Saturday, June 20, 2020

Sabbaticals, New Ideas, COVID, and The Good Place

It has been almost six months since I have written and posted anything on my blog. Thanks to many of you, my readers, who have sent me inquiries as to the reason why my blog has been dormant, expressing your appreciation for the content, and asking if, and when, I will be writing posts again. I really appreciate all the kind remarks so many of you have sent me over the last few months. 

First, I should say that I don't really have any unusual or profound reason for the drought of blog posts. After writing at least two posts per month for three years, I simply have fewer new ideas for what to write about and, therefore, less motivation to write, since so many of my ideas that relate science, reason, and logic, to Christianity have already been addressed in previous blog posts. In addition, as with any activity that is done for a long period of time, I had simply become a little fatigued with writing new posts week after week. I am a university professor and, in academics, professors are allowed to apply for a sabbatical every seven years in which they take a semester or two off from teaching in order to focus on research and creative activity and to generate new ideas and revitalize their creative endeavors. From my perspective as a professor then, maybe I just needed a short sabbatical from my blog activities to gain a revitalized perspective. I still am not sure what new thoughts and ideas I have to add to the many blog posts I have written over the last few years, but I will at least try to get back into the pattern of writing on a regular basis. As such, I appreciate any thoughts my readers may have on topics that could be addressed in this blog. 

As with so many people in the world right now, I have spent the last three months or so fairly sequestered in my house. Because my research is based at CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, but I live in Oklahoma and teach at the University of Oklahoma, my daily routine even before the COVID-19 pandemic consisted of spending a lot of time in video meetings and looking at data from the Large Hadron Collider using my local computer. So, actually my professional life lately while working from home has been quite similar to my professional life when working from the university buildings: writing and running computer code to analyze data and meeting with people and groups by video. However, my personal life has changed quite dramatically over the last few months. I have spent more time cooking at home and more time streaming video at home. 

My wife and I have watched more content from Netflix, Prime, Disney+ and other services than I ever thought I would in such a short time. And some of the content I have watched has even generated a few ideas for my blog. We have just finished watching all four seasons of the NBC show, The Good Place, and some of the themes and ideas explored in that show are pertinent to both physics and Christian thought. If you haven't seen the show I should warn you now that the rest of this post is full of spoilers. So if you don't want spoilers for The Good Place, you probably should stop reading now.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Look Back and Forward: Top Posts Written in 2019

Three years ago, on December 30, 2016 I wrote my first blog entry that introduced this blog devoted to a discussion of science and biblical Christianity. I want to thank all of you who have been readers of my thoughts through these last three years.

The World Wide Web was actually invented in the same building as the office that I use when I am at CERN doing research. (The opening figure above shows the plaque posted in the basement hall commemorating the development of the World Wide Web.) Nevertheless, I am constantly amazed by the way that the Web has changed the world. Because of this remarkable invention, people from every corner of the globe can interact and share information. As a result I have readers from every continent on the earth and from a vast variety of countries with different political systems and religious backgrounds. I am grateful for all of you. If this blog has been beneficial to you I would ask that you continue to tell others about it and spread the word.

The front page of my blog has a section with the most viewed blog posts over the last year and over the life of the blog. I'd like to highlight the five top posts that were actually written during this last year. So here is a list of the most read blog posts that were written in 2019:

Monday, December 23, 2019

A Simulated Universe: Missing the Obvious

My children refer to many of my jokes as "dad jokes," a term that applies to the silly, kind of dumb humor common to us "older" dads. I do admit that my sense of humor was formed when I was a teenager in the 1970's and tends toward the kind of silly, ridiculous, sometimes witty gags typical of Monty Python, or maybe Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther movies. It may be embarrassing to admit that there are far too many Monty Python skits or Pink Panther dialogues that I can recite from memory and that will cause me to laugh out loud just thinking about them. Simply mention "the cheese shop" or "the staff interrogation" and I may launch into a poor British or French accent as I recite some of the "hilarious" dialogue. Given that you can tell a lot about a person from their particular sense of humor, there may be some of you who have now completely lost all respect for me as a scientist or as a human being. (That last line was meant as a joke and reflects my "dad joke" capabilities.)

Now most of the previous paragraph has nothing to do with this blog post. But in order to introduce the topic of this post I was trying to think of a situation where somebody completely misses the most obvious thing right in front of them, while focusing on other less favorable options. My mind wandered to a scene in the movie "The Return of the Pink Panther" where inspector Jacque Clouseau is reprimanding a "blind" beggar with an accordion and a "minkey" for a minor offense, while he is completely oblivious to a major bank robbery going on just behind him. Of course, I then had to watch the video clip of this movie scene on YouTube, which led me down a rabbit hole to a series of many other Pink Panther and Monty Python videos, (similar to the virtual reality rabbit hole I referred to in my last blog post, which does actually bring us to the subject of this entry.)

Here I follow up on my previous discussion about the hypothesis that we may live in a virtual reality universe rather than a physical universe. Such a scenario was proposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2003 paper "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" More recently a video by "Inspiring Philosophy" based on a 2007 paper by the informational computer scientist Brian Whitworth titled "The Physical World as a Virtual Reality" presents the same idea. Previously, I focused on some of the scientific ideas presented in that paper and showed that Whitworth doesn't seem to fully understand the science and that he selectively applies just those scientific principles that he thinks supports his hypothesis. But the biggest flaw in Whitworth's argument is that he doesn't even consider the possibility that there is a transcendent God who created the universe. Because he is oblivious to this obvious possibility, he completely misses the best option regarding the true nature of our universe.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Do We Live in a Simulated Universe?

Some time ago a reader asked me to look at a video by "Inspiring Philosophy" that discussed whether or not our universe might only be a simulation so that we might actually live in a virtual reality universe rather than a physical universe. That video was based on a 2007 paper by the informational computer scientist Brian Whitworth titled "The Physical World as a Virtual Reality." The reader's question, the video, and the paper sent me on a prolonged investigation as I read various papers on this provocative notion that we live not in an actual physical universe, but in some kind of computer simulation. The modern form of this argument was proposed by the philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2003 paper "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" It seems appropriate that I was sucked into the "rabbit hole" of the virtual reality hypothesis since one of the classic movies that proposed our world is just a computer simulation was the 1999 film The Matrix, which also referenced the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole in the dialogue when Morpheus is about to reveal to Neo the truth about their simulated universe and he says, "You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." This journey of mine investigating the rabbit hole of a simulated reality has taken some time and consequently, I have not written a blog entry in about a month.

In some sense I'm not sure that this post is warranted or relevant for my blog. The purpose of my blog is to discuss various aspects of the relationship between science, Christian faith, and objective thought. I don't believe that my investigation into this subject necessarily gives much insight or adds much to the many writings that discuss this idea. Most of the articles that I find persuasive actually debunk the idea that we are simply a simulated universe such as those by physicists Sean Carroll or Sabine Hossenfelder or by informational scientist Brian Eggleston, and you can follow the links by clicking those authors' names above to find good reasons to disregard the simulation idea. It seems to me that those who take the idea seriously are not so much the educated scientists, but popular tech figures like Elon Musk who has promoted and popularized the simulation idea. I tend to side with the vast majority of expert scientists who believe there is much more evidence against the idea that we live in a simulation, rather than the few computer scientists and popular figures who have promoted the idea as probable.

But since I have spent far too much time deep in the rabbit's burrow on this subject, I probably should devote some space here to discuss a few ideas and see if there is any way I can relate the subject to the broader theme of this blog: that of science and the Christian faith. Rather than focus on the philosophical aspect of the simulation hypothesis (after all, the modern resurgence of this idea came from a philosopher not a scientist), I will focus on some of the scientific aspects of the original video (which was actually entitled "Digital Arguments for God's Existence") and the paper by Brian Whitworth on which it was based. In my next blog post I will discuss some of Whithworth's assumptions that are biased, presumptuous, and erroneous, and show that once those assumptions are reconsidered, then the idea that there is a transcendent intelligent creator God actually best explains his data.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Four Reasons To Believe in God From Science

As a scientist who studies the most fundamental particles and forces in the universe, I tend to only accept something as true if it is supported by abundant objective evidence. You might think that a person like me, who wants testable reasons for everything, could never be a Christian since Christianity is based on faith in God. However, real Christian faith as described in the Bible is always based on evidence and is more accurately defined as “trusting God based on the evidence that he is trustworthy.” Since I am an experimental particle physicist who needs facts to back up my beliefs, I have studied many of the objective reasons to believe and trust in God from history, science, philosophy, sociology, and other academic disciplines. Perhaps some of my findings will give you additional tangible reasons to believe in God.

Here are Four Reasons to Believe in God from Science:

Sunday, November 10, 2019

So You're Telling Me There's A Chance

In the movie Dumb and Dumber, Lloyd (played by Jim Carrey) asks Mary (played by Lauren Holly) what the chances are that a "guy" like her and a "girl" like him could end up together. When Mary gives him the unfortunate news that the chances are "one out of a million" he optimistically replies, "So you're telling me there's a chance. Yea!" What does it mean for there to be a chance? What does it mean for something to be possible? In a textbook I used as an undergraduate student, Thermal Physics, by Charles Kittel, one of the end-of-chapter problems asks what the probability is that 1010 monkeys (more than the entire population of people on the earth) typing on typewriters for the entire age of the universe could type Shakespeare's play Hamlet?1 The calculated odds turn out to be 1 in 10164,316. Perhaps the most profound part of the problem is its in-text title: The meaning of "never." I have talked with people whose understanding of probability aligns with that of Lloyd. They think that if the odds of something occurring are not identically zero, then there is a possibility that the event may occur. But from a scientific viewpoint, when the odds become small enough, that means "never." A commonly used cutoff in science for something that will "never" happen tends to be somewhere from about 10-50 to 10-100. So I guess maybe Lloyd does have a chance.

This is the final blog post in a series in which I have applied some general principles that are helpful for determining the validity or truth of a scientific proposition to certain claims and ideas proposed by a Christian world view. Because these principles can be used to assist in determining the veracity of any idea, then if Christian claims are true, they should hold up under such an examination that uses reasonable criteria to determine their validity.