Sunday, March 2, 2008

On Faith

The online world is a lot like college dorm bull sessions, with a lot of outrageous opinions being expressed, sometimes simply because they are outrageous. Add in the fact that a lot of the discourse is contributed by anonymous or semi-anonymous individuals, and it’s a recipe for a free-for-all.

The upside of that is that it provides cover for “dangerous ideas.” Now some of those aren’t really dangerous at all. I can’t think of anyone who has been sent to jail for being “politically incorrect” in the common usage of that term, though there are plenty who pat themselves on the back for being so “daring” as to express blatantly racist or misogynistic sentiments (usually anonymously) . On Bill Maher’s TV show(s) “Politically Incorrect”, all manner of things were given a pass; then Maher agreed with Dinesh D’Sousa that it might be less cowardly to fly a plane into a building than launch cruise missiles at 500 miles, and huh, that turned out to be incorrect politically. Who would have guessed?

Similarly, hate speech is rarely dangerous to the speaker. The danger is directed elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the overall turbulence of discussion allows some ideas to be expressed more forthrightly than when public discourse is filtered through conventional outlets. That, plus the fact that there are religious wars (both hot and cold) going on, has led to a good many atheists coming out of the closet.

I’m a pretty dovish atheist. I tend to look on religion as one of many rationalizations that people use to justify elevating their own gut feelings and prejudices to the level of absolute philosophy. I’ve found plenty of libertarians who are just as fundamentalist, utopian, and dogmatic as any bible thumper of my childhood, and plenty of communists to pair them up against. Philosophy, of whatever flavor, is more a rationalization than a rationale.

Still, it’s refreshing to see some unapologetic atheists writing about what they find obnoxious about faith. That’s particularly true about atheists who are also scientists, since it’s so often the case that scientists make a big deal about science not being incompatible with religion, etc. I mean, I understand, the apologetics; scientists have to live in the world, and it can get tiresome explaining to people that, no, not believing in God doesn’t automatically send you on a rape, murder, and pillage spree, but if that’s all that’s keeping you from doing that, then, please, by all means, continue to believe in God. More to the point, many scientists are religious, either conventionally or unconventionally. Sometimes it even affects their science, usually, but not always, detrimentally.

That leads to one argument that, contrarian that I am, I will take some issue with, and that is the assertion that there is no place for faith in rational discourse. I could mention The Prisoner’s Dilemma in this context, but that’s a bit of a cheat; one solution to TPD is often called faith, but it’s actually more like commitment. You choose not to defect (with the expectation that the other prisoner will also so choose) because you are committed to them, or to whatever it is that binds you, or even your own sense of integrity. Noble sentiments, but not necessarily dependent on faith.

No, I’m going to say just a little about interpretations of quantum mechanics.

There are really two major interpretations of QM. One, the dominant view, is the so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation.” This holds that a “mixed wave state” can exist until a “measurement” is made of it, at which point the wave function “collapses” to a localized quantum event. This interpretation led to the Einstein-Poldalsky-Rosen experiment and the unpleasant concept of “spooky action at a distance,” that so intrigues quantum mystics. The “wave function collapse” that happens in an EPR type experiment seems to operate faster than light, and that has led to all sorts of sci-fi speculation about how to use it for space travel, time travel, or what-have-you.

The wave collapse is hardly the only effect in physics that has FTL properties; the best known is “phase velocity” that occurs in a traveling wave tube. You can also get superluminal velocities from the moving spot on a cathode ray tube for similar reasons: they are illusions that do not carry information. Point at the sun. Now point at the moon. What you are pointing at has just moved faster than light. But that “what” has changed, hasn’t it?

The “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, first advanced by Hugh Everett III, does not suffer from the confusion between real and virtual events, at least not in the FTL sense. I’ve read the original paper. It’s not actually very technical, in the sense that there isn’t much mathematical jiggery pokery in it. The basic concept is fairly simple. Everett just decided to ignore the “wave function collapse.” Wave functions split at every quantum event, but none of them ever vanish, they become “uncorrelated” with other wave sets. So how does one then interpret an EPR experiment, in which a paired particle set is separated and one quantum characteristic (often spin) is measured at a distance, thereby assuring what the other particle’s spin is? Simple, by measuring one particle’s spin, you have determined what “path” you take if you wish to confirm the other particle’s spin. You can only take a path to the one that is correlated with your measurement. The complementary spin still exists for the “split” version of the other particle, you just can’t get to it because you’re “uncorrelated” with it.

Of course, the existence of the other particle cannot be tested in any way. You just have to take it on faith. That’s the same faith that you must have in the “wave function collapse,” if you are following the Copenhagen Interpretation.

Some people hate the many worlds interpretation though. I was once on a panel with Larry Niven, who is one of those who dislike the MWI and I asked him why. His replay was, “Because I sweat over my decisions, and I resent the idea that I could just as easily have decided the other way.”

Food for thought, and I’m not embarrassed that I didn’t have a ready reply. But I do have a reply now: The guy who made the other decision isn’t you. It wasn’t all arbitrary. By making a decision, you literally create a new and different universe for yourself and those around you. How can you resent something like that? You’re playing God.

Larry’s story expressing his view is the title story in All the Myriad Ways.

One of mine is my story Shiva. Another is Aphrodite's Children. That one is a prequel to Dark Underbelly and Blood Relations. Anyone following those will notice that I've formulated an entire religion based on this quantum interpretation thing. You can take it seriously, or as an amusing SF construct. Either way, it creates new universes, by my way of thinking.


black dog barking said...

When I was younger I believed that Knowledge and books were pretty much the same thing. For instance, younger me would have had no trouble accepting the idea that if one knew every word in the dictionary (an English dictionary no less!) then one could say anything. Expression of any notion reduced to finding the right (existing) word. That was then.

This is now: the R & D arm of religion is a way of probing the dark; different in its approach than R & D science but aimed in the same direction. Science seems to do better in the applied realms, a fact not unnoticed by accountants and administrators.

Here's a story problem: if Kv is the measurable Knowledge of a person who knows every word in the (English) dictionary, Knv is the measurable Knowledge of a person with only a day-to-day vocabulary and Dx is the measurable total of everything we don't know, the Dark; what is the relationship between (Kv / Dx) and (Knv / Dx) ?

James Killus said...

I believe that the correct reply is "Who wants to know?"