Monday, December 24, 2012

How To Build A Free-Will Machine

One of the hottest topics in physics and philosophy these days is the question of free will. Do we humans make truly free choices in the world, or is this impression merely an illusion? It certainly seems as if we have free will, but if science teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t always trust our intuition: Feathers respond to gravity the same as bowling balls (in a vacuum), light does not travel infinitely fast, and the surface of a pond is not flat, but curves slightly with the shape of the Earth. Is free will wrong, too?

Those who subscribe to the reductionist school of thought would say that we do not have free will. According to this argument, a complete understanding of the world can be reduced to particles strictly obeying the laws of physics; therefore, whatever physical state you (i.e., the particles of your brain/body) and your environment were in prior to making a choice, there’s one and only one corresponding state afterward, and that means only one choice — predetermined by the earlier state of the atoms and molecules in your body. Some take this to the extreme, arguing that the future of everything in the universe is already decided, and that this future could be predicted with perfect accuracy in principle (if not in practice), given complete knowledge* of the universe’s present state. A different line of argument points to cognition experiments: It is now well known that our brain has already settled on a decision about a half-second before we consciously sense that we are deciding; therefore our conscious sensation of free will must be an illusion, it’s argued.

The term I use for this kind of thinking is “retarded.” I mean no offense; I use the term literally, that these arguments are regressive and backward, unimaginative, crippled by the Einstellung effect — they are based on old paradigms and leave no room for new, “outside the box” ways of thinking. (We used to think patterns on the surface of Mars were canals built by Martians; after all, we humans build canals on Earth, right? And, the Martians have human faces. That’s retarded thinking.) The experimental argument against free will is retarded, because it assumes that only our conscious self is capable of making free decisions. What if the actual free decision happens a half-second earlier in the subconscious, and only the conscious aspect of free will (“I think I’ll make a left turn here”) is the illusory part? The high-level executive functions of the brain, which include thoughts and sensations, are only a small part of consciousness, like the images displayed on a computer screen. There’s a lot more going on at deeper levels than it seems, and this is where free will may reside.

That leaves the physical, reductionist argument against free will. Prominent scientists including physicist Paul Davies and mathematician George Ellis reject this as well, on the grounds that strict reductionism does not apply to living systems. In the science literature there has been an explosion of research and theory on the role of information in biological systems, and we are seeing a groundswell of acknowledgment that in living organisms, information plays a causal role on the atoms and molecules of life. This recognition of “top-down” effects is changing our view of the bottom-up mechanisms which, according to traditional reductionist thinking, drive everything in the universe.

If information is fundamental to the way organisms (such as humans) operate, can we demonstrate that free will really exists by describing it in terms of information, rather than atoms and molecules? How would that work?

Let’s consider one of the most human-brain-like machines in the world, the Jeopardy-playing IBM computer Watson. Watson uses a sophisticated statistical approach: Given a Jeopardy clue, Watson compares keywords and strings of words with a vast database of information, runs a slew of algorithms simultaneously, and then comes up with a list of possible responses, assigning each a confidence level. If the confidence level of one response is sufficiently high, Watson rings in and gives a response. Google Translate and Apple’s Siri use similar statistical approaches. But no one in their right mind would say that Watson or Siri has free will; given exactly the same prompt and the same database — what scientists call initial conditions — the result will be entirely predictable. Despite being an incredibly complex computer, Watson is still not as complex as the simplest one-celled animal, let alone a human brain. So, how could we modify Watson so that it would start to exhibit qualities of free will?

Dynamics. That’s the key difference between Watson and living cells. Watson uses more or less a fixed database and operating rules, which is why, given the same clue, Watson would respond the same. But dynamics — in the form of highly complex, interacting internal changes — are one of the most obvious hallmarks of living organisms. If Watson were built with interacting dynamics, the results would be chaotic enough that Watson would begin to exhibit free-will-like qualities. For example, a random number generator could alter all statistical calculations slightly over time. That alone would make its responses more unpredictable. Another number generator could randomly remove access to sectors of the database, mimicking the imperfection of biological memory and recall. Watson’s thresholds — the risks it is willing to take — could go up and down slightly with time, as well as in response to external conditions (how far into the game it is, Watson’s score against those of its competitors, even the instantaneous temperature and air pressure). Watson could be given “moods”: If it missed a couple of clues in a row, it might get “bummed out” and avoid risks for a while. There could be positive and negative feedback mechanisms that either exaggerate or reduce risk-taking over time, based on several of the other factors. Changes in light levels and noises (such as a burst of laughter or applause) could “distract” Watson, causing the confidence levels to dip or fluctuate uncontrollably, with some distractions being longer than others, based on factors such as recent performance and the scores. “Fatigue” could set in, with the threshold for distraction going down not only steadily by time but also as a function of Watson’s performance and even the time of day. Watson might be given a mechanical “body” that must cooperate in order to play the game, this interplay dynamically affected by the body’s own complex dynamics and feedback mechanisms and distractions. (Too much ringing in? “Hand” cramps up.) And so on.

Given all of these extra dynamics, would Watson have human-type free will? Not quite. That would require piling on astronomical layers of complexity. Phrases in clues might conjure specific “memories” from its “life” that could either help or hurt performance; it could have multiple competing internal influences or “dialogues,” akin to Freud’s id and superego (or like Gollum/Sméagol from Lord of the Rings); and it could have advanced “emotions” such as jealousy or contempt, those emotions modulated by its “memories” as well as every other factor I’ve mentioned. That doesn’t even touch on the decidedly human skill of analytically understanding (and misunderstanding!) the true meanings of the clues the first place.

Regardless, adding only five or ten interacting dynamic parameters to the existing Watson would create a system sufficiently chaotic that its behavior might exhibit the free will of, say, a flatworm. Simple living creatures have enough dynamic complexity going on that it’s effectively impossible for us to recreate the same initial conditions, both internal and external, of any given choice it might have to make. So, even though a flatworm or a modified Watson will usually respond to a certain stimulus in a certain way, you can never know enough about the system to say for sure. Throw in the indeterminate/random nature of quantum-mechanical influences at the sub-cellular level (analogous to the number generators in modified Watson), and it becomes impossible even in theory to predict how choices will be made.

As far as I’m concerned, that means free will, even for a flatworm, or for a Watson. For a human being, with all of its complexities and frailties, it isn’t even a matter of debate.

* The “knower,” being a part of the universe, would need complete instantaneous knowledge of itself, including knowledge of the state of having learned the last fact about itself. Or, it would need to be external to the universe, which is defined as all that exists. Both options are logically impossible.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Global Warming: A Matter of Scale

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall this week, climate change roared back into the public consciousness. It seems that suddenly, something had to be done, even though the issue was barely mentioned in the election. As surely as the flood waters will recede, though, so will global warming in people's minds. We will go back to thinking about our jobs, our families, and our Honey Boo Boo.

People's fickle attention to big issues is maddening, but understandable. We don't do well with problems that extend well beyond the scale of everyday human existence. For millions of years, the human brain has evolved to tackle problems of immediacy: hunting for food now, escaping the predator now, feeding the crying baby now. The human scale of time is about seconds and minutes, maybe hours. Even planning for drought or famine next year requires vision and foresight that doesn't come to us instinctively. When confronted with the size and age of the universe, many people become uncomfortable, and for some, the idea that humans evolved from fish is laughable. The tools that we call common sense are best equipped to deal with the plainly obvious in the here and now.

By contrast, no issue in our lives is grander in scale than global warming. We began burning massive amounts of fossil fuels some 150 years ago, and the effects of doing so may continue for centuries. The atmospheric CO2 levels are like a giant locomotive that has been accelerating for generations, and continues to accelerate as industry takes over Asia and much of the Third World. All of this has happened effortlessly, as developing societies need lots of energy, and fossil fuels make that easy.

Looking at the big picture, it's hard to imagine slowing down and eventually stopping that locomotive based on our good intentions alone. Knowing about species extinctions and the bleaching of corals will motivate us only to a point. An immediate experience, like seeing the images of Sandy, is needed even to get people to be more than just intellectually "concerned" about climate change — that is, until the waters recede and a more pressing issue takes our attention elsewhere.

Part of the difficulty is our discomfort with matters of scale. When we humans see a problem, we want to fix it, and we want to see direct results from these efforts. If a room is dark, we switch on a light because we know this will help us to see. So when a Hurricane Sandy occurs, and we know that global warming is part of the equation, we intuitively seek an easy fix. To help us believe that global warming is within our control, we appeal to human-scale terms of cause and effect ("Plant a tree, cool the globe," one bumper sticker reads). Except there is no switch that will stop the Frankenstorms from coming. The Earth doesn't operate on a human scale, and given the complexity of the system — interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans, the methane-rich permafrost, etc. — even heroic efforts now may not stave off the effects of climate change in our lifetimes. The more ideological voices on the left cringe at hearing such discouraging news, but reality, like the planet, doesn't necessarily operate according to human-scale desires.

The only way to deal with climate change is to approach it on the same grandeur of scale as the issue itself. Over generations, we must shift our global mindset regarding energy and consumption. Clean energy, sustainable farming, and recycling should not be seen merely as ways to end global warming; instead, they must be seen simply as the right things to do. The 20th-century slash-and-burn approach to civilization is unsustainable, and a return to sustainability, at some point, will allow the planet to settle back into a healthier equilibrium. It's inevitable and has happened many times in the Earth's history.

Just don't expect to see results before the next airing of Honey Boo Boo

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Responding To A Classic "Truther" Article

An online article titled "9/11 official story doubts becoming more mainstream" was going around Twitter today. That headline may or may not be correct, although I'm not sure what an "official story" is exactly (I've heard creationists refer to biological evolution as the official story). Despite the neutral headline, it turns out that the article is a straight-up rundown of points in favor of the controlled demolition hypothesis, with no attempt at balance. I tried commenting on the page, but it wouldn't take my comment. (It's a conspiracy to silence me!) So, for anyone interested, here's my point-by-point takedown of the article:
... Jesse Venturas recent appearance on CNNs Piers Morgan. Ventura, an ex-navy SEAL and former governor of Minnesota who hosts a program on TruTV called “Conspiracy Theory”, appeared on Morgans show last week. After discussing 9/11, Morgan tried to dismiss Ventura and said he has “crackpot” ideas. Ventura then asked the audience, “How many people think I make crackpot points?” Only one audience member acknowledged. He then asked, “How many people think I make sensible points?” Almost the entire audience applauded him.
The fact that only one person objected to some well-phrased questions by Jesse Ventura doesn't prove anything. The person who did object, thankfully, was likely educated enough to know that Ventura's questions had rational answers.
Another good example is Colorado PBSs airing of a documentary film that was created by Architects and Engineers for 9/11 truth. It is the first time a major news network has aired anything like it. The documentary, entitled: “9/11 Explosive Evidence - Experts Speak Out”, features dozens of architects and engineers who unequivocally state that the twin towers, and WTC 7 which was not hit by a plane, were brought down by controlled demolition.
The film aired on a single local PBS affiliate, not a "major news network" (WTF?). Each PBS station is free to air whatever programming they like, and PBS nationally is only a collection of stations, not representing any centralized authority. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is something else.) Notice how the article attempts to create the impression that the "major news network" somehow endorsed or was involved in making the film — for example, the article's very last sentence:
I simply encourage readers to watch the documentary that was broadcast on PBS, do their own research and draw their own conclusions.
People with legitimate arguments don't need to resort to such manipulative tactics. The fact is, Colorado Public TV is the only station of any kind to give this film airtime. The Movement would like us to believe that this occasion is a big deal. It's really not.
If the official story that fires brought the buildings down is to be believed, then 9/11 was an architectural and engineering disaster that should have led to an urgent and exhaustive inquiry, along with suggestions for improvements and upgrades for other buildings of the same construction.
Here's the really devious stuff. The disaster did lead to an urgent and exhaustive study over several years, with multiple revisions, and involved several local and national engineering and fire-safety organizations, which published their recommendations to prevent similar disasters. The type of intellectual dishonesty in the above quote, aimed at the more naive, is de rigeur for Truth literature. (It's a bit like: Hey, if we are to believe the official story that gasoline is flammable, there should be measures in place to keep cars from just randomly exploding, right? I mean come on!)
According to Victoria Alexander, writing for Digital Journal, three days before the 11th anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, the documentary ranked number three among "most watched" documentaries on PBS and number one among “most shared”.
That would be most watched and most shared among videos hosted on the Colorado PBS station's web page — not among "documentaries on PBS." Just a minor subtle difference there. (I'm not so surprised the 9/11 film performed better than Colorado Commitment: Sustainability Through Collaboration.)

Paragraphs 7–9 deal further with the popularity of 9/11 films. While supporting the article's headline, this does nothing to support the veracity of their claims. Most residents of Utah believe that Jesus lives on the planet Kolob; this does not indicate that he actually does live there. Kind of a basic logic thing.
In 2009, a research paper was published by several scientists in The Open Chemical Physics Journal in which traces of nanothermite, a military-grade explosive used to cut steel, were found in four separate samples of dust from the World Trade Center site that were analyzed by scientists. The conclusion :Based on these observations, we conclude that the red layer of the red/gray chips we have discovered in the WTC dust is active, unreacted thermitic material, incorporating nanotechnology, and is a highly energetic pyrotechnic or explosive material.
The Open Chemical Physics Journal is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal, meaning the nanothermite paper did not need to meet scientific standards in order to be published. (More on that in a bit.) This journal charges $800 to publish an article. Legitimate journals do not charge authors, they charge for subscriptions instead; the Open journals are essentially vehicles for self-publishing. Regarding nanothermite, I challenge anyone to find a neutral source confirming that such a substance is used to "cut steel" in a manner that could even potentially be used in a building demolition.

Any iron or sulfur "nanoparticles" in the samples likely come from the structural steel and gypsum wallboard in the towers, which were subjected to the release of gravitational potential energy equivalent to 1/70th of the Hiroshima atomic bomb — one for each tower, directed straight down at the tower's footprint. Which also explains why everything was pulverized to smithereens.

Still, the evidence presented by the lead author of the paper cited, Steven E. Jones, is dubious at best — there was no controlled chain of custody for the dust samples (actually they were sent to him through the mail), and no independent analysis. Further, on a separate occasion Jones also presented physical evidence that Jesus Christ visited America. (That article originally appeared on BYU's website, but was taken down around the time BYU placed Jones on academic leave for his 9/11 "research.") Professionally, Jones was a physicist who researched muon-catalyzed fusion, which makes him an authority on chemically analyzing dust samples about as much as a psychiatrist is qualified to perform cosmetic surgery. He has since retired and currently makes his living in the Truth Movement.
That study, however, never made it out of academic circles and into the mainstream media.
Wrong, it never made it into academic circles. There is a difference. If it had been peer-reviewed and passed scientific muster, the paper would have generated a ton of attention. No such peer-reviewed article has appeared in any legitimate engineering or fire-safety journal, anywhere. Of course, Truthers dismiss this by claiming that the scientific peer-review process has been infiltrated by this conspiracy. The parallels with the manufactured creationism–evolution "debate" are plainly obvious.
Another fact that has never been publicized in mainstream media is the amount of credible people that question the events of 9/11. The corporate media publicizes questions by people such as Rosie ODonnell and Charlie Sheen, but ignore the people listed on Patriots Question 9/11, which include over 3000 professionals from the military, government, academia, engineering, aviation, architecture, etc., that question the official story. A quick browse of the list reveals that these are not a bunch of “crackpots”, but are professionals who have the knowledge and skills in their fields to ask legitimate questions about what really happened on 9/11.
It's wonderful that there are several thousand people who have signed petitions for this cause, some of whom have impressive credentials. But the list of Architects & Engineers for Truth is largely residential and small-office architects, designers, electrical engineers, etc., along with a bunch of "urban activists" and whatnot. Regardless, the existence of such a short list of supposed experts means nothing, considering that almost every structural engineer and architect in the world has not signed the petition! This is a little fallacy called selection bias. (You shouldn't be too surprised to learn that creationists have their own petition of scientist experts, too.)

Interestingly, there exists no petition of demolition professionals who support the demolition hypothesis. I wonder why that might be! On the other hand, we have the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which led the scientific studies of the disaster, and the Structural Engineering division of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which signed off on the findings and recommendations. But I suppose they've been bought out by the conspirators, too. Isn't it funny how none of these hundreds of people, indeed probably thousands, has ever come forward to blow the whistle and name names? Eleven years later and counting?
If most Americans come to believe that the terrorists responsible for the events of 9/11 are the same people that run huge corporations, banks, the U.S. governments and Israels intelligence agencies, then that could change the dynamics of the political scene for years to come.
Now there's some nuance — huge corporations, banks, the CIA, and Mossad are the same people! You know, bad guys, like in cops and robber movies. That makes all of those things so much easier to collectively hate, and the dots so much easier to connect, doesn't it? Well, at least we know who is to blame for all of the world's problems. Oh and by the way, those banker–corporate–CIA–Jews also exploded the World Trade Center with nano paint chips. Wow, they really are bad guys.

The rest of the article deals with a justice on Italy's Supreme Court, and "Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Ph.D. expert on Arabic and Islam cultures." (Truther literature loves to pile on the redundant titles in order to make dubious authorities more impressive, e.g. "the physicist Professor Dr. Steven E. Jones, Ph.D., a scientist.") Not sure what to say about these strange bedfellows' opinions, except, well, the consensus of structural engineers and fire-safety professionals worldwide paints a slightly different picture. This involves not a vast and perfect conspiracy now in its second decade, but instead, planes, fire, and gravity. And "official" though this explanation may be, after 11 years of nonsense and noise, I'm prepared to take their word for it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Let's "Pray-flect" and Really Do Nothing

In the wake of the tragic Colorado shootings, this is most certainly a time for prayer and reflection in America. But these days, with our busy hectic lifestyles, who has time to pray AND reflect?

That's why I propose that we combine prayer and reflection into a single act, "pray-flection." Now, the problem with prayer and reflection separately is that they might actually get something done. Reflection means thinking deeply about a topic, to the point that you may reach new insights and possibly form new opinions. And prayer, well, obviously sending out prayer waves from your head will reorganize the particles of the universe into one where gun violence is a thing of the past. And since this is America, neither of those things is any good.

The beauty about pray-flection is that in terms of actually getting something done, the prayer part and the reflection part cancel each other out. When you pray-flect, you empty your mind of any possible thought or impulse that could have any consequence whatsoever on yourself or on the world. At the same time, though, you give yourself the idea that you actually are doing something — which of course is that you are pray-flecting! See how it works?

Think about how nice it will be to tell everyone that you pray-flected about the shootings for a half hour today. It’s both easier and less effective than praying for a half-hour and then reflecting for a half-hour.

And doesn’t that just make it more American?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Truth Really Is Out There

The other day I got a message from someone asking what I thought about water fluoridation. I knew there are conspiracy theories on fluoridation, but this guy had heard specific concerns about the safety of fluoride, from sources that seemed credible. “There are people on both sides saying totally different things,” he wrote. “But there does seem to be a lot of evidence that fluoride can be harmful to your brain. I don't know what to believe.”

I really appreciated the letter, because it seems that more and more, people are latching on to claims that are disturbing, perhaps just because they are disturbing and memorable. But this person wanted to dig deeper and find out what is actually true. It made me ask: What can a thinking person do when there’s a controversy (or a claimed controversy), and they want to know whether one side is just spinning B.S. that contradicts true and actual fact?

Believe it or not, your best bet is to go to Wikipedia. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. Wikipedia gets a lot of flak about reliability (I’ll get to that in a minute), but certainly one of its strengths, and a core principle that editors try to follow, is neutrality and balance. If an issue is controversial, the article devotes space to both sides, with claims referenced to reliable sources such as major newspapers and peer-reviewed studies. A good example is the article on pink slime, the beef filler that made news this year. There are well-sourced sections on the controversy as well as specific consumer concerns. By checking out the references listed at the bottom of the article, you can actually get the facts, and learn who’s putting them out. (My opinion on pink slime: It’s a non-issue. If you don’t want to ingest a safe-to-eat, protein-rich filler that reduces meat-industry waste and lowers costs — because you think it’s “disgusting” or whatever — then become a vegetarian!)

Then there are pseudo-controversies, where a small group of detractors want to create the impression of a scientific controversy; think creationism or “9/11 Truth.” In these cases, the Wikipedia article will devote less space to the minority view, and perhaps link to a separate article. Wikipedia has a “due and undue weight” guideline, which states that recognized minority viewpoints should be covered, but they should not get special treatment. In the case of the Moon landing, for example, there is an appropriately short section at the bottom called “hoax accusations,” with a link to the Moon landing conspiracy theories article. Even from the latter (and its sources), it’s obvious that this made-up controversy is baseless. 

To check out the claims about fluoridation, I went to the water fluoridation article. There is no mention of potential harm to the brain from fluoride. There’s a link to an article called water fluoridation controversy, but this is largely about ethics and effectiveness, with some discussion about mild discoloration of teeth (fluorosis). I saw no reliable sources with evidence that fluoride is unsafe, except at unusually high levels (for example naturally occurring fluoride from well water).

So, the claim that fluoridation damages your brain appears to be another example of baseless B.S.

Of course, some will say that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information. Yes — it’s always a bad idea to assume that any individual fact on Wikipedia is true. If you’re researching a political candidate, don’t write that he has four children because Wikipedia said so. Use the article as a springboard and look at its sources to get the information you need. But for a broader question, such as the existence or merit of a claimed controversy, Wikipedia is an excellent resource. Articles have long histories, are constantly being updated and improved, and are “watched” by an army of volunteers looking out for biased viewpoints and foul play. If you have doubts about an article’s balance, (1) check the sources, (2) click on the “view history” tab to see how the article has changed over time, or (3) click on “talk” to read discussions among editors. The merits of controversies are often discussed on the “talk” page, with editors providing useful (or not so useful) links to back up their claims.

Some say Wikipedia is unreliable because it is just a mouthpiece for the establishment. Conspiracy types will say that their views are routinely scrubbed from Wikipedia by government agents and their shills (this wretched piece of trash is a classic example). So, I guess Wikipedia is part of the conspiracy, too — even though anyone can edit its articles, and nothing on Planet Earth is more democratic or transparent. Sigh. If Big Brother really did maintain all of this “disinfo,” why would there be articles on the conspiracies at all? And so on. Don’t get me started.

Everyone in the world wants you to believe their point of view, and people are getting better and better at producing startlingly convincing media to get you to believe (YouTube videos being the absolute worst in this regard). Wikipedia is one place where you are safe from that kind of manipulation — and, there’s an article on everything. So, when you need to know whether something really is controversial, try going there. As always, though, don’t forget to bring a functioning brain with you.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bad Atheism

Even though I’ve found no reason to believe in God, I don’t claim to have any definitive knowledge on the matter. We are pretty sure that evolution happens, and that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, but questions about “God” — starting with how one even goes about defining that term — are far subtler. That hasn’t stopped many atheists from rejecting the idea of God so fiercely, I kind of get what people mean when they say that atheism is a religion. They’re talking about bad atheism, a rigid view of the world that’s impoverished of deep curiosity. Bad atheists present current scientific theory as absolute truth, even though some scientific facts considered true now will almost certainly be revised by future theories. I think that atheism should be about humility regarding what we know (which is less than bad atheists think), and a desire to seek out what we don’t know. Unfortunately for some, atheism is just about being right.

It’s great to identify with our fellow atheists and exchange ideas. But when this identification turns into a battle and a desire to win, it becomes bad. The bad atheist seeks out believers with the goal of defeating them. (“I will destroy you!”) Bad atheists would say they are skeptics, but actually, they are pseudoskeptical. Truly skeptical persons keep their minds open but are unswayed by unconvincing arguments. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, fancy themselves to be open-minded, when actually they have long since settled their opinion and now their heels are dug in. More than being merely unconvinced, the pseudoskeptic spends effort disproving his chosen foes’ beliefs rather than listening to them. Complicating matters, the more unbiased a person views himself to be, the less likely he is to notice himself dismissing new ideas in a prejudiced manner.

The bad atheist has no problem exchanging one untestable proposition for another. While a Christian would say that the universe is fine-tuned for life because God created it to be that way, the bad atheist addresses this point matter-of-factly by invoking a multiverse and/or eternal inflation. (That is, if he doesn’t reject fine-tuning altogether, perhaps because he can’t disentangle the notion of physical fine-tuning and a supernatural fine-tuner.) The multiverse and inflation are legitimate scientific ideas, but they are merely hypothetical models, a “best guess to date.” For the bad atheist, though, who perhaps has watched too many science shows on the History Channel, they simply are the explanation. Of course, unobservable universes beyond our cosmic horizon are at present no more testable or predictive than saying “God did it.” To declare that fine-tuning is a consequence of an eternally inflating multiverse — not God — you might as well declare that leprechauns don’t steal pots of gold under rainbows, gnomes do.

To the bad atheist, philosophy and metaphysics are useless at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. The irony of this position is that it is inescapably a metaphysical one. But this truth is lost even on some of the world’s top thinkers. “The philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” Richard Feynman famously said — but as philosophers have since pointed out, such knowledge would be useful to birds, if they could possess it! The fact is, physicists answer questions about how the world works, but that’s only because the natural philosophers of the preceding centuries (and some more recent ones) have taught us what questions we should be asking.

For bad atheists, there is no mystery in the world. There are unknowns, such as details on the Higgs boson or quantum gravity, but these will be learned through current lines of research using familiar methodologies. “We’ve got it all under control; nothing to see here” is a common attitude toward the deeper questions. The graduate student head-down studying pi-mesons may have no interest in the measurement problem, the fascinating question of what’s really going on when we measure a particle. He might brush it off, say that there is no problem. The world in its totality consists of particles, fields, and forces, and eventually we’ll figure out everything on those hard terms and those terms alone. So deal with it.

Now, when I say “mystery,” I am not implying anything supernatural. All signs point to the world as operating under thoroughly self-consistent laws, with no external intervention whatsoever. But, in trying to understand the emergence of reality, time, and space at the deepest levels, we’re missing some key insight — most likely, because we are embedded inside of the very same world we’re trying to explain. It’s all terribly fascinating; we are truly at a “blind men and the elephant” moment in history. And we need to put the pieces together and get, at last, a coherent picture of an elephant. What we don’t need are bad atheists holding the trunk and saying, “It’s obviously a fire hose, dumbass. Go home now.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Do Animals Have Souls?

Of all the bad ideas that Judeo-Christian religion has spread around the world, perhaps none is more obnoxious and dangerous than the belief that man is God’s chosen species. Even many non-religious people believe that humans experience consciousness but animals do not. Others may feel that animal consciousness is a cute but inadequate shadow of human consciousness, the way Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” is an adorable but ridiculous version of our great and advanced human achievement known as the Super Bowl.

Human consciousness is different from animal consciousness, but it is not special or privileged. Humans just have a huge cerebral cortex, which has evolved organically through natural selection. All of the things that make us feel special — the fact that we have language and music and art, we contemplate the meaning of life, and we document the lives of the Kardashians — are merely emergent by-products of this overgrown organic brain of ours. Animals may not ask questions of “why” and “how,” and they may not think in terms of nouns and verbs, but their experience is nevertheless a continuous string of questions about their surroundings: “what,” “where,” and even “who.”

Most Christians believe that the human body is the temple of the soul. The conscious human mind is somehow more than just the physical particles that make up the brain, because we have been endowed with a Special Ingredient (not to be confused with Special Sauce). Animals, meanwhile, have bodies and brains, but not souls, thus setting humans apart as a fundamentally unique species with preferred treatment by the Creator. This view is riddled with inconsistencies and raises countless questions. Consider the following:

1. The state of a person’s consciousness is dependent entirely on the physical state of the body. When you are ill, your consciousness suffers. If you suffer a blow to the head, you may pass out. Stimulant drugs make the mind race; psychedelics and dissociatives such as ketamine alter consciousness radically. What happens to the soul in these cases?
2. At no time does a person’s consciousness remain unaffected when the brain is under stress, even something as simple as a fever. No conscious state is immune to physical conditions in the body. Phineas Gage famously survived a metal rod passing through his skull, but it changed his personality. Did the rod change his soul as well?
3. People’s personalities are rarely the same from youth to old age, which is especially true in cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s. At what age is our consciousness most like the “real” soul? If I went to heaven, would I feel like I feel now, or when I was 18, or right before I died? When a person with Alzheimer’s goes to heaven, do they get their memories back?
4. As any pet owner knows, animals have distinct personalities, which may change over the pet’s lifetime, after an illness, etc. If animals don’t have souls (but people do), what accounts for this continuity?
5. A Christian would say that God gave me a soul, precisely so that I can make a free choice whether to accept his love or take up Buddhism instead. So what allows my cat to choose between Ocean Whitefish and Mariner’s Catch?

The soul might make a little sense if it were thought to be entirely independent of consciousness — that we actually don’t take our Earthly experience to heaven with us, that humans and animals alike join God in the form of “pure energy,” or whatever. But that isn’t what the teachings say. The Big Sell of Christianity and Islam is eternal life, being reunited with loved ones, and experiencing happiness forever. The problem is that eternal paradise, to be experienced and enjoyed at all, would require some form of consciousness. But nobody can say with any consistency what that consciousness (“the soul”) would be like.

It’s funny, if you asked whether a child has a soul, almost any Christian would say yes. Yet, an infant’s interaction with the environment is less coherent and engaged than, say, a squirrel’s. When a soldier and his dog are reunited, and the dog shows signs of incredible excitement and joy, we’re expected to believe that the dog has no soul. But a week-old human fetus does. I don’t get it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Conspiracy Theory Is The New Superstition

Technology has transformed society in innumerable ways, but one thing that never gets mentioned is how it has transformed ignorance. Two centuries ago (and still today in parts of the globe), if you had a poor education, your world was one of superstition. You planted crops for a harvest that your life literally depended upon, and you appealed to a supernatural deity to sustain you and your family for another season. If you were the curious type and had questions about nature, you may have sought answers from a religious leader. Non-religious superstitions prevailed as well: lucky horseshoes, old wives’ tales, ghosts, goblins, and demons, not to mention your occasional witch hunt or burning-at-the-stake.

Naturally, with the advent of public education and mass communication, superstition in the developed world has waned. People in First World countries don’t go through life without learning certain things, for example what those little specks of light in the night sky actually are. However, ignorance seems to be roaring back — in a different, more insidious form.

Conspiracy theories seem to be taking over the role formerly held by superstition. The best way I can illustrate this is through the incredible “chemtrails” theory. (I had never even heard of this until I made a few videos about “9/11 Truth” in 2011.) Some people believe that the government is keeping the masses under mind-control by spraying the skies with soporific chemicals that are released at high altitude by jet aircraft. That’s what those supposed “condensation trails” are, you see, that can stretch all the way across the sky. Have you ever noticed how sometimes the trail dissipates quickly, and other times it lingers for the better part of an hour? And have you also noticed that low-flying aircraft never release these trails of chemicals? It’s a huge conspiracy by the government, you see. The only reason why you think it isn’t a conspiracy is that your mind has been successfully zombi-fied by the government’s chemicals. (Somehow the believers of the theory are immune to the effects.)

Of course, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for condensation trails, and it’s available for anyone to read.

Centuries ago, a widespread superstition or old wives’ tale might have been killed off by the existence of a high-quality information source that anyone could read, at home. (Sadly, there hasn’t been a good old-fashioned witch hunt in my village for years.) Religion remains widespread, but only because it forms a major part of many people’s identities. Life is tough for a fringe superstition these days; there’s just too much reliable information, and it’s too easily accessed, for most people to go on believing in witches and such. What’s a person to do if he wants to wallow in ignorance?

Reject the information. This is the prime strategy of the conspiracy theorist: The information that would debunk the chemtrails theory, for example, is part of the conspiracy. The “official explanation” has been created by the conspirators to keep you from asking questions. This is how an ignorant person attempts to propagate his ignorance throughout society: by telling others that “official” information is a lie, by denegrating the sources of the information (“science is just another religion”), by denegrating those who accept mainstream ideas (“go back to sleep, you sheep”), by appealing to anti-authority sentiments, and by appealing to common sense through oversimplification. I wrote about these techniques in an essay called The Bullshit Syndrome and How to Spot It.*

In the modern world, superstition can even morph into conspiracy theory. A few years ago there was a film called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, about how the “intelligent design” movement is being squelched by mainstream science. What was originally a superstition — God created all living things — has ended up being a vast conspiracy: God did create all living things, but “big science” (the term used in the film) has done everything to ensure that you think otherwise. Most recently, Rick Santorum announced that President Obama is a “snob” for advancing higher education. The word “elite” and “elitist” are interchangeably bandied about by politicians, who pander to voters by telling them they are naturally smarter than “Ivy League intellectuals.” Yeah, down with know-it-all snobs!

This trend is dangerous, but I don’t have a solution. In the past, ignorance went away when people were exposed to reliable information, but these days, information can have the opposite effect. It makes some people hunker down in their ignorance, as they confine themselves to echo-chamber talk-radio programs, blogs, and news sources. Perhaps ridicule and satire are the best way to go.

Note: This article was paid for by a generous grant from the elitists at the government, who don’t want you to think for yourself.

* In the “Bullshit” article I profiled an amateur physicist who believes that pi is exactly 4.0 and that green light doesn’t exist. Most of his articles are about how smarty-pants intellectuals don’t want you to understand how math or science really works. It turns out, he also believes that Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, and that no commercial jets hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. And Wikipedia is the hugest conspiracy of all. None of this is surprising — these paranoid delusions are consistent with the profile I have described.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Gravity Is Not A Rubber Sheet

Every physics demonstration of gravity uses the familiar “rubber sheet” model: We are shown a stretched piece of rubber, or perhaps the surface of a trampoline. A heavy ball is placed in the middle, distorting the sheet. Now a smaller ball, pushed in the general direction of the heavy ball, will follow a curved path, as if “attracted” by the mass. If given a particular kind of shove, it will circle around the heavy ball for a while, “orbiting” like a planet around a star. Thus the model demonstrates how an object with mass warps the fabric of space, causing the paths of other objects to curve in the direction of the larger object. Objects follow straight paths through space, but if that space happens to be curved by a massive object nearby, their paths will curve. Since Einstein, we’ve known that this is what causes gravitational attraction.

When I was first getting interested in physics, the rubber-sheet model of gravity bothered me. For one thing, it only works in gravity! It seemed that the rolling ball was just curving downhill. Tilt the sheet without warping it, and its path will curve the same way. In the weightlessness of the International Space Station, I figured, the model wouldn’t do anything. I didn’t like that gravity was required in order to demonstrate how gravity works. It was like a model that shows where wind comes from, but which only works when it’s windy.

Something else disturbed me. When the rubber-sheet model is presented in diagram form (in books, for example), the diagrams are often inconsistent. Empty space is depicted as a flat grid of straight lines, but when a massive object is added, some of the lines suddenly form circles. The graph-paper grid turns into a pushed-in dartboard or spider-web pattern, with circular elements representing potential orbits around the mass. Thinking that maybe I had discovered something, I wondered: At what point do the open-ended straight lines of empty space start joining together to form closed circles? If we took an empty region of space and gradually started adding mass to it, when would the circles appear? I was perplexed — the diagrams never show that transition, just the before and after!

What’s wrong with this picture?

The problem of course lies not in Einstein’s theory, but in the rubber-sheet model. It isn’t a perfect analogy for gravity.

It’s a coincidence that real gravity on Earth causes a rubber sheet to warp in a manner that suggests the warping of space. You could just as easily turn the model upside down, and push the ball up against the rubber sheet, and the sheet would be warped in the same way (just in the opposite direction). The rubber-sheet model of gravity is intended to demonstrate how a massive object causes space to curve, so it’s the warping of the sheet that’s important, not the direction.

When a two-dimensional surface is curved into a third dimension, its geometry changes. No longer do the laws of Euclid, which most of us learned in 9th grade, apply: The angles of a triangle do not add up to 90°, for example. In ordinary geometry, two parallel lines never meet; in the non-Euclidean geometry of a curved surface, parallel lines can meet. Imagine that you and a friend began walking from the equator to the north pole. Initially, your paths would be exactly parallel, but since the Earth’s surface curves, the paths would intersect at your destination. Similarly, if two objects were moving in parallel from empty space toward a star, their paths would eventually converge — even with no sideways forces acting upon them.

As it happens, the rubber-sheet model would work in zero gravity, if you warped the sheet with some other force (say, by pushing the end of a broomstick against it), and if you got the rolling ball to remain on the surface somehow (perhaps with a bit of static electricity). In that case, the ball’s path would appear to curve as it attempted to follow a straight line on this non-flat surface. And two balls, nudged along parallel paths toward the depression, would approach each other as the surface under them began to curve.

As for the grid that’s often laid over the rubber sheet, it’s only there to help you see the shape of the surface. The straight or circular lines are a human invention; there is no such grid in space. The actual paths that objects trace through warped space are, well, the actual paths that they trace. These can be circles, ellipses, parabolas, or hyperbolas, depending on the trajectory of the object.

Planets and comets go their own way — they have no use for grid lines.

The rubber-sheet model does give a general idea of how gravity deflects the path of an object. But it’s a crude demonstration, as the Earth’s gravity fouls the geometric effect that the model is intended to demonstrate.* When you see the rolling ball get “attracted” to the larger ball, much of that deflection is just the ball rolling downhill, as it would on a tilted, flat surface. A true tabletop demonstration of gravity, where objects follow stable orbits along a surface due to geometry alone — would be interesting to watch. Until then, don’t take the conventional version too seriously.

* Consider what would happen if you rolled a ball inside the surface of a vertical tube in a frictionless vacuum. Under Earth’s gravity, the ball would inevitably spiral down to the floor. But in zero G, it would follow a circular path forever. This circular orbit, not the spiral, is the accurate representation of the “straight-line path” that would be followed on the surface due only to its geometry.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Resolving the “Twin Paradox”

Fans of science-fiction space travel know that if someone goes on a rocket at close to the speed of light, he will age more slowly than someone back home. Returning to Earth and reuniting with a twin, he would find that the twin had aged more, perhaps by years. If the trip is long enough and gets really close to the speed of light, the returning traveler could find an Earth that’s millions of years in the future, maybe even devoid of human life. For many people, that’s the “twin paradox” — how could something this strange possibly happen?

Actually, twins aging differently isn’t the issue; no paradox there. The “paradox” lies in the fact that according to relativity (the very effect that causes the twins to age differently), the ideas of motion and rest are relative. Suppose rather than leaving from Earth, the experiment is done in deep space. Twin A takes off and leaves Twin B behind. But, once the twins are separated, who’s to say which twin is moving and which is at rest? After all, if you consider the picture from the perspective of either twin, it’s the other one that’s moving. Twin A sees Twin B receding rapidly in the rear-view mirror, just as if Twin B was the one who had taken off. In relativity, the question of moving vs. stationary depends upon the perspective of the observer. Shouldn’t this mean that the aging will be equal for both twins when they finally reunite? That’s the “twin paradox.”

The twin paradox isn’t really a paradox, because it can be resolved in several ways. For one thing, the situation isn’t symmetrical. One of the twins, Twin A, has to turn around at some point, whereas Twin B can just cool his heels. Physicists say that Twin B remains in an inertial reference frame — a state of constant motion (or rest), without any change in speed. Twin A, though, spends portions of his trip in two different inertial reference frames, one on the way out, and one on the way back, and in between he has to slow down, stop, and accelerate in the other direction. (Or, he could make a circular U-turn, but that still counts as an acceleration.) It’s clear how changing velocity affects the local passage of time, from the formula known as the Lorentz transformation: Higher velocities mean slower clocks, so as Twin A slows down, his onboard clock begins speeding up. Twin B’s velocity never changes, though. Therefore, it’s wrong to say the twins are moving in identical ways relative to the other.

Thinking this through, the situation is a bit peculiar. How does Twin A and his mechanical onboard clock “know” that they had turned around? Suppose Twin B, rather than staying put, secretly takes off in the other direction, goes even faster, turns around, and races back to the starting point, just in time to meet the returning Twin A. In that case, Twin B would age slower than Twin A — who, having just gone on a fast trip that included turning around, expects to meet an older Twin B. Instead he finds a younger Twin B. How does Twin B (and his clock) know that he had gone farther and faster than Twin A?

The solution all comes down to the turning-around part: acceleration. When you’re in an inertial reference frame, you can’t tell whether you’re moving or not. You could be sitting in your living room, or you could be on a rocket ship going 99% the speed of light. Close your eyes and the situations are indistinguishable. However, when you’re slowing down or speeding up, or making a turn, you can definitely tell that something’s going on. You feel a pull toward one direction, just as you do in a car with the brakes applied. This acceleration* is what causes a clock (biological or otherwise) to slow down. For Twin B who secretly went on a really fast trip, his larger accelerations slowed down his biological clock even more than Twin A’s, who now needs a facelift to look as young as his twin again.

When you add gravity into the mix, it gets even stranger. Twin A — rather than turning on the reverse-thrust engine to slow down and turn around — could instead have a close call with a massive star, and like Halley’s comet, take a tight orbit around and be fired back toward his starting point. In such a situation, the ship is in free fall with respect to the star, and counter-intuitively, doesn’t feel the acceleration as it gets slung back toward Twin B. Our traveler could continue his game of three-dimensional billiards in the weightless environment of his ship, even as it hooks sharply around the star. If there were no windows, he might not even know when he was passing behind and starting to head back. Yet incredibly, the curvature of space from the star’s gravity would slow down time aboard the ship. While the traveling twin works on his weightless billiards game, the stay-at-home twin would have the time to master not only billiards but also croquet and miniature golf, much to Twin A’s later envy.

The “twin paradox” is one of those cases where the universe just works out perfectly right, out of sheer mathematical consistency. Relative velocity determines the rate at which clocks tick; Einstein showed that this malleability of time is necessary in a universe where the speed of light is measured the same by all observers. Therefore, changing velocity (accelerating) changes the local rate at which time passes. All of this can be calculated from the Lorentz transformation. But a star’s gravity will also slow down time for Twin A and his ship, by exactly the same amount as if he had used his engines to slow down and turn around. The curvature of space due to gravity — by having the ability to sling a spaceship around and back in the other direction, on momentum alone — simply has to make an adjustment to the ship’s onboard clocks. Otherwise the math wouldn’t work out. And then we’d have a real paradox.

Anything in our universe with mass slows down clocks in its wake. For the Earth, the effect is not only measurable, it needs to be built into your GPS to avoid large, cumulative errors that would render it useless. Thanks to Einstein’s discovery, you can reliably arrive at your destination. Isn’t it nice when things work out?

* The term “acceleration” refers to both slowing down and speeding up. Slowing down is simply accelerating in the opposite direction.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Zero Universe

The world is like a great theater where we watch history unfold. This colossal story features a cast of billions, who not only witness the arc of its epic plot, but also actively take part in its creation. Look around you; it’s raucous and noisy inside this theater we call “the world.” But, if it were possible for us to step outside the theater and take a look, there would be nothing.

Inside, the theater is a mind-boggling swirl of information, actions, and reactions; from the outside, as seen by a cosmic Google Earth beyond space and time, it’s completely empty. I am not just making a cute metaphor here — this is a real feature of our universe, with profound implications.

It seems that in the final analysis, when all things are considered, the universe adds up to exactly zero. For one example (there are others at the bottom), consider the relationship between space and time. Bear with me as I review an idea from high-school geometry. If we have a triangle that includes a 90° angle, we can use the Pythagorean theorem to determine the length of the diagonal from the length of the right-angle sides:

a2 + b2 = c2

where a and b are the lengths of the right-angle sides, and c is the length of the diagonal. A nifty geometrical diagram proves why this is true. If you make a square box along each of the three sides, then each box has an area of the length of that side, squared. The area of the smaller squares adds up to the area of the largest square: If a = 3 and b = 4, then c = 5.

The Pythagorean theorem works in three dimensions, too. If you see a blimp in the sky, you can calculate the exact straight-line distance to the blimp by knowing its altitude above the ground (the value z), as well as how far east-west (x) and north-south (y) you'd have to go to get right under the blimp:

x2 + y2 + z2 = d2

where d is the distance to the blimp. I don't have a 3D diagram, but you can prove it for yourself with a little effort.

Now it gets interesting. This trick extends to four dimensions. Time is typically cited as the fourth dimension. Does the decidedly non-geometric idea of time work into the Pythagorean theorem? Incredibly, it does — but first, you have to convert the time measurement into a distance-like measurement. Then, the total distance you’re calculating is the spacetime distance in the bizarre four-dimensional world where east-west, north-south, up-down, and earlier-later mean the same thing, only in eight different directions. Represented by the letter s, spacetime distance (also known as a Minkowski interval) is determined by an amazing formula. Let’s break it down:

x2 + y2 + z2 – (ct)2 = s2

As before, x is the distance (for example) to the east, y is north, and z is up, but we’ve added a fourth term for time (t), which gets multiplied by a constant, c. Notice the minus sign before the term for time. When it comes to distance through spacetime, elapsed time counteracts spatial distance, and vice versa: If we travel a distance through space, and do it in a very short interval of time,* the distance traversed is effectively reduced. This is why a space traveler could reach stars across the galaxy within their lifetime if they got close enough to the speed of light. Time goes in the opposite “direction” of space!

That constant, represented by c? It’s the same c that represents the speed of light in equations such as E = mc2. What better number to convert units of time (seconds) into a distance-like measurement — after all, we know that for light, there are 186,000 miles per second. See what Einstein did there? The speed of light is more than just a speed; it’s a universal conversion factor that turns time into a distance-like measurement. By treating time as a negative and multiplying it by c, we can exchange time and space in our formulas as readily as nature exchanges them. That’s what special relativity is all about.

This extra meaning of the speed of light has interesting consequences. If you could look out the window of a rocket going at the speed of light, you wouldn’t “c” a thing — the entire universe would vanish to a point through Lorentz contraction. In order for space and time to enter into what we call “reality,” they must be measured by an observer, something not traveling at the speed c. In the real world, that’s anything with mass. For any observer with mass (make your own couch-potato joke), zero spacetime distance separates into the components familiar to us: a measurable amount of space and a measurable amount of time.

It’s as if the presence of mass causes “zero” to pull apart into the familiar ideas of spatial distance and temporal duration, like taffy. But since the universe is by definition everything there is, you have to be inside the universe to witness this incredible stretching apart of zero, to experience space and time as different things. If you were taking in the all-seeing “God’s-eye view” from a timeless, spaceless, massless perspective outside, you would see the same thing the speed-of-light traveler sees — nothing. To witness the action, you have to be inside the theater, in your seat.

Space and time cancel out to exactly zero for the universe as a whole. But that’s just one example of the zero-sum nature of the physical world. A few others:
• The mass–energy of everything in the universe is exactly balanced by the universe’s gravitational energy. The latter is expressed as a negative number, just as time is in the spacetime formula. A while back Alex Filippenko, who’s a familiar smiling face to science-TV geeks, co-wrote an essay about how this means the universe may have come from “nothing at all.” Like the pulling apart of space and time, mass–energy and gravitational energy were also pulled apart in the Big Bang.
• For similar reasons, the net charge of the universe is generally believed to be zero, with the number of positively charged particles equaling the number of negative. (This is unproven.)
• Certain pairs of phenomena, like electricity and magnetism or mass and the curvature of space, are linked such that they seem to keep each other in check. The great physicist John Wheeler was fascinated by these “automatic” connections, pointing out how they are constrained together by zero sums, the way the ends of a see-saw are always the same total distance from horizontal. “That this principle should pervade physics, as it does,” he asked in 1986, “is that the only way that nature has to signal to us a construction without a plan, a blueprint for physics that is the very epitome of austerity?”

On the one hand, it’s surprising that quantities totaling zero show up again and again in nature. But on the other it makes sense, if the universe is a closed system incorporating everything there is. As a teen I remember being into the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang — I thought that in the final analysis, the universe as a whole couldn’t be anything but perfectly balanced. On a level deeper than I imagined, I may have been right.

* Slow speeds (which mean long elapsed times) cause the time part of the formula to overwhelm the space part, resulting in large spacetime distances. Spacetime distances only get small when you approach the speed of light, for example, covering 186,000 miles in 1.1 seconds — then the (negative) time part almost cancels the space part.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bell's Bizarre Theorem

The discoveries of quantum physics are about to become even stranger.

For many decades, physicists have known that if you prepare two particles in a particular way such that they are “entangled,” then even if you subsequently separate those particles by many miles, they can seem to influence each other. Measuring one particle will result in the other particle having a predictable value. It’s as if you put two coins in a box, shook that box, and then cut the box in half and drove them to opposite parts of the state. Our intuition tells us the coins should be either heads or tails independently of each other. But, if these coins acted like entangled particles, then determining that one coin was “heads” would guarantee that the other one was “tails,” or vice versa. It’s just another routine example of quantum weirdness; it was predicted from theory, and it’s been experimentally confirmed many times since.

Physicists are divided on the explanation for the entanglement phenomenon. There’s the possibility that particles simply carry information with them that determines their properties, these properties always being opposite in entangled particles. Two “entangled coins,” as it were, are always heads/tails, never heads/heads or tails/tails. The problem with this explanation is that a particle would have to possess an inordinate (perhaps infinite) amount of information for this to work. Physicists can measure various properties along any number of coordinate axes — and with entangled particles, they always come up opposite. Every single time. How can an electron carry with it all of this information? The consensus is that it can’t, at least not in such simple terms.

Another possible explanation is that the entangled particles are able to communicate with each other somehow. As you’re measuring one particle, it “tells” its entangled twin what property is being measured and what the result is. The problem here is that this communication would have to exceed the speed of light — by a factor of at least 10,000 according to one experiment — and Einstein showed that this isn’t possible, at least, not in our familiar space and time. So, some physicists have speculated that there’s an undiscovered “communication backchannel” that allows two far-separated particles to talk to each other.

In the 1960s, the Irish physicist John Bell showed that one of the above two scenarios must be false. Bell’s theorem mathematically proves that either (1) a particle does not intrinsically carry with it a specific value of a specific property, meaning that it must violate an assumed principle known as counterfactual definiteness, or (2) information must be able to travel faster than light — one object can exert an influence that jumps across space to affect another object directly. This is what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” the violation of the assumed principle known as locality. Basically, Bell’s theorem shows that there may be counterfactual definiteness, or there may be locality, but not both. One of the assumed principles must be wrong.

Just last week, an experiment was announced that may end this debate once and for all. Researchers will be able to put “nonlocality,” the jumping-across-space of information, to a definitive test. If it fails — and many (including myself) expect it to — it will be another setback for the realists, that faction of quantum physicists who believe that every fundamental particle has specific information encoded into it, as if predetermined by God on the day of Creation, which we human observers (and our instruments) can only passively discover, like looking at a coin in a box.

So what would such a result mean? Since it would prove that entangled particles cannot be communicating with each other, it would bizarrely suggest that properties of particles “pop into existence” when they are measured. Like a microscopic Schrödinger’s cat, a particle could possess the property of intrinsic spin in two different directions at once, but when this property is measured, nature somehow “selects” one of them. And literally at the same time, nature also “selects” the spin of its entangled twin to be in the other direction, which becomes clear when we actually do the measurement. (A YouTube video that I worked on discusses one way to imagine this.)

But if measured properties don’t pre-exist in a particle, and separated objects aren’t communicating nonlocally (i.e., faster than light), there’s still the question of how an entangled twin “knows” what value to take upon measurement. Maybe it’s because the entangled objects aren’t actually separated. As discussed in the recent episode of PBS’s Nova called “What Is Space?” there’s significant debate on what spatial separation really means. Experiments suggest that we may need to think of space not as a fundamental feature of the world, but rather as a phenomenon that emerges from a deeper process.

To me, quantum entanglement makes more sense when you resist the temptation to think of twin particles as being “different” objects, one “here” and one “there.” Instead, they’re opposite versions of a single object of some kind, two sides of the same coin, if you will. We don’t detect this thing directly, and it isn’t located either here or there particularly,* but whatever “it” is, it makes its appearance to us as two separate particles with some mirror-image properties.

The separate-ness between these particles is definitely something we perceive in the world. However, it may be a feature of our world — not the particle pair’s world. Which is about as profound as it gets.

* For example, the holographic principle of string theory and quantum gravity suggests that the entangled twins are encoded as information on a two-dimensional surface, and do not fundamentally reside in three-dimensional space at all.