Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blue cars and rigid logic.

Suppose you sit at the roadside for an hour and watch the cars go by. Suppose every car that passes while you're there is a blue Ford. Is it reasonable to conclude that (a) all cars are blue Fords or (b) that no cars other than blue Fords can use that road? Or something else?

Suppose I buy a blue car and paint it red. I have therefore replicated a red car. Is it then reasonable to conclude that all red cars are fakes, that they are all actually overpainted blue cars?

All of the above are patently ridiculous. I can't conclude from watching one stretch of road for one hour that blue cars are all there is to see. Just because I can overpaint a blue car red does not mean that all red cars are overpainted blue ones.

And yet those are perfectly correct logical deductions based on the inflexible application of logic to a limited dataset. They are exactly the approach used by sceptics and by those we might call 'militant atheists'. That last distinction is important - I consider myself atheist but I'm not intent on converting anyone else to my way of thinking, or even interested in trying. Militant atheists put considerable effort into conversion of others into what can only be considered a sort of paradoxical religion. An unquestioning belief in non-belief based on the pronouncements of a few Wise Ones who claim to have Seen the Unlight.

Okay. I'm in a bad mood. I was looking forward to the Geminids and that huge full moon but cloud cover wrecked both. Now we have fog so dense I can't see the house across the street. So someone's going to take the brunt of it.

James Randi believes that because he can fake a bent key, that means Uri Geller is also faking it. (For the record, I think he probably is too but that's beside the point of this argument). Randi is painting the blue car red here and concluding that because he can replicate something by trickery, everyone who does it is also using trickery.

Likewise, all those stage magicians who 'replicate' astrology by giving out generic, newspaper-style 'readings' assume that because they can fake it, all astrology must be fake. Cold reading can give a good impression of communication with the dead, but to assume from that that all mediums are fakes is, once more, painting the blue car red.

Perfectly logical deductions from a limited dataset. Oh, I can't blame them for it. The paranormal, by definition, isn't a defined science. I can't call a ghost to order. Neither can any real medium. I don't know what ghosts are made of so I can't devise a machine that will definitely, undoubtedly, tell you when one is present or let you visualise them. I honestly don't know whether Uri Geller was ever able to bend metal or whether he can do it now. I have doubts on the spoon-bending, but one thing I do know is that any paranormal ability depends on a calm mind.

One thing that's common in reported ghost sightings is that when the subject is asked what they were thinking about, the usual answer is 'nothing in particular'. Their minds were relaxed, not concentrated on anything and therefore more open and receptive. A busy mind ignores extraneous information. In particular, it ignores the unexpected. A passing shadow will be dismissed in favour of the task at hand. I think that's why ghost reports are declining now that people are in general very concerned about matters financial. The stress of being forced to perform on demand will make most fail and will make some fake it to get a 'result'. But this is digressing from the point.

In the latest Fortean Times (issue 244), there is a long article on Richard Dawkins, the Archbishop of Atheism. It makes some very good points. The author sounds religious and I am not, and yet the author is not expounding the fundamentalist religious 'oh no it isn't' argument, but making logical and sensible arguments.

One of Dawkins' principal contentions is that since it would take a long time for an intelligent being to evolve, and longer still for one to evolve who was capable of creating a universe, then a being such as God is impossible because the universe has not existed long enough for him to have formed.

There is an obvious logical flaw here, but before I continue, let me just say that I have no truck with the literal six day creation followed by a sit down and a cup of tea scenario. That is obviously allegory and is not meant to be taken literally, and has been disproved to death. The best estimate at the moment - and without a time machine we'll never know for certain - is the big bang theory. That does pose a problem for a pure science world view in that we don't know where the matter came from, we don't know why it was compressed into a point and we don't know why it went bang. 'Let there be light' is an equally valid stance at the moment.

(side note: it's not possible to take a time machine back to watch the big bang because before it happened, all the universe was in that dot. Any time machine arriving there would be mashed into quarks inside the dot. Outside the dot was the whatever-it-is outside our current universe, and possibly a God who lit the blue touch paper. Or maybe not.)

The logical flaw is perhaps best described by a little story. Imagine, if you will, a man with a tube full of single celled organisms. He builds a little world for his pets in which they reproduce at such speed he is able to watch them form larger organisms, until they develop an intelligent species, who then set out to study their world.

Although our experimenter gives his pets clues to his existence, they don't believe him. The world, they argue, has physical limits that do not permit the existence of the experimenter. Besides, it hasn't existed long enough for the experimenter to have evolved.

Therein lies the fallacy. The experimenter set the physical limits of the world so he is not constrained by them. He's outside it, looking in. He also had already developed to his current state before time began for the world he created.

So if there is a God, he was already God before the big bang and therefore before time began for our universe. Physical laws do not apply to a being that is outside the universe and able to look in on all of it. God is not disproven by Dawkins.

Dawkins does not succeed in disproving God because it cannot be done. I choose not to believe (with hedged bets just in case) but I cannot prove there is no God. People are alive for a short time. We see that road for an hour and count those blue cars and think that's all there is. It does not occur to most of us to look around the corner and see what else there might be, or where the road might lead. Some are scared of what it might mean. Some flatly refuse to believe there even is a corner - and if there is, it's blue cars all the way.

Whether there is a God or not I can't say. I am, however, certain that there's more to that road than just the blue cars and I'm trying very hard to see around that corner.

There is more than what our five senses can detect. Science already knows this to some extent but has grown old and complacent and introspective. Whatever happened to 'research for the sake of it'?

Don't watch the cars go past. Look at where the road is going.


Southern Writer said...

We've had this conversation, so you know I'm a believer in God. But even though I can't tell you why or how, I'm almost certain WE are the ghosts. Their world is the "real" one. Ours is but a dream.

Romulus Crowe said...

A new theory (New Scientist again) suggests that this universe formed when a previous one collapsed. That would explain where all the matter came from, and unfortunately for those who steadfastly refuse to even consider the possibility of a God, it also means there would have been ample time for the required super-intelligent and super-powerful being to form.

Perhaps as an amalgamation of all or most of the intelligent life in the previous universe, who then managed to hop 'outside' the universe in the last moments of its collapse and restart the process.

Of course, it also raises the possibility of a few lesser beings getting through, who we might refer to as 'angels' or maybe as those 'gods' under the charge of Zeus or Jupiter or Odin.

And, then there are the less powerful demonic creatures. A previous universe would provide a place for them all to have come from and would explain why they don't seem tightly bound by the laws of this one.

Science plus lateral thinking and speculation - always an interesting combination.

You're right - we are the ghosts. We just happen to have bodies around us at the moment. A ghost isn't something that's formed at death, it's the same person, just without the body. The body is temporary, the ghost appears to be permanent.

So yes, we are the ephemeral ones.

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