Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How to slice an onion without dying of boredom

There are surely as many ways to slice an onion as there are to skin a cat.

Humans are pattern-detecting machines that excel at detecting symmetry, and the vast majority of us slice an onion by taking account of its vertical axis of symmetry. In fact, we find symmetry so incredibly meaningful that we have invented a special word for it: beauty. So, when we look at an onion with intent, we see its vertical axis of symmetry and act accordingly, either slicing it up along lines that are parallel to this axis, or perpendicular to it.

This is all very well and proves to be quite efficient, but slice one onion and you have sliced them all. Onions are, ultimately, simple things and the novelty of slicing them soon wears thin. Having just cooked a pheasant and chorizo casserole for 32 people, I know what I am talking about. For people who prefer thinking to doing, cooking involves a multitude of incredibly tedious processes, not just slicing lots of onions. If the onions don’t make you cry, the tedium will.

What you see is how you slice. Your initial belief of how an onion is structured will determine how you slice it. If you believe that symmetry must reveal structure, then you will likely do as most sous chefs, and slice it perpendicularly to its access, revealing a neat, Russian doll concatenation of layers.

Meanwhile, whether you are studying an onion or cooking it, the end result will not be an onion any more. By slicing it you destroy it. Such is the nature of observing things that are smaller than us. We are more like baboons than gorillas. Give a gorilla a little bird, and it will help it to fly away. Give it to a baboon, however, and it will tear it to pieces to see how it is put together and what it tastes like.

The result of this destruction can be rewarding. For example, the chicken and chorizo casserole, or the realization that symmetry is, all too often, a sure indicator of the easiest route to new understanding, especially about things like onions. Slice an onion randomly, with disregard for its axis of symmetry, and your choice reveals layers of obfuscation rather than clarity.

The key, guiding assumption for learning about onions is symmetry. It turns out that this applies to other lines of inquiry too.

Take the observable Universe. Then try fitting what you observe with the arrogant belief that we stand at the God-given centre of this Universe, around which everything else in the heavens revolves as they evolve. The Sun, the Moon and the “fixed” stars will, at a first approximation, behave as expected, but you will soon notice that, if Earth is at the centre of the Universe, then the planets move along very weird paths indeed. Or rather, that is what Medieval astronomers observed when they took a closer look.

Space, it seems, doesn’t make sense if the Earth is the Cosmic linchpin.

These inquiries into the nature of space have gone haywire not so much by the mixing beliefs with observations but by giving more weight to the beliefs than they merit. The beliefs are a guide, not a preordained result.

The simplest observations and assumptions you can make about the night sky are two: one, that all celestial bodies appear to be roughly spherical and two, that all are in rotation about something, either themselves when they are spinning, or around some other celestial body. More generally, both rotations can happen at the same time. This has to be saying something, but what precisely?

Well, for example, the Cosmos behaves like one humongous ballet with everything spinning around something and Saturn wearing a tutu. All we observers need to do is sit back, listen to the music and try to make sense of the choreography.

For this purpose, we have two options:

One is to refer to preconceived religious beliefs such as that we are at the centre of this balletic Cosmos and that everything else is rotating around us. As stated above, this requires the planets to move along really weird paths, that violate, amongst other things, our simple principle that all things in the Heavens above follow simple paths around themselves or each other. Add in the belief that the Earth is flat, in other words, different to all the other celestial bodies, and things get even worse. The whole thing becomes an unintelligible mess. Therefore, the belief that God put us at the centre of the Universe contradicts the belief that God created the World according to a plan, intelligible by us.

The other option is to believe that the Earth is just another celestial body: it is spherical, it rotates and is not necessarily at the centre of anything. This leaves us with the option of choosing a different centre around which everything rotates. If you choose the sun as the centre around which the planets rotate, and also assume that the Earth is just another spherical planet that spins around itself, then things come into sharp focus. Problems dissolve, complexity plummets and we have a neat little theory that matches most of our observations without contradicting our assumptions. The World has become simpler and God had a plan after all. Phew!

So, we cannot just believe what we want, if we do not want our beliefs to contradict each other.

What still stands, however, is that we need beliefs to guide our curiosity. To build a theory from our observations, we first need to believe something, that acts as our guiding assumption. Conflict between observation and belief will only arise if the guiding belief is unquestionable. In other words, when the data MUST comply with belief rather than the other way round. Empirical evidence is anathema to the mental state of belief. If Reality must conform to a belief, then all science is heretic. Fortunately, we are no longer in the Middle Ages for which we owe a debt of gratitude to Galileo. Our culture is not stuck with rigid beliefs and so we can make better use of our beliefs. For example, a belief that symmetry is meaningful guides you to the most efficient way to slice an onion.

The question that remains is this: how to tell in advance which belief will lead to clarity and advancement, and which to confusion and dead ends? Is there a formula, a way to rule out one belief in favour of another?

Surprisingly enough, to some degree there is. To believe the Earth is the centre of the Universe is nothing if not self-important, presumptuous and arrogant. Apply these terms to any being, let alone to an entire species, and they are usually deemed to be negative. By contrast, beauty, simplicity and elegance have an undeniably positive ring to them. So when in doubt, the positive vibes are more likely to lead you in the right direction. I note that this is NOT the same thing as believing what you want.

But even this has a fallacy at its heart. Not everything is an onion. Some things just ARE complex rather than simple, drab rather than elegant, ugly rather than beautiful. That we live in a simple solar system, where the movements of planets are regular and predictable ellipses, does not mean that the rest of Reality is like that. Mathematics is the language that best describes physics, so it follows that symmetry, and therefore simple, elegant beauty is at the core of Physics because it is, in turn, at the core of Mathematics.

Not every system is like that, however, with stable laws, based on Mathematics, that rule the roost – even the ones that are, like Physics, defy computation of their laws in all but the simplest scenarios.

The reality of complex systems such as economies, societies and ecologies is intrinsically unpredictable and anyone who says otherwise is barking up a tree.

That goes for Marx, Hitler, Lenin, Freud, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Theresa May and everyone else who succumbs to the temptation of putting their Beliefs at the core of Reality itself.

Not everything is like slicing an onion because not everything is like an onion. Or even a Solar System.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Belief and Certainty

“Belief is the state of mind in which a person thinks something to be the case, with or without there being empirical evidence to prove that something is the case with factual certainty.”

Or so says

As definitions go, it is a deft one. If a belief is a state of mind, it is therefore entirely subjective, and any consideration of objective reality or absolute truth are coolly avoided. Truth and Reality are replaced with the oblique “factual certainty”.

Deft it may be, but it gives no sense of how and why humans have evolved to create such a “state of mind”. Nor does it even hint at why, in some cases and circumstances, people will lay down their lives for a belief. Or why they get so emotional when their beliefs are challenged.

Worse still, however, is that’s definition gives no sense that beliefs cannot exist in isolation, in the mind of an individual. To have any meaning, a belief must be contained within a system of beliefs as part of a culture (otherwise it is called delusion by everyone else). Just as no culture exists without a community that lives by its rules.

Belief is therefore a social construct. What validates your beliefs is that other people believe them too. Belief is, in other words, more a state of belonging than a state of mind. Believing makes you part of a community of believers, whilst disbelieving will identify you in the community’s eyes as the mad and bad ‘other’, a valid target to be overwhelmed, repressed or even destroyed.

What is common to most definitions of belief, including’s, is that empirical evidence is surplus to requirement. Beliefs are just stories that we tell ourselves, myths and narratives that become the building blocks, the basic assumptions of our thoughts and identity. Taken literally, this means that if you change your beliefs, you would not survive the experience: you would become a different person. This explains, to some degree, why literal people get so aggressive when their beliefs are challenged. It might also explain the death of saints, as well as some aspects of their lives.

Of course, the validity of such definitions depends on people being willing to see their beliefs as a psychological device, a mere function, be that a state of mind or a state of loyalty and belonging to a community. Which is precisely the opposite to how most people view their beliefs. Instead, they “believe” their beliefs to be incontestable, absolute Truths.

Put another way, “true” believers believe they are Right. This contains the rather unliberal implication that unbelievers must therefore be Wrong. In the absence of arbitration by empirical evidence, this definition of the believer is the same as the definition of a bigot. What is more, the “true” believer believes in a stunted, excluding reality, one in which there is only one possible Truth, instead of a richer version where truth is not so much absolute as dependent on the believer and the available evidence that each one chooses to ignore.

So, by scratching a bit deeper than’s disappointing definition of belief, we find that the concepts of Truth and Reality goose-step back into the discussion. It also reveals that beliefs are social constructs, enforced by the community via bonds of loyalty and belonging that accredit the believer with a membership card that be verified or rejected, based on an individual’s overt behaviour.

Beliefs, from this viewpoint, are therefore the social glue, pointless in isolation, that bind people into communities.

The benefit this provides is simple: trust. Shared beliefs create in humans a state of social trust (ask any conman), and mutual aspirations, that are highly valuable for the overall community’s survival in the face of a harsh, uncompromising and unpredictable Reality. In turn, belief gives an emotional, if false, substance to safety in numbers. Ask any economist and they will say that a lack of trust in a society is expensive and inefficient. This explains why treason is such a heinous crime: it violates trust and reduces the chance of success of the community. So, more than just a binding agent, this sharing of beliefs is nothing short of the foundation stone of society.

What can be learnt from taboos, that sort of institutionalized belief, such as incest or eating rats.

Taboos encapsulate tried and tested wisdom that is hard to dispute: they spare a community the Russian Roulette of trial and error.

What taboos do is “compile” acquired knowledge into the socially enforced ban of a certain practice. In other words, they conveniently reduce the amount of thinking that an individual must perform to survive. Apply the taboo, and you can delegate the act of thinking onto the community, the only cost to the individual being to help enforce the taboo. The downside to taboos is that they cannot be questioned and so, if circumstances change, they can prove to be an inflexible burden. I’m not advocating that brothers should marry their sisters – the realities of genetics are unbending - but if properly cooked, there is nothing wrong with eating rats and it may well become one way of feeding a growing population, as rats breed and grow faster than rabbits. Indeed, it is alleged that a lot of Chinese restaurants in Buenos Aires fed rats instead of chicken to their unsuspecting patrons. They gobbled them down with no discernible ill effect.

The taboo is ultimately a blunt instrument of social organization, that doubles as a primitive form of health care. By violating a taboo, you cease to belong to your group. You are a disgusting person who eats rats, for example. By breaking the ban, you become an “other”, just as if you did not share the beliefs of your community. In that role, at least, taboos are indistinguishable from beliefs.

It would be nice if we could generalize what we have learnt about taboos to other categories of belief. Specifically, that they contain compiled wisdom, involve a delegation of the act of thinking, and are social norms that accredit your belonging in the social life of the group. 

It is easy to discard the first, i.e., that all beliefs contain compiled wisdom: clearly, not every belief is wise. For example, God does not always provide so get off your arse and get going. However, the other two notions, that beliefs allow individuals to delegate the act of thinking onto the institutions of the community and that they provide a form of accreditation do seem, to me at least, reasonable propositions.

A belief in climate change, for example, delegates thinking on scientists and experts, and results in useful social behaviour such as recycling your rubbish and trying to produce less pollution in your daily life. A disbelief in climate change, on the other hand, delegates thought on the likes of Donald Trump, encourages people to thunder around town in a gas guzzling Humvee, and ends up as a vote for changing the rules of social organization, such as liberal values or all the “Mad Nanny” impositions of political correctness.

So much for all that. But what is behind beliefs, what gives them their potency, their energy, their relevance in our mental life.

To a believer, a truth that is not absolute cannot be a truth at all, which is what makes them bigots. However, if you are an even minded sort of person and accept that there are no absolute Truths, then our world becomes tainted with uncertainty. This is quite terrifying to most people, so what to do?

We all crave Certainty. We want to be told that we are loved, we want to be told that we are right. We don’t need these things validated by facts, we just want them validated by fellow believers. Why? Because we want to be part of the herd, the pack.

But above all else, we want to be Certain.

President Donald understands this well: what, if not Certainty, does the snake oil salesman supreme offer to his believers?

Sadly for us all, Certainty is precisely what NO ONE can deliver because, like True Happiness and Enduring Love, there exists no such objective state of grace (other than as a highly subjective state of mind, the very definition of belief that is so disappointing).

What exists, at best, is a fragile form of Stability. Belief systems only survive if they provide some Stability to the believers. Safety in numbers, for example. Only when there is Stability can you safely delegate thought on someone else. In other words, society will only function properly when there is Stability. When that happens, we get Nirvana on Earth, allowing everyone to get on with procreation, attending truck rallies, paying the mortgage and all the other things that give meaning to life.

And now, at long last, we come to the punchline. If there is any substance to this discussion, then beliefs, other than taboos are, more often than not just a means of denying the fact that we live in an uncertain world. A world that one day will roll on without us, quite unperturbed by our discontinued existence.

The awful, unspeakable truth is that we are just an insignificant part of Reality. Add us all up, add all the groups that subscribe to all systems of belief and we are still insignificant.

And so, this way of looking at belief yields a final, speculative, insight:

Most beliefs have at their core a denial of our Insignificance. The Certainty that our Egos crave is the certainty of our Significance.

So, my best guess is that this intense horror of Insignificance, the primary emotional energy behind our beliefs, is none other than our instinct of self-preservation.

Put another way, if we are insignificant, then what is the bloody point?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Vera Rubin died on the night of Christmas Day, 2016. Her lights went out at the ripe old age of 88 and she never won a Nobel Prize.

Hardly surprising, you might think, given that not many people win the Nobel Prize. So she was a woman? Well, a lot of men died in 2016 and they didn’t get a Nobel Prize either. Leonard Cohen, for example.

However, Vera Rubin was no ordinary person.  A dedicated wife and mother, she found the time and the energy to become one of the greatest astronomers of her time and probably any other time. In terms of the importance of what she observed, she is up there with Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and, closer to our time, Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who confirmed that the Universe is expanding. Hubble, better known for the space-based telescope named after him, didn’t win a Nobel Prize either, as he died before the Nobel Committee conceded that Astronomy was actually a branch of Physics and so he hadn’t qualified for the prize.

So at least Mrs Rubin is in good company. 

And anyway, she won just about every other accolade going in physics and astronomy, including the 1995 Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal, the first woman to do so since Caroline Lucretia Herschel in 1828. However, back in the 1970s, Vera Rubin had to look for a subject where she wouldn’t be elbowed out of the limelight by her predominantly male colleagues. At the time, the astronomy herd was obsessed with black holes, so Vera decided to steer clear of the subject. She settled on an intelligent choice, the biggest known objects of all, galaxies, and used modern technology to take a closer look at some of their features. Specifically, she studied galaxy rotation curves, or rather the distribution of rotation speeds of their outer reaches. Pretty soon she came up with her Cosmic rattling result: the stars and the gas in the outer reaches of any galaxies she observed were rotating much faster than expected on the basis of the observable mass of these galaxies, and so should have been flying off into the surrounding void. But they weren’t, so either Einstein and Newton were wrong about a universal law of gravitation, or else what you see is NOT all there is. I.e., dark matter doesn’t just exist, everywhere, but a lot of it exists.

Dark Matter (I prefer the term in German, dunkle materie, which strikes me as more colourful) is an idea that dates back to the likes of Lord Kelvin and Henri Poincaré at the beginning of the 20th Century. Evidence of dark matter had already been observed in 1932 by the astronomer Jan Oort within the Milky Way, i.e., our very own home galaxy. What Vera Rubin did was confirm this result in galaxies beyond our own, as distant and far away as you cared to look. As a result, she showed that Dark Matter cannot be explained away by some statistical glitch in the movement of stars in our galaxy. It is a momentous achievement, but it was not enough to win her the Nobel.

Why not? You might ask. I certainly do and it is pretty hard to come up with a plausible explanation.

The Nobel Committee is a conservative institution, but it is not above the odd publicity stunt. The reputation of the prizes they dish out on a yearly basis are waning, so they need to stir things up. In this respect, Vera Rubin offered them a golden opportunity in our allegedly inclusive times. Her life story is not just one of scientific achievement, it is also one of a triumph against the sexism and prejudice of her time.

She was the first woman to work at Caltech’s Palomar observatory, back in the days when there wasn’t a separate ladies’ toilet. When she attempted to enrol in Princeton’s graduate course, she was told women weren’t accepted. George Gamow, a renowned cosmologist, became her doctoral adviser, but she was not allowed to attend one of his lectures because “wives were not allowed”. When Gamow spoke to her, they had to talk in the lobby because women weren’t allowed in the offices upstairs. The anecdotes of discrimination against her go on and on. Later in her life, Vera Rubin championed women’s place in science and helped many young women to establish their careers in a man’s world. However, not even gender issues and publicity stunts were enough for the Nobel committee either.

So again, why did she not win the Nobel Prize? What, for example, are the criteria for the selection of nominees?

Nobel Prizes in Physics are only awarded if a discovery has “passed the test of time”. Which in the case of the Swedish Academy of Sciences amounts to around twenty years. Live fast and die young, by all means, but don’t expect to win the Nobel, and many big names in Physics who died young did not.

Vera Rubin presented her results on galaxy rotation curves in 1980, ie, 36 years before her death, so well within the Nobel Goldilocks zone. You therefore have to look elsewhere to explain her absence from the Nobel hall of fame.

Dark matter refers to a hypothetical type of matter that is non-luminous, ie, that does not absorb or emit light, radio waves, x-rays or infra red radiation. Observing this “luminous” radiation is what astronomers, most of them male, do for a living. So to be told by a woman that most of what is out there can’t be “seen” in this way knocked them down a peg or two. Rubin’s observations were not exactly welcome ones. Interesting,  but not welcome. Astronomers are human and, if you believe the winner of the 2002 Nobel for Economics, behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we humans, astronomers included, have a distinct bias towards believing that What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). Not so, said Vera Rubin’s observations.


Nominations for a Nobel Prize in Physics are currently obtained by the Nobel Committee by sending out confidential forms to be filled in by previous Nobel laureates. The list of nominations are kept secret for 50 years, so it will be a long time before it will be known who, if anyone, ever nominated Vera Rubin. As a result, one is left with the evil of idle speculation. It goes, roughly, like this:

Since the Nobel Prize for Physics was first awarded in 1901, only two women have won it, Marie Curie (who also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.  Both are now dead. By comparison, over 350 men have won the prize (up to 3 people can win it every year). In other words, the annointed group that nominates physicists and astronomers for the Nobel Prize in Physics is a bit like a lot of golf clubs: men only.

Is that the answer to my question? Who knows? The fact remains that Vera Rubin did not win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

But prizes aren’t everything, are they? In a life as rich and productive as Vera Rubin’s, they ultimately mean very little. The call from Stockholm never came, but in the astronomical scheme of things, so what? It’s what you do that matters. And who you are. In both regards, Vera Rubin blew our minds.

Well, some of us anyway, albeit at the outer reaches of the anorak scale.

At the other end of the scale, people have spent the last months bemoaning the passing in 2016 of the author of the following lyrics:

There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds

Me? I wish I had met the starwoman.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Democracy, Truck Rallies and Spectator Readers

NOTE: What follows is a caricature. A lot of great articles have been published in The Spectator. Benjamin Franklin certainly thought so.

I will always remember watching a TV program back in the good old days of George W Bush, in the bad early days after 9/11. A smug, middle class white British reporter was interviewing middle-aged, white, overweight, tattooed Americans at a truck rally. Baseball caps were de rigueur. The subject of politics was broached. The general consensus was that the guys in Washington were ‘smart’ and it was best to leave them to get on with ‘it’.

I remember that watching the programme made me uneasy. Was this how democracy worked, a symbiosis between the hubris of Leaders and the hedonistic pursuits of their Followers, who delegate the effort of thinking on them?

On reflection, I decided, there had to be more to it. Otherwise, how had democracy worked so much better than any other system in history? 

Like a hen, I scratched away at the undergrowth until I found something that surprised me: 

Despite appearances, the guys at the truck rally were being smart too:

Let the guys in Washington get on with the boring stuff, leaving us boys back home to enjoy doing what is important, i.e., attending truck rallies. The problem was all just a question of horizons and Democracy was not rendered asunder by a divide between the hubris of the smart and the unthinking of the dumb.

More than a decade later, the programme provides a poignant snapshot of a bygone age of innocence. House prices were rising, Irak had been ass-kicked, things were tickety-boo and, even if some people were smarter than others, everyone could honestly tell themselves that they were smart too. Life was a bed of rosy peach down and truck rallies.

Then 2008 happens, as in that’s the way the money goes and pop goes the weasel. 

As in: Splat!

The problem wasn’t so much the guys back home taking Stability for granted nor the guys in Washington DC taking Stability for granted. 

No. The problem was EVERYONE taking Stability for granted. It was a problem of generalized complacency, not an intrinsic problem with Democracy.

But, even with hindsight, that doesn't help much, does it?

The only guys who are still floating are the 'elite', a conflation of guys who still 'look' smart, such as experts and politicians, and or guys who have a degree of financial insulation. Meanwhile, the wife is bitchin’ that if we can’t afford the mortgage, then we can’t afford to go down the truck rally either. With everyone trying to deny that they are feeling a tad foolish, being smart acquires a pungent, quasi-criminal whiff.

It’s pitchfork o’clock, in other words.

Down with the Leaders, say the Followers. Problem is, who’s gonna do the thinkin’? 

Me? I don't wanna think, thinkin’ is kinda boring. So folks gotta go get someone new to do it for ‘em. Only THIS time, we ARE gonna be smart, we gonna delegate thinkin’ on someone we actually ‘GET’ what they say. 

I.e.: EVALUATING what Leaders think is substituted by 'GETTING' what they say.

As in:

We’re gonna build a wall and the Mexicans are gonna pay for it. 

Your man can ‘get’ that. It is nothing other than exactly what he wants to hear: someone else is to blame. Two plus two means it must be true, even if, to work, it needs to be five, especially if you are a Mexican. 

One might call this kind of reasoning the ‘get bias’: you are biased towards believing what you ‘get’.

Us folks never did ‘get’ what them experts said, just like THEY never got truck rallies, so we ain’t gonna trust ‘em no more. Instead now we only gonna validate as true what we get. End of.

So what? Democracy, in practice, is not so much a delegation of authority and responsibility as a delegation of thought. The Followers delegate the act of thinking on Leaders. The problem is that this works when the Followers correctly evaluate their Leaders’ capacity to think straight. When they don’t, it doesn’t.

At this point, you might think I am an anti-American intent on lampooning the average US truck rally attendee. It is, I agree, a pretty easy target to hit, but think again. 

In Britain we are not doing much better. For example, we have gone from delegating our thinking on people who read The Economist to people who read The Spectator. To make matters worse, we have delegated our thinking on people who write for The Spectator, such as our national clown Boris.

This is not a good sign.

If you ask a Spectator reader why they don’t read The Economist, the stock answer is that The Economist is a bit too ‘serious’. 

This is not a good sign either.

If you then ask your average Spectator reader for a second reason why they don’t read The Economist they are likely to be stretched, not just because they can't think of a second reason, but because they probably have never read The Economist. After a while, they end up answering a different, easier question, namely, why they voted for Brexit. There will be mutterings about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘immigration’. Finally, after a bit of prodding, they will blurt out that they don’t like ‘liberals’.

Interesting. Are they in favour, for example, of slavery? Or despotic monarchs? Or any of the other evils that liberals and liberal democracies have successfully rid us of in the last century and a half?

No, they say, with varying degrees of indignation and discomfort. What they don’t like, they say, is political correctness. 

Aha. So political correctness and liberal ideas are one and the same thing, right?

Yes, they say with the self-righteous air of one who was lost but now is found, of course they are.

Well, sorry, but they ain’t. 

They are two very different things and when you say that, the Spectator flock will give you a distinctly ovine look, albeit tinged with a hint of panic (no one likes to feel ignorant, not even sheep). 

Not too dissimilar, in fact, to the look in the eyes of many a US truck rally attendee in the post-2008 era.

So, having established, at the very least, a tenuous intellectual common ground between your average truck rally attendee from across the pond and your average Spectator reading Brit, what should you do with this information?

Well, given that Spectator readers are, in most other aspects of their lives, intelligent and sentient beings and include many a barrister, the sort of person who goes on to become a judge (ie, someone who can both get you out of as well as in to jail), I would strongly suggest praying.

I am an atheist, but what the heck? Nothing better comes to mind.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Vinegar, a truly magical cure

What people believe is, I feel, a fascinating topic. Not just their religion and their politics, but all the other beliefs that go into building up their world vision and, to a large degree, who they are.

Beliefs such as the existence of easy solutions to complex problems, silver bullets and snake oils to cure all ailments.

Or apple cider vinegar.

According to the BBC, there is some flimsy (and none too scientific) evidence on the health benefits of apple cider vinegar that include a reduction in cholesterol levels, arthritic inflammation, obesity and blood sugar levels. All one has to do is drink one spoonful of the stuff every day and hey presto, your health is yours to keep.

I do not have high cholesterol, I am neither arthritic nor obese and I am not diabetic. The only conceivable reason I would try this 'miracle cure' is that I am now over 50, so lawnmowers and health concerns get more attention than they strictly require. I also like strong, acidic tastes, such as lemons, grapefruits, Maynard Sours and, yes, vinegar.

So I gave it a go.

Ignoring the suggestion to dilute the vinegar, I poured myself a wee dram of apple cider vinegar and, taking a deep breath, knocked it back in one smug gulp. What little vinegar actually made it to my stomach made me feel rather sick. The rest shot out through my left nostril in an explosive and excruciating snort.

It felt like someone had stuck a bottle brush up my snout and left me with most of the symptoms of a bad cold for two days. The experience will not be repeated but if nothing else it did prompt my curiosity.

I decided to dig a bit deeper into this vinegar thing:

What, if any, are the health benefits of vinegar, apart from the fact that it makes salads and chutneys taste better? Can it really save lives?

Well, for a start, many of the bacteria and fungi that can make us ill do not like acidic environments. So, if you are living in an area that is in the midst of a cholera epidemic, you are recommended to put vinegar on uncooked vegetables before consuming them. Salads, for example, proving that what we like is often (but not always) good for us. Or rather, that most of what chefs do involves killing bacteria. We, and all our presumed sophistication, are but the by-product of our evolution.

So vinegar can, indeed, be a life saver, but there is more. As a result of those same bactericidal and fungicidal properties, vinegar is also a food preservative, which is why we use it to pickle things in times of bounty, deferring their consumption for leaner times - and vinegar itself is nothing if not pickled fruit juice. Again, it is a life saver, this time because it helps us not to starve.

We have no doubt evolved over the last millennia, but not always in the right direction:

Human beings have long found mildly acidic drinks refreshing and have believed them to have medicinal properties. For example, Coca Cola, a beverage originally intended as an over-the-counter medicine. The acidity in Coca Cola comes partly from the fact that the drink is carbonated, which is why when you drink it flat, it tastes plain sweet, rather than sweet and sour and is not nearly as good. The ancient Greeks had their own take on soft drinks and used to use "Oxymel", a mixture of vinegar and honey, both for refreshment as well as for medicinal purposes, for not entirely bogus reasons: honey and vinegar are natural products that both have powerful antibiotic properties. As Oxymel does not have high concentrations of processed sugar in it, it is also unlikely to lead to an obesity crisis. In fact, Oxymel is sometimes used as an appetite suppressant (I certainly didn't feel like eating after my experience with apple cider vinegar).

So I suppose you could argue that drinking honey and vinegar is healthy for you, but only if it means that you reduce your intake of modern-day carbonated junk drinks.

So it turns out that vinegar really does offer some health benefits, when used sensibly, in reasonable quantities and suitably mixed with other ingredients. Rather like just about any foodstuff.

Whether apple cider vinegar really reduces your cholesterol levels is something that I will leave to more qualified people. In the meantime, I will watch and wait before ingesting anymore of the stuff, other than for dressing my lettuce.

But I am not yet finished on the subject of vinegar. I have a haunting story to tell. At least, it haunts me.

I have witnessed vinegar saving not just one life, but tens and even hundreds. If ever I have seen anything bring life back from the brink of agonizing death, vinegar was that silver bullet.

In 2003, a terrible drought affected most of central Argentina, the western, dry Pampas, an area the size of France of gently rolling savanna grasslands and scrub. Not quite the Australian Outback, but you get the idea. Once or twice a century, or thereabouts, the South Pacific gets colder than usual and that pushes the rain shadow of the Andes eastwards. In the following months, well into 2004, it rained less than in the Atacama Desert. The place turned to dust, quite literally.

People imagine that in such droughts, cows die of thirst. They don't. In most places where cattle are ranched, the drinking water for cows is extracted from a water table, or is stored in reservoirs, or is piped or whatever. It doesn't depend on the rain, at least in the short term.

But if the rains don't come, the grass doesn't grow and so the cows die of hunger, not thirst, a far slower and infinitely more unpleasant death.

For over 100 years, my family has ranched in that part of Argentina. My grandfather saw a similar drought in the 1950s, but we, in our lifetimes, had never seen anything like it. After decades of building up our herd of cattle, the shit hit the fan. And when the shit hits the fan in Argentina, it does so in style.

Herds are not made up of tens of cows, they are made up of thousands of  cows. Fields are not 20 or 30 acres, they can be well over 2,000 hectares. You can gallop a horse from the homestead for half an hour just to get to a given field.

Scale is not the only problem. No one will buy your animals because no one else has any grass and the cost of getting the cows to where there is grass is simply prohibitive. And even if you could sell the cows, the logistics of selling thousands of them in one go is just too much when everything else is going wrong at the same time.

We bailed fields of tumble weed, we bought peanut husks and sunflower cake from the cooking oil processors by the lorry load, but we might as well have tried farting to stop a hurricane. The grass was all dead, a terrible ash grey colour. The cows had their calves in the Spring and started to die.

As a last resort, we bought urea and molasses blocks. Essentially, if you give a cow urea mixed with molasses in the right quantities, she will be able to eat the Sunday Times and survive. Or, more importantly, she could eat the ash grey dead tufts of savanna grasses and survive.

For a while, it worked. But then even the dead grass started running out and the cows, desperate for protein, started biting off whole chunks of the urea and molasses blocks.

The result if you are a ruminant? Acute urea poisoning, hyperammonemia, a rapidly progressing and highly fatal condition.

An hour after demolishing the urea block, Mrs Cow starts frothing at the mouth and trembling uncontrollably and down she goes with no future but an agonizing death.

Unless, of course, you give her... yes, you guessed it:


Vinegar, or rather acetic acid, lowers the pH in the rumen, preventing further absorption of urea into the bloodstream, and converting the remaining urea into ammonium acetate, which can be used by the rumen microflora (cows don't digest grass: they feed grass to the microflora in their gut and then they digest the blooming microflora).

We started buying 200 litre drums of industrial vinegar.

When a cow went down, usually near the water trough where the urea blocks were sited, we would fill a 2 litre bottle with vinegar and walk up to her. Driven crazy by pain, she would be aggressive, making violent and sudden movements, but too weak, and trembling too much, to get up and mount an effective attack, a terrible and pathetic sight.

Then, as we got closer, she would smell the vinegar. You didn't have to do much else after that, she did it for you. Cows just know what is good for them. Put the bottle near her and she would lunge for it, wrapping her tongue round its neck and pulling it into her mouth, then sucking it dry in two or three huge gulps. Once she was finished, she would follow you, scrambling behind you on her knees, begging for more of the same.

The cows we treated got back on their feet to die another day, but we didn't save all of them. Some didn't make it to the water trough, some we just didn't find in time. But at least we tried.

So if you asked me if vinegar is a magical cure that can save lives, I would say:

Yes, definitely.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Clueless in Bulgaria


These notes were written for the entertainment of my mother. As a result, they discuss cultural, political and other issues with a total disregard for erudition of any kind.  They are nothing if not the fruit of my ignorance: at best, the sum of my prejudices and at worst an ill informed and error strewn rant.

You have been warned.

Recherche la Difference

When a degree of discomfort is involved and no culinary surprises other than tripe are on offer, the only possible joy of travel is to be exposed to difference.

Different people enjoy this exposure for different reasons: some find their prejudices reinforced and so can return to their daily lives content and none the wiser.

Others find that the observation of differences serve to highlight their prejudices, allowing them to identify them and weed them out.

Which group I belong to will depend solely on the beliefs of the beholder. 

Rome and Byzantium

It is all too easy to be clueless in Bulgaria.  The Bulgarian language is, initially at least, impenetrable. What Greek roots it shares with English are obfuscated by the Cyrillic alphabet and the absence of Latin roots afford the uninitiated Western European no easy comfort. However, there is much more to the cluelessness than language and alphabets.

One might say that Western Europe’s inheritance from the Roman Empire is taken directly from Rome whereas much of the cultural and religious heritage of Eastern Europe stems not from Rome but from Byzantium.

If the above is true, we Westerners have missed out on much of what Byzantium had to offer and so a trip to Bulgaria is always going to be a source of interesting differences.

For example, the monks of Western Europe brewed wines and beers, but in the Orthodox monasteries of the East, rakia and vodka were preferred. And rakia, unlike spirits in Western Europe, is drunk at the beginning of the meal rather than the end, so the alcohol rides an uncluttered highway, straight into the blood stream, from an empty stomach. You take the hit harder and faster.

If you have been hit with a sledgehammer, you are less likely to object to eating tripe.

Fear, East and West

The West has often looked East to find an embodiment for its fears.

It is no coincidence that Bram Stoker, worming his way through the Whitby library more than a century ago, had an Eureka moment when he came across stories of a Rumanian thug called Vladimir Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and a member of the noble house of Draculesti. From there to the titillating gothic horrors of Dracula, that tapped straight into a rich seam of Western fears of the East, there was but one leap of imagination.

Colourful, albeit nasty, Rumanian counts have been replaced these days by a new generation of airbrushed, young adult vampires, but in Eastern Europe, Vlad is by no means dead.

If David Cameron had replaced his pin striped trousers for combat fatigues and stripped off his shirt for a photo shoot that shows him flexing and squatting manfully beside a river running through a forest, he would have been evicted from 10 Downing Street long before Brexit and long before the howls of derision petered out.  But when Vladimir Putin did exactly that, posing as the Pan-Slavic alpha male, modelling an ideal of empowered masculinity, he tapped straight into an undercurrent of what flows though the collective psyche of his constituents, or at least half of them: if you want to impale, impregnate and spawn, shout the photographs, here is the recipe.

Obviously, a gross generalization and blatantly unfair. But in rural Bulgaria, it is not unusual to see young (and not so young) under employed males milling around outside corner shops dressed in Putinesque combat fatigues, with short-cropped Putinesque hair and Putinesque musculature. A heavy pall of not-quite-living-up-to-their-own-expectations hangs over these little gatherings.
So what? Youths hanging out in aimless harmony is also a common sight in Western Europe. But would you, for example, see British youths modelling themselves on a foreign leader, such as Barack Obama? It is much more likely that they would be aping pop stars or footballers: for Western kids, the problem of identity and manhood is not driven by a sense of national humiliation.

So in the absence of benefits of EU membership, Putin will continue to hold a powerful allure for potentially angry young men. Rural Bulgaria is poor and underdeveloped. In Kalofer, a small town in the Valley of Roses (that figures in no tourist guides I have seen but where we stayed for four nights), nothing much happens. Ancient Ladas rust on the roadsides in the interminable and pathetic wait to become collector items for rich foreigners, a donkey clip clops wearily down the cobbled street pulling an oversized cart, old ladies in black hobble past avoiding eye contact, a young buck fixing his battered Volkswagen Polo’s electrics banters to a young girl walking by.  She smiles archly, but doesn’t lose her stride.

Young, frustrated men in Bulgaria will no doubt feel that the status quo affords them little to be proud of in themselves.  The conquering hero of a Russian Crimea, by contrast to his Western detractors, knows how to reach this receptive audience.

There is another twist available to Putin’s publicity campaign:

Frustrated male pride implies a sense of injury and humiliation, the blame for which is all too easily pinned to the arrogant, affluent, successful and culturally insensitive West.

Putin is the living proof that a brotherhood of Slavs resents the success of the West as much as the West feels a gut lurching, innate fear of the East.  At a time of reckoning (and certainly at the time of writing), all the West has to offer is a shabby promise of prosperity, whose credibility has been seriously dented since 2008.

So was it a good idea that Bulgaria was made part of the EU and NATO, a status that duty binds us to defend them like our own, even when a large percentage of the population may not want ‘defending’? 


Bulgars and Bulgaria

On arrival in Bulgaria, the first thing we did was to visit the National History Museum, located on the lower slopes of the hills above Sofia, in what was previously the palatial residence of the Communist ruler.

By Western standards, it is a small history museum.  However, one aspect of the museum provided a very distinct impression of the Bulgarian national character: for 500 years, the country was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. However, in the National History Museum of Bulgaria, there is not one reference to the Turks.  This denial of 500 years of history points to a deep trauma and lasting bitterness. Which in turn points to weakness, or at least a lack of self confidence.

This cannot have been always the case, as there was twice such a thing as the Bulgarian Empire, that rivaled Byzantium as a power in the region.

This was news to me. Our travels around Bulgaria only reinforced this sense of ignorance. On the first floor of the Museum, there was an exhibition of Bulgarian traditional dress.  In these dresses there was a clear Middle Eastern influence, which one might think comes from the Turks.  However, the Bulgars (a semi-nomadic Turkic people, according to originated in Asia. Then, in the 7th century, Slavic tribes moved into the area, again from the East, followed by the Mongols in the 13th Century who eventually subdued them. Somewhere in between, the Bulgarians fitted in two empires, but still it is clear that there are plenty of Asian influences predating the Turks.

At this point I have to declare that the more I read about Bulgaria, the more my notions fragment and the more convinced of my ignorance I become. The dynamics and history of the Eastern end of Europe are simply not in my cultural baggage nor in my general knowledge. I doubt very much that I am unique in this regard.

So, when trying to understand the place, the best option is probably to try to answer simple questions.

For example:

When, if ever, did Bulgaria become European? 

The Bulgars arrived from Asia; the Slavs from somewhere in Western Asia; the Mongols came charging across the steppes from the Far East and conquered what is now Bulgaria, then fizzled out; the Byzantine Empire came and went a couple of times; and then came the Turks and the Ottoman Empire.  All of these successive waves are Asian, not European (you would have to go back to the times of Ancient Greece to the Thracians to find a tribe with whom the rest of Europe shares any cultural heritage). Therefore, the Bulgarians are Europeans more by an arbitrary quirk of geography than any ethnic or cultural heritage.

The Turks were finally kicked out in 1878 by the Russians who, by that time had become fairly European in outlook (they spoke French at the Tsar’s court), so 1878 is probably the best answer to the question of when Bulgaria became European rather than Asian.

1878, as in 136 years ago, the same time as Argentina ethnically cleansed the Pampas of native Indians. A blink of the eye in cultural terms. However, most of these tribes that I am saying were Asian (with the exception of the Mongols), were still Caucasian, ie, they came from no further East than the Caucasus mountains between the Black and the Caspian Sea.  As white races are often referred to as Caucasian, it begs the question where Asia ends and Europe begins. However, these racial classifications dissolve into a blur the more you read about them and they also lend themselves all too readily to racism, as in white skin good, not white skin bad.  So best to steer clear when not in full command of the facts.

Going back to Bulgaria and its identity:

The campaign to oust the Turks was fought not so much by the Bulgarians themselves, as by the ‘Eastern Orthodox Coalition’, led by Imperial Russia. It sounds about as nasty a war as wars can be: battles were brutal and bloody and the embittered and traumatised Bulgarians had little mercy for their prisoners.

After leaving Kalofer, we travelled through the Shipka Pass across the Balkan Mountains on our way to Tryavna. The Balkan Mountains split Bulgaria East to West in two, and the Shipka Pass was therefore a vital route for reinforcements for one side as much as the other.  It was consequently the scene of one of the most decisive battles of the war. The brutality and carnage of the battle (August 1877), is an untold story as far as I am concerned: I know nothing about it. Given the dramatic, suicidal savagery with which it was fought, and its geo-political importance, it has to rank up there with the Normandy landings in European history. Yet we (as in the average Western European) know nothing about it.

I found a quote in describing the Russo-Turkish war that points to the fact that Russia’s injured pride about lost territory is nothing new:

“The Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 was a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox coalition led by the Russian Empire and composed of several Balkan countries. Fought in the Balkans and in the Caucasus, it originated in emerging 19th-century Balkan nationalism. Additional factors included Russian hopes of recovering territorial losses suffered during the Crimean War, re-establishing itself in the Black Sea, and supporting the political movement attempting to free Balkan nations from the Ottoman Empire.”

At the Southern end of the Shipka Pass, we visited the Russian Orthodox Shipka Church, built by the Russians after the war as a memorial to the battle.  In the basement, I found a plaque (translated into English) that stated:

“This church was built to commemorate the everlasting fraternal friendship between the Russian and Bulgarian peoples.”

The EU and NATO should take note.

Battlefield Bulgaria

You might think that Bulgaria has enjoyed, over the centuries, a privileged position as a trading route between East and West but that has turned out to be a curse rather than an advantage.

A series of Thracian tombs from ancient times, built near Shipka bear witness to economic and cultural development that was probably the result of huge prosperity based on trade.  The Bulgarians call this region their Valley of Tombs but this golden age of empowerment did not last.  Long enough for a cluster of 20 tombs to be built, but no more.

There were also two Bulgarian empires, but they didn’t last either. Ultimately, there were always, it seems, larger forces at play.

For most of its history, Bulgaria has been a battlefield where foreign wars are waged: wars between East and West, Islam and Christianity, Capitalism and Communism.  As in Jane Austen novels, the names change, but the story is much the same. 

Bulgaria is once again a pawn. This time the players are Europe and Russia. For a couple of decades, the EU has successfully eroded Russia’s potential influence and power, by bringing the defunct Soviet Union’s satellite states into its fold. Now it is Russia’s turn to be on the offensive, gobbling up regions where they have an ethnic majority. It might well take a war to even try to stop them.

So, if push comes to shove, would Bulgarian loyalties lie with Europe or with Russia?

Our Bulgarian guide was not at all certain.

WTF is Philosophy?

[NOTE: what follows is entirely tongue-in-cheek and there are no prizes for spotting the semantic leaps in the reasoning. That is not to say that there is not a grain of truth in it all]

The question is an important one, at least to me. I have a layman's interest in politics and religion, not in any active, participatory sense, but rather out of curiosity about what people believe, and why they believe it.

As people believe such radically different things, they cannot ALL be right, can they? Or can they?

Belief is nothing if not what people feel is "true", but can you rigorously determine if a belief is in any sense "true" and if so, under what circumstances?

Physics, for example, has a yardstick for determining the "truthiness" of a statement: Experimental results.

If the predictions of a theory contradict such experimental results, then the theory is not true, it is wrong. If the theory predicts results that ARE verified by experiments, then that theory is true.

But Truth in Physics is a limited and rather precarious concept: if later experiments throw up contradictory results, then a theory that was "true" is no longer "true". It may describe phenomena within a certain range of parameters, but it does not explain ALL phenomena and so is not "true". And if a theory predicts something that has yet to be verified or disproved by experiment, then that theory is neither true nor false - the realities that such a theory suggests are left in limbo.

So even where there is a yardstick for measuring truthiness, it turns out that Truth is a slippery customer. What hope is there, therefore, for questions and lines of inquiry where there is no such yardstick?

Well, it strikes me that there are two possible approaches; one is faith, the other is philosophy. Leaving Faith to one side for now, what then is Philosophy? And how does it establish if a statement is true of false, and under what circumstances?

It is not even easy to say what Philosophy is not: it is not art, or science, or religion, and yet it is the alleged parent of the first two and competes with the third; it overlaps and interacts with all three. The most you can say, it seems to me, is the rather obvious statement that Philosophy is in no way equivalent to Belief. You are free to believe anything you want, but you cannot conclude whatever you want from Philosophy: the sole object of Philosophy is to conclude the Truth by philosophical means. At which point you realize you are aboard a tautological merry-go-round.

The truth is rarely what you want it to be, unless you confuse Belief with Truth, an all too human failing. Sure enough, most people tend to think that what they believe is true (and good). Such people, it follows, are not philosophers. Karl Marx, who most people, regardless of what they feel about Marxism, would agree was a philosopher, by contrast dilly-dallied about publishing the second volume of Das Kapital because he was uncertain that he could prove his point.

So if you cannot believe what you want with Philosophy, what can you do with it? Well, you can ask any question you want, and finally, we come to a first approximate answer to our original question:

WTF is Philosophy? At the very least , it is the process of uncovering the "true" answer to any given question by a rigorous process of Deduction.

For Deduction to be rigorous, you are required to subscribe to one of the philosophical "methods" with some degree of rational and even logical consistency and discipline. You part from a set of axioms, or primary beliefs, and you methodically and rigorously deduce the consequences of those beliefs. Or rather, you answer your question on the basis of your chosen primary beliefs.

The above highlights the relationship between Belief and Philosophy: you are only free to choose your primary beliefs, every other "truth" has to be deduced. You cannot believe everything you want and you cannot prove everything you believe. You have to make a choice and face the consequences.

The above also outlines the link between Truth and Belief.

For example, you are free to believe that parallel lines never cross. Believe that and you get Euclidean Geometry, ie, flat space. Discard that belief and you get Riemannian Geometry, ie, curved space. Flat and Curved Space are two very distinct entities, that involve radically different truths about the same things, both logically and consistently derived from primary beliefs.

Therefore, if philosophy is about rationally deducing the truth, it turns out that the truth is entirely dependent on what you believe. So the question WTF is Philosophy answers the derived question 'WTF is the Truth?'.

If the Truth depends on what you believe, then it is entirely relative. Ie, it is not invariant to a change of beliefs. This means that two people whose beliefs result in contradictory truths are both right, at least from a philosophical point if view, with the sole requirement that they have rigorously deduced their truths from their beliefs.

So if Truth is relative to Belief, then WTF is Reality?

Well, I would speculate that reality is the sum of all truth. In the geometry example given above, Geometric Reality is the sum of the Truths of Curved Space and Flat Space along with the sum of whatever other Geometry you choose to correctly derive from any given set of axioms.

Taking all the above to the realm of politics, it follows that Marxism and Capitalism are both true in as far as they can be deduced from beliefs.

However, for Truth to mean anything, both contradictory truths cannot be simultaneous true, otherwise Reality would pretty much cancel itself out. But Reality clearly exists.

So, Houston, we have a problem. How can we solve it?

Well, if we are not going to accept that Truth is an over-rated concept, the word "simultaneous" provides a loop hole that maybe we can manage to squeeze through. Simultaneity implies Time and Time links up to a Universe. So the solution to our problem is to propose a Multiverse, that consists of one Universe for each contradictory Truth.

In other words, a Multiverse is required for Philosophy, Truth and Reality to retain the meaning we ascribe to them. As you can believe anything, it follows that the number of constituent Universes in our philosophically consistent Multiverse must be infinite.

But this, as discussed in a previous post (The Proof that God (with a Capital G) Does Not Exist), shows that such an infinite Multiverse effectively rules out the validity of any religion that is founded on the belief that Man (and Woman) are Cosmological relevant (essentially, in a multiverse the likelihood of mankind being the only intelligent life, for whom the whole Shebang was created, in a BigBang or otherwise, is vanishingly small, ie, inversely proportional to the number of constituent Universes. As the number of constituent Universes goes to infinity, as philosophy requires, the probability of man being cosmologically relevant falls to zero).

Christianity, for example, is therefore inconsistent with Philosophy, whilst Marxism is not. God, this implies, "truly" is dead. Or rather, if you believe that Philosophy is alive, it follows that God, as Nietzche claimed, is dead.

All very well, but...

If Philosophy boils down to being able to prove anything, so long as you are prepared to believe the right things to prove whatever tickles your fancy, you still end up with a contradiction. For example, you could believe that God exists, but for that to be true, you would have to accept that God doesn't exist, or else settle for a god in whose creation man is not relevant. To believe in any other kind of God you must decry philosophy but, as Philosophy is what validates Truth from your beliefs, believing in God would become pointless, because you couldn't say that your Religion is true and, much more disappointingly, you could not say that you are Right and everyone else is wrong.

Of course, the answer to this contradiction is simple: you just have to believe that everyone else is Wrong and that you are Right and forget all about Philosophy, which is exactly what just about everyone else does. By definition, people believe what they believe (otherwise they wouldn't believe it, would they?) and so everyone believes that the beliefs of everyone else are wrong, and therefore that what is true to everyone else is false to you. It follows that your truths are also false to just about everyone else, except for those people who believe the same things as you, in which case, why bother with dialectics and Philosophy?

So WTF is Philosophy if not a way of proving that nothing makes any sense?

Small wonder we don't agree with each other.

The bigger wonder is that we all persist in our denial of the relativity of Truth as described above that, however tongue-in-cheek, holds a grain of, uhmmm... truth.    

A truth such that, if we did not deny it, might just help us to understand each other.              

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Proof that God (with a capital G) does not Exist


This post is slightly tongue in cheek, there is obviously no way anyone can prove or disprove the existence of God. But the ideas, although still highly speculative, do allow one to assign some kind of probability to God's existence, and that is at the very least interesting. Or I think it is...

In what follows, by God with a capital G I mean a God who has created the Universe for the sole purpose of us to live in. This is a rather self important belief, but it is one that you will find in most religions that involve a Creation Myth.

The most I will do is to question this belief, by putting forward some ideas that, whilst a tad speculative, show that it is vanishingly unlikely that a God exists who has created a whole blinking and whirring Universe solely for our comfort and perusal.

This question is based on the fact that, as our knowledge increases, there is every indication that we are less and less important in a cosmological sense. There are no contradictory indications to this trend.

In other words, the arrow of science seems to have taken an unequivocal Copernican direction, ie, it seems hell bent to knock us off our pedestal on centre stage. This bent, or direction, is based on observation, logic and mathematics, not subjectivity, and it is not, as we shall see, flattering to our cosmic importance.

The 'Proof'

If God has created the Universe and everything in it just for us, then we need to be unique in the Universe and what you might call Cosmologically Important.

Therefore, if we can show that we are NOT Cosmologically Important, then that goes some way to showing that God (with capital G) as we "know" and worship him, does not exist.

Let's start our 'proof' with Copernicus and take a spin through subsequent increments in our knowledge and understanding of the Cosmos that we live in.

Copernicus showed that Earth is not the centre of the Universe. The Earth revolves around the Sun and therefore the Sun is the centre of the Universe, not the Earth. That leaves us still cosmologically close to the heart of things, give or take a few light minutes. But we are no longer in situ at plumb centre.

However, a few centuries later, along comes the post Copernican realisation that the Sun is just one of hundreds of billions of stars that rotate around a massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. Fortunately, we are NOT at the centre of our galaxy, otherwise we would be inside said massive black hole, which would not be fun. Instead, it seems we are very much out on a limb of our spiralised galaxy.

But we have not stopped there. Next came the 20th Century observation that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy in the Universe, but instead is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars like the sun.

Anyone with an open mind will begin to concede that we are not exactly centre stage.

In consequence, we are now beginning to look seriously comsomologically insignificant.

But hold on, could not the Milky Way still be at the centre of the Universe?

Hubble answered that question with his observation that there is no 'centre of the Universe'. Space is expanding and each point is rushing away from its neighbour. Mathematically, that means that there is no centre to the Universe.

All this is pretty established. We live out our lives on an insignificant spec of dust in a bubble of space that is fifteen billion light years in diameter that mathematically or in any other sense has no centre. We are small. Very small. And very, very insignificant.

But let's not stop there.

All the Horrors of the Multi-Verse

As science brings maths to bear on the first instants of the Universe, a new and ugly speculation raises its hideous head.

The maths and the logic seem to imply that there is not just a Universe, but instead a Multi-Verse made up of lots and lots of Universes, some similar to our own, some potentially very different. Our 15 billion light years bubble is just an insignificant spec of dust in a unthinkably vast multi-verse constituted by every mathematically possible bubble. In most of these bubbles life would not be possible, as the constants of nature would not allow for galaxy formation. However, in a number of bubbles that is vast even by cosmological standards, galaxies would indeed form and so life would indeed be possible. Given such large numbers, life would happen, billions of times in billions of different galaxies in billions of different bubble universes.

In a Cosmos that is not a Universe, but a Multi-Verse, it follows that our Earth bound species is not in any reasonable sense cosmologically significant. We would be just one of billions upon billions of sentient species in the Multi-Verse.

Therefore God (capital G) does not exist.


The Anthropic Principle

Amen, you might well say.

If you apply Steven Weinberg's use of the anthropic principle in conjunction with a Multi-Verse cosmology populated by bubble universes generated by quantum jitters in the inflaton field to gauge the cosmological significance of mankind, the probability of your Amen being heard by an interested creator is vastly less than 1 divided by 10 to the power of 500, according to some speculative mathematics.

Ie, 0 followed by at least 500 decimal places before you get a significant digit (ie, a digit different from 0).

Ie, the probability is smaller than a ridiculously small number.

But hey, it ain't zero so git down on yo' there knees and say Hallelujah, Praise the Lord!

God bless all you folks sittin' at yo' computers tonight.

Computers that wouldn't work if quantum mechanics wasn't right. And it is nothing if not Quantum Mechanics that leads us, slowly but surely, to the notion that there are billions upon billions of other Universes out there beyond our own, none lesser nor greater than the other, all just being, just existing, some expanding forever till the night sky goes dark and cold, others growing first only to cave in upon themselves before eternity has but blinked an eye. Billions upon billions upon billions of Universes, not solar systems or galaxies but entire Universes, with billions upon billions of galaxies in the billions upon billions of them that have a cosmological constant small enough to allow galaxy formation.

And all the time, the inflaton field jitters away and new bubbles erupt from the Multi-Verse vacuum, billions of them in just an instant, each with the Cosmological violence of a Big Bang. Let there be light. A lot of it.

So many Universes that the meaning of the numbers begins to escape our reach. Hallelujah, indeed.

And in each of the galaxies in each of the Universes with a cosmological constant that allows galaxy formation, hundreds of billions of stars, with billions of planets, of which there will be millions of planets with ideal conditions for life like ours to trigger and survive. In just one galaxy. Let alone all the galaxies in all the universes of the multiverse.

If you look at it from that angle, there will be innumerate billions of planets teeming with life, with evolution driven by natural selection selecting that will eventually select intelligence over brawn, until you get a self aware species (well, partially self aware) that can look up at the night sky and wonder why. The answer to their question why will not be immediately apparent.

So each of those species will sooner or later write a book that beings with the line:

"And God said: Let there be light."

And they will believe that they are the chosen ones, the ones at the centre, the ones with the truth. Just like we did.

Until one day, from too much looking up at the sky and wondering why, they begin to figure out the answer.

And the answer isn't flattering.

What about gods without a capital g?

So much for God with a capital G. But what about plain old gods with a small, lower case g?

The alternatives to God are gods who are not in the least bit interested or involved with OUR existence.

Worshiping such a god can be shown to be somewhat pointless, so the uninterested god can be excluded from human spirituality:

God based religions fail if mankind is not cosmologically important, and so rather than believe in some other alternative god, you might as well believe in Father Christmas and the tooth fairy.

But things aren't as grim as all that, there is still refuge available for the spiritually inclined.

You can still give buddism a spin or join the Hare Krishna. Personally, I think the Dalai Llama is one of the greats of our time, along with the likes of Nelson Mandela (but then I am not in power in China nor am I a Boer). Maybe you should try the Tao?

Go East, young man (or woman). Or not.

Your options are reduced to finding a religion without a creation myth at its core.

The problem for belief in a god that does NOT have the power to create the universe, is that said god becomes disappointingly parochial. And if a deity is parochial, then what is the point? What answers to Humanity's existential questions will he (with a lower case h) provide?

If you accept that your god didn't create the cosmos, then can he change the result of battles, or football matches? Can said god intervene in personal illness or distress? If not, what is the point of prayer? If there is no point in prayer, what is the point of religion?

And if our parochial god was able to intervene in such things, then our planet Earth would be a most unusual part of the cosmos (the place where a god can intervene in football matches) which to the best of my knowledge it isn't. Leicester City doesn't usually win the Premiership.

So if mankind is NOT cosmologically significant then you are left, at best, with the possibility of a god who is not in the least bit interested in you.

Most people's god is a god who is interested in them, and with whom they can hotline by means of prayer. All the above leaves such beliefs in a rocky place.

A Speculative Loophole

The problem with this disproof of God (capital G) is that the physics it is based on is still highly speculative.

However, speculative or not, it is derived from current lines of enquiry into Cosmology, and dovetails with the unrelenting Copernican trend in the direction of scientific knowledge to dislodge us from centre stage.

Given that the Multi-Verse is still a highly speculative notion, ultimately, this proof is definitely not watertight. That will be a blessing to some.

In my case, however, Galileo's alleged words, as the Inquisition led him away, still echo in my mind:

Eppur si muove, said Galileo, and stamped his foot, indicating the Earth beneath him.

Still it moves, whatever the clerics have made me say.