I started 2022 with a post titled Things I Think Are True. It was an echo of the Hard Problems post I’d done to start 2021. That earlier post listed a (possibly surprising) number of open questions in physics. Not trivial questions, either, but big ones like: “What is time?” and “What is the shape and size of the universe?”
The post in 2022 was more of an opinion piece about things that, in the context of those open questions, I think are true. Pure speculation on my part, some of it close to mainstream thinking, some of it rather less so (but all, I would argue, grounded in what we do know).
This year, for contrast, I thought I’d make a list of stuff I don’t believe is true.
As with last year, the original handwritten list grew over a period of months, so it has no particular order, and (again as with last year) I’m just going to transcribe it with a lot of editing and additional explanation. So, the following has no particular order. My disbelief in all cases is best described as: Total.
Obviously, discoveries in the future will affect all three lists, but a list of disbeliefs is more readily confirmed because it’s usually easier to prove a negative than a positive. (Consider the canonical example: “All swans are white!” Disbelief is easily proved by any non-white swan, but belief can never be fully satisfied.)
[Weaker theories are more easily proved. For instance: “Most swans are white!” and “Swans come in multiple colors.” The problem is that weaker theories are less useful.]
Anyway, without further ado, things I don’t believe are true (and you shouldn’t either):
Computationalism: The belief human consciousness arises in consequence of computation by the brain. That the brain is the hardware, and the mind is the software. And therefore, mind software can be run on any computer (per the Church-Turing thesis). In particular, our minds potentially could be uploaded to a computer.
Critically here, computation is defined as what can be implemented with a Turing Machine (or a Lambda calculus) — the realm of computable functions. It’s possible this excludes physical simulations of the brain, if done in sufficient detail, but this remains an open question (one I’ve addressed elsewhere).
I think Roger Penrose is right that consciousness isn’t algorithmic. It’s a seriously parallel holistic analog information processing system. It may, or may not, depend on physical shape and size, being embedded in a body, near-field electro-magnetic effects, or even quantum effects. We do know important things happen down to the molecular scale (just consider LSD).
Leaning on Gödel’s Incompleteness and Turing’s Halting, Penrose argues consciousness can’t be mechanistic, that it transcends what can merely be enumerated. Consciousness has leaps of intuition and faith along with a rich tapestry of life experience providing context. The appeal to Gödel and Turing is really an appeal to Cantor’s diagonalization idea that underpins them both.
Which ultimately is an appeal to the distinction between countable and uncountable infinity. Which is essentially the distinction between digital and analog. So, it’s hard to see how a digital system can implement a decidedly analog system.
Except by simulating the physical system itself (if possible). I’m skeptical (for many reasons; see all these posts) but open to the possibility.
Determinism (or the Block Universe): The belief in a clockwork universe where everything proceeds infinitely predictably. The Block Universe (BU) takes this to the extreme: everything has already happened; we’re just experiencing it in serial fashion.
I’ve written enough about the BU (see these posts). Suffice to say I think it gets Special Relativity wrong and imagines all of time and space sprang into existence complete and, for some reason, we’re just moving along the block at one second per second.
Quantum mechanics as we understand it denies determinism, and quantum effects certainly can be amplified to classical levels. Chaos from quantum noise makes a mockery of determinism. Further, it’s possible reality has a precision limit, and this would also break long-term determinism.
And even if the physical world was deterministic, I think brains are complex enough that they might be nondeterministic. Just as they transcend computation, I think free will is real and transcends determinism (see this post).
The Many-World Interpretation (of quantum mechanics). I’ve argued this one to death. Here I’ll only ask: What is the point of such an extravagant metaphysics when it (almost certainly) can’t be proven? It necessarily returns the same results as other interpretations, and I’ve never understood the attraction.
All other Multi-Verse Theories: I just don’t buy them. For one thing, they’re just too big. What’s the point, and where does all this stuff come from? These are science fiction, if not comic book ideas.
Many multi-verse theories are in support of some combination of the Copernican principle (which says we’re not unique or the center of anything) and the Anthropic argument (which is one convoluted piece of thinking). I think it’s important to remember that the Copernican principle is, at best, a heuristic. It doesn’t always apply (I’ve argued we are, in fact rare).
The Anthropic argument, however, in any but its weakest form is a load of hogwash. It basically sees our universe as a lottery ticket winner — an unusually friendly universe that allows humans to exist and make up things like the Anthropic argument. The idea is that such a winner implies millions of other lottery tickets (the Copernican principle — our universe can’t be unique).
But if the universe is unique and just happens to be this friendly (because why not? or maybe God), then that we’re here to comment on that fact isn’t at all surprising.
Seems to me the parsimonious (and truly scientific) view is to take our increasingly acute observations of reality generally on faith until presented with evidence otherwise. All our great theories came from exactly that — trying to make sense of our observations. This theoretical fantasizing isn’t science, it’s science fiction.
Along similar lines, I’m very skeptical of and unsympathetic to theories with more dimensions than the 3+1 (space+time) that we observe. So, I don’t believe String Theory turns out to be a valid physics (although it’s apparently a great mathematics).
I also don’t believe Supersymmetry (SUSY) is correct. The necessary masses are just too high now. And, by the way, String Theory requires, or at least assumes, SUSY, so not finding the supersymmetric partners is a blow for ST being a correct physical theory.
SUSY also lies at the heart of most Grand Unified Theories (GUTs). Many see it as required for the three forces (EM, weak, strong) to unify at high energies. It’s possible no SUSY means no GUT, that nature is a patchwork at the lowest levels.
Inflation (like Dark Matter and Dark Energy, neither of which are known to be true) is mainly a placeholder to account for anomalies in our observations. In the case of Inflation, to explain the homogeneity of the CMB and apparent spatial flatness. If these were explained in other ways, there would be no need for Inflation. (Which, by the way, requires an unexplained field, the Inflaton field.)
Eternal Inflation, on the other hand, is just silly. It’s too big. That said, there are some deep mysteries involving the birth of the universe.
I don’t believe entropy causes time. I believe entropy is the result of the laws of physics plus time, and I believe time is fundamental and axiomatic (see these posts about entropy and these posts about time).
Quantum Mechanics. It’s not so much that I don’t believe it’s right but that I don’t believe it’s complete. And it may well be wrong in some fundamental aspect(s), but the theory we have works too well to be completely wrong. I think it needs a revolutionary change of view.
[Roger Penrose notes in more than one of his books that our major advances in science — Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, others — were revolutionary and not incremental. But all we’ve had in the last 60 or more years in basic physics is boring old incremental change.]
Currently, all we have are some suggestive leads on where we might find our suspect.
Ghosts. The necessary physics is just too weird. For one, they have to be incorporeal to go through walls, but gravity doesn’t pull them down into the Earth. Yet they can stay in place despite that the Earth moves rapidly around the Sun (over 66,000 miles per hour) and the Sun is moving even more rapidly around the center of the galaxy (over 500,000 miles per hour). So, how do incorporeal ghosts manage to stay in place?
For another, if they’re invisible how do they see? Photons would go right through them. If they’re insubstantial, how do they hear? We see because eyeballs stop photons and ears react to soundwaves. If ghosts were absorbing photons and soundwaves, we would notice them.
And, of course, how does consciousness exist without a corporeal substrate? Even if one believes in an immortal soul, it still seems to require corporeal existence for that soul to experience anything.
That said, ghost stories are the only “monster” stores that can raise goosebumps for me because there is a kind of plausibility to ghosts. Maybe there is a soul that persists and maybe there is an ectoplasm with special properties and maybe ghosts stay in place because they want to and perceive reality through different means.
Maybe. I don’t think so, but sometimes in the right circumstances there’s just enough plausibility to creep under the edge of the tent and raise the hairs on the back of my neck. It’s fun believing in ghosts. Vampires, Frankenstein’s monsters, Werewolves, Zombies, et cetera are just silly fun pretend monsters. (Moral of most Outer Limits and Twilight Zone stories: “The real monster is us!”)
Astrology, Palm Reading, Psychics, Tea Leaves, Etc. As with the vampires et cetera, good fun to pretend and play dress-up, but none of it is real. No, not even a little.
I confess to a soft spot for (good) Tarot readers. They tell an improvised story off-the-cuff depending on what cards turn up, and I have a lot of respect for storytellers. And the art of Tarot can be stunning.
Just keep in mind that no fortune-teller in the history of fortune-telling ever predicted anything big before it happened. Never happened.
Time Travel (into the Past). Certainly not as shown in movies where characters go back into Earth’s past. See above about how far the Earth moves in just one hour. In just one year it’s moved almost five billion miles. Multiply that by however many years you want to go back.
There is also that I believe time is axiomatic and only runs in one direction. The past is fixed and gone. There’s no revisiting it.
[Special Relativity allows for a kind of travel into the future, but it requires a very fast spaceship and a long journey.]
We’re not unique. 1:10¹⁵! That’s all there is to this entry, and I’m no longer sure what I meant by it. In fact, I believe the human race is rather unique. (Which is one reason I don’t believe in alien visitors but would love to see some.)
I think the number is a reference to the number of synapses in the human brain and that I was getting at there being a finite number of brain configurations. And therefore, a finite number of possible human minds. Meaning people aren’t quite as snowflake individual as we might like to think. (But then snowflakes aren’t unique, either.)
But 10¹⁵ is a pretty big number, and the number of configurations of that many synapses is a truly huge number. Yet there are fewer than 8×10⁹ people alive today. All the people ever is about 117×10⁹, so still far short of making much of a dent in the total possible.
Bottom line, I have no idea what I meant here. If I meant something sensible at all, which sometimes I don’t.
Stay unbelieving, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.