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 Wikipedia.org) 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 Wikipedia.org 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.