in that way. This doesn’t make sense. Right? Those of us who don’t have the short term memory of a goldfish don’t entirely live in the moment. We examine problems involving processes unfolding in time as a series of snapshots, examining what we hold in our brains for a set of patterns. Maybe this necessarily bolting on of images from different time periods means our brains reconstruct part of our experiences in a problematic way. Thinking outside the box and what I’m saying here might be utter bullshit.
Schrodinger’s wave equation doesn’t tell us where a particle is but the probability of finding it at some point. This makes no sense. Is it possible that the only way to make any sense of this is to create tools that give us access to these hidden dimensions? And is it necessary to accept that until we create such tools, possibly based on a trial and error basis, we will never have access to experimental results that allow us to make sense of any of this? That is what I suspect is the case.
Suppose the parallel universes of the Hugh Everett III variety don’t in fact exist, at least not in fully formed fashion, but the best we have are potential parallel universes, shimmering images whose life is as fleeting as that of virtual particles? Might that explain anything? Not sure. It certainly couldn’t solve the problem of life in the universe, if this is the only universe.
If there is only one universe and if life is not an improbable accident, how can we explain it? If it is an inevitable part of the universe, utterly inevitable, then let’s assume that DNA is the only means of replication of living tissue anywhere in the universe. If we believe all of the above, can we find any relationship between the patterns of DNA and the physics of the universe? I am now going to propose a few ideas that have zero basis in evidence. Without any such experimental evidence they are meaningless. But I am exploring them for the purposes of science fiction and fantasy, and becaue I am very bored and stupid. Anyone who feels inclined to to build a religion out of the following ideas should pay me royalties. And if they don’t do that they had better pray for forgiveness, or I will smite them. A plague on all your houses!
My religion of time traveling DNA
The time line of the electron orbiting a proton in a hydrogen atom seen from the perspective of a stationary proton is a helix. It looks like a wave when examined from one perspective, but a particle when seen from a perpendicular angle. The timeline of a positron is an identical helix to that of an electron, but one travelling backwards in time. DNA, in that case represents the time-line of two elementary particles traveling forwards and backwards in time?
DNA contains a set of instructions based on a series of just four bases: G, T, A, C. Our universe plots events occuring in four dimensional space-time. What if we used a DNA sequence as a very long sequence of space-time coordinates? Does that make any sense? As much sense as thinking life is an inevitable part of a single universe not created by a creator.
The time coordinate is special, clearly. We can move through the three spatial dimensions in both directions, but we live only forward in time. If we are plotting events using a DNA sequence as our coordinates, what is the point of the time coordinate? I have a few ideas. Let’s choose one of the G, T, A, C bases at random as our time coordinate. Probably it would be a specific one of the bases, but we have no clue as to which one it might be. So we guess. Let’s select the T as our time coordinate. Let’s do this for mnemonic purposes, but we might change this later. Maybe we need to run this thought experiment using all four bases as our time coordinate. Anyway…
If T is our time coordinate, let’s decide that every base in a DNA sequence is a step in one direction along that axis of a fixed spatial unit. What is that unit? Let’s say the planck length. That’s just a guess or course. What happens when we reach our first instance of the T base? There are several things we could do. We could ignore it. It adds nothing to our picture. It is junk. Alternatively, it toggles all subsequent bases in the opposite direction. This means the displacements over a long set of DNA coordinates would average out, the movement of this sequence would go nowhere very, very fast. The picture this would paint would be one of a point particle vibrating endlessly in space, jittery. On the other hand, instructions that dismissed the T coordinate as nothing more than junk would have the instructions point in us in a single direction, wriggling around as it moves along its path. This could be like a particle moving at the speed of light. What about matter particles moving below the speed of light? What if the T coordinate represents neither junk nor an instruction to toggle every subsequent step in the opposite direction until the next T toggles all spatial steps in their opposite direction again? What is left? What if T represented an instruction not to all the non-time instructions, but only to the one following that T instruction? That would represent something new.
What is the worst that could come from transcribing the bases of a DNA molecule this way? Maybe we could produce a designs that are interesting. Maybe we could produce music that doesn’t sound completely random and nauseating. Maybe we would produce a message that will unleash demons from a hell dimension that would change all readers of my blog into frogs. That would be so cool.