Friday, May 18, 2018

What is God?

I grew up in a Christian home in rural United States, believing, as most people in that culture do, in the existence of God the person. This person called God had his own subjective conscious viewpoint. He had the ability to cause anything to happen merely by willing it to be so, including both temporary suspension of the laws of physics, and the creation of the entire Universe. This God was thought to be real and literal. In other words, I believed in a physical God, also known as a “personal God” or “literal God.”

Back then, if you had asked me if I thought God was physical, I would have said no, God is spiritual. If you had asked me what I meant by that, I would have said physical reality is made of one type of substance, and spiritual reality is made of another type of substance. However, that is a false dichotomy. After all, the part of physical reality my present and past selves agree about is made of multiple types of substances. There are particles, fields, and space-time, and maybe a few things we do not know about yet. However, the reason we group them under the umbrella term, “physical” is because the way in which they exist is the same. The God I believed in was not made of space-time, particles, or fields, but he was thought to exist in the same way. That is why I call this kind of God a physical God.

I viewed God as the answer to questions like, “why does the Universe exist?” and, “why do we exist?” The Earth was the way it was because God made it that way, with human beings in mind. Everything that happened, everything I did, was measured against what God wanted, and how it fit into his grand plan. However, after about 20 years of living like this, I started seeing things that did not add up with this view. I learned how ideas of God and gods appeared in cultures and developed over time, and I saw how my God was the same as any other in this regard. I saw sick people get prayed over. Some of them were healed, and some were not. I had ideas pop into my head about the future. Some of them came true, and some did not. Eventually I came to realize that things can happen by chance, that if there are a million opportunities for things with a one-in-a-million probability to happen in a day, we should expect to see one-in-a-million things happen every day.

As we learn and grow, our mental pictures expand, filling in more of the jigsaw puzzle of knowledge. Sometimes we replace ideas with new ones, which may or may not be more correct, but other times we come to see a larger view of the picture, one which encompasses the views we had before. We come to see those views more clearly, why we held them, and how they fit or don’t fit with the rest of reality.

One fateful day, I was hit with the realization that the Universe and everything in it behaves as it would without a physical God. I looked up evidence for the existence of God, which came in two forms. The first was from science, but these were all either conspiracy theories, or of the form, “this seems like too much of a coincidence, therefore God is responsible.” For instance, I have heard the argument that since the conditions in the Universe make life extremely unlikely, God must have created the Earth for us. These arguments fall flat for anyone with a rudimentary understanding of probability and standards of evidence. The second form of evidence for God was in philosophical arguments, like the Ontological Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the Argument from Morality. However, all of these either have extraordinary claims in their premises without justification, such as “it is possible for a Maximally Great Being to exist,” or their conclusions do not follow from the premises. Ultimately, I had to admit that I could find no evidence that the physical God I had believed in for my entire life actually existed.

For a while, I felt bitter toward the culture I had been raised in and the people who had taught me what I perceived to be nothing but lies. I faced existential and epistemological crises. This period did not last long, but it was rough. It is no wonder people get defensive and afraid whenever someone says something that even hints at a conflict with their worldview.

This was a turning point in my life. From then on, I started studying all different fields of science and philosophy. I wanted to understand the world and humanity as broadly and in depth as possible. In my quest, I have come across many public intellectuals with deep and important things to say. Among them was the psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who introduced me to the concept of Jungian archetypes, the models of behavior built into the human unconscious that manifest in fictional characters.

With perfect timing, in one of those one-in-a-million events that I mentioned earlier, Jordan Peterson started a series of public lectures, which he posted to YouTube, about the significance of the Biblical stories from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Instead of taking them as literal historical events, like I had for my entire life, he treated them as a window into the depths of the human mind, as stories passed down for hundreds of generations, undergoing a kind of natural selection so that only the most meaningful and resonant parts remained, the rest lost to memory. Freed from the blinders of literalism, the Biblical stories exploded with meaning like I never imagined.

My thoughts turned back to consider once again the idea of God. Of course, a physical God was out of the question; the more I learned of science and philosophy, the more solidly that coffin was nailed shut. However, things I had heard believers say before, but had made no sense to me, started to come back. The idea that morality could not exist without a god. The idea that everyone worships something, whether they profess to or not. And for the first time in my life, it all started to make sense. God is not a person, not in the physical sense. God is an archetype.

Archetypes are the embodiments of human behavior patters. We see ourselves in fictional and mythological characters, and in forces of nature. This is where the gods of Ancient Greece and other pantheons come from. Capital-G God is the archetypal embodiment of all of the best qualities of human nature. This is why religious people take “God is good” as a truism, and why they say that without God, morality does not exist.

Atheists sometimes point to the things God does in the Bible which are obviously evil, and say, “God is not good.” But those instances are a product of the limitations of human knowledge at the time they were written. Archetypes are not made-up, they are discovered and studied. Since Biblical times, humanity has gone through revolutions of moral philosophy, so our understanding of the best of human nature, God, has matured. It is only natural that parts of the ancient views of God will appear barbaric to us. They were trying to understand, and, not having the philosophical knowledge of millennia to draw upon, got some of it wrong.

So why do most people insist on believing, and requiring others to believe, in a physical God rather than an archetypal God? Or from another perspective, what could drive me to speak such heresy? The answer lies in our psychology. We have a natural instinct to search for the meaning in facts, and to take that which is meaningful as factual. Only in the past few hundred years, since the dawn of science, have we begun to learn the difference.

Some would call me an atheist, because I believe there is no physical God. Others would call me a Christian, because I actively try to learn about and model my life around the best and fullest aspects of human nature, which God represents, and because I find value in the philosophy and culture that has come from the Christian tradition. I don’t care about the labels myself. It’s the honest search for truth that matters; after all, that’s in accordance with the nature of God.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Miscommunication and Mental Dictionaries

When you speak the same language as someone, it is assumed that you understand each other. After all, that is the point of language in the first place. However, the process is not nearly as smooth as we might believe. To understand this, let’s look at the mechanisms behind how language works. First, the person who wants to speak has a thought, and they want to produce the same thought in the other person’s mind. They translate the thought into words, and then speak those words. The person on the receiving end hears the words, and translates them into their own thoughts. If all goes well, the thoughts the second person ends up with are the same thoughts the first person started with.

Many of us naively assume everyone who speaks the same language has common definitions of the words in that language. After all, words mean what they mean, right? Well, let’s look at how dictionaries work. If you want to know the definition of a word, you look it up and the dictionary tells you. However, it tells you using other words, all of which can be found in the same dictionary. It is entirely self-referencing; it does not relate any word to any kind of objective meaning. When translating between thoughts and words, we use our own mental dictionaries, which are constructed by what we think words mean. Our beliefs about the meanings of words are not built around any kind of objective meaning, but are shaped by our own experiences. Thus, since everybody’s personal experiences are different, everybody’s mental dictionary ends up slightly different from everybody else’s.

Because of this, people can use the same words, but speak different languages in a sense. This is what happens when people “talk past each other,” or try to have a conversation, but feel like the other person does not understand a word they say. In order to solve this problem, we need to remember that the purpose of a conversation is to communicate a message, not to convince the other person that their definition is wrong. We might try using different words, but sometimes there aren’t enough words held in common to do so. If we want to be the most effective, we should concede to temporarily use the other person’s definition. The skill of being able to jump between definitions depending on who you are talking with can make it much easier to get along with lots of different people.

Let’s consider some examples of people using the same words with different meanings. First, “reality.” When a physicist talks about reality, they mean the objective aspects of the world that exist and have properties independently of anyone’s beliefs, knowledge, or perception. However, when a psychologist or philosopher talks about reality, they might mean that which affects one’s behavior and conscious experience. These people would say the pulled muscle in my hip is more real to me than the extreme poverty of a child in Nigeria, whereas a physicist would say they are equally real.

Another word that is used differently by different people, and which is the cause of much animosity among people these days, is “racism.” When most people talk about racism, they mean judging a person by their skin color instead of their individual characteristics. This, of course, can be done by anyone toward anyone. But when people in social justice circles talk about racism, they are referring to the extra hardships of life that are put on some groups of people and not others. To these people, being racist means participating, knowingly or not, in the features of the social system that allow these unfair hardships to happen. This kind of racism only flows in the direction of the underprivileged groups. If someone says, “it’s impossible to be racist against white people,” and the person they are talking to says, “that statement is racist,” they are talking about two different things, and must realize this quickly or their friendship will be in jeopardy.

There is little point arguing over whose definitions are correct. After all, it is not the words themselves that have meaning, but rather the meaning is produced when the words are translated by people into thoughts. If this idea seems strange, imagine speaking English to someone who only knows French. Before your words have any meaning to them, they must be taught to understand them. The same is true for someone who speaks the same language, but uses words differently.

In order to get along with people, you will want to practice listening for signs that you are using words differently. The most obvious is when the other person seems to make no sense at all. If an otherwise intelligent person says something that is ridiculously stupid, chances are that what they mean to say actually makes sense, and they used words that you use differently. A less obvious sign is if they say something that seems hurtful or prejudiced, especially if it is unprovoked. If you can’t tell by their words, check their mannerisms, because it is easier to tell someone’s intentions that way. Always remember that it’s not the words that are important, it’s the communication of one person’s thoughts to another.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Types of Planets in the Universe

Our world is a planet. This place, where we live our lives and strive for meaning and love, is one large stone among many flying around the sun. But our sun is not alone; there are an uncountable number of stars, and breakthroughs in the past few years have shown us that most if not all stars have their own planets. As of May 5, 2018, over 3700 planets have been found, and the number is growing exponentially. As we learn more about these extrasolar planets, we find that there are many different kinds of planets, some of which are not found in our solar system. So let’s take a look at all of the different and interesting types of planets that can be found around the universe.

For this discussion, I am not going to make any distinction between planets, dwarf planets, and moons. What counts as a moon or dwarf planet in our solar system could easily count as a planet if it were in the right orbit around the right kind of star. In our own solar system, Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and Saturn’s moon Titan are bigger than the planet Mercury, and they would have been planets themselves if they had not been caught by their parents.


Starting off with the kind of planet everyone knows about, rocky planets have solid surfaces. Earth is one, as are Mercury, Venus, and Mars. Because Earth is the only planet we know of that has life, we make a guess that the best place to look for life elsewhere in the galaxy is on rocky planets. We have just recently achieved the technology to find them in their host stars’ habitable zones, but we do not yet have powerful enough telescopes to look for life’s signatures in their atmospheres.

Gas giant

These planets are thought to have no surface. They are so big that the pressure from their gravity causes a smooth transition between their gaseous atmospheres and liquid cores. Jupiter and Saturn are our solar system’s representatives of this group. Because they are so massive, they are the easiest type of planet to observe around other stars.

Ice giant

When a planet that would be a gas giant is formed far enough away from its host star, it is formed from the water ice that collects in the outer parts of the stellar system, rather than the hydrogen and metals that collect in the inner regions. Like gas giants, they have no surface, but smoothly transition between gaseous atmosphere and liquid core. In our solar system, Uranus and Neptune are ice giants.

Ice ball

Everyone's favorite.

Like ice giants, planets that are small enough to be rocky but are formed in the outer regions of the solar system where water ice is abundant have a high concentration of ice. Such planets are like Antarctica all the time. Ceres in the asteroid belt, and Pluto and its friends in the Kuiper belt are our neighborhood ice ball planets.

Icy Ocean

There is a special world type that, as far as we know, only exists as moons around gas or ice giants. These moons are far enough from their parent star that their surfaces are covered in thick ice, but the gravity difference across them from the giant planet they orbit causes internal friction, which heats them up inside. These worlds have vast oceans beneath their icy shells, like the Earth’s molten mantle beneath its rocky crust. It is thought that the conditions at the bottom of these oceans might be right for organic molecules to form life, and so they are of interest to exobiologists. Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus are icy ocean worlds.

Tidally locked

Full, half, or crescent, we always see the Man in the Moon.

These are technically not a different kind of planet, but they are interesting enough to have their own mention. When rocky planets are too close to their host stars, the same side always faces the star. They are close enough that the difference between the star’s gravity on one side of the planet and the other is great enough that the heavier density clumps of the planet get stuck pointing toward the star. It is kind of like how balloons float with the tie pointing downward. Our own Moon is tidally locked with Earth, which is why the same face always points toward us. Around stars that are small and dim, like red dwarfs, there can be Earth-sized tidally locked planets in the habitable zone. In fact, the closest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri, has just such a planet. Tidally locked habitable planets have been a hot topic of the astrobiology community, with debates about whether the climate and weather of such places could allow life to exist.

Our sun is not the only star to have planets. In fact, from our various methods of detecting exoplanets in our stellar neighborhood, we have learned that it is extremely rare for a star not to have a few. As with all endeavors to peer into the unknown, the exoplanet search has been a treasure trove of new, exciting knowledge, and we have discovered several exotic planet types that are not found in our solar system.

Hot Jupiter

The first planets we discovered around other stars were larger than Jupiter and had closer orbits than Mercury. This makes sense, because the bigger and closer a planet is to its host star, the more it pulls on that star, and the easier it is to see the signs that it’s there. We used to think gas giants had to be far from their stars, like our solar system’s outer planets, but now we know that inner gas giants are just as common.


Solar systems are made from collapsing clouds of gas and dust called protoplanetary disks. When this happens, all of the gravitational energy turns into heat, so small enough planets that are close enough to their suns are formed as magma balls. As eons pass, their outsides cool into rocky crusts, becoming the rocky planets with molten cores we are familiar with. Some planets around other stars, however, orbit so close that the heat from the sun keeps their surfaces molten after the formation phase. Magma planets can also be created when gas giants migrate too close to their host stars, and enough of their atmospheres get blown off that the remaining matter forms a molten rock ball.


No land.

Our solar system jumps from Earth’s mass to Uranus’s, a 15-fold increase. But there is no reason planets couldn’t form in this mass gap. Indeed, we have found plenty of planets around other stars with multiples of Earth’s mass in the single digits, sometimes called super-Earths. Based on solar system models, we suspect such planets to attract and hold onto more water than Earth, covering their entire surfaces. It is suspected that ocean planets might be far more common than Earth-like worlds with both ocean and land. If this is true, it offers an optimistic solution to the Fermi Paradox: that life is common in the universe, but it almost exclusively arises on ocean planets, where space programs and radio broadcasting are extremely difficult to invent.

Brown dwarf

There is no limit to how big a planet can be; or rather, if it is big enough, it is a star instead of a planet. Because of this, there is a gray area a few times heavier than Jupiter where we are not sure whether to call it a star or a planet. It may have a tiny bit of nuclear fusion in its core, but it is not hot enough to shine. These are called brown dwarfs, following the trend in stars from yellow dwarf, orange dwarf, and red dwarf.


Not actually what it looks like.

55 Cancri e is a strange planet. Made almost entirely of carbon, it is eight times the mass of the Earth, but only twice as wide. And what is another name for super-dense carbon? Diamond! That’s right, though extremely rare, there are planets in the universe that are made of diamond, though unfortunately their surfaces are probably covered in graphite. So I guess we could call them pencil planets? Still, 55 Cancri e is a creative spark for writers and artists envisioning a romantic future of humanity in space.

These exotic planets break open the possibility of many more rare planet types waiting to be discovered. Doubtless, this list will be much longer in the future. Heck, our descendants may advance enough someday that they will be able to create custom planets of their own. They might have planets with multiple surfaces, the matter in between carved out like matryoshka dolls. They might have planets covered in computronium, where life has advanced beyond biology and covered the surface with network circuitry, running their own virtual reality universe. For a galactic civilization, such feats of engineering would be child’s play. The universe is strange and wonderful and full of mystery waiting to be uncovered, and possibility waiting to be realized.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Reason: The Linchpin of Knowledge

Toolbelt of Knowledge:

Most people think they are more rational than average. Think about that for a minute.

All right, what have you concluded? Perhaps that most people are full of themselves. After all, “average” means by definition that half of all people are above it and half of all people are below it. So it is impossible for most people to be above average.

However, this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that most people are full of themselves. There are two leaps in logic that require more information. The first is that we need to know whether these people think being rational is a good thing. If they don’t, then incorrectly believing themselves to be more rational than average is self-debasing rather than self-exalting. I think it is safe to assume almost everyone believes being more rational is a good thing, so that hole is patched up. The second is about numbers. If being wrong about being more rational than average is what makes someone full of themselves, then only up to half of people can be full of themselves in this way. It might be true that most people are full of themselves; I don’t know. But, it is impossible to conclude it from this premise alone.

What we have just done is an exercise in reason. We all know what reason is. It’s figuring things out in a smart way. It’s the process of examining ideas and seeing if and how they fit together. It’s like taking apart a radio or a toaster to see how it works, except with ideas instead of technology. Reason is our distinguishing feature among life on Earth, the one thing we do better than all other animals, and the rest of the Toolbelt of Knowledge is useless without it.

Reason is a skill. It must be learned, trained, and kept in shape. We can do this by solving puzzles and mental challenges, contemplating philosophical ideas, listening to public intellectuals like Sam Harris and Bret Weinstein, and playing logic-based video games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

Like all tools, there are good and bad ways to use reason. One of the best is to update your mental picture of reality so that it fits better with true reality, at least in the ways that are important to you. For instance, a lot of people’s lifestyle decisions depend on what they believe about their ability to affect the environment. If you don’t believe humankind is responsible for the current trend of global warming, you might buy the cheapest electricity, drive a lot when there are alternative methods of transportation, vote for politicians promising to support coal and oil industries, etc. However, if you spend the time to learn about how the global climate works, properly exercising your skill of reason, your choices might be different.

The most common abuse of reason is rationalization, which is when we observe ourselves doing or believing something, and retroactively construct an argument for why it was logical.  It might have made sense if this logical reason was our motivation, but most of the time we get it wrong. We humans are more motivated by instinct than logic, and we fear that admitting this will make us seem irrational and lose us reputation points. However, quite the opposite is true. We all know people who are full of themselves, believing they are the most rational person in the world, but who have obvious blind spots on display for all to see. They cannot understand why nobody sees their genius. After all, they can give logical reasons for everything they do. To avoid the trap they have fallen into, we can take two steps. The first is admitting we are driven by instinct. The second is to listen regularly to people with all kinds of views, and recognize that one can be rational and still come to different conclusions from other rational people.

Another downside of reason is using it so much that you miss out on the things life has to offer. Reason has a purpose, and that is to figure things out. If you’re having a conversation with friends, or enjoying a good joke or other bit of entertainment, reason can get in the way. Remember, the most important thing in life is not to find out what is true all the time, but to do things that are meaningful, and sometimes that means putting reason on hold.

When you properly apply reason to your fundamental beliefs about yourself and reality, you never know where it will take you. It might challenge beliefs you hold deeply, and you may have to ask yourself whether you are going to follow the logic, or drop it and stick with your beliefs. Neither choice is wrong on principle; there is a proper time for both. When you are ready to follow where reason leads, you will find yourself in some places that are amazing, some that are devastating, and some that seem too weird to be true. However, as someone who has turned his worldview upside-down several times, I can attest that following reason into the dark and zany places is worth it one hundred percent.

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Multitude of Multiverses

Long ago, we believed the Earth, the World, and the Universe were just about the same thing. The heavens were above, and the watery abyss below, and the Earth stood in the middle on its immovable foundations. In the more scholarly parts of the world, the Earth was known to be a sphere, but still thought to be the center of the Universe, with the sun, moon, and stars revolving around it. Since then, a series of world-changing scientific revolutions showed that the Earth revolves around the sun, the sun and all the visible stars are just a tiny section of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of 50 in the Local Group, which is one of 100 galaxy clusters in the Virgo Supercluster. Yet the observable universe is so vast that 10 million superclusters fit inside it.

Click to enlarge.

The observable universe is as far as we have been able to see. However, there is no reason to believe reality ends there. Time and again, the Universe has been discovered to be bigger than we thought, so why should it be any different now? Perhaps if we could look far enough in space, back in time, through another dimension, or outside of the space-time continuum, we would find the whole of physical reality to be as much bigger than we think it to be now as our current picture is to the view that Earth is most of reality—many universes, or a multiverse.

How would a multiverse come to be, and how could we know about it? You might think that if something is outside of what is observable to us, then by definition we cannot observe it. However, most multiverse hypotheses are not theories themselves, but the logical conclusions of other theories, which make other, more testable predictions. It actually turns out to be very difficult to come up with a theory that encompasses the entire observable universe throughout space and time without getting a multiverse or two on the side.

Today, we will look at several possible reasons why multiverses might exist, including physical and philosophical. We will also examine the arguments for why this universe might be the only one.

Arguments for a multiverse:

Quantum Many Worlds
The multiverse that most people are familiar with from science fiction is the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics. There have been many a Star Trek episode where a hole opens up in space in front of the Enterprise, and another Enterprise emerges, complete with all of the crew members, but everything is just a little bit different. It is a handy way to write a “what if” story, where in the other universe a key moment for the story played out differently.

Let’s look at the science behind the Many-Worlds hypothesis. Now the average person gets exposed to quantum physics either from science fiction or from modern mystics, both of whom use the word “quantum” as a substitute for “magic;” an empty term meant to convince people the speaker knows what they are talking about. Quantum physics is often described as strange and weird, the same adjectives that are used to describe consciousness, supernatural creatures, spooky coincidences, etc. But just because the same words are used does not mean they have anything to do with each other. Matter can be solid, liquid, gas, or plasma, but that does not mean all matter is made of earth, water, air, and fire. Quantum physics is a real science, the study of the basic building blocks of matter and energy at the scale of atoms and their parts. So let’s leave all of our preconceptions behind and take a look at the real weirdness of quantum physics.

Before quantum physics, the Universe was thought to be deterministic. There was a thought experiment called “Laplace’s Demon,” in which it was imagined that if there were a mind that knew the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe with infinite precision, that mind would be able to use Isaac Newton’s laws of motion to predict everything that happened in the Universe until the end of time. Everything was thought to be determined ahead of time—not planned or fated, but flowing naturally by the laws of physics with no possibility of changing course.

The essence of the weirdness of quantum physics is that it throws determinism out the window. With classical physics, if you set up two experiments exactly the same, they give you exactly the same result every time. That’s determinism. But in a quantum experiment, you can set up two systems exactly the same, and they can give you different results. For instance, sodium-24 is an unstable atom that decays into magnesium-24, with a half-life of 15 hours. This means that if you have a bunch of sodium-24 atoms, then in 15 hours, roughly half of them will have turned into magnesium-24. This means that if you look at an individual sodium-24 atom, there is a 50% probability that it will decay within 15 minutes, and a 50% probability that it will not. This probability is baked into the fabric of reality, and does not depend on some internal clockwork of the nucleus. Rather than deterministic, quantum physics suggests that at the fundamental level, the Universe is probabilistic.

For myself, I am perfectly happy with accepting quantum physics as probabilistic, that reality itself has an element of chance that cannot be explained away. This view is known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. But many people see this as ignoring the question, and insist that there must be some explanation that resonates with a deterministic intuition (or a consciousness-based reality intuition, but that is a topic for another time). One of the most popular explanations is what we have been waiting for, the Many-Worlds interpretation.

The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum physics says that every time a particle does something that is probabilistic, a new universe branches off in which each possibility happens. If there is a 50% chance that a particle goes to the right and a 50% chance that it goes to the left, then there will be two universes, one in which the particle goes to the right, and one in which it goes to the left.

Schrodinger's Cat. The release of the poison is triggered by the radioactive decay of an atom, so according to the Many-Worlds hypothesis, there are two universes, one in which the cat is alive, and one in which the cat is dead.

The Many-Worlds hypothesis is often explained in terms of choices. It will be said that when you get up in the morning, there will be one universe in which you have cereal for breakfast, and one universe in which you have toast. But this is a misrepresentation. It is not merely choices that cause branching universes, but any time any particle does anything probabilistic. Few people pause to consider the massive implications of this. There are 10^27 atoms in your body alone. That is more than the number of stars in the observable universe. According to the Many-Worlds hypothesis, these atoms are creating branching universes all the time, sometimes at rates much shorter than seconds. The sheer number of universes that would exist under the Many-Worlds hypothesis is beyond comprehension, even for someone like me who spends a lot of time thinking about the size and scope of the universe.

I personally don’t subscribe to the Many-Worlds interpretation, because particles do not behave according to discrete probabilities, but probability densities. To explain what that means, I’ll take us back to the unstable sodium-24 atom. With a 50% chance it will decay within 15 hours and a 50% chance it will decay after 15 hours have passed, that means there will be two universes, right? Not so fast. If we change the time frame—say, 30 hours—then there is a 75% chance it will decay before, and 25% chance it will decay after. This would mean there are three universes in which the atom decays before 30 hours, and one universe in which it decays afterward. But we can change the time again, say 20 hours, 15 minutes, and 22 seconds, and run the probabilities again. In fact, we can set up our time windows to be arbitrarily small, each with its own infinitesimal probability. This would mean that for a single atom, an infinite number of universes would be created. In 50% of these infinite universes, the atom decays before 15 hours, in 25% of the universes, it decays after 30 hours, etc.

Following the Many-Worlds interpretation to its logical conclusion, we don’t end up with a set of discrete universes, but a continuous infinite-dimensional smear of universe-ness. This does not mean it is not true, but if the reason to consider the Many-Worlds interpretation was because the idea of probability being an inherent feature of reality was too weird, it fails, because the explanation it provides is even weirder.

Hubble Volumes
Now for something that is definitely true, but may or may not count as a multiverse depending on your definition. Far off in the depths of space, there are two distances that could be considered the edge of the universe. These distances are spheres that are centered around the Earth, or rather, centered around whoever is doing the observing no matter where in the universe they are. The first is the particle horizon, which is the distance light has had time to travel in the age of the universe. Our universe began 13.8 billion years ago, which means that from 13.8 billion light years away, light from the beginning of the universe is reaching us now. As time goes on, the particle horizon expands at the speed of light. This makes sense, because when the universe was a million years old, the particle horizon was a million light years in radius, and when the universe is a trillion years old, it will be a trillion light years in radius.

But there is another sphere which is important too. The universe is not just sitting still, but it is expanding. The farther away two points are from each other, the faster they are moving apart (assuming they aren’t held together by gravity or other forces). This means there is a distance from Earth at which space is moving away at the speed of light, which is called the cosmic event horizon. Because nothing can travel faster than light, nothing that passes across the cosmic event horizon can ever affect Earth or send signals that could affect Earth.

Whichever is smaller at any given time, the particle horizon or the cosmic event horizon, contains the observable universe. Right now, the cosmic event horizon is around 16 billion light years away, so we have a couple more billion years of new light reaching us before things start vanishing across it.

There isn’t one single observable universe. Rather, every point in space has an observable universe centered around it. Our observable universe is centered on Earth, 13.8 billion light years in all directions. But if we went to the Andromeda galaxy next door, its observable universe would be 13.8 billion light years in all directions centered on it. When talking about the observable universe centered on a point other than the Earth, it becomes confusing, so instead we will call it a Hubble volume, after Edwin Hubble who discovered the expansion of the universe. A galaxy on the edge of our Hubble volume would have its own Hubble volume centered on it, and we would be at the edge of its Hubble volume. Now imagine a galaxy on the opposite side of that Hubble volume. We now have two Hubble volumes that do not overlap. In a sense, we have two different universes. And since we have no indication that there is an end to space, there may be an infinite number of non-overlapping Hubble volume universes. If you interpret this as a multiverse, there is no question that a multiverse exists.

Theory of Everything
The universe as we know it had a beginning, the big bang. It might have been the beginning of time, or it may have been a transition from another kind of universe. Either way, when we try to calculate back in time to the earliest moments of the big bang, our current understanding of physics doesn’t work. That’s fine; after all, we have two theories, Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity, and they don’t fit together. Although in this era of the universe they respectively describe the extremely small and the extremely large, the instant of the big bang falls under both of their domains.

In order to understand the beginning of the universe, we need to bridge the gap between Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity. Right now we have two major contenders for such a Theory of Everything: String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity, though neither of them have been tested. Both theories predict the existence of a multiverse, so if either of them is true, our universe is not alone.

But let’s consider the possibility that both String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity are false, and some other Theory of Everything that we have not thought of yet is correct. Such a theory must be able to describe the beginning of the universe, either from Nothing or from another universe.  No matter what it is, whatever principle or substance caused our universe to come to be would logically cause a multitude of other universes to be created for the same reason. In fact, I think it would be quite difficult, if not impossible, to formulate a theory of how the universe began that did not leave us with a multiverse.

If truly no physical law acts upon a State of Nothing, then Nothing cannot remain as it is, nor can there be any limit on what would come from it, because such a limit would count as a law of physics. If that is true, then everything that is logically and mathematically possible must exist, though in completely separate spacetime continua. These possible-made-real universes would range from those with the conditions for life like our own to emerge, to many kinds of universes where life is impossible, to universes that blink out of existence the moment they appear, to the really bizarre, like universes where a single particle corkscrews through space eternally, or where time loops back on itself and events repeat in an eternal cycle.

Arguments against a multiverse:

It is untestable
The most common criticism against the existence of any kind of multiverse is that it can never be tested. If these other universes are disconnected from ours, how could we possibly be able to measure them? It is a fair point, and reminds us to approach the topic with due skepticism, but it isn’t really an argument against a multiverse’s existence. Furthermore, there are some kinds of multiverses that we might, in fact, be able to detect. Gravitational wave detectors might be able to pick up signals from before the big bang, which would confirm that our universe was born from another universe. If String Theory is true, then we might be able to see signs that our 3-brane universe bumped into another 3-brane universe traveling through a fourth dimension. So while some types of multiverses really are untestable, like the physical existence of all things possible, there are some types of multiverses that we simply do not have the technology to test yet.

Strong Anthropic Principle
If our universe is the only one, then there are no other spacetime continua, no extra dimensions, and nothing at all, including space and time, before the big bang. However, in the laws of physics there are several physical constants, which describe the relative scales of things. For instance, the speed of light links space and time, the fine structure constant determines the strength of the electromagnetic force, and Planck’s constant sets the size of atoms. The number of possible combinations of physical constants that can support life is massively dwarfed by the number of combinations that prohibit life from existing. If there is only one universe, then it would be ridiculously unlikely for that one universe to be able to support life. This problem doesn’t have an official name, but I call it the Teleological Paradox, meaning the paradox of apparent design.

If there is a multiverse, then everything that can happen does happen, and the Teleological Paradox goes away. But if there is only one universe, there must be another resolution. One possibility is the Strong Anthropic Principle, the hypothesis that it is impossible for conscious, intelligent minds not to exist. If this is the case, then it is not correct to say the Universe came into being with the conditions for life, but rather the necessity of intelligent minds caused the Universe to come into being.

The Strong Anthropic Principle breaks causality as we know it. In all the rest of our experiences, causality goes from past to future. The Strong Anthropic Principle, on the other hand, says that future events (the existence of intelligent minds) cause the past (the beginning of the universe). The claim that intelligent minds must exist is also arbitrary; there is no more reason that intelligent minds necessarily exist than that elm trees necessarily exist, or that ringed planets necessarily exist. The only reason intelligent minds are chosen as the basis is to patch the Teleological Paradox. Furthermore, we might expect the Strong Anthropic Principle to make a much smaller universe, perhaps just a dwarf galaxy or star cluster, because the rest of the universe isn’t necessary for life. So although the Strong Anthropic Principle has no logical contradictions, it is a very weak explanation for why the universe can support life.

Intelligent Design

Another possible way for our universe to be the only one is if it was created intentionally so that we might exist by a personal God who exists independently of physical reality. But consider this: we have seen through our telescopes that the Universe is vast beyond comprehension. Remember, the universe is expanding, which means the farther something is from us, the faster it is moving away. Almost all of the trillions of galaxies scattered all over the observable universe will be pushed farther and farther away, until they cross the cosmic event horizon, which, remember, is the distance at which the expansion is faster than light. Once this happens, it will be physically impossible to reach them, or even see them anymore. If the Universe was created for us by an intelligent designer, we would either expect these galaxies to be reachable someday, or to not exist. If the goal was to create a universe where intelligent life would arise, it would be far easier to create a single galaxy, or even a single solar system, because that is all that is needed.

Perhaps God created all of those far-off galaxies to show his grand splendor, that the more technologically advanced we get, the greater we find the universe to be, and the more awe we feel for its creator. That makes sense, but let’s follow it through to its full implications. If God created multitudes of galaxies beyond the Virgo Supercluster to display his majesty, then why not for the same reason create a multitude of equally splendorous universes? I think that, even if the cause of the universe was that it was designed by a God, we still have good reason to believe there is a multiverse.

Instinctive Design
Finally, there is the option of some kind of unconscious mind, like the Force or a sleeping God, which created the universe with the right conditions for life out of instinct rather than intent. It may be that this kind of being would create one universe, since one is all that is needed for life. Being instinctive rather than intelligent, it might end up filling the universe with galaxies as a by-product. However, I would expect a universe created by such a being to be teeming with life on every planet, moon, and asteroid, and so far we have found no evidence of life from anywhere besides Earth.


There are many physical and philosophical theories that hint toward the idea that our universe is not the only one, that there may be several universes, or an infinite number, all with different properties, dimensions, and contents. If this universe is the only one, we run into the Teleological Paradox, that the conditions being right for intelligent life to exist is too improbable to be coincidence. Each of the Teleological Paradox’s possible resolutions predict either that we would more likely find ourselves in a universe that looks quite different from this one, or that we have a multiverse anyway. There is no evidence that a multiverse exists, but with all the possibilities, I would not be surprised if one day we discover, in the depths of time and space or in the hearts of black holes, other universes lying hidden.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Giving Star Wars Episode 7 a Good Story

Star Wars has always been the space opera of my life. After seeing the original trilogy when I was about 4 years old, I’ve seen the first six movies each about a hundred times. Though people hate on the prequels, and not without good reason, I like them anyway. I have read a good half of the hundred-odd books in the Legends timeline, which was canon before Disney. However, I have had mixed feelings about the new films. At first, I thought it was only that I had to get used to an alternate timeline, and I would grow to love them just as much as all of the other Star Wars stories. But I am finding I like them less as time goes on, not more, and I am starting to see it is because the stories really are bad.

First, the new movies ignore everything else that has happened in the Galaxy. There is a vast and rich world built up, with plenty of planets available to choose from. In the first six movies, Tatooine appeared in four of them, Coruscant in three, Naboo in two, and Dagobah in two. Yet in the new movies, none of the planets the characters visit have been mentioned before (excluding Rogue One). It is as if the new writers want everyone to forget that all of the other Star Wars stories existed.

Second, the new movies run hard into the scale-magnitude problem. The dialog would aim to convince us that the fight between the Resistance and the First Order is on par with, and in some cases greater than, the struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire. But there is no effort put into showing this, and instead everything looks tiny, like it could have been a squabble between two small countries. In order to write a satisfactory story where the entire galaxy hangs in the balance, you have to interlace the presentation with hints of the scale of the galaxy that is supposedly hanging in the balance. The original trilogy did this well by dropping mention of things like the Senate and the Clone Wars, and the prequel trilogy did it better by having much of the action take place at the Republic capital with political drama in the background. In the new trilogy, there is simply nothing there to care about.

These problems got my imagination spinning, and I found that with just a few tweaks, Episode 7 could have fit in much better. Here is my version of an alternative Episode 7, in a form similar to a title crawl:

It is a tenuous time in the Galaxy. The Empire has collapsed, and in its place two powers have arisen: the New Republic, and the Imperial Remnant. Furious at the New Republic for claiming what they perceive to be rightfully theirs, the Remnant has been building a secret weapon, a cannon that can fire deadly beams of energy through hyperspace and has such great accuracy that it can pinpoint any city on any planet in the Galaxy. After a demonstration, they have turned their eyes to the city-state of New Alderaan on the planet D'Qar in the Ileenium system, the New Republic’s symbol of hope and renewal, where Queen Leia struggles to rebuild her people. Meanwhile, the New Jedi Order has fallen, and Luke Skywalker has vanished, leaving only a map with an old friend on the backwater world of Jakku.

As you can see, not much has changed. I’ve thought since the beginning that Starkiller base was a stupid idea, especially since it took the economic power of the entire galaxy to build the death stars. The events of the story could play out mostly the same, just on a smaller scale and with ties to the rest of the series. This time, it is not the galaxy that is threatened, only a single city, but by making it the revival of Alderaan, whose destruction had been the symbol of the Empire’s power, the stakes feel momentously higher.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Separation of Fact and Meaning

Meaning and Purpose:
Jungian Archetypes
The Most Important Question
Fact and Meaning

One of the most natural questions to ask is, “What is the meaning of life?” Why are we here on this planet, existing as living beings with the abilities to have conscious experiences, learn about the Universe, and make choices about how to act in the world? What is the purpose of our existence? This question is near and dear to us because we are built to focus our lives around a purpose, and we have a primal craving for that purpose to be as worthwhile as possible.

When we speak of “meaning,” there are three possible definitions. The first has to do with communication. When one person wants to get an idea from their head to someone else’s, they use words or non-verbal signals, and we say that these signals carry meaning. I have imbued every sentence on this blog with this kind of meaning, with the hope that you will receive it when you read it. The second kind of meaning is the wake of physical signs that are left after an event or series of events. If you walk into a room and see balloons and streamers in disarray, tablecloths with stains, and paper plates with crumbs, it means there has just been a birthday party in this room, and no one has cleaned it up yet. This kind of meaning is what detectives look for at crime scenes, and what scientists look for in experiments and observatories.

The meaning we are interested in for this discussion is the third kind, the sense of meaning, which we get when we feel our choices and efforts are in line with a worthwhile purpose. At the center of our natures, what we humans want to do more than anything else is that which is meaningful. That’s why I sacrifice time that could have been spent playing video games to write blog posts and stories. Writing itself doesn’t give me much pleasure. In fact, coming up with the next words can be uncomfortable, or even painful if I really push myself. But when I get something finished and ready to present to the world, the sense of meaning it gives me is worth every moment that could have been spent on things that would have given me immediate gratification.

We humans have sought purpose and meaning from outside of ourselves for as long as we have been around. We have looked to the Earth, the Universe, and the metaphysical nature of Reality, in the hope that we can find some principle or message woven into the fabric of existence that will give us a purpose that is so noble that we will perpetually be driven toward it and our lives will be constantly awash in meaning. However, my thoughts on the matter have led me to conclude that when we do this, we are looking in the wrong place. Meaning of the third kind comes from acting in accordance to purposes that resonate with our own instinctual natures, and are not determined in any way by the facts of our environment or our world.

To support this claim, I argue that the sense of meaning is different from the first two kinds of meaning, both of which depend on external facts. First, we observe that simply acting as you are told does not necessarily give us a sense of meaning, whether the person we follow is a parent, a ruler, or even a God. You might say that if God writes our natures into us so that we find following his instructions to be meaningful, then the meaning of life is found in God’s commands, but this is not correct. Even in such a scenario, our sense of meaning still comes from our actions lining up with the purpose found within our nature, not from the content of God’s commands.

As for the second kind of meaning, following trails of evidence can teach us facts about the world, past events, or future possibilities, but we can always ask, “so what?” At the smallest level, the building block particles of reality behave somewhat like particles and somewhat like waves. So what? Gravity is the bending of space and time. So what? Dumping waste chemicals into rivers can kill fish and make people sick. So what? Facts by themselves don’t give us purpose, they only show us how effective our actions will be at furthering our purposes. Therefore our purpose-oriented sense of meaning cannot be the same as the second definition of “meaning.”

From this point on, when I use the word “meaning,” it is understood to be the third definition, the sense of meaning that comes from aligning one’s actions with one’s instinctually inspired purposes.

Some people say the Universe has no meaning. This is not correct; in fact, as they say, it is not even wrong. Meaning and fact are completely separate realms of existence, so trying to talk about the meaning of something that can only be described in factual terms is nonsense. Meaning exists within us, when the messages we hear resonate with us, giving us energy and driving us toward a noble purpose. This is what we mean when we talk about having a meaningful life.

The separation of fact and meaning leads to a very unfortunate dilemma regarding a very important word: truth. Most people take for granted that if something is true, it is both factual and meaningful. But we have just shown that fact and meaning are uncoupled, independent of one another, so there is no guarantee that what is factual will also be meaningful, or that what is meaningful will also be factual.

In the face of this dilemma, some people use “truth” to describe that which is factual, and not necessarily meaningful. Many scientists and science-enthusiasts hold this view. The problem with this is that “truth” has a feeling to it, a ring of purity. Truth is supposed to be a good thing, supposed to set you free. In a fact-only view of truth, there are many things that are true, but knowing them would only bring suffering.

Others use “truth” to mean that which is meaningful, and not necessarily factual. Professor Jordan Peterson, whom I look up to as a role model in many ways, is one of them. The problem with this view is that it can be used as an excuse to declare things to be true without much justification. When two people with sizable followings declare contradictory “truths” in this manner, it can create conflict, which, in the more extreme cases, can become violent.

Others simply refuse to separate fact and meaning. This leads to problems, because they prioritize intuition over evidence, and it can lead to rejecting important, well-supported facts, like that humans are influencing the Earth’s climate, and that we are part of the same tree of Evolution as all other living things on Earth. What these people fail to realize is that these facts do not dictate what our purpose should be, rather they inform us how best to live in accordance with our purpose. In denying well-supported facts, they sabotage their own purpose, making it harder for them and those around them to live meaningfully.

Still others decide to throw out the word altogether, claiming there is no truth, which, as you may imagine, does not sit well with anyone who holds a different view. My own tongue strains with derision toward these people, so I will decline to comment further about this view today.

My own way of dealing with the fact-meaning gap is to simply say there are two kinds of truth, that which is factual and that which is meaningful. We can call these literal truth and metaphorical truth. “Most snakes have fangs” is a literal truth, whereas “we are filled with snakes” is a metaphorical truth, signifying the side of human nature that runs counter to our nobler purposes. If we understand that there are two kinds of truth, it is not very hard to figure out from the context which is which.

There is a good chance that you do not like the conclusion that fact and meaning are separate. I know I don’t. Deep inside of ourselves, we want facts to be meaningful. After all, one of the most powerful ways to show meaning is by telling stories, which come in the form of a bunch of fact-like statements. But as any good storyteller knows, there is a reason why scientific papers are boring, but science fiction novels are gripping, even if they explain the same facts. That reason is because well-written stories tickle our senses of beauty, empathy, and archetypal resonance. We wish the same thing were true for reality, but we do not have to look very hard to see that Reality is not like stories. Tragedy strikes with no bright side. Patterns seem to appear and lead us nowhere. Ultimately Reality behaves exactly as we would expect if it were governed by clockwork mechanics and probability, not by human archetypes.

Meaning exists. It is not found in the facts of science, but in our own actions. As living beings, we are driven to do things, to devote our lives to projects and responsibility. Some life projects are extremely meaningful, others less so. What determines this is not the nature of the Universe, or how we have come to be as we are, but how well our actions resonate with our internal unconscious drives. The more our actions and drives are in harmony, the nobler we perceive our purpose to be. On the other hand, we find ourselves in a world made of facts, which put conditions and constraints on how we can go about our purposes. Meaning and fact are separate, but they are both important. Our sense of meaning points us toward purposes worth pursuing, and facts tell us how best to pursue our purposes.