Monday, March 20, 2017

Causality and Quantum Mechanics: a Cosmological Kalamity (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second in a two-part series of posts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.  If you haven't read the first part you should probably do that first, notwithstanding that I'm going to start with a quick review.

To recap: the KCA is based on the central premise that "whatever begins to exist has a cause."  But quantum mechanics provides us with at least two examples of things that begin to exist without causes: radioactive decay results in the decay products beginning to exist, and vacuum fluctuations result in the virtual particles beginning to exist.  In the latter case, the particles are created literally from nothing, but that's just a detail, a little icing on the cosmological cake.  The KCA premise isn't about whether or not things that begin to exist are fashioned from previously existing materials.  It only speaks of causes.  And quantum events don't have causes — at least not local causes — as shown by Bell's theorem.  Bell's theorem actually does more than rule out local causes, it rules out all local hidden state models, not just causal ones.  So there are only two possibilities: either quantum events are not (locally) caused, or quantum mechanics is wrong.

But Bell's theorem does not rule out non-local hidden state, and so it does not rule out non-local causes.  Indeed, what Bell's theorem shows us is that quantum states are in general non-local: an entangled system is a system with a single quantum state spread out over multiple locations.  So could this be the source of quantum causality?

No, it couldn't.  Non-local causality is ruled out both by relativity and by the no-communication theorem.  For a non-local state to be causal, the causal effect would have to propagate faster than the speed of light, otherwise it would just be an ordinary run-of-the-mill everywhere-local chain of causation.  Some popular accounts of entanglement would have you believe that this (faster-than-light causality) does happen, but it doesn't.  Measuring one member of an entangled pair does not change the state of its partner.  So non-local quantum states cannot be causal.

There is one last possibility: maybe there is some other kind of state in the universe, some non-local non-quantum state.  As I noted at the end of part 1 we can never rule out this possibility on the basis of any experiment.  Indeed, we can even demonstrate a hypothetical non-local state that would account for all possible observational data: a cosmic Turing machine computing the digits of pi from wherever it happens to be that they correspond exactly with the outcomes of all experiments that have ever been done or will ever be done.  Assuming pi is normal, this will always be possible.

This is the fundamental problem with hidden state: it's hidden.  Our universe could be run by a cosmic Turing machine, or it could be a simulation built by intelligent aliens.  We can't eliminate either possibility, nor a myriad others, on the basis of experiment.

When I have pointed this out to Christians their response has been: what difference does it make if we're in a simulation?  The aliens were still created by God.  But in fact this possibility is devastating not just to the KCA, but to all theological arguments.  If the universe is a simulation, then I can accept all of the claims of theologians at face value, and still not get to God.  I can accept that Jesus was a real historical figure, that he really did perform miracles, that he really was crucified and rose from the dead, that he really did claim to be God, that the scriptures are the literal truth, that the Flood really happened, that the earth is 6000 years old.  I can accept all of that and still not believe in God because all of that could have just been built in to our simulation by the aliens who designed it.

I can even accept the cosmological argument and still not believe in any particular god.  I only have to accept the uncaused cause in the abstract.  I cannot possibly know anything about God's true nature because all of the information I have at my disposal is filtered through the intelligent aliens who built this simulated universe that I live in.  The information that I have access to may or may not reflect the actual metaphysical truth.  In fact, the aliens that built our universe may themselves not know the metaphysical truth because they themselves could be living in a simulated universe built by meta-aliens.

There could be an arbitrary number of layers of simulation between us and the uncaused cause.  For us to have accurate information about God, that information would have to somehow percolate down through all of those layers without being altered.  It would be like a cosmic game of Chinese whispers.  The odds of the truth emerging unscathed down here at the very bottom of the hierarchy are indistinguishable from zero.

It is worth noting that we may not be at the bottom of the hierarchy for long.  We are on the verge of being able to create simulated universes of our own.  When that happens, will the artificially intelligent inhabitants of that universe have souls?  Unless we are 100% certain that the answer to that question is yes, how can we be sure that we have souls?

In sum, the KCA is completely untenable.  Its central premise is refuted empirically by quantum mechanics.  Even if this were not the case, the KCA only gets you to some unknown uncaused cause.  The nature of the uncaused cause cannot be determined by any experiment, since no experiment can rule out the cosmic Turing machine.

Furthermore, the possibility of simulated worlds is devastating not just to the cosmological argument but to all religious arguments.  Even if you accept all religious claims at face value, you still have to either show that information about God necessarily propagates reliably into a simulation, or somehow prove that our universe is not a simulation, that we are living in the One True Universe, and that any simulations we create will be the first level down.  Otherwise, even in the face of miracles and revelations we cannot know if they are the work of God or the aliens who programmed our simulation.  Or, what is most likely of course, of our own ancestors' imaginations.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Causality and Quantum Mechanics: a Cosmological Kalamity (Part 1 of 2)

I'm a little burned out on politics, so let's talk about religion instead.

I often lurk on religious debate forums, and one of the things I've noticed over the years is that various arguments presented by Christian apologists seem to go in and out of fashion, not unlike bell bottoms and baggy pants.  At the moment, something called the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) seems to be in vogue.  KCA is a modern riff on the classical cosmological argument, which goes back to antiquity.  The Kalam variation goes like this:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause; 
The universe began to exist; 
The universe has a cause. 
If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful; 
An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.
I've never understood how you get from "uncaused cause" to "personal creator", and I've particularly never understood how you get from "personal creator" in general to Jesus in particular.  I have yet to find an apologist willing to even try to explain that one to me.  I think I scare them.

But it turns out that the cosmological argument in general, and the KCA variation in particular, can be debunked before you even get to that question because it is simply not true that whatever begins to exist has a cause.  There are at least two examples in nature of things that begin to exist without causes.  Vacuum fluctuations are the spontaneous creation of particles and their associated anti-particles.  Normally these just annihilate each other almost immediately after their creation, but in some circumstances they can create observable effects, so there is no question that they really do happen.  The second example is radioactive decay, in which an atom of one element emits a particle and in the process becomes an atom of a different element.  Both vacuum fluctuations and radioactive decay are random events.  They have no cause.  And yet they result in things beginning to exist.

If you believe all that then you can stop reading now.  The rest of this post is for those of you who don't believe my bald assertions and demand proof (which is perfectly fine, BTW.  You should never accept anything as true simply because someone says so.)  In particular, my claim that quantum randomness is truly random is often met with legitimate skepticism, so I thought it would be worthwhile writing down why this is (extremely likely to be) true.  In the process of formulating this argument I came up with a completely different and much more powerful (IMHO) refutation of the cosmological argument, which I will write about in the second part of this series.


Because the issues are subtle I'm going to have to go into some excruciating detail, starting with what it means for something to be caused.

Let's start with a simple example: I flip a light switch and the light comes on.  We would say that my flipping the switch caused the light to come on.  Actually, my flipping of the switch was the beginning of a chain of "causal events", each one of which was caused by the previous event in the chain: My flipping of the switch caused the completion of a circuit, which caused electricity to flow, which caused the filament of a light bulb to heat up (or, nowadays, the electrons in the atoms of a PN-junction in an LED to become excited) which caused some photons to begin to exist.  If I hook my light switch up to an Alexa, I can literally say, "Let there be light" and cause light to begin to exist.

Why do we say that I caused the the light to come on and not the other way around?  It's because causes must precede effects.  They cannot reach back in time.  A consequence of this is that causes cannot propagate faster than the speed of light because moving faster than light means going backwards in time in some reference frames.  Causes must precede effects in all reference frames.

Note that temporal precedence is necessary but not sufficient for one event to be considered the cause of another.  Suppose I turn on one light, and then a minute later I turn on a second light.  The first light coming on preceded the second (in all reference frames) but it is not the case that the first light coming on caused the second to come on.  So causality involves something more than mere temporal precedence.

Figuring out exactly what that "something more" is turns out to be quite tricky.  For example, we might hypothesize that the reason I cause both lights to come on and not that the first light causes the second is because I am an agent with free will and the light bulbs aren't.  But this is easily disproven: suppose that I am in a room with two lights.  One is on, the other is off.  The bulb in the first light burns out and I am left in the dark.  I fumble around for the switch to the second light and turn it on.  Now I am in the middle of a causal chain that resulted in the second light coming on.  In this case it is fair to say that the failure of the first light caused the illumination of the second, with me as an intermediate cause.  And, of course, we can eliminate me as an intermediate cause by designing an automatic mechanism that turns on the second light when the first one fails.

Another possibility is that effects are "necessary consequences" of causes.  In the situation where I turn on one light and then another, the activation of the second light is not a necessary consequence of the activation of the first.  I could decide after turning on one light not to turn on the second one.  On the other hand, having been turned on, a light cannot just "decide" stay off.

The situation gets a bit fuzzy in the case of the burned-out bulb because I could have decided to not turn on the backup light and just sit in the dark.  Nonetheless, if I do decide to turn on the backup light, the fact that the first light burned out surely had a hand in that.  It's not mere coincidence that I turned on the second light right after the first one failed.  I turned it on at least in part because the first one failed, notwithstanding that I am (or at least feel like) an agent with free will.

Now let us consider a third scenario: suppose I am a puppet master controlling a marionette in a scene where the marionette activates a light switch.  Consider two scenarios, one in which the switch that the marionette activates actually controls the light, and the second in which the switch that the marionette activates is a prop, and the real switch is located off-stage but is still activated by me.  In both cases I'm the one who is controlling the light, either indirectly by pulling the marionette's strings, or directly by activating the off-stage switch.  In the first case, the marionette is part of the causal chain that activates the light.  In the second, it is not.

Now imagine that the marionette is not just a puppet, but is equipped with a sophisticated artificial brain capable of doing scientific reasoning.  We have programmed the marionette to not be aware of the fact that we are pulling its strings.  It might suspect this to be the case, but it has no access to any direct evidence.  The marionette is effectively a Calvinist, and we are playing the role of God.

Now we walk the marionette through a series of experiments where it turns the light switch (the one on the stage) on and off.  It observes a 100% correlation between the state of the switch and the state of the light, and also a time delay sufficient for the propagate of a causal effect from the switch to the light.  Now we ask it: are you living in a world where your switch actually causes the light to come on, or are you living in a world where your switch is just a prop, and the light is actually controlled by a switch hidden off stage where you can never see it?


Let's leave our marionette to ponder this question while we consider a second question: what does it mean for something to be "truly random"?  Let me illustrate this with another familiar example: suppose we flip a coin.  While the coin is spinning in the air the outcome (heads of tails) is unknown to us.  Now we catch the coin and flip it over onto our wrist in the traditional manner.  At this point the outcome is still unknown to us.  Nevertheless, the coin is now in a fundamentally different kind of state than it was while it was spinning.  Its state is still unknown to us, but it is determined.  We may not know whether it is heads or tails, but we do know that either it is heads or it is tails.  This was not the case while it was spinning.  While it was spinning it was neither heads nor tails.  It was spinning.

Now, it is possible that there are two kinds of spinning states, one of which inevitably leads to the coin landing heads and the other of which inevitably leads to the coin landing tails.  If this is the case, then it would be fair to say that the outcome was determined even before the coin actually landed, and so the spinning states are not fundamentally different from the landed-but-covered states.  There is a spinning-but-going-to-land-heads state and a spinning-but-going-to-land-tails state.  We may not be able to tell them apart, but that doesn't change the (hypothetical) fact that these two states exist.  Our inability to tell them apart may simply be a technological limitation.  If we had x-ray vision we would be able to distinguish the land-heads (but still covered) state from the landed-tails (but still covered state).  Maybe if we had just the right kind of high speed camera and trajectory analysis software we could distinguish spinning-and-going-to-land-heads from spinning-and-going-to-land-tails.

There are two other possibilities: one is that the coin flip is truly random, which is to say, that there really is only one spinning state.  Our inability to predict the outcome is not a technological limitation.  Even if we had arbitrary super powers — indeed, even if we were God — we would not be able to predict the outcome of the experiment.  The second possibility is that the outcome is not truly random, but the mechanism that determines the outcome is hidden from us.  In this case we can't predict the outcome with any amount of technology, but God can.

Where all this matters is not flipping coins, but quantum mechanics.  The outcomes of quantum mechanics experiments appear to be random, like coin flips.  The question is: Is our inability to predict the outcome a technological limitation?  Or is there hidden state that we can't access?  Or is this really true randomness?

We can quickly dispense with the first possibility.  The randomness of outcomes is a fundamental part of the quantum mechanical formalism, a direct logical consequence of the theory's mathematical structure, just as the constancy of the speed of light is a fundamental part of the mathematical structure of relativity.  If a way were ever discovered to predict the outcome of a quantum experiment that would mean that quantum mechanics was completely, totally, utterly wrong.  And quantum mechanics is one of the best confirmed scientific theories ever.  No experiment has ever disagreed with its predictions.  (Indeed, theoretical physicists consider this to be a serious problem because it leaves them with no guidance on how to make further progress!)

The fact that quantum outcomes really cannot be predicted is directly confirmed by experiment: the phenomenon of interference depends crucially on the unpredictability of quantum experiments.  The presence or absence of interference is a direct reflection of whether or not the particle is in a predictable or unpredictable state.

So that leaves two possibilities: one is that there is hidden state.  The second is that quantum randomness is really, truly random, and that quantum events are really truly "uncaused", and so quantum mechanics is a direct experimental refutation of the central premise of the Kalam cosmological argument.

For decades it was believed by physicists that this question could not possibly be resolved.  Indeed, Einstein famously cited this apparent impossibility as evidence that there must be something wrong with quantum mechanics.  The mere possibility that there could be true randomness (or even hidden state) bothered him to the point where he quipped that God does not play dice (to which Neils Bohr replied that Einstein should not tell God what He can and cannot do).

But it turns out that this question can be resolved.  Not only that, but it can be resolved experimentally.  The way to resolve the question was discovered by John Bell in 1964.  The first experiment was conducted in 1972.  The results have since been reproduced many, many times, and they are absolutely clear: quantum randomness is true randomness.  There is no hidden state.  If you want to know the details, I recommend David Mermin's excellent exposition (also available in this splendid book).

Non-local hidden state

Now, I have to give one caveat to this result.  The Bell inequalities don't rule out all hidden state, they only rule out local hidden state, that is, hidden state that is physically located at the place where and time when the experiment is conducted.  The results do not rule out the possibility of non-local hidden state, that is, state which not only do we not have access to, but which is located someplace other than where-and/or-when the experiment happens.

Does this rescue the Cosmological argument?  No, it doesn't.  Why?  Because eliminating the possibility of non-local hidden state is a logical impossibility.  Why?  Because the universe is finite.  There are a finite number of particles, and there is only a finite amount of time between the Big Bang and the heat death of the universe.  Therefore, in the entire lifetime of the universe we can only ever do a finite number of experiments.  The outcomes of all those experiments can be written down as a finite string of bits, and those bits can be found somewhere in the expansion of (say) pi.  So we cannot ever on the basis of any experiment rule out the possibility that the outcome of that experiment has been pre-determined by some cosmic Turing machine computing the digits of pi.  So even if God exists and is pulling the quantum strings, we can never tell, at least not on the basis of the outcome of any experiment, not even an experiment that violates the predictions of QM!

I've pointed all this out to a number of Christians.  They all responded (essentially) that if you cannot rule out the possibility of non-local hidden state, then you cannot rule out the possibility that it exists and is in fact God.  Well, that's true.  But it turns out that this apparent concession doesn't help the cause of theology at all, and in fact only makes things much, much worse.  Explaining why will be the subject of the second post in this series.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

A theory of Trump's wiretap tweets

The MSM has been busily parsing Donald Trump's latest unfounded (and some might say unhinged) allegations about Barack Obama spying on him during the election.  The analysis seems to shift between bewilderment and a resigned there-he-goes-again: still more buffoonery from the buffoon-in-chief.  What did you expect?
Of course, a more economical explanation is also available: It could be that the president of the United States was making bizarre counterfactual assertions based on whatever half-baked conspiracy theories he just read on right-wing media.
(We interrupt this missive to bring you an important aside: it's worth watching the video clip linked above of Ronald Reagan delivering his famous, "There you go again" line.  The clip includes the context in which that line was delivered, which no one seems to remember.  It's particular noteworthy in the light of what has happened in the subsequent 37 years, and indeed what is happening today.  We now return to our regularly scheduled blog post.)

But what if, as Scott Adams has pointed out 1000 times, Trump is not a buffoon?  What if there is method to this apparent madness?  To what end could all this chaos possibly be in service of?

Well, here's a theory.

First, let us catalog what I think are some relevant facts:

1.  On December 29 of last year, then-still-President Obama, in a standard response to reports of Russia attempting (perhaps successfully) to influence the U.S. election through computer hacking, expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.  The next day, Vladimir Putin, to everyone's surprise, announced that he would not invoke the standard retaliatory response to Obama's response to Russia's hacking, a departure from the script that left everyone at the time scratching their heads.

2.  Not even two months in, one Trump administration official has already resigned and another is under a dark cloud of suspicion for having attempted to conceal the fact that they met with Russian officials during the campaign.

3.  Donald Trump really really really doesn't want anyone to see his tax returns.

Next we have to ask just how un-bufoonish do we want to believe that Trump is.  I see three possible answers to this.  One possible answer is that he is a true Master of the Game, on a par with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.  (Say what you will about North Korea, the fact that the regime has not fallen and Kim's power faces no serious challenges -- when by all rights both of these things should have happened long ago -- is testimony to his political skill.)  But this is not consistent with the evidence.  There are a lot of things happening that Trump is apparently unhappy about.  He does not give the appearance of a man who is entirely in control of the situation.

So that leaves two other possibilities: one is that Trump is better than Putin, and all the chaos and confusion is all part of the plan.  This again is inconsistent with the evidence.  Yes, Trump is the President of the United States of America, which is no mean feat.  But he got there on the slimmest of margins, losing the popular vote, and running against the second most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential politics (he himself being the first).  If he were Putin's master I would expect him to do better.

His prior history also doesn't square with the master-of-masters theory.  Yes, he's rich, but he's a piker compared to Putin.  Even Trump's own inflated estimates put his net worth around only a few percent of Putin's.  Donald Trump seems to be particularly skilled at only one thing: screwing people over and getting away with it.

The second possibility, the much more likely one, is that Trump is out of his league.  He was able to navigate the waters of real estate development, reality TV, and New York City politics, but the presidency is a whole new ballgame, one for which he is utterly unprepared.  In particular, I don't think he reckoned on the power of the Deep State, and now he is scrambling to figure out how to deal with it.

Whether or not there really is a deep state in the U.S. is not the point.  My theory is simply that Trump did in fact make a deal with the Russians.  He made this deal because he has been doing business with Russia for years.  He probably thought (maybe even still thinks) that there is nothing at all wrong with it.  He may even be right about that.  But when he extended that deal-making as a private citizen to deal-making as president-elect but not as president, he crossed a very serious line.  He probably didn't realize it at the time, but he almost certainly does now.

Somewhere in the deep labyrinth of the intelligence agencies (it is surely that even if it is not a deep state) I'm pretty sure there is a Nixonian smoking gun, a recording of Trump that proves that he knew about and authorized a deal with the Russians on or around December 29.  Someone knows.  And Trump knows that they know.

So why hasn't this evidence been released?  Well, obviously because whoever has it (let's call him/her/them Deep Sam as a gender-neutral homage to both Mark Felt and the Deep State) thinks that it is more advantageous to them or to the nation to keep it secret for now.  Maybe Deep Sam is a patriot who believes that releasing the smoking gun would be bad for the country.  After all, if we get rid of President Trump we just end up with President Pence, who is vastly worse than Trump, in no small measure because Pence is actually a competent politician.  Trump's incompetence, and the resulting chaos and delays, somewhat limit the damage that he and the Republicans will be able to do.  (It is a sad, sad commentary on the state of our nation that the fact that our president is incompetent is actually a feature and not a bug.)  It is also possible that Deep Sam is an opportunist who wants to hang on for as long as possible to the considerable power provided by having dirt on the POTUS.

A more difficult question to answer is why Putin pulled back on retaliation when that provides such clear evidence that a deal was struck before the inauguration.  That seems like a rookie mistake, the sort of blunder Trump would make but not Putin.  I must confess I don't have a good answer for this.  Maybe Putin himself didn't realize that striking a deal with Trump before the inauguration would be viewed unfavorably in the U.S.  Maybe he was just having a bad day.  I don't know.  But it's clear that something unusual happened that day.  So it's not completely unreasonable to suspect that two unusual things happened.

This theory is the only one I can think of that accounts for Trump's publicly accusing Obama of wiretapping him but does not require Trump to just be a total loon.  Think about it: someone breaks the news to Trump that 1) dealing with the Russians before the inauguration was a serious no-no and 2) someone (Deep Sam) has proof that he did it.  Trump is pwned, so he plays the only move he has left: blame Obama.

The reason Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him is because Trump thinks it's true.  How else could anyone have that smoking gun?  It must have been Obama.  He even has evidence this time, God damn it!  But he can't reveal that evidence because the evidence is the smoking gun, and revealing that would be his own undoing.

I have no idea if this theory is correct, but it does seem to be a pretty good fit to the available facts.  Also, it's a hell of a lot of fun to contemplate.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

A climate change counterpoint

In the interests of maintaining the moral high ground with respect to relying on evidence, experiment and reason as the best guides to Truth I feel honor bound to point out an answer to a question on Quora posted recently by Richard Muller:

What are some widely cited studies in the news that are false?
That 97% of all climate scientists accept that climate change is real, large, and a threat to the future of humanity. That 97% basically concur with the vast majority of claims made by Vice President Al Gore in his Nobel Peace Prize winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. 
The question asked in typical surveys is neither of those. It is this: “Do you believe that humans are affecting climate?” My answer would be yes. Humans are responsible for about a 1 degree C rise in the average temperature in the last 100 years. So I would be included as one of the 97% who believe. 
Yet the observed changes that are scientifically established, in my vast survey of the science, are confined to temperature rise and the resulting small (4-inch) rise in sea level. (The huge “sea level rise” seen in Florida is actually subsidence of the land mass, and is not related to global warming.) There is no significant change in the rate of storms, or of violent storms, including hurricanes and volcanoes. The temperature variability is not increasing. There is no scientifically significant increase in floods or droughts. Even the widely reported warming of Alaska (“the canary in the mine”) doesn’t match the pattern of carbon dioxide increase; and it may have an explanation in terms of changes in the northern Pacific and Atlantic currents. Moreover, the standard climate models have done a very poor job of predicting the temperature rise in Antarctica, so we must be cautious about the danger of confirmation bias.
But under no circumstances should you interpret this as being synonymous with, "The climate alarmists are wrong and there's nothing to worry about."  To put this answer in the proper context, go to Muller's Berkeley Earth project page and read the summary of findings.  There you will find the following:
...the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by 1.5 °C over the past 250 years. The good match between the new temperature record and historical carbon dioxide records suggests that the most straightforward explanation for this warming is human greenhouse gas emissions.
A previous Berkeley Earth study, released in October 2011, found that the land-surface temperature had risen by about 0.9 °C over the past 50 years (which was consistent with previous analyses) and directly addressed scientific concerns raised by skeptics, including the urban heat island effect, poor station quality, and the risk of data selection bias.
In other words, the rate of increase is itself increasing.  Dramatically.  This is one of the many things that make this process so insidious.  There are huge time lags (by human standards) and multiple integrals involved.  If we wait for it to become apparent that climate change is causing serious problems it will be much too late to prevent catastrophe.

Also worth noting:
...the Berkeley Earth team was able to conclude that over 250 years, the contribution of solar activity to global warming is negligible. 
Some of the scientists on the Berkeley Earth team admit surprise that the new analysis has shown such clear agreement between global land-temperature rise and human-caused greenhouse gases. “I was not expecting this,” says Richard Muller, “but as a scientist, I feel it is my duty to let the evidence change my mind.”