Things I Don’t Believe

Victor MeldrewI 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):

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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I’m not convinced Inflation is correct, but I don’t believe in Eternal Inflation (for one thing, it’s a multi-verse theory).

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.

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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).

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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.

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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!”)

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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Stay unbelieving, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Things I Don’t Believe

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The post ran long as it was, so I didn’t have room to get into social disbeliefs. Such as I don’t buy (or at least didn’t) that humans are no better than Pavlov’s famous Dogs. I don’t deny behaviorialism, but — because I believe in true free will — don’t think it’s the undeniable force some present it as. We can use our will and self-awareness (our Superegos) to resist how external representations impact our Id. Our Ego responds to both — it’s our special human superpower.

    Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder if some people aren’t more Pavlovian than others. The whole spectrum of consciousness thing. Is it possible not everyone is capable of meta-thinking?

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    I like making lists too! For me, ditto…ditto…etc regarding your first list. I do agree that a list of disbeliefs is more readily confirmed—perhaps more satisfying to enumerate—than a list of beliefs. It also appears to be a science oriented list. (Another realm interests me a bit more.) Anyway lists of beliefs and disbeliefs are satisfying. But as I get older and older I think it’s a list of questions—not answers—that satisfy me more. Maybe satisfy is not exactly the right word. And, of course, having the right questions to ask is essential for a useful list. At the end of the Critique Of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant claims that there are really only three great philosophical questions—Was Kann ich wissen? Was soll Ich tun? Was kann Ich hoffen? Or, what can I know? what ought I to do? What can I hope for? Try as I might, I really don’t think I can improve on old Immanuel’s short list. The first question—what can I know—is where your list of disbeliefs is located. The second question asks how to live a good life. That’s a question that sadly and slowly became more and more muddled starting with the Enlightenment—ironically when we started to get a flood of answers to the first question. I do think it has had a bit of a revival lately though. The third question perplexed me for a long time. Then someone gave me an interpretation that made sense. Kant’s third question, in short, inserts humility into the process of inquiry. In short, we can only hope or aspire to have answers to our other two questions—we cannot ever assume certainty or finality. And much to your credit you allude to that valuable insight several times in your essay. Good on you! I think Kant pretty much summed it up for me. That’s my favorite list.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, that’s gotta be another human thing, lists! It was science oriented because I find it hard to have abiding beliefs, or disbeliefs, about humans. The last half-dozen years have been especially hard on what I thought were axioms about people. Even Kant’s short list doesn’t really embrace social interaction. Rightfully so,… “it’s complicated.”

      Just yesterday I was reminded about something Max Tegmark said. It was about how our basic theories are purely mathematical (but explained in words) but as our scope expands, what theories we have become almost entirely word-based. For instance, compare a quantum mechanics text with a psychology text. In Tegmark’s view, this makes math the primal reality, and reality as we know it he terms merely “baggage”.

      It’s a good example of how an intelligent educated person can have ideas that are completely bat poop bonkers. One thing Tegmark overlooks is that the lack of math in so-called “soft” sciences has to do with how impossibly complex (and ultimately useless) such math would be. The only thing “soft” about these sciences is our inability to fully understand the complexities involved. Human interactions have so many variables that calculating outcomes is effectively impossible. But that doesn’t mean the math isn’t there.

      But anyway, my point is, as always, “it’s complicated!”

      So, yeah, understanding reality is an infinite hill. Complete with false trails and unpassable crevasses.

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        I take your point. Reality is complicated. As I’ve said on another forum that you sometimes frequent, I would suggest that reality seems to be both complex and hierarchical. The complexity of properties appears to increase as we move up from say the physical through the sciences to say the human and cultural levels—way too messy for a simplistic physical reductionist view of reality. We certainly don’t understand the complexities. I’m on board with you on that. But I respectfully disagree with you that Kant’s short list of fundamental questions does not embrace social interactions. Although Kant’s ideas on ethics have proven woefully inadequate, I think his three fundamental starting point questions covers the waterfront—with the final question reminding us that our best hope is for answers that can never be final and certain.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Apologies, I meant no disrespect to Kant! In fact, I’m quite a fan. As you say, his deontological approach is woefully inadequate in the complex real world, but I’ve found that, in isolation, his Categorical Imperative makes a very good razor on moral acts. The problem is that, on a more global scale, sometimes stealing that loaf is the right thing to do even if the specific act is wrong. All I meant to comment on was that Kant’s short list is framed in terms of «I» — what can «I» know, do, and hope for. It’s about a personal journey, though I agree the logical extension of those questions absolutely does lead to our place in society. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise!

        I’m reminded of how some feel the Golden Rule is inadequate because it’s framed in terms of the «I» — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Platinum Rule is supposedly better: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. But that’s a bit unwieldy and is what a proper reading of the Golden Rule really says anyway. You want to be treated how you want to be treated. Logical extension: so does everyone else! Kant’s list of three, likewise expands into something much larger.

  • First Cause

    Things I don’t believe is a good starting point Wyrd. But the other take is Kant’s musing: “what can I know?” Now that is a tough one because we are all confronted with the question of “what does anything mean outside a circle of mutual definition and agreement?” The correct answer is “I don’t know” and “there is no way to ever find out.” Or is there?

    I agree with the late Richard Rorty when he asserted that without a vocabulary that captures the way the world (reality) really is or a core human nature, there isn’t even a possibility of locating a metaphysical model for truth.

    So in that assessment Rorty addressed both the hard and the soft sciences. The answers to these compelling questions lie within the realm of metaphysics, but most people are not satisfied with metaphysics because of its inherent nature of being vague and generalized. Metaphysics lacks the specificity and certainty that we want. So there is that….

    But I do believe that metaphysics can provide a fundamental framework from which to build a coherent picture of reality as well as a core human nature because both of those things are intrinsically linked. To paraphrase a quote from Christian literature: “Seek you first a fundamental reality and then all of the physics will follow.”

    Keep your minds open my internet friends, even if your brains actually do fall out…..😎

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ah, but that leads to brainlessness. I’d recommend sticking to the original advice: “Keep an open mind… but not so open your brains fall out.” FWIW: my litmus test is coherence and clarity (of both expression and thought).

      Philosophers have chewed on metaphysics for thousands of years, and I think the truth is that — exactly because of the lack of specificity and certainty you mention — that branch of philosophy is great for questions but not so much for answers. We’ve discussed this before, so it should be no surprise that I’ll opine that science and math turn out to be the vocabulary that captures reality and provides what scant answers we can find. Our technology, the expression of that science and math, has been so brutally successful that we’re in danger of species self-destruction. These reality tools have given us power far beyond our mental and social development. (Us to our brains: “There’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”)

      Where I think we agree is that we need a better mindset. Something I read not long ago points out we have much in common with two ancestors: chimps and bonobos. The former is warlike, the latter peaceful. The canonical demons and angels on our shoulders. We can choose. Getting everyone to buy into a better philosophy is a challenge, though. When has any sizable group of humans ever agreed on anything? Somethings half-a-dozen long-time friends can’t even agree on a restaurant!

      • First Cause

        We are all different and unique, and that distinction falls under the category of determinism. It is within this deterministic system with its own unique properties and well defined boundaries that free-will and self-determination exists.

        Here’s one of my favorite quotes from ZMM:

        “(Phaedrus) was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way….”

        Robert Pirsig’s own personal battle with a mental disease resonated with me because beginning at the age of nineteen, I too was plagued by such a disease. I first read ZMM fifty-two years ago. Looking back, I muse on the misleading statement that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. I’ve come to realize in my older age that there is no line fine, broad or otherwise. Genius and insanity are one and the same, two sides of the same coin.

        So for me, free-will and self-determination exist within the deterministic boundaries of what make me unique. So it is with everyone else. Discovery and the subsequent understanding that follows is a solo journey.

        I wish you the best with yours Wyrd.

  • Matti Meikäläinen

    Oh, gosh! No apology necessary. It was I who took you a bit off topic by drifting from your list of well founded disbeliefs. I seem to have a strong critical bias about philosophical questions and answers—getting the right questions being foremost. And, to me, Kant distilled it down to the three fundamental questions of life.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’m beginning to think they’re like three orthogonal axes in human space. Any topic reduces to some combination of those three. Philosophy is all about careful analysis, so I can see why it’s so good at nailing the questions. At least those are within our reach. I suspect we’ll forever be grasping for answers.

      It may be apparent in my posts or comments, but my IRL friends know Tangent is my middle name. Off topic conversations lead all sorts of interesting places. No harm, no foul!

      • Matti Meikäläinen

        Yes! Philosophy is about careful analysis. My motivation for hijacking your original theme is based on some meaningful experiences as a young man trying to develop my philosophical toolbox. So often when stumped by an apparently hopeless problem, a wise mentor would ask: “are you asking the right question?” I think that is sometimes the hardest but always the most critical part of any inquiry. And so often once I articulated the right questions, the answers seem to flow with ease. Kant’s three-part formulation obviously is composed of huge branching sets of sub questions. But much as I disagree with Immanuel on so very much, he was quite wise here. And once I interpreted his final question (Was kann Ich hoffen?) to be a qualification that in the final analysis we can only hope, aspire and aim, for an answer—which means it can never be final or certain—I thought Kant indeed was truly wise. That interpretation may not be exactly what Kant meant, but I like it. That third question seems to correctly qualify the first question which includes the sciences, etc., and it seems to correctly qualify the second question which includes ethics, politics, social relations, etc.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve seen why you like those three questions. In math terms, they’re orthogonal (independent of each other) and form a complete set (span the full space). Pretty cool. I didn’t take to Kant when I first encountered him, but the more I’ve learned about his work, the more impressed I’ve been. (I agree he didn’t always hit the target, but who does?)

        Your description here invoked the memories of long debugging sessions where no matter how many times I followed the perceived chain of causality through the code I couldn’t find anything wrong. The bug I was chasing seemed entirely arbitrary, as if the computer itself had failed. Of course, that never happens, and in many cases it’s not until I look at the problem differently — I ask a different question — that the reason for the error suddenly becomes glaringly obvious (and always my fault, damn it, never the computer’s). It even happens in pure math that problems posed one way are hugely challenging to solve, but posed a different way are easy.

  • Friday Notes (Jan 27, 2023) | Logos con carne

    […] I still haven’t gotten used to writing “2023” — it feels like a misspelling. Perhaps in part because it’s an odd number. It’s not prime, and it’s kind of cute that it’s the product 7×17×17=2023. Lucky triple sevens! And a full house, sevens over aces. (Numerology would be another of those things that are fun but which I don’t believe.) […]

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