God is in the Details

I met with my friend Jim yesterday for a discussion about the plots of our novels-in-progress. One of his stories has a religious connection, and the issues of the nature of God what happens to us after death came up. Jim proposed unconventional hypotheses for each.

He crumpled a piece of paper and dropped it on the table. Does this act affect everything around it? he asked.

Of course, the answer is yes, for a couple of interrelated reasons. The first is that transferring mass from one place to another changes the local gravitational field. Objects around should shift ever so slightly due to the gravity wave that travels outward at the speed of light. Of course, we are talking in theory here. Gravity is the weakest of forces, so the effect would be too small to notice. Scientists are trying to detect gravity waves from continental shifts and exploding stars.

The butterfly effect, too, confirms that the paper’s movement has cosmic significance. When the topic of chaos theory captured the public’s attention a few years back, mathematicians explained how non-linear relationships can lead to magnifying effects. They explained how, in theory, a tornado in Rome could result from a the flap of a butterfly’s wing in New York. The changing air pressure caused by flight of the insect can precipitate other changes that multiply. Now, no one actually credits the cause of a tornado to a specific butterfly. There are a zillion other factors that come into play, factors that have a greater influence than that one specific butterfly. Still, the math of chaos theory provides a link between the two events.

The link, Jim said, provides a theoretical explanation for God. Effectively, God is in the details. If everything in the universe is linked, God is the sum total.

In all of our discussions, I assume a contrarian position. If the entire universe is God, I pointed out, then we just have a semantics issue. Instead of using an eight-letter word starting with “u” for the cosmos, we now have a three-letter word starting with “G”. What’s the difference? This definition of God is certainly far from the concept of God as an agent for creation, as an entity to be worshipped, or an omnipotent being with a consciousness that sees all, knows all, and cares whether we win the football game or not.

(The God-is-everything concept has another problem, namely that “everything” is equivalent to “nothing”. The word “amazing” is in excessive use these days. A performance was amazing, a movie was amazing, the weather was amazing, a person’s contribution to his community was amazing, that a celebrity would talk to me was amazing. The host on CBC morning radio must use the word two dozen times in each three-hour show. But a word that means everything has no real meaning. Kind of reminds me of hell: I’ve heard hot as hell, cold as hell, mad as hell, lonely as hell, slow as hell, crazy as hell, funny as hell…by now we sure as hell have a good idea of what hell is like, haven’t we?

Jim agreed that his definition of God was unconventional. But the proposal is still useful, he said, because his dropping the paper is recorded in the history and future of the universe. Suppose he dies after the change produced by the action begins to ripple outward at the speed of light. His action still living on, as we could, in theory, detect the ripple and backwind it to gain an understanding of his existence. His body dies, but his influence in the universe lives.

I worked on pinning Jim down. What’s the difference between that and a memory? Does Aristotle have life-after-death because we remember him? Is Julius Caesar’s essence still around because some of the oxygen atoms he might have breathed are in this very room? Jim hedged on whether this lasting physical influence could be called our “soul”, but he was, at least, arguing for some existence after death.

His biggest problem arises, I think, from quantum mechanics, which blurs the boundary between “in theory” and “in practice”. Here’s where that comes into play.

The influence of one’s actions can be seen as a transfer of information. We can pass information in two ways, by particle (we write a message on a ball and throw the ball to someone) or by wave (we speak the message, and sound waves ripple out to the listener’s ears). In the Second World War, ships on the high seas used blinking lights to send Morse code messages to each other while maintaining radio silence. Instead of the weak gravity wave that we mentioned earlier, let’s shift to the very feasible method of transmitting information (and energy) using light.

We blink the light, and the light heads outward. The information spreads in an ever-widening sphere. Yes, eventually it will reach the “edge” of the universe. But by that time, a couple of fates will have befallen it. The information will suffer from information contamination and information dilution.

The intensity of the spreading light carrying our information is decreasing with the square of the distance. At ten times the distance, the intensity is down by a factor of one hundred. At great distance, the signal is lost in the random background. This is not the same as an “it’s too small to notice” argument, because we are talking in theory, not in practice. The signal is, ultimately, decodable by its effect on something. A screen glows, an electron travels around a circuit, a signal travels from an observer’s eye to brain. If the signal is smaller than the background level of signals hitting the detector, the signal can’t be distinguished from the background. The information is lost. I’ll call that information contamination. If the background weren’t there, we could still detect the signal.

Light is a succession of electric and magnetic fields. When an electron accelerates, electromagnetic radiation (of which visible light is one form) results. Here’s where quantum theory enters the discussion. As our hypothetical signal spreads, it passes through substance and vacuum alike. Every substance robs it both of intensity and integrity. Even the vacuum has an ultimately devastating effect, because in otherwise empty space, tiny particles are being created and destroyed continuously. Electrons and positrons (and other matter/antimatter pairs) appear, raising the mass of the universe but lowering the energy at that spot (E=mc2). Electromagnetic waves result. The tiny particles are annihilated when they encounter their anti-matter partners, creating a fresh bursts of energy somewhere else. If the intensity of our information wave falls below the electromagnetic waves from this vacuum froth, it’s information content has vanished, contaminated by the background.

Not so fast, you might say. The background radiation is random, the information not. Can’t we distill the non-random from the random?

Here’s where information dilution interferes. When you zoom in on a Google map, the picture becomes less sharp. If you look closely at a photograph in a newspaper, you see individual dots. Ultimately, at the edge of the universe, the information is so dilute that we are either down to an individual dot, if we are dealing with a digital signal, or a uniform wash of single colour if it’s an analog signal. Neither carries information. A uniform colour is like a steady tone: to carry information, the tone must be modulated. (FM radio is frequency modulation; AM is amplitude modulation.) If the signal is digital, that individual dot might be one “bit” of information. Or it might be the space between the bits. Who knows? Either way, you can’t reconstruct the original, or even know that the original existed.

Another quantum mechanical effect rears, namely, the observer effect. Every time we observe or measure something, we change what we are measuring. Do you have a fever? You put a thermometer in your mouth to find your body temperature. Heat goes from you into the thermometer, the mercury expands, and you read the value. But when heat went from you to the thermometer, you just changed your temperature. That is, you changed your temperature by measuring your temperature.

Do you car tires have the correct pressure? You unscrew the valve cover and tap that little gizmo to the valve. Psst, the tiny blast of air shoves the slider up and you read off the tire’s pressure. See what happened? You just took some air out of the tire. You changed the pressure in your tire by measuring it. (Could you have done it without opening the valve, perhaps by squeezing the tire? Yes, but if you compress a gas you heat it up, and that changes the pressure. Sorry.)

The Compton Effect shows that you can’t even look at something to see its location because the light that bounced from the object to your eyes changed the object’s momentum, so it’s now not at the position you detected it to be. The effect is tiny on large objects, but real. So, remember that influence of Jim’s existence and actions rippling through space? As soon as you detect it, you’ve contaminated it. Sorry Jim (or ex-Jim). I will treasure my memory of you after you’re gone (I’m older, though, so I’ll go first), but I can’t see a physical essence of you existing for eternity.

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Roger Ebert

I was saddened to hear of the death of Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun who died Thursday. I treasured Roger’s reviews.

I made a habit of going to Internet Movie Database to check out every current film, and to read reviews of my favorite films from the past. Under “External Reviews”, Roger’s Ebert’s review was always at the top of the list. His writing was always clear, accessible, and elegant.

I’d like to mention three examples and encourage listeners to read others.

Roger saw more than just the movie’s plot itself. Check out his review of Flash of Genius, in which Greg Kinnear played Bob Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. See how Roger’s real anger at the antics of big companies at the expense of the little guy comes through.

He tried to find something good to say about even the worst movies. But to see his exasperation at horrible writing, and experience his wit, look at his review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I guarantee you will laugh out loud as he describes a series of incredibly stupid plot incidents.

Roger had a deep feeling for the meanings behind the films, and expressed himself with wonderful phrases. My last suggestion is to read his review of Twilight, the first of the series of vampire movies. He shows what the film is really about, when you look past the vampires. I found myself saying, “Yes, you’re right” after every sentence, which he crafted in such a way to make me chuckle. But, again, I laughed out loud when he described the moment Bella discovers what this beautiful, intriguing person really is:

Here’s Roger:

Bella asks. “How did you appear out of nowhere and stop that truck?” Well might she ask. When he finally explains that he is a vampire, he goes up from 8 to 10 on her Erotometer. Why do girls always prefer the distant, aloof, handsome, dangerous dudes instead of cheerful chaps like me?”

Roger, I miss you already.

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The Hobbit: Magic at no cost

The latest Hobbit movie has terrific visuals, but a serious plot flaw. In a nutshell, magic kills suspense.

I found myself growing bored. The exchange appearance of Gollum almost saved me, but not quite. Most scenes, spectacular though they were, followed the same script. Fourteen heroes are beset by menacing hoards (or trapped by huge creatures). Escape looks impossible, then Gandalf arrives with magic to save the day. After one miraculous appearance, the lady behind me said, “That was convenient.”


What it comes down to is that the movie had no suspense, because there was no real threat. Even the threat of serious injury is removed: we see Gandalf, apparently, healing wounds, and possibly bringing people back from the dead. (It was hard to tell without seeing the EEG trace.)

Another problem with Gandalf’s magic is that it comes without cost. Jeff Bridges’ Starman had a limited number of magic pebbles. Aladdin had only 3 wishes. In many stories wizards are fatigued after performing magic, making them and their charges vulnerable for a while. Magic has to have a cost.

Near the end (small spoiler here) Gandalf brings giant birds to save the heroes. Why didn’t he just summon them at the beginning of the trek and ask them to fly the gang to their destination in the first place, instead of making the boys travel through the enemy lands?

In summary, great visual delights. No suspense. Therefore, no story.

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Orbits (Or General Relativity in 40 words or less!)

I found this sentence on an educational website: An orbiting spacecraft is an inertial frame of reference because objects inside follow Newton’s Laws. The author’s thinking was, since you release an object and it hangs in space beside you, then looks to you that there is no external force on anything in the frame of reference.

I pointed out that the orbiting spacecraft was equivalent to a falling elevator (frictionless) in that both are operating under the influence of gravity alone. Release a ball inside a falling elevator and it floats beside you. You’re floating, too.

He accepted the elevator as non-inertial, allowing the occupants to realize that Earth was just under their feet, and so they expect to detect an upward fictitious force that seems to compensate for gravity. He was uncomfortable with the occupants of the spacecraft to have to “know” of the presence of Earth. How far away from Earth do you have to be, I asked. He realized he had a contradiction going here.

Of course, the contradiction only arose because of his initial thought that moving objects in an orbiting spacecraft appear to follow Newton’s Laws. He (and I, when he first mentioned it) considered only the stationary object floating inside the craft. (I meant stationary in the spacecraft’s F. of R.)

What is the path, though, of an object that’s moving? It does not appear to travel at uniform speed inside a (sufficiently large) orbiting craft.

Suppose you are floating in the craft (perfect circular orbit) and you shove the ball directly forward. In the Earth’s F. of R., the ball’s velocity is now faster than the spacecraft’s. So the ball is now going too fast for its orbit. It’s radius of orbit increases. Inside, the ball which was projected “horizontally” now appears to deviate from a straight line. It curves “upward” toward the “ceiling.” (For convenience, let’s allow the use of up, down, floor, ceiling, agreeing that they refer to orientations with respect to Earth.)

The ball settles into an orbit of greater radius than before. (Elliptical, but let’s ignore that.) Lower orbits take less time. So you, who threw the ball, eventually pass underneath the ball. To you, it looks like the ball that you shoved forward, started away from you, curved up, and passed over your head toward the rear of the craft!

The key point is, the ball did not travel at uniform speed in a straight line. Thus the orbiting spacecraft should not have been considered an inertial frame in the first place. Proximity to Earth or knowledge of the existence of gravity was not relevant.

Here’s a puzzle: A spring-loaded package sits at the centre of mass of the orbiting spacecraft. It explodes, and six equal-mass parts go off towards ceiling, floor, front, back, and side walls. What will be the (apparent) paths of the objects as seen by occupants in the craft. (The craft is large enough for the paths to become evident.)

The significance of the story is that objects in all accelerated frames of reference appear to be under the influence of fictitious forces, forces whose mechanism has no apparent explanation, and forces that produce the same acceleration on objects of different mass. Centrifugal and coriolis forces are examples. (The acceleration produced by the mysterious force is really the acceleration of the frame of reference itself in the opposite direction.)

Of course, gravity itself fulfills those conditions. The Earth appears to pull an object down without touching it; and all objects have the same acceleration. And so we get Einstein’s explanation for gravity. In a nutshell: Spacetime is curved. So when we think we are in an inertial frame of reference, we are really in an accelerated frame of reference. Therefore, we should see a fictitious force. Gravity is that force.

General Relativity in 40 words or less!

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Black Tusk Revealed

My wife, Sue, and I were in British Columbia for two weeks at the end of the summer (2012). We ziplined at Whistler, kayaked with whales in Ucluelet, and hiked forests and trails on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine coast. So much of BC is on a grand scale: the mountains, the ocean, 500-year-old Douglas fir trees, the salmon, the wildlife…even the giant slugs!

I wonder what the young-Earthers would think if they saw the view from the top of Whistler. In particular, here’s the view of Big Tusk.

The great black spike is the remnant of an ancient volcano, formed about 170,000 years ago. It’s a lava core, lava that solidified on its way up, lava did didn’t make it out of the mountain whose top has been worn away. We find these lava cores in volcanoes all over the world. But this one is a beauty, because the weathering of rain, snow, and glaciers have removed the mountain top that surrounded it.

The issue is simple. Obviously, liquid lava did not build up IN THE AIR instead of flowing downhill. There was once a mountain around it. Did that mountain erode in less than 6000 years?

When evidence of an old Earth is all around us, how can so many people toss away their reasoning and claim that the Earth is young. That some of these people were seeking to become President of the United States is downright scary. It’s no less scare that so many people exist in the US in the first place.

They do have an argument, of course. It’s that God made the lava do that. It’s a miracle–evidence of God’s great power–to make liquid rock stand upright instead of flowing downhill. Alternatively, God made the volcano, then performed some magic and removed the surrounding mountain.

In Western society, we call the 1700 – 1800 period The Enlightenment. People were encouraged by great thinkers to throw off their blindly held beliefs and discard superstition. Instead, they were urged to use observation, experiment, and reason to guide them toward (obvious) truths. This “new” type of thinking is called the scientific method. And what remarkable discoveries its use enabled us to make!

What a shame that so many people nowadays refuse to use such critical thinking. They refuse to use their eyes and their brains, and even celebrate the fact that they think that way. And what a shame that so many politicians tailor their platforms and speeches to kowtow to them.

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Global Warming

In 1962, my parents bought a lot and cottage on Drag Lake in Haliburton, a region of lakes, hills, and trees three hours north of Toronto. In the winter, the lake freezes over. But in the summer, it gradually warms, eventually reaching 80 F. I remember that the water usually reached 80 on July 30 – August 1. It stayed that hot for a couple of days, then started to cool. (The days were getting shorter.)

In 1976, my wife and I bought a place on Elephant Lake, about thirty kilometres east of Drag. The same dynamics applied: the lake reached 80 degrees near the long weekend at the end of July. (The August 1st weekend is a holiday Monday in Canada.)

In the summer of 2009, Elephant Lake reached 80 on July 20 and stayed that hot until August 1. In 2010 it reached 80 on July 13. Same in 2011: 80 degrees on July 13. This summer (2012) the lake got to 80 degrees on July 8.

Is it clear that something’s happening? Four years doesn’t guarantee a climate change, of course. But it sure suggests to me that something is happening to the weather. Also, there are new birds in the forests. I’ve been coming to Haliburton each summer for over 50 years. I know the bird calls. They’re changing. I’m not an ornithologist…I can’t identify them perfectly. There are chickadees, blue jays, sparrows, finches, veerys, crows, and others. But you don’t have to be able to name a bird to know that there are new, unfamiliar calls.

The ice in winter is different, too. We used to come up at Christmas…walk in to our island across the ice. Now we have to be careful. By the end of December, the ice still isn’t thick enough to be safe.

For anyone who doesn’t believe that warming is occurring in Southern Ontario, all you have to do is live here and pay attention.

(By the way, in Burlington (near Toronto) we have gone two consecutive winters without taking the snow blower out of the back shed. This past winter, the hot spell in March started the apple trees flowering too early.)

What will it take climate change doubters to change their mind?

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Government Propaganda in Education

As a retired high school teacher, I must make a comment about the Ontario government’s confrontation with Ontario teachers. Suddenly, a past scenario of government misinformation reappears.

A decade ago, the provincial Conservative government under Mike Harris ran television advertisements implying that I only worked three and a quarter hours a day. The hands on a big yellow clock dialed around to show the time. This, of course, was disingenuous. The hours counted only teaching time, not marking time or lesson preparation time or test creation time. I kept track: the out of classroom hours each week exceeded the in-class hours. For my employer to lie so blatantly to the public (using my tax money!) was deeply discouraging.

Thankfully, the Conservatives were defeated in the next election, but not after labour strife and thousands of teachers were let go.

The Liberals under Dalton McGuinty promised to be more supportive to education and educators, and have delivered. But I am shocked, today, to find them waving a billy club and repeating the same old anti-teacher schlock of their predecessors. This time, though, they are regurgitating another oft-used argument of Board of Education negotiators: that teachers get automatic raises.

Here’s how it works.

Teachers have to work their way up a grid of between ten and twelve years (depending on the Board) to reach the top pay for their category. (Categories depend on amount of education and qualifications.) So it takes a decade of experience before new teachers are paid the salary that is quoted that teachers earn. Steps up the grid differ, but let’s use the current government’s rough rule of thumb–5%.

Therefore, a beginning teacher earns only about half of an experienced teacher’s salary. (10 years x 5% per year)

The Ontario government labels the step up the grid a raise, and has ordered all Boards of Education to reduce this to zero. Thus a teacher in his or her first decade of work is to stay at her current salary rather than move up the grid. The government spins this as holding the line…cutting pay raises.

But that’s not true. The increase in salary moving up the grid is not a raise, it’s the salary that accompanies the promotion up the grid. If a teacher starting his or her second year is not given the grid increase, as per the existing contract, the result will be that a second year teacher in September, 2012, will earn 5% less than the salary a second year teacher earned the previous school year.

That’s a 5% pay cut for the job of “teacher with 1 year experience”.

Effectively, the government is demanding 5% pay cuts for teachers with fewer than ten year’s experience.

Also, when you hear the government’s statements saying that all they are suggesting is that teachers not get a 5% pay raise, bear in mind that the majority of teachers have over ten year’s experience. At the top of the grid, they wouldn’t be getting the “automatic 5% raise” anyway. So don’t let the government’s propaganda make you think that teachers will, without the government’s heroic intervention, get 5% raises. The experienced teachers will be getting zero anyhow, and the others the compensation they qualify for as they move up the grid.

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My Aunt Bernice: Alzheimer’s Victim

I address my ninety-year-old Aunt Bernice as Boo. The name goes back to my childhood. She is living in a wonderful facility where they take great care of her. Plenty of staff; many activities; everyone polite and enthusiastic.

I visit often, coming from out of town every couple of days. We go on walks in the park and trips in the car, or just stay and talk. A memory that disturbs her is the death of her parents, which she remembers as if it were yesterday. “That was fifty-five years ago, Boo,” I’ll say.

“Yes”, she replies. “But it’s still distressing.”

“I know,” I say. Boo’s memory plays tricks on her. A memory, even if misplaced in time, can still be accompanied by an emotional reaction.

Boo is still an intelligent woman, and I treat her that way. I get annoyed when people quiz her. “What’s my name,” someone will say. Or, “Who are you married to?” I always step in an answer the question for her. What’s the point of causing someone distress if they can’t remember?

Boo is a master at dodging such queries, though. To a question of how long she’s been married, she will reply, “two hundred and twenty two years.” And laugh. Or to “What’s that person’s name?”, she will say, “Give me three choices and I’ll pick one.”

I can ask her if her memory is playing tricks with her today, and she’ll answer honestly in the affirmative. “Must be a pain not quite remembering, isn’t it?”, I say. She will agree.

I don’t skirt the issue of her mind getting scattered. We discuss it. That’s the thing: we should always treat people as intelligent (and that’s what the staff at the place does.)

The most difficult time is leaving her. “I’ll come with you to the front door,” she says.

This she can’t do, because she can’t pass the interior door that requires a key code. She knows the elevators are on the other side. It bothers her that people come in and out and she can’t figure out how to make the door open. I explain, “Boo, people on your floor get lost when they leave.” I describe a couple of times when she’d got lost (before coming to this place) and had to be brought home by the police.

“Did I really?” she’ll ask. “I don’t remember that.”

“So when we go out those doors, I have to sign you out, then back in.” I show her the book, like I do every time. “See, Bernice–out at 2:30, that’s when we left. In at 4:00, and my name.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she’ll say.

“That’s what we always do, Boo.”

Someone from the staff hovers nearby, ready to take her arm and try to distract her. I wave them off. I’m not leaving until Boo agrees that she has to stay on the inside of the door. Perhaps we’ll walk down, arm in arm, to the end of the hall to check the other doors. Again. Then back to the main door where I have to explain again why I’m kissing her goodbye here and not at the elevator or down at the curb.

Eventually, though, we reach the state where I can give her a kiss, touch the buttons, and open the door. She’s close, but doesn’t take that extra step. She waves, and says, “Toodle-oo”.

“See you soon, Boo,” I say. And I breathe a little easier, but stand a little sadder, when the door closes between us.

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What Do Americans Believe?

In the opening episode of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series The Network, the protagonist states that over forty percent of Americans believe in angels. The figure quoted was low: an American Press-GfK poll reported in December, 2011, that 77% of adults believe that these “ethereal beings” are real. 40% of non-churchgoers believed in angels! The fact that large numbers believe in a claim does not, in itself, verify the claim. As any visitor to scopes.com knows, huge numbers of people hear about supposed events that turn out not to be true.

There is no reputable scientific evidence for the existence of angels. (Anecdotal evidence does not count, for a host of reasons.) The idea that angels exist goes contrary to laws of physics that we now accept. So the onus should be on the person making the claim to show observational evidence.

A Gallup poll in 2010 reported that over 90% of Americans say yes to the basic question “Do you believe in God.” Sorkin’s 40% figure might have been the forty percent of the American public believe that God created humans in essentially their current form less than 10,000 years ago (Gallup, 2010.)

This second observation worries me more than the angel belief, for the simple reason that observation and experimentation show that humans have been in existence for more than 10,000 years. Regardless of whether you believe in evolution, you have to accept that observations show that the Earth is old. Indeed, a Baptist friend of mine concedes that the Earth looks old, but says that God made it look that way just to challenge us to accept on faith that the Earth is young!

In the eighteen hundreds, the idea that the Earth was formed in 4004 BC was common, even among learned people. One of the lesser known advocates for an old Earth was William Smith, the creator of the first geological map of England and Wales. Smith was a mine inspector. He noticed that, as he descended down a mine shaft, he passed various layers of rock: a white chalk layer, for example, then reddish rock, then yellow, then black, then red again, and so on. All mines showed the same pattern, except some which appeared to be missing one or more of the upper layers. But the remaining sequence was similar. What’s more, the same fossils appeared in the same layers across Britain, some of which looked like marine animals. Watson realized that each local sequence of layers was part of the larger England-wide sequence of strata. Moreover, he realized that the layers were set down over time. The rocks of Britain were much older than people thought. At one time, a huge region was underwater. As it filled with sediment, the bodies of animals present at the time became incorporated in what would, over the millennium, become solid rock.

Over the eons, the continents drifted around (a concept that did not become generally accepted until the mid nineteen hundreds.) The ground pitched and folded, exposing the layers previously buried.

The Earth is undoubtedly old. Based on techniques from several different disciplines, the layers can be dated. That enables the fossils found in the layers to be dated. And, of course, a pattern emerges consistent with the theory of evolution. But we are talking about humans, and the dates of the rock layers in which human-looking bones are found tell us that humans have been around longer than 10,000 years.

The point is, why do so many American’s believe in something that’s dead wrong? I’m not going to say it any more gently. Either the science teaching is pathetic, or claims from people’s religions outweigh what they learned in school. I wish I could say that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe in stupid stuff: that people should somehow be prevented in thinking the end of the world is coming on November 2, 2014 (or any other specific date), that ESP exists, that ghosts are real, that God is listening to an individual’s prayers, that…

But, of course, I’ve gone way too far. Our society allows freedom of religion, and I’m glad it does. But there is a cost. The cost might be the US losing its preeminence in science and technology.

Other nations will go to the moon. Other nations have the supercolliders that will make the big discoveries. Other nations have the bullet trains. Other nations will make the big genetic discoveries.

But Americans will be happy that almost half of them believe in angels walking the streets taking care of them, and God interceding on their behalf to help their side win a football game, and evolution being an evil hoax, and (for that matter) global warming being a Democratic conspiracy. As two of Aaron Sorkin’s characters said in The Network, America isn’t great any more. It can be great again, and the first stop is throwing off ignorance instead of proudly proclaiming it.

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What Does “Know” Mean?

To “know”, as in “to have knowledge” does not seem ambiguous. Either you know or you don’t. Right?

“I know you.” This is a statement of whether I have met you, or at least, recognize you. The converse is, “I don’t know you.” So far, so good.

But how about the exasperated wife learning of her husband’s unusual behaviour: “I don’t know you at all!”

The most perplexing difference in the use of the word “know”—and the most frustrating—comes in discussions between religious people and atheists, and between fundamentalists and advocates of the scientific method.

Can you picture this discussion? You will have no difficulty identifying the participants.

Andy: “There is no solid, irrefutable evidence for the existence of a deity.”
Bob: “That doesn’t matter. I know God exists.”
Andy: “How do you know it?”
Bob: “It says so in the Bible.”
Andy: “So?”
Bob: “The Bible is the Word of God. What’s written there is true.”
Andy: “But if there is no God, there is no Word of God, so what the Bible states cannot be taken as truth. ”
Bob: “But I know God exists.”

In the above discussion, the Andy points out circular reasoning. Bob’s conclusion only comes from assuming the truth of his assertion that his conclusion is true. Bob gets out of it by claiming absolute knowledge. The discussion could continue this way:

Andy: “You don’t know that God exists. You think that God exists. You believe that God exists.
Bob: “I believe it, sure. But I don’t just think it. I know it.”

And the logic loop would repeat.

A scientist uses the word “know” differently from a non-scientist. To a scientist, knowing means accepting as true a concept or fact the scientific community universally agrees upon, and is borne out by all relevant experiments. For example, the moon orbits the Earth. Experiments (observations) show this to be true. (In the sun’s frame of reference—from the sun’s point of view—the moon and Earth orbit the sun on paths that sashay inside and outside the centre of mass between them. So sometimes the truth of the fact under consideration depends on the parameters that frame the discussion, in this case whether we are viewing from the sun’s or the Earth’s frame of reference.)

Another example: the room you are in has a floor. Either it does or it doesn’t. Observation determines the answer. A scientist would accept your saying that you know the room has a floor.

The “know” used by the religious person is different. Did Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt and spend forty years wandering the Sinai desert. Well, there is no record of this event in otherwise well documented Egyptian history. There is no archaeological evidence of the camps in the desert. And forty years is a long time for people to take to walk a thousand miles. Yet Jew, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists know that this happened, because it is recorded in the Old Testament, which they know is true.

Let’s go back farther. Did God create Eve by taking a rib from Adam and building it into a woman? A fundamentalist knows this to be true, as certain as the room having a floor. Obviously, there is no observational evidence for the story. And logically, if God could create Adam without starting with a rib from someone else, God didn’t need a rib from Adam to create Eve. (Of course, an all-powerful God doesn’t need anything to do anything.) So, in addition to the lack of evidence, we have a logical problem. Does it faze a fundamentalist? No. He knows that the Eve story is true!

This co-opting of the word “know” to replace “believe” renders discussion between atheists and religious people problematical, as it does discussion between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. Honest discussion and debate requires acceptance of the meanings of the words used.

The issue gains added significance when we find out that over forty percent of the American public believe (know?) that God created humans in essentially their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This will be discussed in a further post.

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