Sophie’s World

Science matters

On the fourth of july 2012 scientists at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland announced certainty about the discovery of a new boson particle they conjectured to be the Higgs Boson. This was for some the end of a thrillers-series were the theoretical energy-range, were the particle was theoretically possible, was slowly running out; for others it was the placid confirmation of a model that promised little exiting venues for research.

To Sophie, the girlish office-temp reading her celeb-magazine on the commute home, the origin of the universe or the existence of God is stuff for other people. If Justine Bieder believes in God (which he does) she’ll believe it, until he doesn’t anymore or until she falls out of love with this boy that is three years younger than her. She might remember some of what the teachers told her before, regarding the universe’ age but by and large she will regard it as of inferior interest with respect to the news regarding ‘George’ or ‘Posh’ or whomever is the rage at the moment. Sophie just isn’t science-minded. She certainly is not a ‘fudging atheist’ and she believes in a lot of meaningless things that have “great personal value” to her.. sometimes.

Like Sophie there are many others, which might explain the dominance of gossip-journalism on the trains over popular-science-magazines. It often puzzles me why fundamental questions, like the ones summarized in ‘Sophie’s World’ interest so few. “Why is there something and not nothing?” “What can we say happened before time started?” Indeed it is not so that everyone should be interested in what I’m interested in JUST because I happen to be interested in it. As a on and off hobby I sometimes try to make computer-music; some people don’t like any music; I can still carry a civil conversation with them. Also, calculus may not frustrate everyone like it does me; it may not even interest some of them; I can carry a civil conversation with them as well. But I’m less forgiving when things concern history, basic history, and worse still when it concerns the very first trails of our universe.

There is a specific reason why this is so. Ok I get it, the world is boring when you have a stuffy job (like I have some of the time) and your sole escape is to identify with people that by a sheer stroke-of-luck or descent made it to hollowed-out “stardom”. It is most definitely a mundane experience to wait for the next “best” cell-phone, the new OS, the future options on that car you like, with nothing to do but to wait for it. The Sophies of the world (and, for some part, all of us) have grown so accustomed to being brought science and technology on their lap. And, until they do, reality is mundane and boring and its lightness is barely made bearable by the next issue of that ‘never-ending-famous-people-factoids-rag’.

But Sophie’s world is not at all as she thinks it is. And she knows it. And the fact that she couldn’t care less is what infuriates me. Take her magazine for instance; let’s zoom in on it 10 times. A giant letter ‘E’ fills our scope. Let’s zoom in another 1010 times. We see a hydrogen atom. It’s still the same world, yet things work very differently here. We know a lot about it, but we don’t know everything about it. Some of the things we know actually puzzle us. It is not mundane, it is very VERY strange. It is still the same world but once we start to look at it from this angle at once we come to realize we were evolved in a specific environment and with particular brain-patterns that work best in the part of the world we were exposed to early on. The quantum effects of this world, with electrons being ‘more probable’ at some parts without being there and switching instantly from energy level is more like the works of bad science-fiction. But let’s go back to Sophie.

Instead of zooming in let’s zoom out this time. We see the globe, zooming out more we see the solar system, zooming out more we see the galaxy. After some moments of zooming we’d see different galaxies, and then we’d see thousands and then billions of them. Since we know the universe had a beginning and has been expanding ever since, we could conceive to zoom out until we could see the entire universe. But here’s a question: if you tried this, what shape would you imagining the universe to be? Are you sure of this? If this universe has a shape, does it have a border and if ‘yes’ what does crossing this border do according to you? If you go in one direction long enough inside your universe do you end up back where you started? Again this world is unknown and very VERY strange and alien. And yet it is still Sophie’s world.

Now, let’s take the train Sophie is on and freeze it while we go rapidly rewinding time. We pass the point where mammals evolve, we pass the formation of earth, the solar system, the moment where gas accreted to form the first stars. ‘Next’ the universe is dark as it’s too dense and hot for light and other electromagnetic waves to permeate and ‘finally’ it is a dense something (singularity?), orders of magnitude smaller than a freckle on Sophie’s nose. What it is we cannot say since none of the laws we extrapolated up until this moment say what lay’s beyond it. It is an alien world with doubtlessly again very strange unintuitive artifacts. But it’s still Sophie’s world, just a few moments earlier. A world she simply can’t be bothered with.

You see Sophie is neither a skeptic nor a rational atheist. She actually likes to keep an ‘open mind’. This means she will consider science to be a valid ‘one side of the discussion’ and consider non-science to be the ‘other side to be considered’. She thinks that “teach the controversy” is a sensible stance regarding biology and atrophic origins. There is for her no principle difference between atheists punting scientific arguments and Boko Haram fielding religious ones. Both are fanatics and she’ll probably side with whichever is the most WHITE (as in Caucasian) if she needed to choose.

I know you just hate Sophie by now, don’t worry about it, she doesn’t exist, at least not in one specific person. But she is many and she is legion. And apart from the latent racism Sophie isn’t entirely wrong either. She is the meek fence-sitting theist that is somewhat scared of atheism because she intuitively regards it as a fundamentalism and, for the part where atheists fend with science; she considers science to be just another creed. This is not entirely wrong I’m afraid (except for the part it totally is!). Too much nuance is being lost in youtube-atheism with sloganesque “Science, bitches!” being rammed down theists’ throat. Now I’m not saying all these video’s I’ve being watching haven’t been superb. Many arguments are well made and vastly over-classing the opposition. But still Sophie might have picked up on the same background noise (not literally) which suggest to me that the “value of Science” is often proclaimed to or repeated back as a meme independent of the ‘authors’ personal thinking or knowledge, perhaps even a tat uncritically.

After all, the fact that the scientific-method leads humanity to the most reliable information is itself not a self-evident or scientifically attestable fact. The incompletes theorem even proves such a proof is impossible. Therefore I think it is worth periodically stating the basics, why science is a good idea, to avoid standing void when this basic believe of ours is challenged. Now I could say that the efficiency of the scientific-method was empirically attested, and while this is a true statement it may sound rather circular as empirism itself is part of the scientific method. But observing many instances of a situation and inducing a conclusion from it is not only a part of the scientific method, it is part of survival. In this regard we can claim science to be as much a child of evolution as the other way around.

Make no mistake, we have no deductive certainty that science is the way to go. Just like with the believe ‘all ravens are black’; a single white raven can severely ‘bugger up’ our confidence. However, just like white ravens there is still to be the first repeatable (or well attested single) supernatural event that outperformed science with regard to knowledge advancement/ survival enhancement. There’s been many single unrepeatable events, we for instance have no problem believing that in location ‘z’ for person ‘x’ a statue roughly in the shape of some mythical figure ‘v’ and made of substance ‘s’ actually cried blood. The problem is that God is very fickle and doesn’t make it cry again when WE go take a look, or if he does it’s only with tears from corn-sirop ejected by elaborate hydrolic systems reverting to entirely natural mechanisms. The scientific method by contrast is an entirely unsexy process that, when successful does present results that are consistently repeatable by anyone regardless of their beliefs or even expectations regarding the outcome. Try as you might you cannot get the bullet to become suspended in mid-air matrix-style, nor will you ever ‘make the jump’.

But I’d like Sophie to go even a step further. I don’t want her just to realize science is a good show and atheists that argue with it are commendable, I want her to realize her view of the world is distorted and I want her to lay awake at night hoping some significant, yet still intermediary scientific progress will be attained within her life-time. More importantly, despite real openminded-ness I like her to realize that matter is al there is and to marvel at what it actually is.

Because currently Sophie is not convinced that there’s not some esoteric ‘essence’ such as the human soul, or that there’s no ‘positive energy’ being communicated around the world. The world where there is only matter seems rather boring and, according to her, it’s short-sighted to think that’s all there is. Again, this is because Sophie couldn’t be bothered to lay down her trash magazine in favor of “Scientific American”.

There is no reason however to assume there is more than the naturalistic material world out there. This typical atheistic claim actually excites theists because they equate scientific materialism with economic materialism by which they then gleefully denounce atheism as the adherence to objects over God. In a way they are not wrong. Given that atheists are not less prone to love other people and materialism basically states that other people are just another arrangement of matter, us atheists are indeed more prone to love things, biologically complex things that is. But while there is nothing but the material world out there, with complexity emerging from within it, I most certainly wouldn’t like for Sophie to think it boring or mundane. In fact, as stated, it is a strange and alien world.

Two years ago on the 4th of July (2012) the discovery (since confirmed) of the probable Higgs boson was announced. In a practical sense this was the last installment on a loan the science-community had taken. For decades the scientists working on the standard-model had been working in the anticipation that eventually the Higgs would be confirmed. When it eventually was, this validated all the work that had assumed it, and in doing so it disappointed several scientists as it did ONLY confirm it. For these scientists the alien had become natural and they’d have desired something spicier along with the confirmation. For Sophie and the rest of the world however it was a first inkling that matter was not how it was understood around the kitchen sink.

Matter is not ‘hard’ or impenetrable to light because of the densely knitted atom arrangements. Most of what matter is, is empty space across which essential partial are bound together. For instance the bindings in glass allow light to pass through and, in fact, there is not obstruction what-so-ever from the light hitting the essential particles themselves. So, like in the ‘Men staring at goats’ there is a good reason to think there is enough space between the atoms for a man to walk straight through a wall, if we ignore the rest of physics that is.

Still, while this is all perhaps still common knowledge the Higgs-field (as suggested by the existence of the Higgs boson) actually transformed our understanding of what matter is. Before, you could argue that though the essential particles seem to lack any meaningful volume to them, several of them still held a significant mass that, when ‘amassed’, made up the weight of everything around us. Since the confirmation of the Higgs field however even this comfortable notion has fallen. Particles ‘weigh’ what they do because of an interaction (a ‘binding’ is you like) with an all permeating Higgs field. This explains why particles who have about the same [lack of] volume can have such differences in mass. This by itself, as mass and space-time are interlinked in (currently) still mysterious ways, has again unknown implications for the nature of space and time.

So when Sophie gave credulity to the new-age “wisdom” ‘the matter is the illusion’, suggesting that not matter but the esoteric ‘essence’ or spirit was “more real”, she was again not entirely wrong. At least she wasn’t for the part that matter itself seems to have lost both the innate property of volume and the property of mass that made it the solid back-drop of our reality. Instead increasingly matter, a.k.a. ‘all we know to be real’, is becoming ‘virtual’. With this I mean to say that all components of matter can be represented in a knowledge system by a bit of knowledge, a particle, linked to the various properties that give it characteristics. In turn these tell it how to interact with other particles and how to link with other particles to shape the world. Once we realize the ‘tangibility’ to matter is not innate but rather a linked property it is possible to view reality as a virtual reality, a knowledge system, in which we experience things and make part of a ‘simulator’ that is “always on”. Now go and tell me that is not immensely cool!!

Einstein was forced to give up his own comfortable notions concerning stabile cosmology because of his own findings. He forced the rest of us to surrender comfortable notions of absolute time and speed of communication. (a proposition I did not surrender lightly!) He never completely accepted the notions of quantum uncertainty and the implications of the Heisenberg’s principle. He is forgiven because it is for us, the living rather to continue to adapt our understanding of how Sophie’s world actually functions.

Because for me it does not suffice for Sophie or my atheist friend to take science as a given and to take stock of where it discredit’s theist tenets. To ‘believe’ in science means to be critical about it and to take individual actions to understand as much as possible about it, especially concerning the receding frontier with The Unknown, The Speculative and The Hardly Understood. It does not suffice to simply denounce Adam and Eve based on evolution, when the implications of what we know ‘blow our minds’ to orders of magnitude more than the simplistic Paleolithic notion of ‘God’ ever could.

To the Sophies of the world, whom only adore Bieder and God because they promise her there is more to her world than her crummy job and disappointing, barely-consented-to boyfriend-sex, we must convey the message that there truly really is more! We must convince her to drop the mag, the myths and the boyfriend and to take part in the feasting on the cosmic flesh of knowledge, to take it with her into oblivion.

As Tim Minchin says, there really is only one thing to do with this empty life of ours and that is to fill it and I for one do not intend to do so with God or with the friends of Justin Bieber.

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