What Do We Know?

This rant is a response to my viewing of part of a movie called "What the Bleep Do We Know?"
I skipped great boring chunks of it. Twice.

What do we know? Actually, quite a lot.

There is a movement called, I think, post-modern relativism. It has been shown by experiment (in 1996) that deliberate nonsense can be published in at least one of its journals, "Social Texts", because the editors and article reviewers cannot recognise nonsense when it is submitted to them as a hoax. The title of the hoax article was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". I am deeply suspicious that "What the Bleep Do We Know" has its roots in the post-modernist kind of thinking. Post-modern, of course, is itself an oxymoron.

The movie seems to me to be a rambling and foggy interpretation of the more difficult frontiers of science, with the hope of injecting some non-materialistic conclusions. I define "non-materialistic" as meaning "not governed by the laws of Nature" or alternatively, that the laws of Nature themselves are directly susceptible to human desires. The movie is nonsense.

It makes a big, confusing parade of some of the wonders of recent science and mathematics, and implies that this legitimises ideas as daft as "channeling" the voice and insights of a thinker from 30,000 years ago. If Ramtha actually lived then, can he tell us where, and what we might find there to support his channeler's claims? By what system of arithmetic did he compute the thirty thousand?
A mere MMX annua (two thousand and ten years) ago, Europe's most successful empire used an astoundingly clumsy system of arithmetic. Their engineers and architects managed to function quite well with it, and we still admire Palladio and Vitruvius Pollio, but their lack of a zero still burdens us with people who think that this century did not begin in the year 2000.

The post-modern deconstructionist school does not understand the basic philosophy of science, although it likes to parade a sort of shallow erudition about modern scientific theory. This may sound like an arrogant statement, but I shall refer later to Sokal's experimental proof.

The trouble addressed by the post-modern school, and it is troubling, is that the establishment has taken possession of the power of science and technology, and that the world is not yet governed by enlightened democratic forces. But the establishment has not actually abandoned the traditional pre-scientific world-view.

For example, the electromagnetic spectrum at frequencies lower than the infrared is devoted to disseminating capitalist propaganda and worse. Labor-saving devices are the means of impoverishing the laboring classes, instead of alleviating their toil. Religious beliefs and attitudes that would halt science dead in its tracks, and technology with it, are nevertheless permitted to make use of such technologies to reach and stultify huge audiences.

But it is wrong to blame this upon science.

If you dislike the plutocracy, the oligopoly of the mass media, the worship of arbitrary power, and so forth, your best ally for contesting their right to rule your mind is the skeptical approach, which to science is the highest virtue.

But you do have to exercise strenuous mental discipline. You must continually ask:

"How do I know this?; How do they know that?; What would prove it false?"

You generally cannot do it to the sound of loud rock music. Probably not Mahler or Stravinsky either.

The deconstructionist manifesto, if I understand it (Do they?) is that modern scientific discoveries have shown that there is no absolute truth, even in science. Therefore, they hold, all belief systems are equally valid. In the old days, it was believed that science showed that persons with African ancestry, and persons who could bear and suckle infants, were of inferior intelligence to white males. The opinion of the majority of people is now that such a proposition is false. More significantly, all available analysis of the chemical basis of genetics, and also all artificial simulations of intelligence, show that the hereditary differences are slight, and offer no support for the notion of racially or sexually intrinsic mental or other superiority. But the post-moderns would have us suppose that this is fundamentally a matter of fashion and varying cultures, because science can prove nothing definite.

This manifesto is wrong on at least three counts.

For a complete debunking of the post-modernist movement's ideas, you can hardly do better than to read "Fashionable Nonsense" by Alan Sokal (the hoaxer) and Jean Bricmont. Its subtitle is "Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science"

What do we in fact know?

The Earth looks flat, and appears to be quite stationary. Even meteorologists refer to "sunrise" and "sunset" for convenience. But we are fairly sure that the Earth is round, and that it rotates. The easiest way to account for our observations of the positions in the sky of the planets is, that we and they orbit the Sun. I have read that Einstein's equations work equally well, and predict exactly what we see, if we assume that the entire Universe rotates daily around us.
But I presume that the mathematics gets more tricky.
It is in fact irrelevant to a herdsman's life that it is the Earth that is rotating. But the Church was ready to torture Galileo over that question

From utterly primitive times to the first large agrarian societies, like China or the Sumeria of Gilgamesh, the knowledge acquired by these societies was appreciable. They knew about seasons, seed-planting, simple food preservation techniques, fire, and protection from wild beasts and perhaps predatory humans. This was not merely arbitrary opinion.

From the time of Gilgamesh, or the start of the rule of the Pharoahs, to the end of the Roman Empire, we, humanity, acquired some very useful knowledge about the world. To be fair to the Roman Empire, much that was lost in the Dark Ages was recovered in the Renaissance, from ancient classical texts. It is not mere intellectual fashion that wine keeps best in a corked bottle.

But nowadays we know a lot more than the people of the Renaissance.

If we are honest, and think hard enough about it, we know that the Universe only responds to our wishes if we know how it works. You can talk to a mountain, but if you want it cast into the sea, you use explosives. The manufacture, stabilization, and detonation of nitroglycerine involves subtle chemistry and physics. My own brother took me inside a mountain in Wales, in which gigantic caverns were extracted in this manner, by his employers, the British Central Electricity Generating Board. Britain has since lost the understanding that such activities do not belong in private hands.

Two thousand years ago there may have been some doubt about whether faith or science was the better basis for civil engineering.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when astronomers predicted that it would be impossible to know about the composition of distant stars. But helium, which exists on Earth, was first discovered in our own star. That's why it's called Helium, which means roughly 'the sun-element'. That helium was almost a hundred million miles away, where no human being can ever set foot and live. It was found by analysing the spectrum of the Sun's light. We also know, thanks to Arthur Eddington, that 'Blue Giant' stars like those in the Pleiades are larger than our own Sun, and have much shorter lives.

It is indeed futile to ask if a photon or an electron is "really" a wave or a particle, or even "where is that electron, and how fast is it going?" This is the reason that Einstein complained "God does not play dice with the Universe". It seems that Einstein was mistaken there. Quantum theory is entirely about probabilities. We can nevertheless create machines, dependent upon abstruse quantum theory properties of the electrons in semiconductors, that perform tasks (upon entirely deterministic problems) which used to require enormous human mental effort.

My own interpretation of the Second Commandment of Moses is that any model you make of the intimate details of Nature will have flaws. There will always be things that you do not know. If you use an inappropriate model in an inappropriate way, you and your descendants will suffer. That is why I abhor religious stubbornness about science.

In the days when the word 'queer' was an innocent adjective, J.B.S.Haldane stated that "the Universe is not only queerer than we think, it is probably queerer than we can think." He was a Scot and an adamant atheist. Eddington, an English Quaker, is reputed to have said the same, but using the milder phrase "stranger than".

The Renaissance

In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza, an exceedingly devout theologian, realised that monotheism implies that there is no logical possibility of supernatural "miracles". The Laws of Nature are necessarily God's first and most essential creation, and only an imperfect God would have made laws that he subsequently had to suspend on special occasions. This was about a century before the skeptic David Hume showed that historical evidence presumes that these Laws are invariant, and therefore historical evidence of a 'miracle' is an oxymoron.

The invention of the Gutenberg's Press was more important than Columbus's proof that the Earth is not flat, which was not new, nor actually conclusive.

Then again, Torricelli discovered barometric pressure in the 17th century. His demonstration that it is caused by the weight of the atmosphere shows that the story of a world-wide Flood, covering the highest mountains, is impossible. The entire atmosphere weighs less than a world-wide flood thirty-five feet deep, because thirty inches of mercury weighs about the same as thirty-five feet of water. Cornish miners found the same problem, when their pumps would not 'suck' water out of deep wells.

Since the Renaissance

But from the Renaissance until now, an astounding amount of knowledge -- of the workings of Nature -- has been acquired. Rather more than the entire increase from the days of the Pharoahs to the time of Shakespeare and Galileo.

To take one example: In Darwin's time, the only seemingly valid objection to the theory of Natural Selection was from a Scotsman whose name is unfamiliar to the general public. Fleeming Jenkin, (pronounced as if it were Fleming Jenkin) argued that if inheritance of desirable traits were by the mechanism characterised in the phrase "Royal blood", i.e. division by two for all inheritable attributes of each parent, then the seemingly advantageous traits would be diluted to less than one thirtieth after five generations, and less than a thousandth after ten. So natural selection would have progressively less to work with as the number of descendants of the originally favored animal increased. I believe that, given Jenkin's assumptions, his proof that Natural Selection couldn't work is valid.

But Mendel's discovery, although it was not known to Darwin, answers that objection. Any single favorable gene is either inherited full strength, or not at all. We now know the biochemical mechanism underlying Mendel's findings.

The forces of ignorance would like us to think that nucleic acids could not have evolved, even if animals could. It is true that we are unlikely to find fossil ribonucleic acid. But it is absurd to suppose that the Lord God invented one special set of biochemical mechanisms in addition to His general laws of the Universe. It is a reasonable assumption that DNA evolved from RNA, and that evolutionary biochemical processes somehow produced RNA. The notion that molecules capable of making copies of themselves could flourish and be naturally selected in the primordial soup violates no laws of chemistry. Spinoza would scoff at the idea that DNA/RNA are better proof of 'intelligent design' than the entire fabric of the laws of Nature. So would Thomas Paine.

It has even been reported, in National Geographic or Scientific American, that chemical "fossil remains" exist which show that what we might call a natural "atomic pile" aggregated itself in an ancient streambed and underwent a low-grade nuclear fission reaction, perhaps for years. I presume that this is not what the advocates of 'intelligent design' would cite as an example.

It is not very surprising that people who believe in eternal life but cannot believe that their God could wait a million years for them (actually more than four thousand million years) also cannot imagine the possibility that the laws of nature could produce nucleic acids without a conscious intervention. But this is called "proof by personal incredulity", and it is fallacious.

The Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

They are not related.

Quantum theory,

according to Heisenberg, implies that God does play dice with the Universe. It is not clear to me whether Schrödinger's Cat, a thought experiment like Bishop Berkeley's tree, is a paradox or a reductio ad absurdum proof that Einstein was right (about God playing dice) in some way.

Chaos theory and the Butterfly Effect.

The Butterfly Effect has nothing to do with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Atmospheric behavior is the behavior of gases, and is explained in terms of molecular effects, not atomic nuclei. Weather predictions assume that these phenomena are completely deterministic, and can be explained in terms of temperature, pressure, gravity, and the equilibrium between water, water vapor, heat, and the topography of the land.

The butterfly effect,

and chaos theory generally, applies when the predictive equations, although deterministic, are astonishingly sensitive to very small differences in the initial conditions. The butterfly effect says that that sensitivity is as great as the ratio between a tornado and the atmospheric disturbance of a butterfly's wing flap. One of the defining experiments was a simplified computer simulation of weather predictions, which seemed to be producing results fairly realistic for the simple data provided. After it had printed reports for about two weeks of the model, it was restarted to repeat the second week, using data printed out for the start of the second week. These data were entered by hand, to three or four significant figures. The model produced about the same predictions for the first day of the week, but after three days it was remarkably different. Careful checking revealed that the figures had indeed been entered correctly, showing that the forecast, even for a simple model, was sensitive to differences of one part in a thousand of the initial conditions.

Even James Clerk Maxwell knew this. He pointed out that "The same causes yield the same effects" does not imply that "similar causes yield similar effects". A slight difference in causes can produce an enormous difference in effects. A very small angular difference in the assassin's aim could have caused his bullets to miss John Kennedy, for instance.

The Mandelbrot set

is a remarkably beautiful theoretical construct in two-dimensional real/imaginary space where an operation is repeated if necessary endlessly upon the result of the previous iteration, and the result is tested for conditions that imply it will "diverge" to infinity. The Mandelbrot set is the set of all values for which divergence never occurs. Illustrations of it are aesthetically pleasing even to people with no interest in the underlying mathematics. Two starting points can be infinitesimally separated, and one will belong to the set while the other does not. But all points in the set have been proven to be connected, by methods too abstruse for my current grasp of mathematics. I'm really a physicist turned computer geek. Again, we have the fact of an infinite series of operations having results that are absurdly sensitive to the initial conditions.


Wittgenstein, encouraged by Bertrand Russell, hoped to devise a system of pure logic and language in which all statements could be proven either true or false. Gödel proved that this is an impossibility. All systems will enable you to construct paradoxes like "This is a lie", or the classical "All Cretans are liars" by Epimenides the Cretan.


Teller, of the prestidigitation team Penn and Teller, is scathing about channeling. "It's just low-grade ventriloquism. They do the funny voices, but you can see their lips move." But in the specific case of Ramtha, the channeller is making a doubly silly claim. How does Ramtha know that 30,000 years have passed since his birth, and what verifiable evidence can be produced about that date?

Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and belief in God.

Einstein on a number of occasions made it clear that he worshipped the search for the understanding of Nature as a devout man would worship his God. He personified the laws of nature as "der Herr Gott", and admired Baruch Spinoza. But he insisted that in no other way did he share the belief in God as a conscious Being. Likewise Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Francis Crick, assert that the actual physical realities of the Universe are quite wonderful enough in themselves.

We first heard of Crick, of course, as co-discoverer of DNA. He holds that if there were a God, it is blasphemous to imagine such a Being will ever be understood in terms of any religious creed that is written down, far less a creed or even a collection of "Holy Scriptures" that was compiled by a group of fourth-century bishops. Crick also is one of the proponents of the hypothesis that consciousness, and all its derivatives like the "soul", is a useful abstraction invented by the brain, and has no independent material or supernatural existence whatever. There are even some experiments that seem to show that motor neuron activity precedes the conscious thought "I am going to press that button now."

The US Academy of Science is at least 90% atheist. Thomas Henry Huxley was president of the Royal Society, and invented the term 'agnostic' to describe himself. Isaac Newton was a Unitarian, and found it expedient to conceal the fact. I would be tempted to say that belief in Christianity is incompatible with first-class scientific work. But one instance is sufficient to refute this hypothesis. I am fairly sure of two - Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans. It has been experimentally demonstrated quite recently that first class scientific work could still be done by a person with a staunch belief in God.

Sir Arthur Eddington was, I understand, a devout Quaker. He also was reputed to be the first person after Einstein to understand Einstein's Special and General Relativity theories. More than that, on his own initiative, he established the mathematical relationship which prescribes the internal temperature of a star, knowing only its mass and its percentage hydrogen content.

Likewise, the popular books of Sir James Jeans express a fairly definite belief in God, and Jeans was one of two who established the inadequacy of pre-quantum-theory physics, in the form of the "ultra-violet catastrophe" which showed that existing physics theory failed to account properly for the known radiation distribution from a perfect or near-perfect emitter called a "Black Body". The theory's catastrophe was that the quantity of energy emitted in the far ultra-violet must be infinite!

Max Planck had the brilliant intuition that if the energy could only be emitted in packets of a minimum size, proportional to the radiation's frequency, the catastrophe was averted. He then performed the necessary calculations, and showed that this "quantum" theory agreed with the observations.

But Jeans had established the existence of the problem.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that there is such a being as a first class "Creation Scientist".

A few Actual Facts that we do know,
established by scientific inquiry:

Scientific Refutations of Bible-based Beliefs

The entire weight of the atmosphere is less than the weight of water that would be required for a global flood a mere thirty-five feet deep. This was established when Torricelli took his column-of-mercury apparatus up a mountain, and showed that the weight of the air was what caused a vacuum to "suck" liquids into itself. So Noah's flood is a myth, or rather a wild exaggeration. If Mesopotamia is to you the whole world, a world wide flood is possible. If the only animals that matter to you are your own domestic stock, you can take two (or seven) of every kind. Noah was evidently not a beekeeper. To preserve your domestic honeybees, you'll need more than seven. Even if the hive is miraculously stocked with ten thousand eggs, you'll need worker bees to tend them.

DNA correlations show that not only are humans related to apes, but they are more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas or orang-utans. The evidence is like the DNA tests which conclusively convict or exonerate persons accused of murder, but about ten times better.

The Earth is between four thousand and forty thousand times older than the oldest evidence of proto-human habitation. It seems unlikely that it was "created" just for us.

The Big Bang

It was not something that the scientists made up because they liked the idea. They would have preferred that the Universe be infinitely old. The preferred explanation for the Red Shift of the galactic spectra and implied recession of the galaxies was the slow but continuous appearance of hydrogen atoms in the interstellar spaces, leaving an overall average steady state. It would require roughly one new atom per cubic kilometer per year. The undignified name Big Bang was coined by Fred Hoyle, to whom a Universe not infinitely old was obnoxious. He is reported as denying that he intended anything pejorative in the name. He (and two other astrophysicists, Gold and Bondi) had a more elegant explanation, the Steady State theory, dependent upon a tiny rate of continuous appearance of hydrogen. Hoyle was also the first theorist to explain the origin and existence of elements of greater atomic mass than iron, and is the author of many science fiction stories, space travel stories, which do not depend upon travellers exceeding the speed of light. The term 'Big Bang' was adopted by George Gamow, who was like Hoyle an astrophysicist, and a witty popular science expositor. But the sound of the Big Bang can still be heard, as a skyful of faint microwave radiation.

A Minimum Explanation More Astounding Than any Biblical Miracle

Good science requires the ruthless application of Occam's Razor to all hypotheses. We call it a razor because you can use it to cut out nonsense. William of Occam, a theological logician, ruled that no explanation should require more 'entities' than are necessary. It is almost "Keep It Simple" except that as others have shown, for every problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Little Green Men??


When radio-astronomers found microwave signals emitted as extremely fast regular pulses from a point in the sky, they coined the name 'pulsars' for the source objects. But the immediate impression was that the signals were a message from an intelligent source. So, the astronomers being English, the pulsars were tentatively dubbed LGM1, LGM2, LGM3 - where LGM stands for Little Green Men. But when the same patterns appeared in X-ray observations of the same sources, it became clear that the power involved in creating the signal was inordinate, while the signal was empty of information other than its frequency. The idea of a huge but empty signal coming from an intelligent civilization requires that our hypothetical beings are spending vast resources to achieve very little. It is an extravagant explanation.

A Parsimonious Explanation


A simpler explanation than little green men was found, predicted by existing astrophysical theory, but never observed before. Astrophysical theory says that when a star burns up all its fuel, it collapses under its own gravity. The most burnt-out stage of nuclear fusion is iron.

If small enough, the star becomes a ball of solid iron. The compression strength of iron is fairly well known. If the ball is too large, the atoms collapse, the star shrinks drastically, and its gravitational energy is converted to heat. Its angular momentum is preserved, so it spins much faster.

A spent star that is too large becomes a white dwarf, in which all the atoms have collapsed. The electrons and the nuclei no longer belong to each other. This even happens before the star has used up all its fuel. The electrons, by quantum theory, each occupy a much larger space than the far more massive nuclei. This is one of the paradoxes of quantum physics. In such a star, the electrons essentially are pushed together as closely as electrons can be packed, while the nuclei drift about inside that ball. Some are still colliding and fusing. The brightest star in our skies, Sirius, has a white dwarf companion. Its density is about 3000 times that of the core of the Earth. Its mass is about that of our Sun, so its diameter is quite small. But its surface temperature still exceeds the Sun's. It is a triumph of the astronomer's and telescope-maker's art that the companion of Sirius could be seen at all, let alone have its spectrum analysed. Procyon is another close, bright, hot star with a white dwarf companion.

Chandrasekhar's limit is the maximum mass possible for a white dwarf. The orbiting observatory called Chandra is named in his honor. At still larger masses, he coputed that gravitational forces defeat the forces by which electrons repel each other, the electrons and protons collapse together to form neutrons, and the entire star becomes a neutron star. It is like an enormous single atomic nucleus, somewhat more massive than our Sun, and about the diameter of a city. This also happens before the star is completely burnt out. Some material is still falling onto the surface, and converted to radiation. Any solid object within about a hundred miles of the star will be ripped apart by the tidal forces of its gravitational field. Ordinarily, of course, a hundred miles from the center of a star is hardly distinguishable from the center!

As the diameter of a star shrinks, its angular momentum is preserved. A neutron star is therefore spinning at more rotations per minute than the hard disk of the computer on which I am writing this. The residual electromagnetic radiation of the star rotates with its magnetic poles, which usually do not coincide with the axis of the star's rotation, and so the radiation is a beam that sweeps round as the star rotates. This is what accounts for the radio pulses (and as a matter of fact, X-ray pulses) emitted as seemingly digital signals.

Note that although this explanation is less outrageous than the idea of intelligent beings doing something supremely extravagant and pointless, it is a phenomenon well beyond the imagination of the writers of the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, or Revelation.

There is something even more collapsed than a neutron star. It is called a Schwartzchild Singularity or Black Hole. It has a gravitational field from which not even light can escape. The majority of astrophysicists now accept that certain observed phenomena indicate the presence of a Black Hole - which is itself, by definition, invisible. Hawking has shown that, by contrast to massive Blue Giant stars which have shorter lives than more modest stars, a Black Hole needs to be big. One that is too small will leak, explode, and cease to exist.