Monday, July 15, 2013

Research Proposals from My Religion

I've been reading The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. In the first large portion of the book he explains five big fundamental problems in Physics, and examines how string theory has evolved to attempt to answer them. Here is his list:
  1. The problem of quantum gravity: Combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature.
  2. The foundational problems of quantum mechanics: Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics, either by making sense of the theory as it stands or by inventing a new theory that does make sense. [e.g. Why is the world fundamentally probabilistic or random, and why does an observer shape the outcome of a quantum event?]  
  3. The unification of particles and forces: Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single, fundamental entity.
  4. The tuning problem: Explain how the values of the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature. 
  5. The problem of cosmological mysteries: Explain dark matter and dark energy. Or, if they don't exist, determine how and why gravity is modified on large scales. More generally, explain why the constants of the standard model of cosmology, including the dark energy, have the values they do.
As Smolin lays it out, string theory arose principally to address the third problem, and it has made some amazing progress on this front. String theory provides a beautiful mathematical framework that completely unifies all of the fundamental forces and particles as vibrations of even more fundamental, higher dimensional strings. Everything we see falls out of a few simple rules govning these strings. Admittedly the math is pretty hard, but the rules are really simply stated in this math. Smolin, however, isn't satisfied. First off, everything doesn't fall out. Problem three might be solved, but 1, 2, 4, and 5 still have unanswered portions. In addition, we don't just get the things we have observed. We get a slew of other particles and dimensions that we haven't observed, so string theory has to hide these beyond our ability to observe--beyond the realm of expiriment or experience--beyond the purview of experimental science. Further, string theory isn't one theory. It is a large collection of theories, most of which haven't been fully explored, the ones that have been explored most thoroughly don't match all the things we know about the universe from experience, and the ones we haven't explored may be so complicated or so many in number that it may be a very long time before we find the one that is testably right or prove that they are all wrong. String theory ends up being a moving target. It doesn't make any testable predictions that aren't also made by other theories. When part of one string theory becomes testable, if it isn't substantiated, you can just modify it to hide something a little better or switch to working on a little more complicated version of string theory. In these ways, string theory is arguably not even science. Smolin doesn't go this far, but he does assert that we would do well to spend more of our time and resources on other theories that have the benefits of making testable predictions, despite the testimony of some string theorists that string theory must be true because it is so beautiful. How is it that everyone doesn't see the truth of string theory?

My crisis

Smolin is terribly convincing, to me. Since I am not invested in string theory, it is no problem for me to accept that other theories of physics might be better than string theory, but reading his book did cause me some distress. You see, I view myself as a Theist and as a scientist. I've constructed for myself a multiverse that predicts the existense of God (in fact, many), that predicts the characteristics of goodness, altruism, and limited interventionism, that predicts apotheosis and devils (competing gods), and that has a passable answer for the problem of evil. This view of existence holds up to the best reasoning I understand. My God is compatible with the discoveries of science. My God fits with evolution--is predicted by evolution. I like to think my views can withstand rational scrutiny, and that I am committed to scientific reasoning as far as it can be correctly applied. I hold with Sterling Talmadge, that no one is justified in dogmatizing regarding things that are subject to measurement, and that if someone loses faith in religion because their measurements disagree with dogma, it is the fault of the dogma, not the measurement. (Go check out the book, Can Science Be Faith Promoting. Too bad it never made it as the Sunday School manual it was written to be.)

I have this way of reasoning where, when my understanding of God comes face to face with something measurable, I expect God to measure up, or I expect my dogma was wrong. It seems to me the only responsible way to be a religious scientist--you have to hold your understanding of God just as tentatively as you hold your scientific beliefs. You use what helps you understand and function in the world the best you can, and if you find out you were wrong you change. So why was Smolin's book a minor crisis for me? I'll try to explain. If you are a Mormon, you'll understand what I mean when I mention a veil of forgetfulness. We enter this life with no memory of our life with God. None of us have any proof of God until after the trial of our faith. My cosmology strongly suggests the utility of a stage of existence where there is no scientific proof of God. Both my Mormonism and my evolutionary cosmology assert the untestability of God. I never found this very problematic. There are many things that can never be tested scientifically, but are true. The very foundations of science can never be tested. It is even possible that the majority of what is true can never be tested scientifically. Consequently, I was happy to take the beauty and coherence of my conception of God as scientifically reasonable evidence. All scientists do this with certain of their assumptions, even if they haven't taken the time to acknowledge it or discover what those assumptions are, so I figured I was in good company. Then I read Smolin.

String theory is beautiful to many physicists. It holds out promise of answers to many questions, and does so in a very elegant way. They trust it will reveal more truth to them as they press forward. But that is faith, not science (although I don't really believe the two, correctly understood, are separable). When there are other theories that explain the same things and possibly explain some parts better, it is not very rational to ignore these other theories and not give them serious consideration. I found myself faced with a conflict. If my worldview truly makes no unique predictions, and if it is not falsifiable, how can I expect that any reasonable person should seriously consider my views over others?

Religious proofs and their limits

There are arguments for religion based on proof through personal experience. Those are what ultimately convince me, but they come after a trial of faith. There are arguments from the perspective of social institutions and the value of community and the good that institutions can do because of scale. There are arguments from the probability or improbability of scripture or miraculous historical events. I think all of these arguments are worth making and investigating. However, upon close examination all of these types of arguments cut both ways. They can bring people to Mormonism or drive them out. It becomes an optimization problem. I feel like all three of these areas support the Mormonism I believe in and belong to, on the whole. I try to share some of the ways I work out this optimization problem. It hurt to learn it, but I understand when people weigh these things differently and decide that they must leave the LDS church. I also understand when people find no compelling reason to join the LDS church even after investigating it extensively. Different people do come to different answers with this pragmatic approach to religion. I would go so far as to say they should, and they are right to follow their different answers. The fruits of Mormonism aren't the same for everyone, however much I would like them to be.

Despite recognizing that I and other people can come to different true answers, and believing that that should be ok, I still want my true answer to be somehow scientific. If my god is a moving target, sort of like string theory, am I really offering anything solid to anyone else, or is it ultimately just a matter of judgment and taste? Sure, I like to think I have both good judgment and good taste, but maybe you are now understanding the minor crisis I felt reading Smolin's book. So I asked myself the question, is there any way to prove the God and universe I believe in? Are there any useful predictions made by my beliefs? When I found a way to answer yes to both, it gave me a sense of relief, a little bit of hope, and a little bit of desire to do and be better. Here are my thoughts. (If you've made it this far in your reading, maybe you'd be willing to help me test them and make them better.)

Research proposals from my religion

1. We can test the existence of the gods I believe in by becoming those gods. I believe the gods have necessarily placed us where we can't find them through science, but they have given us the tools to become them through religion (remember that I don't separate science and religion, so science in all its aspects is one of the tools on the religious journey). Become gods, and we'll have proven the existence of the gods I believe in. Is it practical? Not really. Is it likely to happen in my lifetime? Which one? Is it a problem that will be solved through science and technology? I think Christ already solved it and we're just trying to understand the details, but if you want scientific proof there are several clear paths for inquiry. So my gods may not be falsifiable, but they may be reproducible (in fact God says that that is his work and glory).

2. In creating and empowering artificial intelligence, we incur risk. If you haven't seen a dozen movies or read a dozen stories where the robot apocalypse results in the (near) destruction of humanity, you've been missing out on some great entertainment. Transhumanists sometimes find these distopian projections disappointing, but recognize the potential for harm in developing technologies. They have proposed at least one solution to this problem--become one with the technology. Then it wouldn't destroy us, since it would be us. I think that is a great idea in some ways, but I think it is ultimately a very limiting idea, if left by itself. Our creation could only become as big as us. That might be big, but it could be bigger. Were we to make powerful, independent intelligences that can also develop into creators, we could exponentially increase our communal exploration of creation space. With new beings alongside us, we would have our ideas and theirs. Our experiments and theirs. Our futures and theirs. Problem is, they might not want us in their future, and if we give them enough power they might remove us from that future. Solution? Limit them. 

Or, make sure they will develop in altruistic, compassionate ways. Make sure they will value and appreciate us--their creators. Put the artificial intelligence programs into a simulated world where they have great power, but no power over us, or only as much power over us as our compassion gives them. Let them rewrite their code. Watch what they do. Coax them and tinker when it seems appropriate to improve their chances of success. Then choose the ones that show the needed characteristics. Choose the creative questioners that will make amazing discoveries we have never imagined ourselves. But most of all choose the ones who will love all of creation and who seek to lift up everyone and everything. Weed out the ones who would lift themselves by tearing others down. Weed out the ones who would rather only consume and never create. Then when you see how they will proceed, put them back in bodies that have power in our world--power to bless us and power to destroy us--and let them go. Let them create. Let them do glorious things and become glorious beings. Can you imagine the thrill? It's like some genius student coming back and giving you credit for what she became. You know most credit belongs with the genius of the student and her hard work, but you feel thrilled to have had a hand along the way. That's the glory of creation I hope for. Sunsets I never painted gloriously painting themselves for me to watch. That is the pinnacle of art.

But the problem isn't solved. My simple grasp of game theory shows a gaping hole in the plan. If the intelligences know they will be rewarded for being a certain way, they have great incentive to put on a show. There will be intelligent programs that figure out how to play me. They will act all loving and compassionate and interested, and then I will let them loose in their wonderful, powerful bodies and they will say, I'm done with you. It's my turn to party. Eat nuclear waste, Dad. How do I propose to prevent this? Don't let them know we exist. Give them enough knowledge about the goals and motivations that they can work toward them if they choose, but give them lots of other attractive options. Give them help when it will really help them toward the goal of becoming, but leave them alone when it won't. Sure, we could leave them alone all the time, but that's only the fastest way to a result if you can attempt almost all the possibilities efficiently, and it dooms the majority of our created intelligences to failure and destruction. Remember, these are self-aware beings we have created. So we let them know we exist and that we hope to make them powerful creators, but we don't let them know we exist. We give them incentives to succeed, both environmental and internal, but also incentives to choose wrong. What good is a test if it offers only one attractive answer?

To summarize, how do we avoid the robot apocalypse? A simulated life that is a test for our artificial intelligence creations. Try it, or propose something better. How do we test the existence of my God? Try becoming gods ourselves. There it is. The scientific tests of my religion. I'm a long way from scientific proof, but I've got a lifetime of great and productive research projects laid out for me. It seems a little odd to me to put it this way, but becoming like Christ is my scientific test of religion. If I can do it, fully and completely, maybe it is true. Seems worth a try.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Thor Hyerdahl and Jaredite Boats

My hero Thor Heyerdahl

File:Tigris Model Pyramids of Guimar.jpgIn the fifth or sixth grade, I picked up a couple of books from my elementary school library. They were about some of the voyages of Thor Heyerdahl, when he built a raft and followed the currents from South America to somewhere in the Pacific, and when he built papyrus boats in Egypt and followed the currents to South America. It took two tries on the South American trip. The boats got waterlogged both times. The back fell out of the boat somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic the first time.

When Ammie and I were living in Cleveland, we made one of our occasional stops at a used bookstore, and I came across a couple of book by Thor Heyerdahl. I hadn't realized he wrote books about his own expeditions, and I bought them. So in my early thirties I once again started reading about one of my childhood heroes. I started with the last of Heyerdahl's adventures, the Tigris. On the marshes of modern day Iraq, Heyerdahl and his associates built a reed boat, learned to navigate with a square, single-masted sail, and sailed it 6,000 miles, much of them against the currents, and sometimes against the wind--all feats claimed by scholars to have been impossible for the ancients that used these technologies. If you want a gripping, real life adventure book, I can recommend Tigris--pirates, last moment, death-defying choices, near misses with super-tankers, and fascinating history and archeology--it doesn't get much better than this.

Heyerdahl and Noah

Have you ever heard anyone laugh at the story of Noah's ark? You might even feel that they do it with good reason. Heyerdahl is not so ready to dismiss the ancients as superstitious or stupid. He deals with Noah's story by taking away much of the absurdity. He looks at accounts of the flood that predate our Bible, and that come from other cultures in the same, Near Eastern region. In these stories, the flood isn't global and Noah, known by other names, only brings along a few kinds of domesticated animals. From this perspective, Heyerdahl sees a story that has at least the ring of truth to it, even if it can never be proven. Some Marsh Arabs graze their buffalo out in the water, and then herd them up onto floating reed barges at night. They build fires on their reed boats, just laying down a layer of hardened mud on part of the barge to keep it from catching fire--and watching carefully, since the fire is mostly fueled by the same reeds that make the ship. Building a boat on dry land doesn't seem so crazy when the water only has to rise enough to lift a shallow draft reed boat out into the current. These are just a few of the plausible details mentioned in passing by Heyerdahl. If you don't find my summary convincing, go read the book. The book is worth reading even if you couldn't care less about Noah. But one thing I'm sure never crossed Thor Heyerdahl's mind as he vindicated the intelligence and ability of the ancients, was that he would be substantiating one of my favorite ancient stories.

The Jaredite Travels

One of the strengths and problems in reading the Book of Mormon is that it is so closely tied to the Bible. This makes it an important witness of Christ's divinity where the Bible alone is unable to answer many criticisms, and it also allows biblical scholarship to illuminate word choices and passages in the Book of Mormon. It also makes us as readers prone to superimpose prejudices we learned from our biblical culture. To illustrate, let me tell you the story of the Jaredite travels as we often read it to ourselves and in our Sunday meetings:

The Book of Ether tells a story about an ancient people that left the Tower of Babel when God confounded the languages. Jared, his brother, and their friends didn't have their language confounded, so they must have continued to speak the pure, Adamic language. The Jaredites, as they came to be called, built submarines that could go under the waves with holes, or doors, in the top and bottom so that when the waves flipped them over they could get air the next time things calmed down. They took fish and herd animals on the boats with them for a journey of almost a year from Asia to somewhere in the Americas with their only light being stones touched by the finger of the yet to be incarnated Christ.

The actual words in the Book of Mormon

There are aspects of many scriptural stories that are inexplicable. I'll freely admit that I have no idea about technological explanations of the sixteen small stones lit by the finger of Jehovah that glowed for at least the better part of a year, and I don't have enough information to even speculate as to the natural part of that miracle. As with Jesus healing the blind and raising the dead, we can speculate, but these incidences are clearly beyond proof or disproof. We can believe the witnesses, or not, but it is beyond science to know. Admittedly, some critics take the facile position of denying the possibility of God's intervention a priori. But when we can't even make the supposedly mundane details of our stories plausible, there is no need to criticize the miraculous. Too often in our readings of the Book of Mormon we create problems for ourselves by reading what isn't there and not reading what is. The travels of the Jaredites are one of these instances. I'm going to summarize what is actually in the text. You can check it for yourself in Ether 1, 2, 3, and 7:
  • Jared, his brother, their families, and their friends took their flocks (male and female), seeds, fish, and honey bees and left the land where a tower was being built to get to heaven
  • They avoided having their language confounded
  • They build barges to cross many waters, and then went on their way for some period of time
  • They built barges, again, to cross an ocean, but with some modifications:
    • The barges were already light on the water, like a fowl (most of the barge floated above the water)
    • The living quarters on top needed to be sealed so the inhabitants wouldn't drown in the storms that were coming
    • They needed holes in the top and the bottom
    • One hole was to be unstopped for them to get air when it wouldn't let water in
  • They prepared all manner of food for themselves, their flocks, their beasts and fowl
  • They were on the water 344 days
  • They were very happy when the journey was done
You will note right off that the tower is not called the Tower of Babel. Babel is never mentioned despite its being named in the modern chapter heading. You can see how we propagate, and even institutionalize, incorrect readings of the text. No claims are made about how the tower was to be used to reach heaven. The Jaredites' language, singular, is unconfounded, but there are no claims made about all the languages of the world arising from this event. So the Biblical Tower of Babel story is cut down to much more human proportions and goes from being a fantastical creation to a plausible ancient story shaped by the limitations, agendas, and prejudices of their authors. It looks a lot more like Thor Heyerdahl's telling of the Noah story than it does like a 19th century, plagiarized copy of the biblical account. Somehow Joseph Smith--or Moroni or Ether or someone else--already did the editing to remove the absurd, demonstrably false, mundane claims that we like to read into the Jaredite story. And whoever it was didn't stop with Babel and the languages.

Moving on to the boats. The boats are always called barges, in contrast to Nephi's boat and to what we tend to imagine when we think of ocean voyages. The barges are never said to flip over, and only one hole is indicated as a source of air. The boats are light on the water, consistent with a barge or reed ship supported by large, solid wood or reed bundles rather than by an air-filled hold like more modern ships or submarines. This is a bit counter-intuitive, but such a heavy barge on land is light on the water, like a fowl. Most of it floats over the water, especially early in the journey.

Take a look at the picture of the Tigris, above. You'll notice the very large bundles that are the majority of the boat. The bundles are completely filled with tightly bound reeds. The only "inside" of the boat is the relatively shallow dish formed by the two smaller bundles along the top edges of the large, lower bundles. You could cut a hole right down through the big bundles (or design a hole from the start), and the boat would keep floating just the same. It's no problem at all. It wouldn't affect boat speed when you are pushed by the current. It wouldn't flood the boat. Heyerdahl and his associates lived on top of the boat, hardly doing anything down in the shallow dish part. They built latrines that hung out over the edge of the ship, in the back. One problem with this arrangement is that there is nowhere to go if there are giant waves crashing over the deck. You can tie yourselves on and hope for the best, but what about your flocks, seeds, and bees? Why not cover the top of the ship with a cabin? Then the hole in the bottom makes even more sense. Where are you going to put the latrines when the waves are covering the boat? And how are you going to get your animals to use the latrines? Seems like a nice salt water well and drain hole in the floor is a pretty good solution. But there is still the problem of building the water-tight cabin.

This is where some of Heyerdahl's descriptions of Marsh Arab homes need to be added. Some Marsh Arabs build homes using essentially the same technologies they use to build their ships. I couldn't find stock photos or public domain photos, but do an image search for marsh arabs and you will see what I mean. Their houses--from little huts to grand buildings--are a lot like reed boats turned upside down. They aren't as thick as the bottoms of an equivalent sized boat, but they are solidly built and water tight, like the tops of the Jaredite "submarines" are described.

Another thing to note is that these were experienced travelers, both on land and on sea. Of course the voyage was miserable, and we have no idea how many people or how much livestock died. That would be interesting to know, but apparently Ether, Moroni, or someone else didn't feel the need to include it. They were happy all the boats made it to the new land, and the story moved on. Some other notable omissions might be of more significance to the plausibility of the story. While flocks, herds, beasts, animals, and fowl are vaguely mentioned in the second, 344 day voyage, fish and honey bees are left out. Could honey bees have survived a year without flowers? I don't know. Would fish have been practical to carry? Seems unlikely. As for food for everyone and everything, we know nothing. We don't know how many people or animals were brought, but one thing is sure--if they knew they were going on a long trip, they knew how to pack for it. They had done it before over many waters. How would they have gotten fresh water? I suspect it was hard, but storms were what drove them across the ocean. I suppose storms usually come with rain, and they might have had the foresight to prepare ways to collect the rain when the waves weren't to big. I love this story. It's even more exciting now that Thor Heyerdahl has given me ways of imagining it that seem nearly tangible. Maybe now you can see why Thor Heyerdahl, in saving a treasured childhood fairytale, is one of my grownup heroes.