Thursday, February 12, 2015

Quantum Foolery

It's interesting, but recently I've noticed when engaged in discussions of magical thinking (faith), the more intellectual masters of credulity tend to pull what I like to call the "quantum card."  Quantum psychics might be a sexy and somewhat intellectually stimulating conversational topic, but I don't see it as anything more than an irrelevant distraction, feebly utilized as an attempt to give unverifiable beliefs more credibility:  by trying to make inherently magical assumptions sound more "science-y" (as if the average person on the internet could ever fully grasp something that most esteemed scientists continue to have difficulty fully understanding).  For me, quantum discussions (or discussions regarding higher powers) are merely abstract, mental speculations that accomplish absolutely nothing in terms of addressing the deeper issues of humanity, such as how to alleviate needless human suffering or to deepen compassion and understanding of one another, and make meaningful connections.  If I really wanted to have existential discussions, I’d grab a bong, or drop acid and head for the nearest college dorm room (no thanks).  

Science is by no means perfect (and I don't think anyone is saying it is) but it's the closest we can get in our quest for truth. Scientists have biases and beliefs (like every human), but science has an inherent self-correcting mechanism that adjusts its views based on what's observed (biased studies inevitably get tested and retested by follow up studies that correct any flaws in the original study design). Faith on the other hand, is generally a belief which is held without verifiable evidence, or quite often, the preservation of a belief through the denial of observation (the "word of God" is generally seen as more convincing than contradictory evidence because "he" works in mysterious ways that mere humans couldn't possibly comprehend - which to me seems to be a relatively arrogant and self-preserving view that lacks inherent awareness of its own hubris). There's are major difference between how informed belief and blind credulity approach the "truth." To me, the answers from Bill Nye (the Science Guy)'s recent, ill-informed "debate" with Creationist, Ken Ham sum it up best:

     Question: "What would make you believe the others     
     Ken: "Nothing." 
     Bill: "Evidence." 

To me, that's the main difference between the glorification of voluntary ignorance (pure belief without evidence) and a scientific understanding based on empirically validated evidence. With that said, I don’t think any good scientist denies that they maintain the own set of subjective values judgments or beliefs when approaching a problem. This is why we have controls built into the scientific method, and hypothesis are continually tested and retested.  But belief should never be mistaken for faith. I can have a belief, such as the fact that the earth is currently heating at an alarming and unsustainable rate. This is based on concrete, empirically validated evidence and is a hypothesis shared by roughly 97% of the planets scientists. My “faith” in the conclusion (if you wish to call it that) is based on verifiable evidence. Religious faith on the other hand, is a belief often based on dogma or doctrine (unsubstantiated hypothesis). Such doctrine often states something to the effect that humanity’s values/morals were endowed to humans by a supernatural deity, and without such a deity, humans could not tell right from wrong. I completely reject this hypothesis. Values are not intrinsically faith-based. Multiple disciplines of science have shown that they arose directly from a basic understanding of cause and effect and were shaped by millions of years of evolutionary pressures.  Without understanding, we can not have compassion.  Values come from understanding the suffering of another, not faith of any sort.

Complexity theory states that evolution (from the atomic level, to humanity, and outward into the Universe) is shaped much more by cooperation than it is by conflict. Many religions may claim one must have faith to have values/morals, but these human qualities have been shown to predate the dawning of the planets major religions.

Evolutionary science has shown that our species social reactions were developed long before we developed a complex brain able to process any concept of faith. Animals do not require faith to respond to others in meaningful way. It is a product of their evolutionary history. There is ample evidence of primate fossils, for example, which appear to have survived well into adulthood with physical deformities, which should have killed them, suggesting their fellow primates had compassion and valued life enough to care for them.  We are merely another animal inhabiting this planet, sharing a common ancestor, which we’ve inherited our compassion from.

I think the question “what is the meaning of life” is an erroneous and disingenuous one that completely misses the point. Humans ask questions like that, when animals already know the answer. As you said, the Universe does not care. Evolutionarily, the meaning is “to live and pass on your genes to the next generation.” That’s it. Everything else is merely icing on the cake. Neil DeGrass Tyson’s explanation of the meaning of life is based on the fact that humans have evolved to “make” meaning, which initially enabled us to survive. Many animals have the ability to make meaning out of pure coincidence as well (see B. F. Skinner’s “superstitious pigeons”). I don’t see that as faith. It’s simply one animal out of millions that has been wired to respond to its environment to enhance survival. Without compassion, our species would have never survived.

Let me sum it up with an example. A person sees an unrelated, helpless child being physically abused by an adult. For most people, the injustice is immediately apparent (understood), felt by the body, compassion naturally arises, and there is an overwhelming desire to move to end the child’s suffering (no divine intervention required). The same can be applied to animals, as one sees a helpless puppy being kicked by an angry human. The belief that humans are more valuable than animals is based primarily on ignorance (i.e.: lack of understanding of the suffering of animals). One does not need for a religious faith to value life (human or otherwise).  We could not have evolved as a species without our capacity to feel another’s pain. This is where our values intrinsically stem from, not any sort of faith. Faith can guide humans to values, but it is not where they stem from. Compassion arises naturally within our species (and animals when you take away environmental/survival pressures). The only requirement for compassion is understanding (which is consequently the primary goal of science as well, but I digress).