String Theory + Atomic Theory = Thor!

Yeah, that makes about as much sense as anything I can gather from this video. PZ blogged about it a few days ago, and I’m basically of the same mindset. But go watch the video first, then come back here.

Done? Great. Here are my problems with Tipler’s science (inasmuch as it was explored in the video, which wasn’t a lot):

  • First, what the heck is with Tipler’s scrawlings on the board? I haven’t done a whole lot of Quantum Mechanics, and less with General Relativity, but I don’t recall ever having to use “quantum mechanics” in an equation. I dunno, maybe that’s some more advanced version.
  • Tipler defines god as the “cosmological singularity,” clearly using his ten-dollar words. In physics, a singularity is a place where gravity is essentially infinite. A black hole is a singularity, the Big Bang theory suggests that the zero-second point of the universe is a singularity. No denomination of Christianity, so far as I’m aware, defines God as a black hole, and no branch of astrophysics, so far as I’m aware, suggests that black holes can part seas and raise the dead.
  • If Tipler has, as he appears to claim, united Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity, then he’s got something far more interesting than proof of God, and should be applying for a Nobel Prize, and every other prize in science. Some jerk at Tulane discovered the Unified Field Theory? And he’s able to write it on a standard-size chalkboard? And Stephen Hawking hasn’t quietly killed him and stolen his notes?
  • The diagram Tipler draws, taken along with his use of the term “singularity,” suggests to me that perhaps he believes that “God” is the end-point singularity that would result if the universe ended in a “Big Crunch.” I see several problems with that: first, that would suggest that God doesn’t exist yet and hasn’t existed since the Big Bang, except in a very Deist sort of way, where God is the universe. Second, while I love the Big Crunch model of eschatology (it’s so symmetrical), all the current data suggests that it’s bunk. The universe’s expansion is accelerating, which wouldn’t happen if gravity were eventually going to overcome expansion. Third, going back to the Deist thing, exactly how does that have anything to do with Christianity?
  • Tipler continues to define God (apparently) by saying “what you can show using physics forces this universe to continue to exist.” This would seem to contradict the idea that God is the universe-ending singularity, or any singularity, for that matter. In fact, it would seem to suggest that “God” is Dark Energy, the mysterious source of the universe’s continuing acceleration. Now, this is a perfect example of the “god of the gaps,” where you apply the term “god” to any phenomenon we don’t yet understand. Neither “god” nor “dark energy” really describe anything, but one is actually meant to just be a placeholder.
  • Assuming the reporter at the end is quoting right, Tipler says God is “the divine substance that exists outside of space, time, and matter.” Now, if God exists outside of space, then how is he forcing the universe to continue to exist? If God exists outside of matter, then how is he a singularity? What does it mean to say that something exists outside of time? And, when it comes right down to it, how can science possibly describe, let alone prove, something that exists outside of space, time, and matter? This sounds like the same old apologetics wrapped up in shiny new scientific language.

Now, I’ll freely admit that this news story largely sidesteps the details of Tipler’s “scientific proof,” which I’m sure is because it’s in his book, The Physics of Christianity. I haven’t yet read the book (it’s not in an I-Share library, and I’m not going to pay full price for it), but assuming the reviews on Amazon are to be believed, these are my impressions (after a brief little digression.

See, being the fan of comic books and science that I am, I’ve always been attracted to things which combine the two. Some, like James Kakalios’s The Physics of Superheroes and the Flash and Atom comics of Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox, use superheroes to teach accurate science. Some, like Lois Gresh’s The Science of Superheroes and Warren Ellis’s depressing “Ruins” miniseries, show how real science wouldn’t allow superheroes to exist. And then there’s one class of text, including Mark Wolverton’s The Science of Superman and the comic series The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, which attempt to explain superheroes through a combination of real science, Trek-esque technobabble, and complicated diagrams. They start from an assumption that these amazing abilities work, and then try to explain how.

It’s this third class that the descriptions of Tipler’s book sound like. It starts with the assumption that everything in the Bible happened, and then twists science and technobabble in order to explain how those events are physically possible. I imagine we’ve all heard some miracles explained away in this manner: Moses wasn’t leading his people across the Red Sea, but across the Reed Sea, and they went at low tide and a strong wind blew the water out of the way so Moses and the Jews could walk across. Of course, that requires one to believe that the Bible isn’t inerrant, but that the story of Moses must be otherwise true. But once you’ve turned “miracle” into “happy coincidence,” where does God fit in? He certainly isn’t necessary to strike up a wind over a body of water.

Tipler does one better: apparently, he removes God from the Virgin Birth. He explains that Jesus, having only one parent, was one of the rare, short, small-testicled XX-chromosome males. Okay, explain that one to me! I mean, first, I’d all but guarantee that any XX-chromosome males out there are not the result of spontaneous self-fertilized pregnancies, but received their second X-chromosome from a spermatozoon. Second, if you’re going to try to explain “miracles” in terms of science, basically removing the necessity of magical intervention, then doesn’t it make a whole lot more sense to say that Jesus did have two parents, but neither of them were God?

Continuing in the same review, we get a little of Tipler’s “cosmological singularity” explanation. I’ll just copy and paste it (and credit it to the second reviewer, as of the time I checked, Doug Mesner):

At the start, we are given “proof” that Christianity is the one true religion. The reasoning is as follows:

“The laws of physics tell us that our universe began in an initial singularity, and will end in a final singularity. The laws also tell us that ours is but one of an infinite number of universes, all of which begin and end in a singularity. If we look carefully at the collection of all the universes – this collection is called the multiverse – we see that there is a third singularity, at which the multiverse began.”

But here Tipler is wrong. The multiverse theory does not hold our own universe outside of the multiverse. Ours is but one universe in the multiverse sharing the same beginning and ending “singularity” with the rest. And if the multiverse had its own beginning and concluding singularity, doesn’t this call for 4? Why is he reaching so hard to justify 3? Because 3 singularities is the heart of his argument:

“There is one religion which claims that God is a Trinity: Christianity”

Not only is this accounting of numbers suspect (to say the least), but it is difficult to see how these singularities are supposed to be evidence of theological deities.

So assuming this reviewer’s quotations are reliable, Tipler is trying to synthesize the Big Crunch model of our universe’s end (which has fallen out of favor with just about everyone, due to contradicting evidence) with the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics (which is by no means confirmed). What he ends up with is a “multiverse” (this is more like comic books than I thought) which apparently consists entirely of cyclical or closed-time universes (with beginnings and endings in singularities). That multiverse apparently has laws of physics rather similar to ours, if it’s going to begin and end in singularities as well.

And, like the reviewer said, this sounds like it would require four singularities (two for our universe, two for the multiverse as a whole), or an infinite number (two for every universe, and two for the multiverse as a whole), neither of which calculates to “three.”

And even if there were three great singularities, how is that evidence of a triune god? I’m always a bit baffled by those people who see every grouping of three in nature as evidence that the Christian Trinity is the one (three?) true God. Reportedly Francis Collins (geneticist and author of The Language of God) cemented his faith when he saw a waterfall frozen in three parts, which represented to him the truth of the tripartite God of Christianity. If the number of things in nature represents the truth of God, then is a frozen waterfall with one section evidence for Judaism or Unitarianism? Is the number of moons around Jupiter evidence for some polytheistic religion? This is some kind of weird combination of pareidolia and the sharpshooter fallacy, where people are finding meaning in patterns they created arbitrarily.

Overall, it looks to me like Tipler’s working against himself. His methodology effectively makes God superfluous by trying to explain the miraculous in terms of the mechanical, but he’s trying ultimately to prove the existence of the same God that he’s making obsolete. Maybe this is intentional; his redefinition of God results in a wholly material (though outside the universe), impersonal deity with no apparent intelligence or interventional ability.

Now, that’s just one person’s review, and it may be entirely untrue. But two things are certain when it comes to Frank Tipler: one, he is quite absolutely willing to redefine Physics and God when trying to justify one with the other, and that’s no good for anyone. And two, he certainly hasn’t proven the existence of any specific (or generic) God with any accepted Physics.

I welcome proof of God. I’d love to see it, if it exists. So far, I haven’t. And if it ever shows up, it better be a hell of a lot more solid than Frank Tipler’s chalkboard chickenscratch.

Now, for reading that, I reward you with the REAL Stephen Hawking:

Listen, (doo dah doo) do you want to know a Secret (doo dah doo)? (Part 2)

This book was great until the Christian Science crap at the end.In the previous post, I laid some of the groundwork for a discussion of what’s wrong with “The Secret,” specifically including the contradictions and inconsistencies reported by its supporters. They really should have consulted one another before making a movie and at least got their story straight.

Anyway, I only touched on the blatant and frequent scientific inaccuracies in the piece, and I’m going to try to address all of the major ones here. Pull up a chair and grab a drink, this is going to take awhile.

First, the absurd. Despite the protestations of Bob Proctor, we do in fact know what electricity is and how it works. Different subatomic particles have different electrical charges; electrons have a negative charge, protons have a positive charge. Charged particles exert attractive or repulsive forces on one another through electric fields. When these particles are in motion in a conductor, they produce oscillations in the electric field, which we call current. And so on, and so on. I’ll admit that Electricity & Magnetism is pretty much my weakest subject when it comes to Physics, but even I can direct you to Maxwell’s Equations.

Now, the expected: the Quantum Bullshit. I understand that Quantum Mechanics is a very difficult, very weird, very counterintuitive subject. It doesn’t follow, however, that QM justifies everything which is weird and counterintuitive. QM, like all science, consists of fairly rigid laws and theories and mathematical models derived from observation and time-tested theories, and while the concepts may be difficult for the laity and the pre-med majors to wrap their heads around, it doesn’t mean we don’t know how they work. Much though I love Richard Feynman, I wish he’d never said “I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics.” It’s true that we don’t typically think in quantum terms, because it’s simply not something we regularly encounter. You have to do a lot of mental stretching in order to grasp the more advanced (and wacky) concepts in Quantum Mechanics, like superposition and entanglement and decoherence and uncertainty. There is a degree to which we cannot understand these concepts, because they are indeed so foreign and so counterintuitive to us. Science, especially physics, is characterized by the use of conceptual models to imperfectly approximate various phenomena, and there is a large degree to which the quantum models just don’t cut it. Poor Erwin’s zombie cat is meant to illustrate a point about superposition, not to suggest a real situation in which consciousness creates reality.

But there is a larger degree to which we do understand the quantum realm, and that’s mostly thanks to the mathematical models. I may not understand all the conceptual stuff, but give me a bra and a ket and an operator or an infinite square well or a Schrödinger Equation, and I can give you a valid quantum mechanical answer.

I’m not saying that I’m any kind of expert in Quantum Mechanics; throughout these debates I’ve been consulting various Physics textbooks, the occasional helpful website, and my undergraduate Quantum professor, to clarify some concepts and refresh my memory on others. Quantum Mechanics is difficult, doubly so when you haven’t done it actively for eight months. But I know where to find the answers, I understand the concepts when they’re explained to me (because I know the terminology and the basics, and some of the more advanced basics), and moreover, I have a decent bullshit meter. I know Quantum well enough to recognize when it’s being flagrantly misused.

That, and I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts that the woos promote as scientific fact. I thought, like Fred Alan Wolf apparently, that “observer” implied “consciousness.” I wrote a short paper Freshman year (before I had any formal quantum training) about how you could reconcile omniscience, omnipotence, and free will by suggesting that God influences the universe through a divine “uncertainty principle.” The difference between me and the woos, though, is that I didn’t assume I was an expert in quantum physics or that my kooky ideas represented scientific fact. So when I did get that formal training, I recognized that “observer” meant “measuring device” and not “mind,” that quantum effects don’t generally manifest macroscopically, and that you really can’t create a device to deconstructively interfere with your roommate’s de Broglie wavelength.

So, these abuses of Quantum Mechanics represent to me a mindset of baseless arrogance, on two counts. First, these people, with little or no training, assume that they have some deep understanding of a subject which even the experts in the field have difficulty wrapping their heads around. And second, they assume that no one will bother to check their claims against the facts, either because no one understands the science well enough to check it, or because of an assumption of the ignorance of their credulous customers.

And while the latter may be based in reality, it is no less sleazy. They’re basically saying “we know you’re too stupid to actually figure out that we’re pulling the wool over your eyes.”

As far as John Hagelin and Fred Alan Wolf go, I really can’t explain them. Both have apparently good Ph.D.s from good universities, both have been published in the peer reviewed journals, and neither is far outside of his sphere of expertise on matters of Quantum Mechanics. Yet both are purveyors of this quantum mysticism garbage in a variety of places, and I can’t quite fathom how you could achieve a Ph.D. in the field and not recognize the bullshit for what it is. I guess it just goes to show that not even all the people in the field can wrap their heads around the concepts, and that being able to do the math doesn’t necessarily entail knowing what the real-world implications are. That’s one of the problems with models; sometimes we get so wrapped up in the model that we forget it isn’t a perfect representation of the actual world.

The rest of the pseudoscience is pretty simple. There may be a magnetic component to thinking, due perhaps to electric charges in motion in the brain (thereby producing a magnetic field), but it’s absurd to suggest that every thought emits a magnetic signal, which can be ‘picked up’ by the universe. I guarantee a refrigerator magnet would put out a more intense signal. We have no way of measuring the “power” of a thought, if there is such a quantity, so saying that some thoughts are “more powerful” than others is totally baseless. In most cases, whether it’s electric charges, magnetic poles, or Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, opposites attract, not likes. While it’s true that measuring things has a quantum effect on them, we learned that fact by studying the objective external universe, not because we each create an individual personal universe. There are rules to the universe, though I sincerely doubt that the Law of Attraction is one of them. While the LoA’s caveats and exceptions render it pretty much unfalsifiable, there is one rule which tends to suggest that “The Secret” is impossible. You may be familiar with this rule, it’s called the Law of Conservation of Mass. It states fairly unequivocally that mass is neither created nor destroyed in any reaction (except where converted to energy, which is also never created or destroyed in any reaction). Which means that thoughts do not become things.

Except, of course, through hard work and determination. But for all the exceptions provided by the Law of Attraction’s supporters, they neglect to mention this one.

If there’s anything obvious I’ve missed or gotten wrong, feel free to point out my omissions and mistakes in the comments.

Next time, I’ll go over the various types of Law of Attraction supporters who I encountered on Skeptico and the other blogs. Maybe we’ll learn something about the pathology of woo-belief. Or maybe we’ll just drag this madness out for another week.

Shh! It’s a Secret! (Part 1)

Shut up!I wasn’t going to blog about this here. But yesterday I saw The Law of Attraction: The Basics of the Teachings of Abraham (by Esther Hicks, but not the Esther Hicks who graduated in my class, thank FSM) at Wal-Mart. And then Kat had to leave a comment on the last post. So, my space has been invaded by the sheer idiocy that is The Secret, and I’m going to stop it here and now.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last several weeks discussing the Secret and the Law of Attraction with a variety of credulous asshats, concern trolls, and tragically misinformed rubes. If you’re not familiar with the Law of Attraction, the links above (to the ever-informative and ever-reasonable Skeptico) provide a pretty good run-down on it. If you want it straight from the horse’s mouth, you can take a look at the first 20 minutes of “The Secret” or Joe Vitale’s Law of Attraction blog (while you’re there, check out one familiar commenter‘s tragic tale of the Law gone wrong). The following list is a basic debriefing on the Law of Attraction, as presented in the film “The Secret” and on the various blogs and sites devoted to it.

  • “The Secret” was known to all the great (dead) thinkers of the past. Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare, Emerson, Hugo, Newton, Lincoln, Beethoven, Churchill, Edison, and Einstein all knew it. We know this even though we can’t say with certainty that Jesus existed; even though we can’t say with certainty that Shakespeare existed, or that he wrote the literature attributed to him, or anything specific about his life at all including his religious affiliation and birthdate; even though we can’t ask these thinkers what they really think, since they’re all dead; and even though the only proof that any of these thinkers knew “The Secret” are various out-of-context quotations.
  • Despite the fact that all the great thinkers of the past, fictional or otherwise, knew “The Secret” and wrote obliquely about it, it is still a secret, and there is an ongoing conspiracy to suppress it.
  • There is one “infinite power” in the universe, one natural law which guides all our lives. This is the Law of Attraction. Also, gravity.
  • The reason that 1% of the population earns 96% of the money is that they understand the Law of Attraction, not because of social injustice and millennia of aristocracy.
  • Basically, the Law of Attraction says “like attracts like.” Just like the attraction of a magnet. Wait…
  • You create your universe with your thoughts. Everything in your life has been attracted to you by the things you think and/or feel.
  • Every thought has a frequency. When you think of something repeatedly, you’re constantly sending out that “magnetic signal” that will “draw the parallel to you” (quotations from Joe Vitale, “Metaphysician”).
  • The universe doesn’t care what your feelings or opinions are, it just gives you more of whatever you think about. So if you think about debt a lot, you attract more debt, even if you don’t want it.
  • Positive people tend to attract other positive people and positive circumstances. Negative people tend to attract other negative people and circumstances. You can believe this, because “Quantum Physicist” John Hagelin said so.
  • This is not just “wishful thinking” or “imaginary craziness” (quotations from Fred Alan Wolf, “Quantum Physicist”).
  • Quantum Physics supports and points toward the reality of the Law of Attraction. Wolf: “It [Quantum Physics] says that you can’t have a universe without the mind entering into it; that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”
  • Lisa Nichols, “Author”: “[T]here’s a time delay, so all of your thoughts don’t come true instantly.”
  • By monitoring our feelings we are able to control the Law of Attraction.

To supplement this, here’s a list of significant quotations from the people in the video. I’ve provided the link above in case you think I’m quote-mining, but I’ve provided all the relevant context so you can get the point. I don’t have to distort what these people say, because…well, see for yourself:

  • Bob Proctor, “Philosopher”: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind. It’s what you’re thinking. You see, whatever is going on in your mind, you are attracting to you.”
  • John Assaraf, “Entrepreneur,” and supplier of the magnet analogy: “You become what you think about most, but you also attract what you think about most.”
  • Mike Dooley, “Writer:” “And that principle [the Law of Attraction] can be summed up in three simple words: Thoughts. Become. Things.”
  • Proctor, again: “See yourself living in abundance, and you will attract it. It always works, it works every time, with every person.”
  • Nichols: “When you think of the things you want, and you focus on them, with all of your attention, the Law of Attraction will give you what you want, every time.”
  • Nichols, again: “The Law of Attraction is not biased to ‘wants’ or ‘don’t wants,’ it manifests the things that you think about.”
  • Proctor: “The Law of Attraction is always working, whether you believe it or understand it or not. It’s always working.”
  • Proctor, again: “Now, if you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean you should reject it. You don’t understand electricity probably. First of all, no one even knows what electricity is. And yet you enjoy the benefits of it. Do you know how it works? I don’t know how it works. But I do know this: that you can cook a man’s dinner with electricity, and you can also cook the man.”
  • Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith, I shit you not, “Visionary”: “It has been proven now scientifically that an affirmative thought is hundreds of times more powerful than a negative thought.”
  • Nichols: “You have good feelings and you have bad feelings. And you know the difference between the two, because one makes you feel good, and the other makes you feel bad.”
  • Doyle: “You’re getting exactly what you’re feeling about, not so much what you’re thinking about.”
  • Doyle: “There are no rules, according to the universe” (in apparent response to the question that, if everyone uses The Secret, won’t we run out of stuff?).

Holy crap, where to begin? I guess I could start with the contradictions. The video was only twenty-four minutes long, yet they managed to contradict themselves with the sort of efficiency and aplomb that typically requires a big thick leather-bound book. The universe conforms to specific laws, like the law of gravity (but not, apparently, the law of conservation of mass). But it only conforms to one law, the Law of Attraction. But you create your day with your thoughts, and “there are no rules, according to the universe.” This is a great secret and no one knows about it, except all the world’s greatest thinkers and the rich, powerful, and successful in society. You get what you think about, and thoughts become things, but you don’t really get what you think about, you get what you feel about, but the universe doesn’t care what your feelings are. Every thought has a frequency and you attract the things you think about most, but positive thoughts are more powerful than negative thoughts. It always works, every time, no matter whether or not you know about it, but it works for the things you think about the most, not for every little thought, and there’s a time delay. Oy, stop the spinning, I want to get off.

You know, real scientific laws tend to be a lot simpler. The basic concepts can usually be explained in a sentence or two, and the whole thing is coherent all the way through. There aren’t contradictions and exceptions to the law of gravity. There’s an equation that (to a certain degree) always works every time whether or not you believe in it, and whether or not you know how it works. It’s not “some masses are attracted as a function of the inverse square of the distance between them, but they’re also attracted in a linear relationship, except that some are attracted as the cubed root of the frequency of the color of the larger mass.” No, you ask any scientist anywhere, and they’ll tell you “G=m1*m2/r2.” Every physicist can tell you “in a closed system, the entropy tends to increase;” every chemist can tell you “PV=nRT;” every first year physics student can tell you “an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” These are scientific laws. “(Repeated) Thoughts (actually, feelings) become (after a time delay) things (because like attracts like)” is not a scientific law; it’s all hedges and weasels, all caveats and exceptions.

Now, I’ll admit that many scientific laws are only selectively applicable. The Ideal Gas Law describes an unrealistic situation, but uses it to model actual phenomena. Newton’s laws only apply in Newtonian frames of reference, and are only accurate to a certain degree. The Second Law of Thermodynamics includes in it the caveat that it only works for closed systems. The difference here is that science doesn’t make claims to 100% accuracy. We may round up to it, in cases like gravitation or Newton’s laws, but we recognize that every law may be supplanted with one which explains the phenomena even more accurately (as with the relativistic versions of Newton’s laws). Strike two against the Law of Attraction.

Next time, “The Secret” and its crimes against science!