Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mordechai Linzer has kindly volunteered to transcribe one of my central shiurim. Here it is:

Science and the Age of the Universe
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
When we say science we could mean one of two things: we could mean a method for investigating, or we could mean a body of information which has been discovered and established – the kind of thing you get in a science textbook or in a science museum. I’m taking about the latter; I’m not going to talk about the scientific method, I’m going to talk about what science teaches us and in general how reliable it is, and then I’ll talk about the age of the universe.
You can distinguish four different levels of scientific information. I suppose you could do it otherwise, but this is the way I do it. Sometimes science describes repeatable, observable phenomena. Things that happen over and over again, or things that you could make happen over and over again and all that science does is tell you when these and these things are there, that and that’s what happens. So the growing of the grass that grows every spring, and hard-boiling of an egg in water and flight of birds and behavior of animals generally and breaking glass, which unfortunately happens all too often and things that fall. Repeatable, observable phenomena. Science says when you this and this you should expect to see that and that. That’s where science is at its strongest.
Even there you could make mistakes, because you might not get the conditions exactly right. Water boils at 100 centigrade. Yeah, but not if you go up a mountain. If you go up a mountain it boils at a lower temperature and your hard-boiled egg comes out soft boiled. And not if it’s got other stuff in it, salt or dirt, it’s gotta be pure water. And not if it’s in a pressure cooker; in a pressure cooker it boils at 150 or 200 degree centigrade. And not if it’s in motion; if it’s in motion it won’t boil at 100 degrees centigrade. So you gotta be very careful to get the conditions right; otherwise even here you could make a mistake.
If you have water in a circular container and it’s absolutely still and you open a small hole in the very center of the base of the container. As the water goes out it will rotate counter-clockwise. Now you try this experiment in New York and in Paris and in Moscow or in Beijing or in the Philippines, every time it goes around counter-clockwise. So, being a good scientist, you say, we learned something about the universe. Look at that, the water goes down the drain, it rotates counter-clockwise. Until you go to Johannesburg. I mean, I’m not recommending that you go to Johannesburg, but if you should ever find yourself there by accident or against your will, you’ll find that it goes down clockwise.
Would anybody think that the laws of the universe change in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere? You wouldn’t think it, but it’s true, and if you go take a look you’ll see that you can get it wrong. This is where science is at its strongest and even here it is possible for science to make mistakes.
One step away is called interpolation. Here’s the idea: I’m doing an experiment. In my experiment I take cubes of sugar and drop them into glasses of water and see how long it take them to dissolve, and I’m checking the effect of temperature on how fast the sugar dissolves. You could probably figure it out – the hotter it is the faster it’s going to dissolves. So I did an experiment at 10 degrees and I did an experiment at 40 degrees, and I saw that at 10 degrees it dissolves slowly and at 40 degrees it dissolves faster. Now I ask, how fast will it dissolver at 25? The truth is, strictly speaking, we don’t know, because we never tried it. We only tried 10 and 40, we didn’t try 25. Now, because I’m asking about 25 and I have on record 10 and 40 – I have one that’s less and one that’s more – this is called interpolation, because you’re asking about something in between.
Now the fact that you haven’t actually tested it is not going to frustrate any scientist that’s worth his salt because this is what he’ll do: he’ll draw a graph, and here’s 10 degrees and here’s how fast it dissolves, here’s 40 degrees and here’s how fast it dissolves. When you ask about 25 that’s in between, do you know what he’s going to do with those two dots? He’s going to play connect the dots. That’s what he’s going to do, he’s going to draw a line between the two dots. And then he’s going to say 25 ends up right here and that’s what’ll happen at 25, even though strictly speaking he hasn’t tested it yet.
The question will be raised, you play connect the dots by joining the two dots with a line, who says it should be a straight line? Maybe it should be a lazy curve, a sine curve, or maybe it should be a co-sine curve, or maybe it should be a jagged line. How many different ways are there to connect the dots? You could probably guess it’s unlimited; the strict answer is there’s an uncountable infinity, it’s beyond all belief.
So why do you pick the straight line? The official answer is it’s the simpler way to connect the dots. That’s true and it is accepted, the trouble is there’s no precise definition of simplicity. No one has been able to define what simplicity is and there’s no official explanation why simplicity is right. Indeed, if you ask scientists – who typically are very bad philosophers of science; they’re very good at doing science but they’re very bad at thinking about what science means – many scientists will tell you it’s aesthetically pleasing; it just looks nicer.
Now, there’s a bomb and the bomb is timed to go off when the sugar finishes dissolving and I need to know if there’s going to be enough time to get the population out of the room or not. And I have my curve here and I’m betting that at 25 it will dissolve at this speed because the curve looks nicer. Is that a reason to play with people’s lives? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, we will all accept the line. The reason can’t be because it looks nicer. So simplicity is a problem, but it’s only a philosophical problem so we can safely ignore it; it really isn’t very important. In interpolation, where you assessed at less and more and you’re asking about one in between, we all trust the line.
The next step away is extrapolation. That’s where you go outside the ones you tested. So we had 10 and 40, suppose I ask about -5 degrees centigrade. That’s outside; we have larger but we don’t have smaller. Now here you could in principle play the same game – listen, we have our graph, and when you connect the dots, there’s no reason to stop at the dot, you keep the line going. So here’s the axis and here’s the two points and here’s the line and just keep it going down to -5, and that’ll tell you how fast the sugar will dissolve at -5.
Except that it’s going to be a bit of a difficulty because water at -5 degrees centigrade is ice, and when you drop the sugar cube in it’s just going to sit on top and it’s not going to dissolve at all. So the prediction you get from the line is dead wrong. Okay, so the chemists will know that there’s such a thing as super cooling a liquid. If you keep a liquid very still you can cool it to below its freezing point and it stays liquid. That’s true, but the instant you drop the sugar in, you’re disturbing it and it will crystalize immediately and, again, the sugar will not dissolve.
When you extrapolate you are risking a qualitative change in the phenomena, the whole thing can go haywire and you get something brand new which you didn’t anticipate at all. So extrapolation is a big step beyond just telling me what you already tested.
A gigantic step beyond all three – repeatable, observable phenomena, interpolation and extrapolation – is deep theory. In deep theory you make up a story about something that you can’t see. So it’s always just a story. And you say, you know why these things happen, it happens because there are these little doodads that I can’t see and they’re doing something or other, and because they do something or other that’s why things happen. This is a gigantic step beyond because you can’t see them; you’re just making it up.
For example, you take a closed container filled with air and you heat it up. You heat it up and you heat it up and you heat it up, eventually it will burst. Why? Because as you heat up the gas in a closed container, the pressure gets greater and greater and greater. Sooner or later the pressure is so great that it will bust the walls of the container. [Okay, I suppose you could have super strong containers, I’m not talking about that, this is not material science.] Why is it that when you heat up the gas the pressure gets greater and greater and greater on the walls? So here’s the theory: The gas is made of tiny little balls. You never saw any of them? That’s right, because they’re invisible, they’re much too tiny for you to ever see. And since we like Greek we’ll give them a Greek name – molecules. Doesn’t that sound scientific? Now these little balls are in constant motion; they’re banging around the whole time. When you heat up the air the molecules move faster and faster. Indeed, the average random motion of a molecule is the heat; that’s what official science will tell you. So let’s suppose the molecules start moving faster and faster. What’s going to happen to the walls? First of all you’re going to get a lot more bangs. If in a second you had a thousand bangs, now in a second you’ll have a million bangs. And furthermore, each molecule is going faster so it hits harder; that’s what increases the pressure.
Now that is a great story. It just leaves over one little question: are gasses really made of little balls, since after all you can’t see them? So you devise steps and you try hypotheses and you check them, but in deep theory you are going beyond anything that you can see.
Now, if science can get the best category wrong – the category of repeatable, observable phenomena, category number one – you could imagine that interpolation will go wrong slightly more often, extrapolation will go wrong considerable more often and deep theory will go wrong very, very often, because you’re getting further and further away from what you actually see.
The first moral is this: if somebody tells you science has discovered X – and of course you couldn’t possible discover something that isn’t there, could you? Not if you really discovered it – so when they say science has discovered X, they’re telling you, “We Know, capital k, that it’s really there.” The first thing you should ask is, “How much repeatable, observable phenomena go into this discovery and how much interpolation and how much extrapolation and how much deep theory goes into this discovery?” And the more stuff he has further out on the list, the weaker the discovery will be.
I hope that you develop good memories. Because when you get to my age you will have stocked in your mind example of all sorts of discoveries that were later undiscovered, because certain mistakes were made in, so called, discovering them. You’re already into the age where people have realized that margarine is no better for you than butter, but for 30 years the sales of margarine were on the grounds of health. Just that they didn’t do the studies correctly and some long term studies showed that margarine is no healthier for you than butter.
You probably haven’t heard this it died so fast, but about 15 years ago there was a whole theory of A type personalities and B type personalities vis-à-vis heart attacks. The A’s are aggressive, nervous, hyper tense – they’re New Yorkers – and the B’s are relaxed and calm and take-it-as-you-go – Californians – and the A’s had much higher incidents of heart attacks and there were all sorts of programs set up to try to transform an A into a B. But it turned out that there were some statistical mistakes made and there is no such phenomena.
Falling sperm rates. About 8 years ago there reports of falling sperm rates all over the world. And of course that was the result of pollution and it meant the end of the human race. And again, they made some mistakes with the numbers and they took the samples in the wrong places and it turned out not to be true.
This sort of thing is going on all the time, sometimes long term and sometimes short term. So one has to be very careful.
Vestigial organs. They love those big words, this makes sure that 90% of listeners don’t understand what they’re talking about. There’re supposed to be things in your body that don’t do anything. Why? Because according to evolution your ancestors were once fish. Now, as you carry along becoming an animal you may carry along some of the old fish stuff, which isn’t very useful when you move onto land. But not everything changes, so it sticks around. And according to evolution, therefore you expect there to be things which have no use. That’s what you expect. And then if you haven’t found a use and you are desperate to wave the evolution flag, because that’s how you get your next grant, you say we discovered a vestigial organ. When if you would ask people in an honest, sober moment, if you could find one, how much do we know about what the body does? How much do we really know? Can we really map out everything the body does? They would have to admit to you, no, we really are very ignorant about a lot of things the body does. And then we could follow it up with the question, “Well then how do you know that this thing isn’t doing anything?”
And I think if it was an honest, sober moment, if you could find one, they would have to say, “We don’t really know; we’re just saying it because that’s what gets headlined in the New York Times. We don’t really know.”
When I was a kid if you got repeated infections in your tonsils, they would take out your tonsils, and while they were in there they took out the adenoids as well, because, you know, you’re in there anyway, and you got a nice sharp knife and the adenoids don’t do anything and they too could get affected so why don’t you just take them out because you’re there. They don’t do that anymore, because they discovered that the adenoids do do something, they play some role in the immune system. They just didn’t know that when I was a kid, and I lost both in one shot, my tonsils and my adenoids.
So here is a good example of using a deep theory, called evolution, to derive a conclusion and discovering that the conclusion is very unstable. It’s very unstable because you’re relying on something which you really can’t see, you really can’t test, and using it to draw conclusions. So the first thing you should ask in science is: how much of what they’re telling me is really describing what they saw happen in the laboratory, and how much requires a little bit of interpolation and a generous dose of extrapolation and deep theory? The more of that stuff you got, the less stable the conclusion is going to be. That’s moral number one.
Brief moral number two. I’m talking so far about science as gathering evidence for conclusions and what types of evidence exist. But we have to remember that science is done by flesh and blood scientists and they’re subject to prejudice and to wishful thinking and to political pressure as anybody else. And this introduces a considerable level of distortion, sometimes vicious willful distortion and sometimes sloppy incompetent, irresponsible thinking.
Here’s a term that you won’t learn in your science classes, called “data massage”. No, this is not the newest Japanese technique. Data is what you get when you do an experiment and massage means you massage it. You see, here’s how it works: I’m testing a theory. Now, in my heart of hearts I know that the theory is true and I know they’ll publish my paper if I can show the theory is true. So I do my experiment and the results I get aren’t exactly right. Now, these experiments are quite complicated and chances are that in my experimental design I made some mistakes. Isn’t it obvious that the places where my data disproved the theory must be due to my experimental design? It’s not due to the wrongness of the theory; no, it must be that I did a lousy experiment. So in order to protect myself, and only to report the truth, I change the data because where the data disagrees with the theory, it’s not that that’s the real data, it’s because I designed the experiment wrongly; surely that’s true. So I change the data and then I get my paper published. And this is so popular in the field it has even a title, “data massage”, only in structured scientist courses they don’t teach you that because they’d like you to respect the field and not know about some of its problems.
Another example which I think is endemic and something which you have to be aware of throughout, throughout the scientific world you have a tendency to jump to conclusions. And this is not just the people who watch test tubes, it involves the very top people in the field. They’ll jump to conclusions on the basis of insufficient data.
In 1903 there was a convention of physicists, and one of America’s greatest physicists, Albert Michaelson of the famous Michaelson Worldly Experiment, said physics is over. It’s over, it’s finished. We know everything we need to know, all that needs to be done is calculate the values to the eighth decimal point or the twelfth decimal point. He discouraged his graduate students from going into physics because it’s a dead field. Gosh, it didn’t turn out that way, did it?
In 1948 Max Morn said that physics will be finished in six months, because at that time they thought there were only 3 particles: neutron, or maybe at that time they didn’t get to neutron yet, electron and proton. Derack found the equation for the electron, surely somebody in six months is going to find the equation for the proton and it’ll be over. It didn’t turn out that way.
Those of you who are from Los Angeles know about the Labrea tarpits. I was there in ’69 and ’71, I don’t know if they’re still showing it, they probably changed it since then. They had a movie where they interviewed famous paleontologists, these people who dig up bones. They had an interview with the guy who discovered the brontosaurus. Now the brontosaurus is pretty big and at the time it was the biggest. So they interviewed this guy and they said to him, “Was it was a tremendous discovery, a very big animal?” “Yes.” “Do you think there could be a bigger land animal than the brontosaurus?” He said, “No.” “Why not?” “Well, according to our theory the thing was so big it had to spend all of its time in water, otherwise it couldn’t walk; it had to have water holding it up.” That turned out to be wrong also, that’s another story. “And it had to spend all of its time eating, because otherwise it couldn’t feed itself. To think of one bigger, impossible to imagine.” Good. A few years later they discovered one that was bigger. So they interviewed the guy that discovered this. “Is this a big discovery?” “Very big discovery, gigantic.” “Do you think there could be anything bigger than this?” and he said, “No.” And they asked him why. Now listen, I’m glad you’re sitting down. He said, “This has gotta be the biggest because we used to think that the brontosaurus is the biggest and this is even bigger.” That was his answer. I almost fell off my chair in the theater; I couldn’t believe that an intelligent human being could say that – we were wrong once, we couldn’t possibly be wrong twice, it’s just inconceivable to be wrong twice.
Unless you fall prey to the prejudice that of course these are theoretical scientists, we know about them – head in the clouds, feet in the clouds, completely disconnected from reality, but practical science, technology, everything has to be checked and triple checked, everything has to be investigated, everything has to experimented, surely in practical science and technology, there everything’s nailed down, let me just let you in on some of the great stories of history.
When I was a kid, when you went to buy a pair of shoes you put on the new pair of shoes and you went over to a contraption, stuck your feet in a slot, an open slot, and then you looked down through goggles and you press the button and you could see the bones of your foot inside the shoe. You would get an x-ray to check your shoe size. We don’t do that anymore. Can you guess why? Because they discovered that x-rays really aren’t so good for you. But they didn’t know that then and we were doing x-rays for shoe size.
In the ’40s-‘50s there were tens of thousands of lobotomies that were performed, cutting out a certain section of the brain, especially for epileptics, because it was supposed to help stabilize them, we don’t do that anymore either, because it turned out not to be effective. And then it solidified in the ‘70s which caused horrible, horrible defective births.
So this is a problem which you have to be worried about throughout the whole discipline, this tendency to jump to conclusions before the adequate datas come in. If you take any science book, even popular science book, from twenty-twenty five years ago and look up neutrino – I’m not recommending this, I’m just saying hypothetically, if you were to do it, maybe you shouldn’t waste your time – but if you look up neutrino it says in the text “a particle with no mass.” Yep, that’s what it says. And then about 20 years ago they began to wonder – maybe it does have some mass. And they did some observation and they decided probably it does have mass and then they decided probably it doesn’t have mass. And then they did an experiment about 10 years ago which says it’s supposed to have mass. And it is now a big problem. But 25 years ago there was no doubt, it was just obvious.
Dinosaurs were thought to be cold blooded, dumb, sluggish brutes because they were thought to be related to reptiles and that pretty much describes reptiles. Until the ‘70s when a guy named Robert Backer reinterpreted all the old evidence to show that either all of them or a great proportion of them must have been warm blooded and they worked together in social organization and they hunted together as packs and they were very energetic. He didn’t do it on the basis of new discoveries; he reinterpreted all the old discoveries. Which means that the old position was held because of a lack of imagination. Everybody saw it one way and nobody saw thought of it another way.
At any rate, you should be very cautious about accepting the latest thing that science does.
Now, let’s come to the age of the universe. This is one of the questions that’s most prominently asked. How could it be that science says the universe is 14 billion years old, give or take a billion – you know, which is small change – and the Torah says that it’s 5,763, which is considerable different than 14 billion? How is it possible to reconcile these two very widely divergent dates?
The truth is that there are two different ways to do it. I’ll start with the one that panders to your prejudices and then I’ll tell you the other one. One way to do it is to say that the universe as a whole could be 14 billion years old, it could be as old as you like, there’s no limit on how old the universe is. Ay, it says in Genesis that God created the world in six days? Those six days might not be 24 hour periods. They might be much, much longer.
Now listen. If you remember one thing from today, I want you to remember what I’m going to say now. We are not changing the verses to fit science. That is not what’s going on here. We’re not changing the understanding of the verses to fit science. We’re not reinterpreting the verses to fit science. We’re not doing that; that is absolutely invalid. That’s invalid, you do not do that. Only if there are internal sources, internal to the Jewish tradition, which would allow you to say it’s longer, can you say it’s longer. We do not read the Torah with our eyes over our shoulders on science and say, “Oh, they discovered X, let’s put X in over here.” We do not do that. We’re not changing the understanding of Genesis to fit science; we’re not doing that; we are relying on internal sources.
What kind of internal sources? Well, first of all, what is a day? What does the word “day” mean? This holds in Hebrew and in English. Day means one cycle of the sun vis-à-vis the earth; that’s what it means. Sunrise to sunrise, sunset to sunset. One cycle of the sun vis-à-vis the earth. Day does not mean 24 hours. I’ll prove it to you: science now thinks that the day is getting longer, because the rotation of the earth is slowing down. That does not mean that 24 hours is getting longer. 24 hours can’t get longer because it’s a certain amount of time, I hope this is obvious.
So day means one sun-cycle with respect to the earth. According to the first chapter of Genesis, when is the sun created and put where it is today? On day four. So I ask you, what was day 3? One thing’s for sure: it was not what we call day. Because day means a sun cycle vis-à-vis the earth, and that you didn’t have.
So day 3 is not what we call day. Ay, the Torah uses the word “day”? So the Torah means there’s some analogy, some similarity, between what we call day and what went on on the 3rd “day”. But it’s not the same, it’s not identical; it can’t be identical. So now you have to look for the analogy. You are free, if you like, if you choose to say the analogy is 24 hours, you can say that if you choose. But that’s because you’re choosing, not because it has to be that way. And indeed some commentators do say that.
The only thing I know in the Torah itself about this thing called day is that it’s an alternation of light and dark. That I know – evening, morning, there is an alternation between light and dark. But light and dark what? On day 3 it wasn’t the body of the earth obscuring the sun and making dark, that wasn’t what it was, the sun wasn’t where it is. So you are open, if you like, to take the first 3 days of Genesis and understand them as alternation of something else called light and dark and it can be as long as you like.
Ah, but then you’ll ask, what about days 4, 5, and 6? And I will answer you that each of the 6 days in Genesis ends with a description – it was evening, it was morning, day end. And nowhere in the succeeding 999 pages of the Tanach do you ever have that phrase again, never. Not in the Psalms and not in Job in not in Isaiah and not in Deuteronomy and not in Joshua and not in Samuel and not in Writings, nowhere.
Now look at it as a book. The author or authors of this book are telling you something. The first six days have a certain character that no time period has in the rest of the entire book. So if I have sufficient reason to regard the first 3 as much longer periods of time it is acceptable on literary grounds to say that days 4, 5, and 6 also have that longer period of time. And therefore I can say that the 6 “yamim” that the Torah describes were a much longer period of time. And indeed there are Midrashim that say this and there are Kabbalistic works that say this – that the world is much older than 5,763 years.
So the first reconciliation is the scientists are right – the universe is 14 billion years old, or whatever number they come up with tomorrow, and our date only goes back to Adam. Because from Adam’s life on, there you have a calculation of years, overlapping genealogies, and there the date is fixed.
The next problem will be, they’ll tell you, but human beings are much older than 5,763 years. Human beings are 200,000 years old or 2 million years old, depending upon who you ask and how exactly you define it. What are we going to do with the paleontological data, the bones of our ancestors that we found in the rocks? You say if it’s got 7 syllables, it’s got to be right.
Here it’s crucial to decide what you mean by human. Since it’s our date – 5,763 – we get to define what we mean by human, we don’t have to follow their definition. 5,763 in our dating takes us back to Adam. What kind of creature was Adam? Well, Adam had a certain bodily structure similar to ours, and he had a certain level of intelligence, and he had concepts of morality and spirituality, because God spoke to him, because God gave him a command, because he was held responsible for violating the command and indeed punished for it. For us to be human, a descendant of Adam, means 4 characteristics: body, mind, morality and spirituality.
So the question ought to be, do we have any evidence that there are other creatures older than 5,763 that have all 4 characteristics. Well, let’s see: body, if you find bones you can infer certain things throughout the body that creatures had the bones. And if you finds tools and habitations and those enchanting cave pictures drawn in France from 25 or 35 thousand years ago you can certainly infer intelligence. How would you infer morality and spirituality, right and wrong, good and evil, some transcendent being, transcendent values? Where’re you going to infer that from?
The answer is, you can only infer that from language. If they wrote something and we can decipher what they wrote then we would have a basis for saying that they knew the difference between right and wrong and they had a concept of spirituality. Without writing, nothing you’re going to find in bones and in artifacts and in habitations is going to be good evidence that the creature possessed morality and spirituality. And the oldest writing ever discovered is about 5,300 years old. There is no older writing of which we are aware, anywhere on the planet. So as of this moment, there is no reason to say that anything was here older than 5,763 years that was what we call human.
Ay, you’ll tell me, but those creatures that painted the pictures, they clearly had some great intelligence, and some great sensitivity and they’re only 20 thousand years removed from us. Are you telling me that in that short space of 20 thousand years, or 15 thousand years, such a tremendous difference took place? Well, even in evolutionary terms, which I’m echoing now, the case is not open and shut, because many people feel that those creatures that painted the cave pictures don’t stand in our line. They’re not our grandfathers, they’re our cousins. Indeed there were up to four different what you could call semi-human species running around at the same time and only one survived. They’re not our ancestors, they’re part of a branch that came to a dead end. So they aren’t directly in our line at all, and therefore they have nothing to do with us.
The first solution says the universe is 14 billion years old, 5,763 goes back to Adam, Adam has 4 characteristics, body, mind, spirit and values and there’s no evidence of anything older than Adam that had those 4 characteristics. That’s solution number one.
Solution number two. The universe, capital U, the whole shebang, is 5, 763 years old, period. There ain’t no more, that’s the finish. How could that be? And science tell us it’s 14 billion? The answer is this: God created the universe looking older than it is. He did a mock up job, it’s a Hollywood job. You set the stage with stuff and you make it look old. But it isn’t really old, it was created looking old: if you would saw down a tree in the Garden of Eden, you’d find tree rings. Even though tree rings usually means that that’s the number of years that the tree was growing, but not these trees, these trees were created with tree rings inside.
Adam was created, not as a newborn infant, and less a fertilized cell, Adam was created as an adult. You meet him 5 minutes after he was created, he looked 30 years old. But he isn’t 30 years old, he’s 5 minutes old. He was just created looking older.
Now, similarly, the universe as a whole is created looking much older than it is. The scientists have correctly followed the clues and drawn the correct conclusions, they just didn’t know that the clues were planted and aren’t genuine.
Now, the usual critique of that idea is, why would God do that? And if you answer, to deceive us, then the intelligencia, including Dawkins, will tell you, that means you believe in a trickster God, a jokester God, and isn’t that foolish, and isn’t that belittling even to religion? Even Elliot Sober, who’s a very good philosopher, fell into this trap.
Now listen, I can’t resist to itch here because I’m a logician. This question is not relevant. Suppose I said God created the universe looking older than it is, and if you ask me why, I don’t know. I don’t know why he did it, I haven’t got the foggiest idea why he did it. Does that mean that my solution is wrong? What does that have to do with the solution? Must I have a complete biography or a psychology of God to say that he did one thing? It’s just not relevant.
But as a matter of a fact we do have an answer, and it’s an answer not concocted for this particular occasion. This is where Sober reveals a certain kind of naiveté. From our point of view, one of the principals of creation is that God hides his presence. He hides his presence in the seeming laws of nature, He hides His presence in the suffering that goes on in the world. One of the principals of creation is to hide His presence, and this could be just another reflection of hiding his presence. So for us this is not a difficult question.
The difficult question, at least more difficult, will be this. Look, you’re using a technique, the critic will say, the technique is, you have a raft of evidence for X and you say I don’t accept X, I don’t agree with X, because the evidence is phony, the evidence is all phony and that’s why I don’t have to accept the conclusion. The critic will say, if you follow that method, couldn’t you short-circuit every investigation, every inquiry, every conclusion? Couldn’t you always say that God, especially an all-powerful God, put evidence there but it isn’t really true? “I know you thought you saw me shoot bullets into your car and cause it to explode, but that’s just because God caused you to hallucinate. It wasn’t really me; I was inside reading a book. I know you saw it, but couldn’t God do that? Yes, so I’m free, you can’t take me to court because God just made you think that.” If you use that method you could short-circuit every inquiry, every investigation, every conclusion, and, the critic will say, any method that short-circuits every investigation, every inquiry and every conclusion is a wrong method. It’s a method that stop you from doing everything.
Now, there’s an answer to this critique, and the answer is this: you’re right, if I use this method without limit or if I use the method without reason, without some kind of limits that are reasonable and justified, you’re right, it would be illegitimate. But here I have a reason, a reason that would enable me to limit it.
Now, I’ll give you an analogy and then I’ll show you how it applies. George is accused of committing murder. Now, what we have is George’s footprints outside the window where the crime was committed and his fingerprints inside and George has a motive and we found a weapon in George’s position that matches the weapon that committed the murder. That’s a considerable amount of evidence.
Let’s suppose George’s attorney says, “My defense of my client is, it’s a frame-up. He’s being framed.” That’s all he says, one sentence, to the judge or the jury, “My client is being framed.”
Is that going to be a successful defense? No. The reason it’s not successful is this: you could say that in every case. And if you thought that that was a successful defense, you could never convict anybody of anything. So of course it’s stupid, you can’t use that as a defense.
But now let’s suppose that in addition to the footprint and the fingerprints and the motive and the weapon, the defense produces – well those things are produced by the prosecution – the defense produces a witness who says he saw George at the time of the crime 100 miles away. Now you have a problem, because now you have a contradiction in the evidence.
And now the defense lawyer says, “I have a witness who says he saw him 100 miles away and I tell you that all the rest of it is planted, all the rest of it is a frame-up.” Now it would be worthwhile investigating a frame-up, because frame-ups do happen. They’re rare but they do happen. So when you have a reason to think that there’s a contradiction, then, asserting that there’s a frame-up is a reasonable hypothesis.
Now, our attitude towards the age of the universe is this: the scientists produce a raft of evidence, they say that the universe is 14 billion years old. We have evidence for the truth of the Jewish tradition. Evidence! We don’t believe it just because it makes us feel good, because we like cholent. We have evidence that it’s true. So if I look at my world and I survey the sub total, I see evidence on one side and evidence on the other side. If there’s evidence on both sides, then to suggest that one is a result of a frame-up is not irrational. And that’s exactly what we’re suggesting. We’re suggesting that the scientists are responding to a frame-up. God framed the world to look much older than it really is and therefore the universe really is 5,763.
So I think that this is also a reasonable solution and that means we have two reasonable solutions, and any problem for which I have two reasonable solutions is a problem over which I don’t lose too much sleep.
Question: What do the Christians believe about the world being how old the Torah says? They also believe in the Torah, right?
Answer: They split. There are fundamentalist Christians who take it literally and believe it’s that old and there are reform Christians who don’t believe that. Both of the opinions that I just gave you, you’ll find among the Christian thinkers as well. They face, at the outset, the same problem.
Question: So you’re saying that dinosaurs are only 5,763 years old?
Answer: According to the second solution, there never were any dinosaurs – giant creatures roaming the earth, screaming and shaking the ground and chewing up elephants and things – there’re just bones. God created bones in the ground.
You could sell the first answer. The first answer definitely meets your prejudices much better; it protects science – Thank God! – it’s really 14 billion and it just goes back to Adam. That’s easier to sell to people, that’s why I put it first.
First of all you don’t need to know the reason to say that it happened. Listen, your next door neighbor, you don’t know the reasons for half the things he does, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t do them. Knowing the reason why has nothing to do with whether he did it or not. It’s two entirely different questions. And if you find people who are so prejudiced they won’t think about the second answer, give them the first answer. That’s why I put it first, because usually it does wash better, because people are too prejudiced to hear the second answer.
Question: If you believe that it is a frame-up, what would be the motivation for God to do that?
Answer: It’s a principal of the creation that He creates it in such a way that He hides His activity. So here, if we have a book that says it’s 5,763 and scientifically it seems to be much older, here’s a lot of evidence against the book and that would be a way of hiding his activity.

It’s a little bit like this: we say the universe has a beginning. That’s for sure, no matter how old it is, it has a beginning. All educated opinion until the middle of the 20th century believed that the universe has no beginning. That was always the belief. That was the belief of Aristotle, and that was the belief of the Newtonians – the universe has no beginning. Can you imagine, that in 1965 scientific opinion swung over to say it does have a beginning? That was pretty shocking. That’s just a little glimpse. Now, just imagine they recalculated everything and said, “Yeah, 5,763.” It would be all over.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Science Matters for the non-scientist

Science Matters for the non-scientist - part 1

I am indebted to a person who prefers to remain anonymous who transcribed shiurim of mine. This virtually unedited version will serve some purpose I hope.

Science Matters for Non-Scientists
Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
Science matters – matters can be either a noun or a verb – for the non-scientist; that means everything will be explained, hopefully in clear enough terms that if you have no science background you’ll be able to understand.
One of the reasons that it’s important to look at science is because of the enormous prestige that science enjoys in our society, the common western culture. That prestige has effect far beyond what I think people appreciate, and it was graphically revealed by a series of experiments initiated by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in the ‘60s, although he interpreted it differently and he had a different purpose for it from the moral that I will draw. I think you will be able to see that the moral that I draw is at least as appropriate as his.
The experiment works like this: there are three people who are involved in the experiment. The one who’s running it, who’s called the experimenter, and there’s someone who’s supposed to be learning and there’s a teacher.
Now, this is the way it looks – it looks one way, the reality is another way – but this is the way it looks: two people present themselves as volunteering to participate in this experiment. Psychological experiments on campus are very common and you’d pay students, in those days it was two dollars an hour, and they did whatever you wanted – sorted shapes or listened to sounds. And they are told that this is an experiment in learning, and in particular it’s using negative feedback. In other words, someone is supposed to learn something and he’ll be tested on it, and when he fails he’ll be punished, to see the effect of punishment on the ability to learn.
Here’s how it’s done. What he’s learning is word pairs. The learner is in one room, the teacher is in a different room. They can’t see one another, though there’s a wall between the two rooms and, as you’ll see, it’s possible to hear through the walls, but you can’t see. The teacher speaks into a microphone, the learner has earphones, and the teacher recites a list of word pairs. And then he goes back through the list one by one and for each first member of the pair he then gives four options to choose from and the learner chooses one option.
If he gets it right he goes on to the next entry. If he gets it wrong, the learner is punished by an electric shock. The teacher administers the electric shock. That is to say, the teacher has a control which has various settings for voltage and presses a button that administers the shock. It starts with fifteen volts and then each time the learner makes a mistake, the voltage goes up fifteen points. If he gets it right he just goes on to the next pair.
Before the experiment starts, the teacher is given a shock from the instrument, a fifteen volt shock, which is trivial, just so he feels that it’s real.
When the two volunteers present themselves, the experimenter hands each one a slip of paper and they are told, on one slip of paper is written the word “teacher” and on the other slip of paper is written the word “learner”; it’s presented to them as if the choice of the piece of paper is arbitrary. Then the learner is taken off into another room. Now, the learner makes mistakes, and for each mistake he makes he gets another shock and the voltage goes up.
At a certain point, the learner starts to moan and groan in pain and at a certain point he starts to yell and scream in pain and then he starts banging on the wall saying, “Stop this! Stop this!” And as you could imagine, the teacher begins to show signs of discomfort and hesitation, at which point the experimenter encourages the teacher. The first statement of encouragement is “Please continue,” and if he still shows hesitation, he’s told, “The experiment requires that you continue.” And if he still doesn’t do it, the third statement is, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” And if he still hesitates, he’s told, “You have no other choice, but you must go on.” If after all four of those encouragements the teacher still refuses to go on, the experiment is stopped.
Now, that’s the way it looks. The truth is, there are no electric shocks and nothing’s being taught and the guy in the other room who’s designated as the learner is an actor who’s trained to act as if he were getting shocks and the yells and screams are recorded and they’re being played back from a recording. And the two slips of paper both have the word “teacher” written on them, so it guaranteed that this schnook over here is the teacher; the other guy who’s the actor says he got the piece of paper with the word “learner” on it, but of course it isn’t true.
The only subject in this experiment is the teacher. How far will he go? How far will he go in administering electric shocks to someone who, for all he can tell, is really suffering from these shocks? The top voltage is 450 volts, which is certainly fatal, and if the teacher will administer three 450 volt shocks in a row then the experiment is also stopped; in other words his contribution is stopped.
The first time he did it, he did it with Yale students. He asked random Yale students and his colleagues in the psychology department, “What do you think the result of the experiment will be? How many will go to the maximum voltage?” Both his colleagues and other Yale students said it would be one or two percent. As a matter of fact, 65% were willing to go to the maximum voltage.
Of course they had to be encouraged and they did show signs of discomfort and at one point they would ask, “Maybe we should stop?” and so forth and so on, but 65% went to the maximum voltage. And this experiment was repeated in other universities and other places around the world and the results were consistent. The ones who were prepared to go all the way to fatal voltages were 61-66 percent, regardless of time or place.
Furthermore, as another observer of these experiments pointed out, even those, the 30% or so, who refused to go to the fatal shocks, none of them said the experiment itself should be stopped. They didn’t protest, they didn’t threaten to go into the newspapers to have it shut down. They didn’t want to do it, but they didn’t threaten to shut it down. Nor did any of them initiate going to check on the condition of the supposed learner who’s the victim of the shocks to see if he’s okay. So, although they stopped short of administering fatal shocks, they didn’t threaten the experiment itself; they just didn’t want to go that far themselves.
Now, I’m giving out some of the other variations that were taken, but what was the point of the experiment and what explanation or what interpretation did Milgram and his colleagues put on it? It was testing obedience to authority. This was right after the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem and they wanted to see how people respond to authority; could a person be so influenced by authority to give up his otherwise moral convictions – none of these people we assume would randomly inflict pain on other people and certainly not to the point of a fatal shock, but here, in this circumstance they gave up their own convictions. With misgivings and with worries, yes, but they did it, they carried it out to the end. 65% carried it out to the end.
Now, Milgram says he was analyzing response to authority. And one could apply it to the Nazis and one could apply it to various authority structures. That’s what he says. But between you and me, he only tried one source of authority and that is the scientists. He didn’t try the governor of the state. He didn’t try the local subway designer, he didn’t try a mathematician, he didn’t try chess players, he didn’t try football players; he only tried scientists. To draw conclusions concerning the nature of response to authority in general from an experiment that only tested scientific authority, I think is a big jump.
And I am not alone: In his book Irrational Exuberance, Yale Finance Professor Robert Shiller argues that other factors might be partially able to explain the Mailgram Experiments: “[People] have learned that when experts tell them something is all right, it probably is, even if it does not seem so. (In fact, it is worth noting that in this case the experimenter was indeed correct: it was all right to continue giving the "shocks"—even though most of the subjects did not suspect the reason.)”

I don’t know how they would’ve responded in a democratic country to elected authorities, where a person could be president of the United States for 8 years and after that he’s just your local Tom, Dick and Harry. Of course he gets paid 2 ½ million dollars for every lecture that he gives, but other than that he’s just another person. You see Bill Clinton on the street, you’re not going to bow down to him, and if he offers an opinion, you could tell him to his face that’s he wrong. He was president, but he’s nobody anymore.
I think that this indicates narrowly the enormous prestige that science has in our culture, to the extent that when a scientist pressures a person to do something which otherwise would violate his moral norms, they are prepared to do it.
And by the way, the experiment was done with men and with women and the results were the same. And indeed, in one case where they tried to vary the experiment and use a dog as the subject rather than a human being, there all of those who refused to participate to the end were men; the women participated all the way to the end. So if anybody has any sexist presuppositions as to whether women will or men will, that’s an interesting variation on the experiment.
I think that this makes an examination of science and its status, its reliability, and its place in our general thinking an extremely important matter to investigate.
Some of the things that I want to discuss with you. I want to take a look at the reliability of scientific findings, though, as we will see, that word is prejudicial, the assertions of science, what science says it has discovered – that word is also prejudicial as we’ll see – to see how reliable they are, science and scientists. We will talk about the age of the earth and we’ll talk about evolution. We’ll talk about the status of science, given the Jewish picture of how the world really runs. Since God is creating the world at every moment, the world is running on a foundation utterly different from that which science thinks it is describing and discovering. If so we should ask what position science has, what relevance it has, what status it has.
I will spend some time talking about scientific evidence for the soul – scientific evidence for the soul, as opposed to against the soul, which people would think would be the natural finding. I think there’s considerable evidence – scientific, as understood philosophically – and we’ll talk about that as well.
Now, I’m not trained in science, so if I make an assertion about science itself, I will always be quoting a recognized authority on science. But I am trained in philosophy, and I have published research in philosophy, particularly philosophy of mathematics. And I have studied philosophy of science, and when it’s a matter of the philosophical implications of the scientific material then I consider myself competent to report my own judgments, though of course I will be trading on the judgments of other philosophers as well; I will not go out on a limb and take a position that’s unique and against what the rest of the philosophical community would say. That’s an introduction to where we’re going.
Question: In an experiment, the expert is the scientist, so obviously they’re going to listen to the expert. If you took a different situation where a rabbi was the expert, of course somebody would listen to him. Maybe it’s not just because it’s the scientist, but just because he’s an expert in that field.
Answer: Maybe. But I’m asking what the experiment shows. The experiment shows that scientists have this kind of enormous authority; it doesn’t show that rabbis have the authority. It seems to me, one ought to do another experiment with rabbis to see whether it’ll be taken that way or not. That’s why I said, a democratic elected official, who has authority in the democratic country, might not have the same kind of response from people who he tells what to do; I don’t know.
“Maybes” are too cheap. I want to know, what does the evidence show? He wanted it to be an indication how people response to authority structures. I’m pointing out that the only authority structure he tested is scientific authority, that’s all we know about. Maybe the other is true, maybe it isn’t; let’s leave it at a maybe.
When I was teaching at Johns Hopkins, there was a professor in the physics department who discovered a particle. Okay, the more energy you have, the more particles you find. There may be an infinity of them; it’s not so terribly amazing. But he was considered to be a top, top physicist. So the student newspaper interviewed him for his views on religion. Well, they printed the article, somebody in the philosophy department cut it out and put it on the bulletin board with the caption, “see how many mistakes you can find in this.”
He’s trained in physics; he’s not trained in religions. So why would anybody be interested in his views on religion? Because if he’s a physicist, he’s super smart, super rational and therefore his views are super right, even if they aren’t about physics.
And when I tell it to you that way, it sounds stupid, as it should, but the editors of the Hopkins student newspaper didn’t see it that way. They thought it would be of relevance and important for people to know what this physicist’s views on religion are. But of course it’s just nonsense.
I think that kind of attitude, which people do have, shows that science has enormous authority, carries authority in the society; this experiment certainly supports that contention, and that’s why I think it’s important to examine exactly what science can and cannot do.
What I want to start with is scientific information. You could divide science broadly into a method and results. The scientific method is a matter of gigantic controversy. There’re some philosophers who say there is no method to science, and if you invent a method you’re putting it under constraints that it doesn’t deserve. You’re going to shackle people and they won’t be able to find new theories. There’s no method at all to science. And there are others who think that there is a method and they describe it in various ways. It’s a gigantic, difficult subject. Why the method should be successful is a difficult subject. I’m not talking about that, I’m not going to go into that.
What I want to talk about is information that science presents as discovered, found, scientific findings – scientifically verified information. And I want to ask: how reliable is that information? What you get in the normal science textbook. If you go to a science museum, a science museum presents you with exhibits which acquaint you with how the world goes, what it is, how it’s made, what it’s mechanism are.
I remember, when we were living in Baltimore, the science museum had an exhibit about how the continents got their shapes and their relative positions. They had people from history, each person was a cartoon figure with a cartoon bubble with his view – obviously making fun of them – and finally you have the exhibit of plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is the current description of how the continents got their position and their shape. Of course the idea was, look at all these people in the past with great names, who made such foolish remarks about it, and now we know the truth.
If I had been designing that experiment, I would have had another panel. I would have dated it “2050” and I would’ve put a question mark: this is what we’re saying today, but what will be in 2050? They don’t have that in science exhibits in science museums. They show you the truth. Ay, it may not turn out that way? There’s no uncertainty, there’s no worry that maybe the foundation might not be correct, it’s just a presentation of information.
Now, I want to look at this information that science presents, what you get in the New York Times science supplement: “We report to you that the laboratories found this and the astronomers found that”, and see what the reliability of this information is. I think it is of variable reliability. Not all of it is the same: some of it’s more reliable; some of it’s less reliable.
I would divide this information into four categories on a continuum from most to least reliable. I will describe the four categories and show you why the first is more reliable than the second, second that the third, third than the fourth, and then we will draw a moral from this distinction of different level of reliability.
The best case is repeatable, observable phenomena. Things that you can observe with your own senses over and over and over again. And where science says, when you observe X you can expect to observe Y. These things are either things that happen by themselves spontaneously: the sun comes up, the sun goes down, the stars come out, the seasons change, the plants grow in the spring and they die in the fall, if you’re in the northern climate, animals reproduce and grow and develop and die, human beings are born and grow and die. These are things which you can observe because they happen over and over again, they’re repeatable and observable. Or they’re things you can make happen. You could hard boil as many eggs as you want. Heat up the water, put the raw egg in and watch it happen. You can break glass as many time as you want. You can bend metal. You can plant seeds in different environments and check how they grow, because you can control it.
Repeatable, observable phenomena. And science says, when you have this particular observed feature then you can expect that particular observed feature because they go together. That’s where science is at its strongest. But even there it could make mistakes. Even when it’s its strongest it could make mistakes. Water boils at a hundred degrees centigrade. But, gosh, I was mountain climbing, and when I tried to hard boil my egg, I made a fire and I put the pot with the water on it and brought the water to a boil, I put it in for 5 minutes and I took it out and it was soft boiled. It wasn’t hard boiled, as I am used to at home.
Answer? Not on a mountain top. On a mountain top the water doesn’t boil at a hundred degrees centigrade, it boils at a lower temperature. So it doesn’t really boil at a hundred degrees centigrade, it boils at a hundred centigrade at sea level. Okay, let’s put that in.
You know, I tried it again and this time the egg came out hard boiled after three minutes! That’s because you used salt water. With impurities, the water won’t boil at a hundred degrees centigrade; it’ll boil at a higher temperature. Oh, it has to be pure water; okay, I’ll put that in the rule: pure water at sea level.
You know, I tried it the other day and it didn’t work. Well then, tell me about your water. Actually, I had the water on a potter’s wheel and it was spinning around. No, no, the water has to be still, it can’t be spinning around; it won’t work if it’s spinning around. Oh, so it’s still, pure, at sea level. Now, how many other conditions do we need? We wouldn’t have known that it has to be still unless someone had tried it on the potter’s wheel and discovered that it doesn’t work. How many other conditions are being used that we don’t know about? Do we ever have a guarantee that we figured out all the conditions?
Here’s another experiment. Take a container full of water in the shape of a cylinder, flat bottom, and in the center of the bottom there’s a hole with a stopper. A small, circular hole right in the center. Fill the container with water – it’s open on the top – let it sit for a while, a few days, and then remove the stopper from the bottom, so the water will drain out the bottom. And as it’s draining, the water will start to rotate in a counter-clockwise motion; that is in fact what it will do.
“Now, I tried this,” someone will tell you. “I tried it in New York, in London, in Paris, in Munich, in Moscow, in Jerusalem, in Teheran, in Beijing, in Tokyo, and the Philippines; I really worked on this. I tried it in a dozen places separated by thousands of miles, east and west, and it always did the same thing. So I now believe, I have very good reason to think, that that’s what it does: when you have a cylindrical container and you let the water sit for a while so it still, it doesn’t have any motion of its own, and you have a hole in the center, you take out the stopper, as it drains it’s going to start moving in a counter-clockwise motion. And then we try it in Johannesburg, and there it goes clockwise.
Gosh, did you think that the equator is a borderline for fundamental forces of nature, that below the equator things are going to be different from above the equator? I wouldn’t have guessed that. It just turns out that that’s the way it is. You would not have guessed, having tried it in all the initial places, that Johannesburg will be different; it just turns out that it is. You have to recalculate what it is that’s doing it and why it happens. Do we ever know that we have all the relevant conditions? How would we know that? We would have to try testing all possible variations.
So, even when we’re dealing with repeatable, observable phenomena, where we’re at our most confident, we can’t be sure that we have tried all possibilities.
They discovered that a bird that’s hatched in the nest, and grows up normally the way birds do, will build a nest next year, even though it never saw a nest built. And we do not believe that the chirping of the parent bird is giving them instructions for next year’s construction project. But a bird that’s hatched in a laboratory and fed and released to the wild will not build a nest. Something about being hatched in nest causes the gelling of a particular part of the brain which contains the capacity to build a nest next year.
Nobody would have guessed that if we hadn’t observed it. We would have assumed that nest building is hardwired into the brain of the bird, that’s why it doesn’t have to see a nest build in order to be able to do, and since it’s hardwired it doesn’t matter where it develops. But it turns out not to be true.
Now, how do we ever know that we have all the conditions? We never know that we have all the conditions. So, even with repeatable, observable phenomena, where science is at its strongest, there’s still the possibility of mistake.
The next step is what’s called interpolation. Interpolation means this: let’s say I am testing something and I test it a number of time under slightly different conditions to see how it works when I change the conditions. So, if I think about the conditions I tested, I know what happens, and I have reason, we’ll take for granted, to assume that when I try it again, under the same conditions, it will happen again.
What happens when I try a new experiment when I’ve changed the conditions, what do I know about that? One could be very hard-headed here and say, “Nothing, you haven’t tried it yet, so you don’t know anything about it.” But let’s take a particular case. Here’s what I’m doing. I’m taking a cube of sugar and dissolving it in a glass of water, and I’m charting how long it takes for the sugar cube to dissolve in the water. And I’m trying it at different temperatures of the water: 10 degrees centigrade, 30 degrees centigrade, 50 degrees centigrade, 70 degrees centigrade, 90 degrees centigrade. Of course, you know what will happen – the warmer the water, the faster it will dissolve. But, I’m talking about exactly how fast it dissolves. I tried it a bunch of times at 10 degrees, and it takes, in this glass of water and this size lump, 2 minutes. And I tried it at 30 degrees and it takes a minute and two thirds. At 50, a minute and one third. At 70 degrees, a minute and at 90 degrees two thirds of a minute. Something like that. The rate it dissolves gets faster and faster as I go up the scaled.
What will happen if I try it at 20 degrees centigrade? I haven’t tried it at 20 degrees; I tried 10, 30, 50, 70 and 90, I didn’t try 20. So, as I said, a hard-headed person could say, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it yet, wait till we try it.” But, no scientist will do that; what he’ll say is this: make a graph. This is the temperature, this is the rate of dissolving and the dots look like this. They go up because it dissolves faster at each time. 10, 30, 50, 70, 90. Now, draw a line connecting the dots. You know, little kids do that, connect the dots. Now, ask for 20, for which there’s no dot. 20, where does it intersect the line? And that’ll tell you how fast it will dissolve at 20.
In other words, I’ll use 10, 30, 50, 70 and 90 to predict 20 on the grounds that it changed regularly and therefore when it goes through the 20 point, it’ll be right where the line is.
That’s called interpolation. It’s called interpolation because I have the 10 and the 30 on both sides, this is in between; that’s what interpolation means – put something in between other things.
Some imaginative people have pointed out, you have there five dots. There are a lot of different ways to draw a line to connect the five dots. Lots and lots of ways. Who says it has to be a straight line? You could draw wavy lines, like a sine curve, or a co-sine curve, which is the opposite, or any kind of scribble to join them. And of course, if you draw a different line connecting the dots, the prediction for 20 degrees is going to be different. It will depend upon where 20 degrees hits the line. If it’s a sine curve it’ll be very high up and you’ll predict that it’ll be dissolving very fast, if it’s a co sine curve it’ll be very far down; another one will have a different shape. How did you pick the straight line to connect the dots? And the answer of course will be, what you all know, that it’s the simplest line connecting the dots.
Yes, it is the simplest line connecting the dots, and that’s definitely the right answer. It’s just that, as of now, anyway, there’s no agreed upon definition of simplicity. What exactly does simple mean? How should simple be defined? It’s a subject that people have thought about and discussed and debated and there’s no satisfactory definition of what simplicity means.
Number two, why should the simpler line be preferred? Why? I have read people who write, it’s just aesthetically more pleasing; I like it better, it’s more satisfying. Isn’t that a really extraordinary thing to say? I’m predicting what’s going to happen in the real world. I’m going to drop this cube of sugar into 20 degrees and before I do so I’m going to predict this is how long it’s going to take to dissolve. Why? Because I like that line better; it’s more aesthetically pleasing to me; it’s more satisfying; I get warm fuzzies when I look at that line, and that’s why when I drop the sugar into the water, that’s how fast it’s going to dissolve. Isn’t that a little anthropomorphic to think that the world cares what’s aesthetically pleasing to me?
So, just to sum up and then I’ll take your questions. This is where we stand: the judgments of simplicity are usually agreed upon. And when we test them, the judgments of simplicity usually turn out to be correct. We just don’t have any definition of simplicity and we don’t have any explanation of why simplicity should be relevant. But those are merely philosophical concerns; they don’t affect the scientific practice in this matter.
Therefore I am going to describe this category, category number two, interpolation, as very secure – not as secure as repeatable, observable phenomena, because there you actually saw what you’re predicting – but it’s very secure; it’s just slightly less secure than the repeatable, observable, phenomena.
Question: If you can test the simple line, then why challenge it? If you take the simple line and connect the dots and see where 20 is and then test that, if it’s correct then obviously the simple line is the best thing to use.
Answer: Let’s see. You had five dots and we observed that there’s actually an infinity of different ways of drawing lines to connect the five dots. Now you say: let’s test the simplest line and we test it. But now, there’s also an infinity of ways of connecting the 6 dots, and every one of those was equally tested by your test of the 6th dot because every one of them is on your 6th dot.
Let’s say it in detail. We have 10, 30, 50, 70, 90, and we’re testing 20. Now we say: before we test, let’s make a prediction. What predictions could we make? A straight line, or the wavy curve, which give different answers for 20. You’re thinking of lots and lots of different lines which give different answers for 20. And I say, “Okay, here we are. We have the straight line answer for 20 and all these other weird curves and they give different answers for 20. Let’s test it and see what happens.” Correct. So we test it and it turns out that the straight line is the correct one. The straight line is correct against all of the competitors which gave different answers for 20. What I want to point out to you is that when you add a 6th one, you could repeat the same problem. Consider all the different ways of joining the 6 dots, including the 20 dot. You may do it again, but in the meantime you have no evidence to predict which one you should pick. You only ruled out the crazy lines which differ at 20. There are lots and lots of crazy lines that don’t differ at 20; you didn’t test those.
Question: If you test it for the 5th one and then you test for the 6th one and you test it for the 7th one, and all three of those work, then you could figure that the 8th one, the 9th one, and the 10th one are also going to work.
Answer: But you understand, when I draw the crazy line, it fits the 6th, 7th, and 8th also; it fits all of them. So how do I know what it predicts is correct? It fits the straight line and all the other crazy lines that go through all eight. It fits all of them; so the question is, how do you pick which one that fit all eight. Any finite set of points can be drawn in an uncountable, infinity of ways. So whenever you do it, true you’ve ruled out some – that’s correct; you’ve ruled out all the crazy ones that differ at 20 – but there’s an infinity of crazy ones that agree at 20, and you haven’t ruled those out.
Question: If there’s a finite amount of dots which can be placed, that wouldn’t imply that there’s an infinite amount of ways to draw the dots, because you would eventually get every single possible dot.
Answer: It’s not a question of implying; it’s a mathematical fact that there’s an infinity of dots. What you could do, theoretically, is do so many experiments that it’s impossible to physically discriminate the inputs anymore; that could be done, but it would be a gigantic, gigantic expense. It’s never been done, and we make predictions confidently without doing that. The goal here is to explain how we make our predictions and what they’re based on. In that case, you would reduce case two to case one; that’s true. But that would be something that no one has ever done.
Question: So you’re saying, why would you use a straight line, only for the simplicity of it. If that’s true, why would you draw on any other formula ever? They govern certain different laws that you’re trying to figure out one way or another…
Answer: There are times when I try and I get the opposite result. I try the straight line and my observations ruin the straight line; they violate the straight line. For example, if I chart radioactive decay, it’s not going to work out with a straight line; it’s going to be a decreasing curve. Or acceleration; if you're taking about accelerating speed or motion, then it’s not going to work out that. Then I’m going to have to talk about the simplest type of curve that fits the point for this type of phenomena, where it’s not a linear phenomenon.
Question: In the thing you’re dealing with it’s pretty clear it’s two variables.
Answer: you’re quite right. If you have an algebraic representation of the graph, then you’ve already decided which curve you want. We’re trying to induce that from the data. That’s why I said you could have a linear line or a sine or a co-sine. They are algebraically very different from one another. To decide an algebraic representation, is to already have chosen a particular way of joining the dots. My question is, how do you choose the way of joining the dots?
The number of variables isn’t the issue here; in radioactive decay, you only have one variable. You have the number of radioactive atoms as a percentage of the totality of the substance. There’s no other variables there. And it still has a non-linear curve. It’s not the number of variables that counts; it’s the type of phenomenon that it is. We know from experiment that the different types of phenomena get different types of curves and the way it curves. All that is after I’ve decided to analyze the data one way rather than another.
The key to all of these decisions ultimately is simplicity, and as I said, I’m not challenging simplicity as the right criterion – it is the right criterion – I’m just pointing out that there are two subsequent philosophical questions that don’t have answers, but I’m inclined to say that’s not so important, even though I’m a philosopher. We do use it. There’s very regular agreement as to which is the simpler interpretation. Well, maybe I should stop and expand that a little bit.
I should say that when we talk about simplicity, I’m talking about the simplicity of joining dots on a piece of paper. When you deal with explaining how the world works, it’s not so easy. You want to know what makes a typhoon, or what causes the economy to go up and down and so forth and so on. Somebody proposes a theory and somebody proposes another theory, and people say, in general you should choose the simplest theory. There it’s much worse. What makes a theory more simple than another theory? So here people talk about Occam’s razor. Occam was a medieval philosopher and he said – of course they’re saying in translation, it’s not clear what he said, but it’s usually reported – don’t multiply entities beyond necessity. When you say you’re going to explain how it happens, you say, “Well, there are atoms and then there are molecules, and then there are forces between the atoms and the molecules, and then there are particles…” That’s a lot of stuff. Don’t put any stuff in unless you really need. If somebody can get by and explain it with less stuff, it’s a better explanation, because it’s simpler.
But then some people will tell you, it’s not the number of things you put it; it’s the number of assumptions you make. How many forces are there? Forces aren’t things; forces aren’t stuff; forces are how things react to one another. Now, let’s say you have one theory witch 17 things and 3 forces and another theory that has 5 things and 9 forces. Which one is the simpler one? Do forces and things count equally? Is one more important than the other? Not a clue. And some people count the number of fundamental concepts and others count how familiar the concepts are and on and on……..
Again, in concrete cases, people are pretty confident and there’s pretty widespread agreement which count is the simpler theory. But if you ask why, and you try to concoct a definition of what counts as the simpler theory, it’s very difficult to come by.
Also it may reflect your commitments. Stephen Hawking writes that when they discovered the universe is expanding and the natural thought was, “Gosh, if it’s getting bigger, than in the past it was smaller” – that sounds right – “and if you go further back in the past, it gets smaller and smaller. There’s got to be a limit to this; it can’t get smaller than zero. So, it’s got to have a beginning. If it’s really been getting bigger and bigger and in the past it was smaller and smaller, it’s got to have a beginning.”
Well, as a matter of fact, in the 1930s they avoided that conclusion. They found a way to describe a universe that’s expanding in some sense or other and never goes back to zero. In fact, let me say it a little more carefully, according to their theory, things are getting further and further away from one another, but the whole is always staying the same size. How do you do that? You say it’s infinitely big. Space is infinitely big; there are no limits. And it’s filled with an infinity of stuff scattered around. It’s true, things are rushing away from one another; that’s what the red shift shows. Everything is getting further and further away. But there’s plenty of room; you’re not going to run out of room, because there’s infinite room. Ay, our world doesn’t seem to be getting thinner and thinner? That’s because everywhere new stuff is coming into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo, in order to fill the spaces. That was the Steady State Theory – the universe is infinitely big, everything is rushing away from everything else, but new stuff is coming in in the middle, and don’t worry that you don’t see it because in a cubic meter of space, in a hundred years or so, one atom will come into existence. So it’s not as if you’re going to have new petunias in your backyard over night; the rate of appearance of matter is very, very slow; we’ll never be able to observe it.
Why did they opt for that? Infinitely big world and new stuff coming into existence out of nowhere? Because, as Stephen Hawking writes, we didn’t want a beginning, because a beginning smacks of supernatural intervention; those are his words. And therefore we opted for a theory that avoids a beginning. Which theory is simpler? An infinite space, which you don’t observe, and new stuff coming into existence everywhere in the universe, which you don’t observe; aren’t you multiplying things here? You’re multiplying new, creative episodes all over the universe, which you don’t observe, and an infinity of space, which you don’t observe, to avoid what? To avoid a beginning. Is a beginning so terribly complicated, that it deserves to be avoided by postulating infinite space and new stuff coming into existence all over the universe? I don’t know whether that’s an obvious judgment of what’s more simple and what’s less simple. That sounds like, as he says, we don’t want a beginning.
Question: That’s just because you raise up questions. It’s not simply the beginning; it’s something like where is the beginning and what started it. It’s because they don’t have the answers for that.
Answer: If you’ll ask the parallel questions about the infinite universe, like where is the stuff coming from that’s coming into existence ex nihilo throughout the universe? I think if you’re going to ask about the origin at the zero point, you ought to be asking about the origin of all this stuff that just appears from nothing throughout the universe. And you could ask what sustains the existence of the universe as a whole. It’s not obvious that the questions are not parallel. I’m just pointing out that these are delicate judgments. I think it’s very remarkable that when people make these judgments, they agree; even though you can’t spell out what your criteria is; you can’t spell out what your definition is, people do agree. Since they do agree, I say it’s reasonable to rely upon. That’s why I say it’s very reliable; not as reliable as repeatable, observable phenomena, but very reliable, and I’m not going to issue any critique of this second category, just to point out that it’s got question marks about its basis.
Question: Assuming that the whole thing you’re saying is true, that the universe was started from zero and it’s continually getting bigger, would that denote the fact that as it gets farther away or as it get bigger things come into existence faster?
Answer: You mean according to Steady State Theory. Steady State Theory was canned in 1965 because they discovered the background radiation which indicated the universe did have a start from a very small state.
Question: That doesn’t get rid of the Steady State Theory.
Answer: But then you don’t need it. The idea of things coming into existence was only to plug a hole. If you say that space is infinite and things are rushing away from one another, and you stop there, then things ought to be getting thinner and thinner through time. The conglomerations of matter ought to be getting thinner and thinner through time. There ought to be bigger and bigger distances between items through time. We don’t see that; we don’t observe that. How do I counter the fact that space is not thinning out? Answer: new stuff is coming in throughout. We didn’t observe that, but we’re just using that to plug the hole of “how come things aren’t thinner and thinner”. Once you give up the idea that space is infinite and things have been expanding and running away from forever, and you say the universe had a beginning, and a beginning a finite amount of time, I don’t need to plug the hole with that. It was a speculation put in just to plug a hole.
Question: Is it that far-fetched to think that things come into existence out of nowhere?
Answer: We never see that; in fact, according to contemporary science you have the law of conservation of mass energy – when you start an experiment and end an experiment you have the exact same quantity of mass energy at the beginning and the end; that never changes.
Question: I’m talking about the bare things that come in and out of existence.
Answer: I don’t know what you mean by existence. If a thing came into existence, then in that box there would be a net gain in mass energy; but it never happens. Here we’re talking about a net gain. That’s never been observed. Every experiment that we have performed and every observation we’ve made, mass energy remained constant. If you will discover a change in mass energy of an experiment you’ll win the Nobel Prize, for sure. Your name will be written in the science books for at least 100 years. And by the way, that wasn’t so solid; 150 years ago they though mass never changes and energy never changes. Both of those turned out to be wrong; it’s the sum total of mass energy that doesn’t change; that’s because of Einstein’s relativity.

To create a theory in which new mass energy is coming into existence throughout the universe all the time, when in every experiment and every observation we make there’s never any change in mass energy, is a gigantic step. The idea is just to plug a hole to avoid a beginning.