Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Is it Foolish to Believe in Supernatural Phenomenon?

Foolish or non-foolish. That is the question.

No, it is not foolish but I believe that it is the wrong choice. Isaac Newton was a well educated and inspired genius. It is not possible for me to call him foolish even though he persuaded several lines of inquiry which I and most scientifically minded people would say had no basis in reality.

But is belief in extra natural or supernatural or paranatural (whatever it is called) helpful?

First off, I would have to specify what I would consider to be extra natural, supernatural or what have you. The natural description of the world is not a single level system of causes and effects. The actions of a person for instance are described by psychology, neurology, logic, and various other models. They must be put in context of the laws of the land, the culture of his society and other factors. Now the brain is a physical system and the information it holds and processes is dependent on its material state. Ram a metal bar through someone's frontal lobe (as with Phineas Gage) and they will not be the person they were before. And yet, if we try to use a completely physical and chemical description of the brain, we will not be successful in describing a person. It is not just the difficulty of calculating the chemical state from one moment to the next but that, without the higher level model of neurology which includes concepts of information, neural firing patterns, model making, predictions etc., and the even higher level of psychology with its motivations, stresses, learning, memories, emotions and desires, you can not make any sense of what the chemistry tells you. All you have is the chemical state of a system, with no use as a predictive model.

As an aside, this brings about the obvious question about determinism. There are two very important concepts in science: the concept of a state (the conditions of a system at a particular time) and that of laws which govern how the state changes over time. Science has always known that the laws affect the state of the system but there are now scientists who propose that the state of the system affects the laws themselves. (I believe I was reading about this in a New Scientist article so I will credit them in case I use too many of their ideas.) For instance a pan of water when heated will produce hexagonal convection patterns of rising and falling water. The individual molecules are following a "deterministic/probabilistic" set of laws. They gain heat - they move faster, they loose heat - they slow down. When they crash into each other they bounce off at an angle governed by quantum physics and it's probabilistic nature. Nothing in the description of their movements predicts the orderly behavior of hexagonal patterns. But there are laws which govern the movement of large amounts of particles when they interact. They describe the densities of gases and fluids as they change temperatures and while they are a consequence of the simple behavior of the parts, they are not deducible from them or even fully dependent on them. A gas will have the same pressure if you switch its atoms around and a liquid will not change it's viscosity merely by altering the position of its atoms. The laws of the system are influenced by the large number of parts interacting (the state). While the state obeys new rules it does this without disobeying the lower rules. Nothing in quantum physics says water molecules can not move in any direction and collide with whoever they want. Deterministic laws do not necessarily mandate a deterministic universe.

Are there levels of laws or special states which have not been described by todays science? I would be surprised if there were not. Are there other systems (universes) with other laws and exhibiting other states in existence? Very possibly. After all, this world we live in is obviously possible so we can at least assume that other nearly identical universes are possible. Is there an experiment that someone could do to tell if they were living in a universe which was real and actual as we assume ours is and one that is merely possible? If not is there a difference between possible and actual? (Ok, too many philosophical questions, my brain hurts. Back to the topic.) The difficulty arises when we say that, because there may be laws and states and universes which are not yet part of our model of the world, we can appeal to them as explanations for things before they are even discovered.

The concept of extra natural phenomena requires we actually talk about a natural phenomena with a supernatural or extra natural cause. We need to see something or hear something... sound or light or maybe just an experience at the the neural level. Perhaps the neurons in our vision centers fire for no explainable reason so that we see a mysterious light that no on else would be able to see or something happens in our temporal lobe where we spontaneously loose the sensation of time and space and we are left with the feeling that time and space are an illusion.

The central property for a phenomena to be considered as non-natural is that the cause must not be of a natural nature. (Sorry) The neural event can not be caused by a stray magnetic field or an excess of blood to the temporal lobe. A slamming door in the haunted house can not be wind or a sudden shift of balance due to frost heaving. Otherwise it is only being attributed to a non natural cause and is in actuality natural. Let us not get bogged down in what might be the properties of a supernatural or extra natural system. However, in order to speak about an extra natural world, we would need to suppose that this second system must in someway be different from the first or else it is just the natural world again. Hexagonal convection patterns in water would not qualify as extra natural because they are an unpredictable yet inevitable result of natural causes.

Believing in supernatural causes takes as a supposition that there are these two systems which usually seem to be completely unconnected. In the natural world for example, events that are probable happen often and events which are improbable happen rarely; matter behaves in a manner that is so consistent that we can model it and make predictions about it. People can not move against gravity without effort or assistance or pass through the same space as the walls of a building. The laws that the natural system follow may be at the level of atoms or the level of the ideal gas law or of psychology but since all of these are part of the same "natural" description of the universe we do not need to use another system to describe them.

Now we have these two suppositions:

1) There are two systems which differ in some manner; in the rules they follow, in our ability to make models and predictions about them... Whatever.

2) They must interact on occasion in order for there to be an extra natural phenomenon to discuss.

The problem is, as I see it, that in order to justify the devision of reality into two separate but interacting realms, you need to attribute some of the observations of effects in the natural world to the causes of the non natural world or else there is no need for one to believe in this non natural world. The reason this is a problem is that it seems to always yield the wrong answers. A good example would be lightning.

Every culture has had myths to explain lightning. Then Ben Franklin came along and everyone assumed that we now had a good natural explanation for lightning; It is the same phenomenon as the spark you get off door knobs. In the twentieth century however, have noticed something odd. The whether balloons in thunder clouds never observe the kinds of charge differentials needed to ionize the air. It requires a large voltage (3 million volts) to get the atoms over a small distance (one meter) to conduct electricity which is why static rarely jumps across the room at us. If we are strongly committed to look for natural causes first, we will simply accept that our model of lightning is incomplete. We know there are high charges in clouds, we just don't know why they are able to make the jump across the atmosphere. Keep studying the phenomena and some extra bit of information may be found to shed light on things.

If however, we are willing to attribute phenomena to either natural or extra natural causes we would say that since we have exhausted all natural causes for the arcing, the only available answer must be that there is a supernatural cause.

Over time some researchers tried out theories about a "cascade of electrons", triggered by cosmic rays hitting atoms in the air which released showers of particles, just like those observed in a particle accelerator. This alone would not be enough to cause lightning to arc so at first the theory was not widely accepted. After sometime, other researchers decided to simulate how these released electrons would behave in the charged environment of a thunder cloud. They found that they would be accelerated (generally downwards because of the cloud's polarity) and that the acceleration would be so great as to make the "electrical drag" of the air molecules less effective, meaning that they could be accelerated even faster. Soon, the model says, these electrons slam into more atoms just as the original cosmic ray did, with all the extra energy imparted from acceleration and - BAM - more electrons to accelerate. An electron avalanche is a good way of looking at it, with the charge difference playing the role of gravity, electrons for snow flakes and a cosmic ray as the skier who starts the whole thing. What would result is that there is an electrical current, moving through the air called a leader which is in effect a lightning rod in the sky, After that the charge in the sky is connected to the opposite charge in the ground which, in short order gets the current accelerating until the air completely ionizes in a flash of sound, light and impressiveness.

Theory requires that the electrons produce x-rays, which have indeed been discovered and I believe that they were doing other tests to look for a correlation between detecting cosmic ray 'fallout' and lightning strikes.

There was no reason to fault the hypothetical scientist with the belief in a non-natural cause. After all there was no natural cause available and no one had any suggestions for one at first. Even when one was put forward it was flawed. Cosmic rays could not account for the number and speed of electrons needed to bridge the gap. For the scientist who believes in the non natural cause, the early cosmic ray hypothesis would really look like the result of a closed minded naturalist grasping at straws.

The development of the naturalistic world view is a constant story of finding that phenomena which we previously thought to be supernatural can actually be described as a result of natural causes.

The task of making sense of the world through pure logic is so immense that even supercomputers can't use logic to interpret even a small part of it. Functional intelligence requires a large amount of pattern recognition to make models of the world around us. It is thus not "foolish" to see connections that are not there but a bi product of our normal brain function. I do feel though that it makes sense to always try to see if a new observation can fit into our natural description of the world without producing logical inconsistencies or massively improbable hypotheses. Since we are not born with perfect understanding of probability this can be tricky. It is estimated that an event with a one million to one probability happens to each of us an average once month. Most of them go unnoticed but when we notice them we give them too much importance.

If we can not fit an observation in our existing natural description it would seem to make more sense to see if the model could be easily adjusted to accommodate the new observation and failing that, it would seem to be more useful to claim ignorance and keep the observation in mind until some future information or ideas can be discovered. Appealing to a completely different description of reality; a super natural model should be our last resort and it would require that something could be said about the new model other than that it is mysterious or unknowable. If something is unknowable it can not be included in knowledge.

In closing I will mention that many of the things which are described as extra natural like hauntings or psychic powers are not even deserving of the title. If conclusive proof of these phenomenon was discovered tomorrow scientists would easily be able to start hypothesizing natural descriptions for them. It is only the lack of such conclusive proof that prevents most scientist from bothering. Indeed many paranormal researchers do this but then fail to use the hypothesis to make any verifiable predictions. I certainly think that our description of the universe has a long way to go before being considered complete (if that is even possible - if ignorance is infinite than intelligence could conceivably grow infinitely large without ever conquering it.). But I have yet to discover any reason to suppose that our growing natural description of it is in anyway unsuitable or in need of a twin.

8 Comments:

At Fri May 13, 01:40:00 AM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

Alright, first off, I must say that I only know enough quantum theory to be dangerous. I’ve read Hawking, Feynman and Greene…that’s it.

I’m certainly intrigued by “determinism”, but perhaps not the variety of which you speak. I wonder if you draw a distinction between “probabilism and determinism”? At any rate, the post is very interesting.

 
At Fri May 13, 05:42:00 PM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

My understanding of quantum theory is also layman/non-mathematical. Scientific magazine level stuff.

While I think that Hawking has a belief in "determinism" which is more of the conventional form which free will is an illusion (I can not be certain of that but that is the impression I got from his writings) I think that many scientists see probability on the quantum scale as meaning that a complex system would not develop in exactly the same way if started from initial conditions. If the laws of physics are probabilistic at the fundamental level, I can see no choice than to admit free will, even if it is constrained by instinct and other limiting factors. Without a perfectly clockwork predictable universe, mental phenomena must emerge from one of the levels above the so called "fundamental". Just as the hexagonal patterns in the pan of water neither violate - nor are predictable from - the simple laws governing the molecules, so would the mind not violate the chemistry or physics of the brain and yet be influencing their state. Thinking depressing thoughts will result in lower levels of neurotransmitters just as low neurotransmitters can result in depressing thoughts.

A set of physical laws can be deterministic in that the resulting state is determined by the laws acting on the initial state (no laws were violated) without the laws actually determining the exact final outcome.

That is what I reckon at least.

 
At Fri May 13, 09:17:00 PM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

Alright, that’s reasonable enough.

I wonder though, if you could (in you wildest imagination) entertain the possibility of “pre-programmed” neural processes that would allow for such phenomenon as, say, Biblical prophesy? That’s essentially the core of Augustinian determinism, which was furthered by John Calvin…the brutal theological tyrant that founded the Presbyterian sect of Christianity. Although, their version of determinism is known as compatibilism, which means that human free-will is compatible with God’s sovereign “predestined” plan.

As I see it, there’s a logical contradiction with compatibilism. It really suggests that both man and God are “free” to determine a single action, of which man is the actor. So, can both be true simultaneously?

 
At Sun May 15, 12:28:00 AM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

Hypothetically speaking, if a theistic God wished to put prophesies into someone's mind, it would probably be simpler to ignore the pre-programing all together. It would require a lot of error correction and take up room. She would probably just stimulate the neural patterns to produce it when needed. While brains are complex, a God with a large enough forehead and lots of paper and sharp pencils could map out the language centers, or say, all the bits of animal images in the vision center if she is trying to get the human to download revelations, figure out the right order to stimulate them to reconstruct the message, reverse engineer a particular magnetic field to supply the stimulation, then go back in time to an exploding star which is exactly the right distance away, arrange the atoms to produce this complex magnetic field and let things progress naturally. The field would travel forward in time and arrive just when the prophet stepped into the line of fire. Bam! one prophetic vision or disembodied voice.

At least that is what I would do if I wanted someone to receive a prophesy and I was an omnipotent, omniscient and transcendental being. But then that is just me. She may just use multidimensional nano-electrodes to reach past the skull and play the poor sap's neurons like a harpsichord with the tune being the message. I would hope however that she would have the patience to realize that something delivered by such subjective means would not be all that easily received by many who had not the benefit of experiencing the original message.*

The point is that means of intervention without any real physical violations of law are easily possible. But then it is also possible that it does not happen.

*The deist God would just be shaking her head (I bet deist Goddesses have great hair) while all this was going on, caring not about plans or prophesy and just enjoying the show.

 
At Sun May 15, 03:46:00 AM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

OK, now you’re just making fun. It’s quite alright though, as I have a great sense of humor. At the very least, your response was creative.

 
At Tue May 17, 02:03:00 AM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

Perhaps I jest somewhat (though not about deist goddesses having great hair, I never jest about things like that.)

My basic point is that the laws of physics and science in general don't have anything to say (yet) about God or intervention or revelation or theism/deism/atheism/pantheism/polytheism. despite what many might say. It is a methodology of describing nature and evaluating those descriptions and it is at its most successful when it assumes a natural description first and foremost.

 
At Tue May 17, 02:37:00 PM 2005, Blogger Robert said...

Agreed. That exactly what I’ve been trying to communicate to my (religious) theist friends, family and the sole reader of my little blog.

 
At Tue May 17, 11:46:00 PM 2005, Blogger Apesnake said...

You mean about Deist Goddesses having great hair?!? Finally people are listening...

Oh, you probably mean about the epistemology thing. That's good too.

 

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