Author Archives: Tyson

About Tyson

Love writing all kinds of stuff including fiction, non-fiction, editorials, etc. But writing software is the only writing I do for love AND money!

A Spoonful of Superstition

Anyone who follows my blog or has read my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief, well knows that I argue passionately against most forms of belief-based thinking. But I do have to admit that sometimes a teeny tiny bit of false belief is helpful.

I rarely ever steal anything. If I realize that I was given too much change at the market, I’ll invariably drive back to return it. I don’t do the right thing because I’m such a noble upstanding person. I do it because of superstition.

You see somewhere I picked up this deeply ingrained notion that if I keep that money, the universe will somehow take revenge on me. I’ll stub my toe, or get a traffic citation, or spill coffee on my term paper. In some way I’ll pay tenfold for my dishonesty.

Of course that’s silly. I know that’s silly. Something bad will happen eventually, and when it does I will falsely ascribe the cause to be my earlier bad behavior. But nevertheless, the feeling of wanting to avoid this bad karma is so powerful that it still compels me to do the right thing.

Perhaps this belief in karma is just something learned from popular culture, but I rather suspect that our species carries the hardwired seed of this idea which gets reinforced by false associations acquired during ones lifetime. It makes evolutionary sense to me that such an assumption is a helpful genetic trait. Within social structures, what goes around does in fact often come back around.

Our innate fear of karmic payback is almost certainly a component of what we perceive as our nagging conscience.

karma

Here’s the danger in this. It leads many people down the rabbit hole into religion-land. If we believe in a little auto-karma, why not an almighty god who personally ensures payback? If a little karmic fear is good, then the fear of eternal damnation is even better. If our sense of personal karma is hardwired, then so is our belief in god!

But one essential principle you learn in toxicology class is that everything that is beneficial at low doses becomes toxic at higher doses. A little superstition may have some positive benefits. But a full-blown belief in god requires a level of superstition and a perversion of logical thinking that is so extreme as to be dangerously toxic. This level of belief is so debilitating to our logical faculties that it can compromise our ability to think rationally about critical issues like climate change.

So feel free to embrace a healthy sense of karma like you do a magic show, with a full and complete understanding that it’s not real. But don’t let that indulgence lead you down the treacherously slippery slope into religion.

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Technology Empowers Our Humanity

CustomerSupportNot that may years ago, read/write CD/ROM drives were essential and a good one was quite expensive. I once paid top dollar to get a top rated drive from Toshiba. It never worked. I called Toshiba dozens of times over 6 months trying to get it working. It would take an hour to get past hold, read off serial numbers and customer info, fax in receipts, explain the problem all over again, to get transferred and repeat it all, to get disconnected, go through it all yet again, only to be told to clean the drive, to call Microsoft, to contact Intel, to reinstall Windows, to buy higher quality disks, to change bios settings, or buy a new connection cable.

In the end, it turned out that this was a known issue with the drive, but Toshiba had a policy not to admit to any such issues. Instead, they intentionally made me jump onerous technical support hurdles and run off on expensive and time-consuming wild goose chases for six months before they finally admitted as much. Most people gave up well before that, but I was on a mission. Nevertheless, in the end I tossed the drive in the garbage.

Everyone has their customer support horror stories. Not that long ago, such infuriating experiences were the norm, not the exception. I had many similar experiences with Sony in particular and resolved never to buy anything from them ever again.

But today customer support has transformed dramatically. Today, wonderful customer support is the norm, not the exception.

AT&T exemplifies this welcome new normal for customer service. The hotspot on my mobile phone quit working. Although I knew it was not an issue with AT&T because it worked on my wife’s phone, I went to their site, hit chat, immediately got a wonderful representative named Stephanie who happily helped me reset my phone, 5 minutes later my hotspot was working!

That’s great customer service. And it’s not just huge companies that are putting the service back in customer service. My garage door light started blinking in a regular pattern as if indicating some error. I called Guardian Garage Doors and immediately got a wonderful guy on the phone. He heard my issue and asked me to text him a video. I did so and after a short hold said their engineers didn’t know what the problem was but wanted me to send it in so they could diagnose it. He offered to rush out a replacement. But minutes later he called back and suggested I try replacing my LED bulb. I did so even though it seemed silly, LED’s don’t do that. But apparently they do. That fixed it!

This is nothing remotely like the bad old days of Toshiba and Sony era customer “support.” The kind of great customer support we often see today is greatly facilitated by technology. It is enabled by the Internet, by chat technology, by searchable knowledge bases, by intelligent call routing systems, and by interconnected global workforces.

But while these technologies are incredibly empowering, real people and attitudes are still essential to great customer support. Technology doesn’t make representatives so pleasantly informal yet professional in demeanor. Technology doesn’t ensure that customer service departments are staffed to connect quickly and to stay on as long as it takes to resolve an issue. It takes sensible management to not interrogate you to prove your identity, ownership, and warranty. It is an explicit choice to authorize representatives to own issues even if they are not directly responsible. And it is their conscious decision to admit to issues candidly rather than reflexively conceal and deny them beyond all rationality.

So, while I often bash private sector corporations, I must give credit where credit is due. Some things do get better. Customer service stands in direct contradiction to widespread fears of a cold and impersonal technology-dominated future. It shows us that technology, properly implemented, can make our lives and our interactions not only more efficient and satisfying, but at the same time more friendly, more personal, more sensible, and yes, more human as well.

The Multiverse is Bigger than God

MultiverseOur gods used to be gods of specific things; the sky, the sea, war, love. Then God took over and became the god of everything. But our understanding of “everything” keeps expanding, and as it does, our fanciful notion of God has to expand along with it to remain ever beyond the limits of mere science.

The visible horizon of our observable universe is 46.5 billion light years away in any direction. That is an immense distance, and this visible sphere around us contains about 100 billion galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars. Our God of everything created all that too, presumably just for us to look at.

But wait, there’s more, much more. Today we understand that our universe is almost certainly unimaginably larger than that which we can observe. It is perhaps 100 billion trillion times larger than our observable universe. That makes what we can see just the tiniest mote of dust in our greater universe. In our observable universe we can look into the sky and at least see what happened in the distant past. We can not even see out into the darkness beyond that. But since it apparently exists, believers have no choice except to inflate God once more. God presumably created all that inaccessible space beyond the horizon as well, and just for us.

It gets better. Now we are beginning to understand that God apparently created an infinite multiverse just for us as well. I first recall being fascinated by the idea of multiple universes in 1966 when Mr. Spock met Captain Kirk’s evil counterpart from an alternate universe (see here). But just as Star Trek communicators became everyday reality, the science fiction of multiple universes has become legitimate science.

There are many forms that the multiverse may take, but for now let it suffice to think of an infinite number of universes just like ours, maybe isolated in pockets of space, maybe superimposed upon each other, maybe both. Their infinity extends through both time and space. This infinite multiverse is not static. In it (if the word “in” even applies to an infinite space) universes appear, grow old, and die. Each is born with a particular set of fundamental parameters. Only a relatively tiny (but still infinite) fraction have parameters in the “Goldilocks” range that allow organized structures. In a tiny fraction of those, life is possible. The rest are stillborn or survive for a short while as unsustainable regions of chaos.

How can it get more mind-blowing? Well it is an inescapable logical conclusion is that in an infinite multiverse everything that could possibly happen must happen. For example, there must be a universe in which every possible variation of our own exists, in fact there must be an infinite number of each possible variation – infinite numbers of each of us.

Whatever form it takes, we become even more insignificant within the time-space grandeur of the multiverse. So our notion of God must once again expand dramatically to exceed even the non-existent bounds of an already infinite multiverse in order to remain the unbounded God of all things. And of course God created that infinite multiverse, so far beyond our ability to grasp let alone interact with, just for we infinitesimal humans.

I talk about god here knowing full well that it is of course completely silly to do so. I might as well talk about the how our notion of Santa Claus must expand to encompass the belief that he has to deliver Christmas presents to all children in the multiverse on one night. Yet, unfortunately we do focus our attention on our fantasy of god whenever these cosmological discussions take place.

Some “religious scholars” try desperately to keep god relevant in the face of our growing awareness by arguing that in a multiverse in which all things are possible, god must exist somewhere. In an otherwise decent article author Mark Vernon (see here), perpetuates this fallacy by repeating that since “everything is possible somewhere … it would have to conclude that God exists in some universes.

This will certainly keep getting repeated but it is simply not a correct interpretation of the science to say that in a multiverse “everything is possible.” This is a perversion of the correct formulation which is “everything possible must happen.” These are completely different ideas. Any particular universe is still governed by its own physics and there is a limit to the possible physics of any given universe.¬†Impossible things, like gods and ghosts, can not happen in any universe.

And even if some universe had some being approaching a god, it would still not be an omnipotent god of everything and it would certainly not be our god. Therefore I am not sure how claiming that a God exists in some other universe does anything but admit that one does not exist in our own.

So what is the most rational of the possible irrational responses for someone clinging to their belief in god in the face of a multiverse? The best would be simply to claim that god created the multiverse and not even try to invoke any pseudo-scientific arguments. As you always have, just keep expanding your definition of god to supersede whatever new boundaries science reveals.

But really, adding God to the multiverse is simply adding fake infinity on top of real infinity. Like infinity plus infinity, the extra infinity is entirely superfluous and unnecessary. And what does it add to place God beyond infinity? It only replaces the insistence that something had to create the multiverse with an acceptance that nothing had to create God. It’s silly, especially given the fact that our limited concept of “before” has little relevance in an infinite multiverse.

Better yet would be to finally give in and acknowledge that the multiverse has rendered your god small and insignificant and kind of pathetic. God is like a quaint old Vaudeville act that can no longer compete with huge 3-D superhero blockbusters, and looks silly trying. Back in the day, it might have been an understandable conceit to believe that God created the Earth just for us… or even maybe the solar system. But the level of conceit required to believe that some God created the entire multiverse just for us is wildly absurd. The idea that such a God would be focused on us is insanely narcissistic.

The multiverse forces God to grow SO large, that it swells him far beyond any relevance to us or us to him.

So abandon your increasingly simplistic idea of god and find comfort, wonder, and inspiration in our incredible multiverse. You do not need to feel increasingly insignificant and worthless in this expanding multiverse. You don’t need God to give you a phony feeling of significance and meaning within it. All it takes is the flip of a mental soft-switch and you can find comfort and wonder and meaning in our amazing multiverse. It’s all just in your head after all.

I do not share the pessimism of some that we can never “see” or understand the multiverse. My working assumption is that even the greater multiverse is our cosmos, that it is knowable. If we survive Climate Change, we may eventually understand it more fully through indirect observations or through the magical lens of mathematics. Until then, if you are intrigued and stimulated by these real possibilities, I highly recommend that you read the excellent overview article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (see here).

WA State Toying With Theocracy

Adapted from the version originally printed in the News Tribune (see here).

The Washington State legislature is currently considering joint Resolution 8205 to amend the state constitution with language to “protect” religious freedom (see here). While protecting any group of people always seems like a good thing, there is a lot about this amendment that sounds like the ominous drumbeat of theocracy on the march.

It starts out by declaring that the rights of people to worship are “guaranteed” and no one shall be “molested or disturbed” on account of their religious belief. That seems innocuous enough but such protections already exist and there is no reason to codify them further in the state constitution. We don’t need to clutter up our constitution with reassurances for every group that merely wants double extra emphasis of their rights.

Next the authors added language to “not forbid” religious organizations from receiving state public money. This is yet another of the incessant attacks by religious organizations to undermine our American tradition of separation of church and state. There are sound arguments why our separation exists and tremendous care should be taken to protect it against the continual efforts by religious organizations to dismantle it.

The next section provides a constitutional guarantee that religious beliefs cannot be considered in any evaluation of a person’s qualifications and fitness for any job. We have seen too many cases in which public officials have refused to carry out their essential functions in office because it conflicts with their religious belief. Other times, in adherence to their beliefs, they have been seen to interpret their responsibilities and focus their attention in a way that is not in the public good or faithful to their office. Religious people are proud that their beliefs influence their public behavior. To nevertheless exclude those beliefs from consideration in making personnel decisions is reckless and denies the reality of how real people behave.

In similar fashion, the new language guarantees that religious belief shall not be considered in jury selection or in consideration of legal testimonies. Again, this is reckless and denies the glaringly obvious fact that religious belief can impact the impartiality of a juror or the credibility of a witness. The capacity of a person to believe religious nonsense can and should be a part of the picture in evaluating their credibility on other issues.

I know that some might think that these protections are evidence of an enlightened nation that seeks to protect all points of view. I submit that such absolute protections are far more indicative of repressive theocratic regimes that end up with a religious ruling class that can never be questioned, challenged, or held accountable for the beliefs and the resultant public policies that they impose on others. They want their cake and eat it too; to believe whatever crazy thing they want, enact it publicly, and bear no risk of adverse consequences or repercussions.

Many religious advocates have long argued that homosexual individuals are not deserving of status as a protected class because they [falsely] claim that their behavior is a choice. Religious belief certainly is a choice, and by their own logic does not deserve extraordinary constitutional protections. If we allow religious advocates to codify these kind of absolute protections into our constitutions, make no mistake, it is not hyperbole to say that we are not moving toward liberal enlightenment but toward repressive conservative theocracy.

MilosciaState Senator Mark Miloscia (see here) is a primary driving force behind this legislation. I have no doubt that Senator Miloscia would love a constitutional amendment to expand his own Christian mission into the public sphere and to elevate his personal beliefs above public scrutiny. But this attempt to insert his religious beliefs into public policy is the best possible example of why his resolution is so very dangerous and must be resisted with all possible vigor.

Shame on Baumgartner, O’Ban, Becker, Bailey, and Warnick for co-sponsoring this regressive amendment with Senator Miloscia. I urge you to withdraw your support.

 

Atheists Can Be Deluded Too

rollAs webmaster for New York City Atheists (see here), I recently found myself on a mailing list for a man named Michael Roll, pictured right. While he considers himself an atheist, Mr. Roll is also a self-professed spiritualist who has undertaken a personal mission to sell his particular fantasy as a non-religious, science-based idea. Since the 1960’s his “campaign for philosophical freedom” (see here) has tried to promote his spiritualist delusions.

Following are just a few of the ideas that he puts forth with great intellectual soberness and gravitas:

  • There is no god, but there is an afterlife that is part of the natural world. This spirit world exists on a “different frequency” and accounts for the unaccounted 95% of the energy in our universe.
  • While the religious beliefs of others are nonsense, his essentially identical beliefs are based on “experiments and mathematical models.”
  • His evidence is largely based on the “research” conducted by Sir William Crooks between 1871 and 1874. Crooks observed the manifestations produced by several “materialism mediums” which he claimed proved the existence of a vast afterlife (see here).
  • The media is in cahoots with the Vatican in a conspiracy to discredit legitimate science on the paranormal including work linking subatomic physics with the afterlife (see here).
  • According to Roll “famous television scientist Professor Brian Cox […] is let loose on the public because his false model of the universe is no danger to the Vatican and their powerful materialistic agents.
  • Roll also states “2018 could just be the year that a few billion people will find out that the great philosopher Jesus started from the correct scientific base that we all have a soul that separates from the dead physical body. But most important of all, that Einstein started from the incorrect scientific base that the mind dies with the brain.

I am not going to waste any of your time refuting all of Roll’s clearly delusional fantasies, any more than I would waste your time refuting the Narnia-really-exists theory. Here is a video in which you can hear his “logic” directly from him (video here). It particularly saddens me that Roll appears to be a student of Carl Sagan and quotes him extensively, yet manages to do so in a way that is a blasphemy to everything Dr. Sagan stood for (see here).

What interests me more than debunking this one clearly delusional individual is the more general observation that atheists are not immune to magical thinking. While atheists may not believe in god, they may certainly believe in lots of other equally nonsensical ideas. Just calling oneself an atheist does not immunize one from delusions. Michael Roll’s secular form of rationalizing his magical thinking with “logic” is no different than the “logic” put forth by Ken Ham to rationalize his biblical fantasy (see here).

Atheist delusions can be unique to an individual, but are more often propagated by non-religious movements and fads. Spiritualism and New Age thinking are examples of non-religious structures of fantastical delusions about the world.

Even smart, logical, sophisticated thinkers are not insulated from spiritual delusion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the brilliant creator of the paragon of rational thought, Sherlock Holmes, was another passionate proponent of spiritualism. He clung to his belief, even after Houdini proved to him that his magic tricks were merely tricks. Even after that irrefutable evidence, Doyle refused to be swayed from his insistence that they proved spiritualism was real (see here).

That these kind of spiritual belief systems can so compromise the thinking of one such as Conan Doyle demonstrates that they are both highly seductive and tenacious. Many of my atheist friends do not share my concern about these non-religious movements because they do not have the institutional power of an organized church behind them. Fair enough. However, they still contribute significantly to a culture in which magical thinking is encouraged and rational thought diminished. They legitimize and normalize public debate on important matters in which “alternative facts” are even entertained.

I argue that while misguided atheists like Michael Roll claim not to believe in god, their belief in essentially the same kind of pseudoscientific thinking supports faith-based thinking in all its forms. To attempt to use phony science fiction to rationalize a delusion does not make it less harmful than a purely religious belief. Indeed, the false invocation of the facade of science may in fact make the delusion far more harmful and damaging.

In my book “The Science of Belief,” (see here), I tried hard to not focus too much on religious thinking specifically, but on all non-fact based thinking in general. My thesis was that we cannot successfully attack religion or other secular forms of magical thinking directly. Rather we must teach real, authentic scientific ways of thinking and approaching the unknown. If we succeed at that, religion and spiritualism will crumble away to dust on their own.

The Day I Met Lucy Liu

LucyLiuSo speaking of celebrity encounters in NYC, one time I was waiting for a date in front of a restaurant near my apartment in lower Manhattan, when Lucy Liu walked up and stood next to me. She was waiting for someone as well and we exchanged pleasantries.

Oh wait… that never happened. In fact, once I impulsively related this story to a group of friends. As I did, I had a growing feeling of uneasiness as if something was wrong. Then one of my friends said, “hey that’s the story I told you!” It then hit me that I was remembering her experience. I was so mortified that I tried clumsily to cover up for my humiliation.

I had had the actual experience of waiting outside that same restaurant several times to meet dates. I had had actual experiences of encountering other celebrities in NYC. I was obviously familiar with Lucy Liu from television and movies. The presence of my friend who told me that story probably triggered a temporary conflation of all of these to produce a false memory.

How can this happen? Well it happens all the time but we are not usually made aware of it in such an embarrassing fashion. You see, we do not recall events like a tape recorder. Rather our memories are like notes scribbled along the margins of our brains, associated by proximity or by little arrows. When we try to retrieve a memory, we do not hit “replay,” rather we check our scribbled, fragmented notes and try to piece the events back together as best we can. Our memories are not recordings, but are rather more like docudramas that we recreate from scraps of information each time we invoke them.

These little docudrama memories are never recreated exactly. They are full of errors and omissions. Not only are they constructed incompletely, but they are colored by our biases, fears, hopes, and needs at the time we recreate them. Even worse, each time we recall them, our scribbled notes are updated with these changes and this modified version forms the basis of our next recollection. It’s like basing your documentary of JFK on a previous documentary. Our memories are like the message in a game of telephone, changing and morphing each time we invoke them. If my friend had not been present to point this out about Lucy Liu, I may well have further integrated her story more solidly into my own memories.

As marvelous as our memories are, these things happen. Anyone, like our President, who thinks they have “one of the great memories of all time” is simply not paying close enough attention. And it’s hard to question our very memories. After all, they form the basis of who we are and all we think we know. To question our memories is to question our own competence, our own sanity, and even the very foundation of our self identity.

Yet we must be skeptical of memories, particularly our own. Most of our memories are not as falsifiable as a misremembered encounter with Lucy Liu. There is no one to call us out of most of the memories that form our experiences and define us as who we are. Most of our memory glitches aren’t exposed on a witness stand. We recall certain things about how our parents treated us but not other things. We recall a friend insulting us when it was actually a comment made on a television show. We clearly recall a pivotal experience in our life that was in fact only a recurring dream.

I noticed that when I gave lectures, I told an abbreviated story that was a composite of a number of other stories, just to illustrate a point. Before too long I could no longer recall the individual stories but only the abbreviated composite. Each time we retell a story, that replaces our old memories and our memories change and morph over time.

You can experiment on yourself to test my claims. Just start telling some story about yourself – make it somewhat plausible. I guarantee that before too long you’ll have trouble recalling that you made this up. Before much longer, and you’ll become absolutely certain it is completely true. You remember it clearly after all, so it must be. That’s how your neural network works. You cut you bleed. You repeat experiences through stories or dreams or whatever, and they become memories. They become your self.

Even more important than recalling events is the problem of remembering feelings. Our recollection of feelings is extremely malleable. We can quickly grow to hate a dear friend or spouse largely because we retell stories over and over again that gradually deteriorate into a “powerful, unforgettable recollection” of how terribly we have been treated in the past. If we are disposed to think badly of someone, all our memories will be colored by that lens. Perhaps, a good indicator of the person we are now is the tone we impart upon the docudramas we recreate to recall events and how those events made us feel.

In fact, studies have suggested that having a “great memory” makes you less happy. People with so-called great memories tend to never let go of any slight or insult. They only get angrier and more unhappy as time goes on. I submit that their memories are not actually that great and that they likely have a tendency to create a more unforgivably offensive version of their memory each time they recall it.

Lucy Liu reminds me that a little humility when it comes to the fallibility of our own memories is a good thing. Maybe it would make Donald Trump a less angry and spiteful person if he were not quite so confident that he has “one of the great memories of all time.” Or, maybe angry and spiteful people just cannot help but create memories that reinforce their anger and spitefulness.

 

Trumpsizing Government

cutbacksAs an official self-proclaimed spokesperson for the White House, I’d like to set the record straight regarding certain misconceptions about President Trump’s vision for our government. Many people believe that he cares about nothing except getting a “win,” regardless of how good or bad the underlying legislation or policy may be. Others fear that he has been Svengali’d by Steve Bannon into a project to “deconstruct the administrative state,” destroying all that is good and noble about our nation. Still others conclude that he has no agenda at all and is simply flailing around with logic that only his sick, twisted psyche could possibly comprehend.

None of these are true – well not exactly completely true…

In fact, the President does have a very definite agenda, goal, and vision for our nation and it is not merely downsizing government. Trump’s goal is to “rightsize” America. He wants to “Trumpsize It” if you will.

What does Trumpsizing mean? It means reinventing government so that it works for Donald Trump and only Donald Trump.¬†A truly Trumpsized government is smaller in some places and bigger in other places, depending on whether those particular functions serve Donald Trump. In fact, that’s why Donald Trump became President, to reshape government into one that better works for him, Donald Trump. That’s Trumpsizing!

How is Trumpsizing achieved in practice? Well you have to start by cutting, cutting, cutting. You need to cut out all agencies and services that may pose annoyances to Donald Trump. These would include for example a Justice Department that might launch pesky investigations into illegal Trump activities, Ethical Boards that might question shady Trump dealings, and Regulatory Agencies that might think that they can restrict or restrain his personal business dealings or his Presidential excesses. And of course you also downsize government services that simply do not help Mr. Trump personally and therefore have no purpose. These include wasteful spending like social service programs or environmental protection.

If you cannot control certain agencies as much as you would like, you recruit a team of really, really incompetent heads who will ensure that the particular agencies they run cannot function effectively. But you cannot stop there. Since these departmental leaders are by design so incompetent, they are probably not competent enough to adequately sabotage all effective operations. So you need to cut or gag all remaining staff members who might possibly continue performing their job functions competently.

Once you have dismantled or otherwise neutralized any agencies that could restrain Donald Trump, as well as those wasteful programs that don’t help him personally, then you have the clean slate required to advance to stage two of Trumpsizing. Now you start increasing the size of the government to serve Donald Trump. You can for example create a huge state run “news” organization to promote the Trump brand. You can build up the State Department so that it can pave the way for Trump deals globally. You also beef up your law enforcement division so that it can sniff out and prosecute any Trump dissidents in the population, and of course greatly expand your military so that it can better support your totalitarian allies and cower your democratic rivals into submission.

So you see? The President truly does have an ambitious agenda. It is essential that we help him to succeed in this truly transformation moment, because as we are always told, if the President succeeds, America succeeds! And if you think this is ambitious, just wait until a second term. If “elected” again, Donald Trump will most certainly advance this agenda with a bold new program to “consolidate and streamline” government so that all other branches of government report directly to him and then to the heirs of the Trump line of succession. It just makes good business sense.

That’s Trumpsizing. Barely one year in and so far, it’s going great, fantastic, right on schedule, best hostile takeover of a democratic government ever!