Latest news from those kinky scientists who live out on the edge. Damn heretics.

Do You Choose to Believe in Free Will?

Scientist, writer and outspoken atheist Sam Harris has posted a series of blog entries recently discussing the topic of "free will", in the context of the 'science and morality' topics he explores in his recent book The Moral Landscape (Amazon US or UK). In "Morality Without 'Free Will'" Harris says plainly that...

...the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others.

In a follow-up post, "Free Will (And Why You Still Don't Have It)", Harris notes that many readers had written him "to share the Good News that quantum mechanics has liberated the human mind from the prison of determinism". However, Harris doesn't subscribe to the idea, pronouncing that "it is pure hand-waving to suggest that quantum indeterminacy renders the concept of free will scientifically intelligible".

Reading through these posts, including the third instalment "You Do Not Choose What You Choose", I get the feeling that Harris is sometimes conflating "free will" with 'complete freedom to make choices without any previous context or contributing factors'. He also seems to set up a straw man for "what you choose", often using subconscious intrusions (e.g. using "rabbit" rather than "elephant" in his third post) to illustrate 'choice', rather than considered, binary, yes vs no decisions. By combining these two fallacies, his argument looks solid - but I don't think it actually gets at the heart of the problem.

In an addendum, "My Friend Einstein?", Harris quotes the great scientist in support of his cause (whilst thoroughly denying 'argument from authority', no less). But given Einstein's (incorrect?) opinions on quantum indeterminacy ("God does not play dice"), his view is hardly a surprise. Though Harris says that free will is a 'non-starter' scientifically, there certainly are a number of prominent scientists who believe quite the opposite. For instance, Michio Kaku comes out directly in this video and says "Einstein was wrong":

Physicist Henry Stapp is another who believes that quantum indeterminacy provides an opening for free will. In his fascinating book Mindful Universe (Amazon US or UK), Stapp describes the philosophical upheaval that is inherent in the 'new physics' and, (perhaps presciently) notes how many modern-day intellectuals still seem to be stuck in a worldview that became obsolete 80 years ago). On indeterminacy, he says:

The most radical change wrought by this switch to quantum mechanics is the injection directly into the dynamics of certain choices made by human beings about how they will act. Human actions enter, of course, also in classical physics. But the two cases are fundamentally different. In the classical case the way a person acts is fully determined in principle by the physically described aspects of reality alone. But in the quantum case there is an essential gap in physical causation. This gap is generated by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which opens up, at the level of human actions, a range of alternative possible behaviors between which the physically described aspects of theory are in principle unable to choose or decide. But this loss-in-principle of causal definiteness, associated with a loss of knowable-in-principle physically describable information, opens the way, logically, to an input into the dynamics of another kind of possible causes, which are eminently knowable, both in principle and in practice, namely our conscious choices about how we will act.

All in all, a fascinating (and at times, mind-bending) discussion - from all parties. What are your thoughts (or, if you prefer, what are the thoughts emanating from your mind that were always going to do so)?

Quantum Weirdness in the Everyday World

We've talked often in the past about the weirdness of the quantum world, and related topics such as the theory of parallel universes and the idea of 'quantum consciousness'. For a long while, any suggestion that such weirdness could cross over into the 'macro' world (ie. big things, rather than at quantum scales) was rebutted quickly - quantum effects were said to exist only in the quantum world. However, that assumption has been challenged over the years, and could possibly be refuted entirely by the work of Aaron O'Connell, as he explains in this TED talk: "Making sense of a visible quantum object".

[I]n an experiment remarkable both for it’s conceptual simplicity and technical difficulty, O’Connell was the first person to measure quantum effects in an object large enough to see with the naked eye. Named Breakthrough of the year by Science Magazine, the experiment shattered the previous record for the largest quantum object, showing decisively that there is no hard line between the quantum and everyday worlds.

Thanks to my 'lil Sis for the heads-up.

Update: Kat also pointed out this TED blog:

Struggling with quantum logic: Q&A with Aaron O’Connell

Paul Davies: From Aliens to Cancer

When recent figures showed that the U.S. government's multi-decade, multi-billion dollar fight against cancer had barely changed cancer survival rates, Anna Barker - the deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute - took an unusual step. She called physicist Paul Davies, and asked him for his help. Not so much because she needed a physicist, but instead because she was looking for "a disruptive agent".

[H]is naivety sometimes makes biologists grit their teeth. ("Aaargh! Physicists!" wrote Paul 'PZ' Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, in a blog response to Davies' proposal earlier this year that tumours are a reversion to primitive genetic mechanisms that pre-date the dawn of multicellular life.) "But his critics don't appreciate the value of a disruptive agent," says biophysicist Stuart Lindsay, who works closely with Davies at the ASU physics–cancer centre. "It takes someone like Paul, constantly nagging, asking disruptive questions, to get people to take a fresh look at their assumptions."

Love that concept of embracing the disruptive thinker (to a degree, obviously), and Paul Davies is certainly one who will ask some interesting questions. I have a number of his fascinating books right behind me on my bookshelf, discussing everything from the origins of life to the 'mind of God'. His most recent book is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Amazon US or Amazon UK), and last year Davies spoke to BigThink about the concepts in the book, as well as his more recent involvement with cancer research. I've embedded the complete interview below (43 mins); alternatively you can can go to the BigThink site and watch individual questions/episodes as you please.

For more interesting news and articles involving Paul Davies, see the links below.

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Earthquakes in the Air

The phenomenon of 'earthquake lights' has long sat at the fringes of science, though the anecdotal evidence for their occurrence is fairly strong (see this previous story on earthquake lights in Italy for example). But what could be the cause of these mysterious lights in the sky? A new and fascinating paper on may provide an answer: a connection between ground and atmosphere that sees the ionosphere becoming massively charged with electrons with the onset of an earthquake.

Technology Review has a good wrap-up of the research:

Geologists have long puzzled over anecdotal reports of strange atmospheric phenomena in the days before big earthquakes. But good data to back up these stories has been hard to come by.

In recent years, however, various teams have set up atmospheric monitoring stations in earthquake zones and a number of satellites are capable of sending back data about the state of the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere during an earthquake.

...Today, Dimitar Ouzounov at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland and a few buddies present the data from the Great Tohoku earthquake which devastated Japan on 11 March. Their results, although preliminary, are eye-opening.

They say that before the M9 earthquake, the total electron content of the ionosphere increased dramatically over the epicentre, reaching a maximum three days before the quake struck.

At the same time, satellite observations showed a big increase in infrared emissions from above the epicentre, which peaked in the hours before the quake. In other words, the atmosphere was heating up.

Atmospheric anomalies during Japan earthquake

These observations help to support the hypothesis of the "Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling mechanism", which the paper describes primarily as "the ionization of the air produced by an increased emanation of radon (and other gases) from the Earth’s
crust in the vicinity of active fault... The increased radon emanation launches the chain of physical processes, which leads to changes in the conductivity of the air and a latent heat release (increasing air temperature)".

Fascinating findings, and perhaps a first step towards earthquake prediction (not to mention another possible physical mechanism explaining animal 'earthquake precognition'?).

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Freeman Dyson's Heretical Thoughts

Freeman Dyson is one of the world's greatest minds. He is also a staunch believer in the need for 'heretics' - in this 2005 lecture at Boston University, he argues for the necessity of heretical thinking, and goes on to list his own heresies:

For those without the time or internet connection to view the entire hour-long video, you can also read Dyson's essay for Edge on the same topic.

(h/t Inannawhimsey)

EdgeScience #7

Issue 7 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:

  • Adam Davies goes in search of "A New Primate Species in Sumatra".
  • Stanley Krippner writes about his encounter with Brazilian medium Amyr Amiden.
  • David Nabhan stresses the need for earthquake advisories in California.
  • Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne discuss "The Uses and Misuses of Quantum Jargon".

More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website. Don't forget also: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $4.95). Note too that there is an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad as well.

Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives

Parallel Worlds

You may or may not have heard the music of the American indie rock band Eels - the creation of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett (also known simply as "E") - though if you haven't, do yourself a favour. One of the interesting facets of E's life is that his father was Hugh Everett, a mathematics genius who originated the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, a theory which essentially suggests that each time a decision is made a parallel universe branches off, creating a very large (perhaps infinite) number of parallel universes. Thus, everything that could possibly have happened in our past but didn't, *has* occurred in the past of another parallel universe. Many-worlds is now considered a mainstream theory in quantum physics.

However, Hugh Everett was a very distant father, and he died prematurely in 1982, when Mark Everett was just 19. In a wonderful, witty documentary, Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, Mark goes in search of his father and his research into parallel worlds by visiting old friends, talking to modern quantum physicists, and looking through his father's old documents and audio tapes. I highly recommend it - it both educates the viewer about the many-worlds interpretation, and tells an honest (and rather sad) personal story at the same time. I've embedded the entire documentary - posted to Vimeo by Mark Everett himself - below for ease of viewing:

If Mark Everett's life and music (which features throughout the documentary) interest you, you might also like to pick up a copy of his acclaimed book Things the Grandchildren Should Know (Amazon US and US). And definitely grab some Eels albums while you're at it...

Reality of Mind

Yesterday I was browsing the book Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John Barrow, Paul Davies, and Charles Harper Jr, and came across this interesting passage in the article "Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic principle" by Andrei Linde (yes, the usual light Tuesday reading for me). There are some really nice insights in there, so it deserves a careful reading - I've highlighted a few sections to point them out explicitly:

[W]e cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.

Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities.... The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental...

Now let us turn to consciousness. The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. Science and Ultimate RealityBut let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my "green" exists, and my "sweet" exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.

Is it possible that consciousness, like spacetime, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? ...Is it possible to...investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons?

...Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well-studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?

I've said for quite a while that modern, physicalist science has come to self-define reality by saying that reality consists of those things that we can measure and study objectively through science. And yet I have elsewhere come across similar speculation and suggestions about consciousness from very respected physicists. Paul Davies maintains that mind and culture "will turn out to be of fundamental significance in the grand story of the cosmos":

Somehow, the universe has engineered not only its own self-awareness, but its own self-comprehension. It is hard to see this astonishing property of (at least some) living organisms as an accidental and incidental by-product of physics, a lucky fluke of biological evolution. Rather, the fact that mind is linked into the deep workings of the cosmos in this manner suggests that there is something truly fundamental and literally cosmic in the emergence of sentience

Freeman Dyson also says that "the tendency of mind to infiltrate and control matter is a law of nature."

Sadly, just as Linde's article was getting juicy, this is what followed:

Instead of discussing these issues here any further, we will return to a more solid ground..."

Aww, where's the fun in standing on solid ground!

What is Reality?

If you think you understand what 'reality' is, then you don't. But BBC's Horizon team gave it a shot anyhow: "What is Reality?"

There is a strange and mysterious world that surrounds us, a world largely hidden from our senses. The quest to explain the true nature of reality is one of the great scientific detective stories.

Clues have been pieced together from deep within the atom, from the event horizon of black holes, and from the far reaches of the cosmos. It may be that that we are part of a cosmic hologram, projected from the edge of the universe. Or that we exist in an infinity of parallel worlds. Your reality may never look quite the same again.

Lots of brain-bending goodness in there, tuck in.

EdgeScience #6

Issue 6 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration. EdgeScience 6Jim Schnabel discusses amnesiacs as possible psi subjects, Dominique Surrel looks at the heart and other organs as the seat of emotions, Kenneth Smith investigates the placebo effect and Floco Tausin studies 'eye floaters'. More content as well, plus all previous issues remain available to download from the website.

Don't forget: if you enjoy the mag, send a bit of love via the PayPal button to help ensure the future of this excellent free e-zine (or alternatively pick up a paper copy for $4.95). Note too that there is now an app for viewing the PDF release on the iPad.