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Thursday, March 27, 2014
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Back in 2008, I got interested in the idea of “Boltzmann Brains” after reading an article about them in the NY Times. That article explained the concept and examined the philosophic implications, but really didn’t get down to the political nitty-gritty behind it all. Boltzmann Brains turn out to be a battlefield of hubris, a battle between smart people who become really dumb about just how smart they really are. This is something that has gone on since the days of the ancient Greeks, when the first “intellectuals” (as we think of them) came on the scene and fell in love with the exquisite fabric of thought that they wove about themselves and their followers.

I wrote a blog about Boltzmann Brains after reading that article, a compendium of my own rambling thoughts and reflections on the subject. I was trying to find reasons why the idea (and it’s only an idea, there is no evidence whatsoever of even one “Boltzmann Brain” floating out in space) means anything at all. But only recently did I discover why Boltzmanns Brains are truly relevant — and it’s not because of the subtle ontological and epistemological ramifications that Dennis Overbye of the Times and I focused on.

Boltzmanns Brains are something more than an interesting intellectual theory based on the implications of modern science and cosmology; they are “mortar shells” in an ongoing battle of words and videos between smart people who are atheists and who think that we should all be atheists, on the one hand, and on the other side, at least one smart guy who believes in God, Jesus, the inerrant Bible and fundamental Christianity, and likewise thinks that everyone else should share his beliefs.

I recently came across two articles about BB’s that are both weapons in this fight, akin to “intellectual cruise missiles” being shot between two armies at war. First, an article from famous cosmologist and rampant atheist Sean Carroll, on why the big discovery and confirmation of the Higgs field last summer by the Large Hadron Collider team in Switzerland, in combination with currently accepted inflation paradigms (bolstered by last week’s BICEP 2 findings that gravity waves, which probably originated at the creation of the Universe, can be seen within the cosmic microwave radiation) may spell doomsday for Boltzmann Brains.

Just a quick sidenote on inflation and last week’s findings. The radiation observations derived from observations of the polarization of the cosmic background microwave radiation showed patterns that most likely originated during the near-instantaneous creation and inflation of space, which preceded the big bang by a tiny, tiny tiny fraction of a microsecond. As I pointed out before, the opening theme song for the CBS comedy show “Big Bang Theory” turns out to be wrong; it did NOT “all get started in a hot dense state”, as there first had to unfold a cold, empty space for that hot dense state to “bang” into. So the cosmology boffins have had a lot of new stuff to work with lately (i.e., theories and measurements confirmed at very high levels of statistical certainty by reproducible empirical data).

And it turns out that Sean Carroll and his associates are using this new stuff to help prove that Boltzmanns Brains could not really happen, given what we now know about the Universe. To keep such “brains” from arising, Dr. Carroll has to stretch the mass-energy values of the top quark and the Higgs boson from the currently accepted “best estimates” to slightly different values. But he says that his hoped-for adjustments are not outside of the “reasonable range of measurement error” given present experimental data on these things. OK, fair enough, but still a sign that Dr. Carroll is grinding an axe here, getting ready to attack something other than the particle physics community’s current thinking about the top quark and Higgs particle; and even beyond the notion that real “Boltzmanns Brains” can exist somewhere in our observed universe or out beyond it (perhaps in one or more of the many alternate universes in Dr. Carroll’s postulated “multiverse”).

Just what the good doctor is really after isn’t entirely clear from his article; he doesn’t say. But whatever it is must be bugging him, as he seems quite happy to destroy the universe, along with every darn thing in it, including the Milky Way, our solar system, Planet Earth and all of humankind, in order to get to a reality that is safe from Boltzmann’s Brains. He casually and emotionlessly postulates, in a rather optimistic fashion, that the Higgs particle field will interact with the chaotic inflation process, which the new BICEP 2 study and recent WMAP satellite observations of the cosmic microwave background appear to confirm, in such a way that one fine day (maybe soon and maybe not, hopefully!), the potential energy of the inflaton field supporting the vacuum of space will start shifting to a lower-energy state.

I.e., the vacuum of our universe is “meta-stable”, and given the age of our universe relative to the expected frequency of a random perturbation in the inflaton field underlying all of space, we are statistically due for a “big vacuum state shift” that will wipe out every existing structure in the universe. The laws of physics will in effect be re-set and would become very different, such that all the matter and energy forms on which our conscious lives are built will just go “poof” in an instant. It won’t hurt, we probably won’t even see it coming. But in a split second, we would no longer be. That’s IF the Higgs and inflaton parameters are in the zone where Dr. Carroll hopes they will be — which is the zone also needed to banish the possibility of Boltzmanns Brains.

WOW. This guy is happy that there is a slowly growing chance that one day soon we could all vanish (although, admittedly, Dr. Carroll points out that the chance of it happening in the next hundred or thousand or million years isn’t all that high — our Universe could yet have another billion years or two). Dr. Carroll does not appear to be a sadist or a sociopath, so why is this man smiling? Why is it so important that Boltzmann’s Brains be banished by science? (Just remember, Carroll’s paper is still only a speculation; the parameter values that he postulates for the top quark, Higgs field, and inflaton are possibly consistent with previous data, but are still a long way from being confirmed or being proven wrong.)

I did a bit more Googling on Boltzmanns Brains after reading the Carroll article, and I came across this take on Boltzmann Brains by Dr. William Lane Craig. In case you are not familiar with Dr. Craig, he is described by Wikipedia as an analytical philosopher and a Professor of Philosophy at the Biola College / Talbot School of Theology in California. Not surprisingly given his employer, he is also a Christian apologist — and an old-school one at that. Dr. Craig is not just out to keep God alive, nor to keep Christ in Christmas; he is allegedly a staunch defender of the Bible, including all the miracles and the magic and all those Old Testament war stories.

And yet, Dr. Craig has kept up with science and cosmology, and has been able to say quite a bit in response to all of the “New Scientism” and “New Atheism” being propounded in conjunction with the evolving multiverse / superstring M-theory concept, the use of evolutionary dynamics to explain human behaviors and perceptions, and all the related neuroscientific explorations of the human brain and mind. Dr. Craig is not willing to step aside for the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Krauss, Hitchens, Carroll and Hawking and other luminary thinkers who urge us to banish religion and any hope for a unifying and omnipotent supernatural presence within the universe. Craig is famous for his staged debates with many of these people (he has already debated all but the first and last figures in the list I just gave; and he was willing to debate Dawkins, who refused, citing Craigs’ justification of Old Testament genocide). Craig also goes after the more liberal Christian faction, including Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and theologian Gerd Ludemann, along with scientists like Antony Flew and Freeman Dyson, who reject outright atheism but waiver as to whether and what God might really be (definitely NOT the old-school God favored by the Bible-thumping Dr. Craig).

So, it turns out that Dr. Craig is also interested in Boltzmanns Brains. In fact, he is a fan of them, or at least of the theory behind them. Why is that? Because, Boltzmanns Brains would be an interesting side-effect of the chaotic eternal multiverse process that the “New Scientism / New Atheism” scholars advocate when countering the old religious argument that our Universe is so finely made and designed that there must have been an intelligent creator behind it. The scientists are mostly ready to concede that the Universe that we observe certainly is very special, and that the chances that all of the force field characteristics would come out just as we observe them are incredibly small. Remember, just a small change in the force of electromagnetic attraction, or the “strong force coupling constants” that keep the nucleus of an atom together, would cause the atoms and molecules that we and our environment are made of to fall apart. There definitely is a “fine tuning” seen in the way that our Universe works. Is this the fingerprint of an “eternal watchmaker” at work?

NO, NOT AT ALL! So say the boffins. The multiverse, the trillions and zillions of possible versions of superstring theory, and the chaotic inflation mechanism all insure that a huge number of universes have been or will yet be created. That number might even be infinite! Well, given so many tries and such potential variation in the underlying physics in each different universe, there just has to be at least one like the one that we live in. So given all the different universes out there, it’s no surprise that one like ours would just happen to show up. The only reason that we observe this kind of universe is because it’s the only kind that would support us (the “anthropic universe” argument).

What do Boltzmann Brains have to do with this reasoning? Well, if we accept that the “big reality” behind our Universe is a game of chance with a huge number of draws, and if we further accept that what conscious beings actually experience should be more probable than other conscious-life supporting alternatives from the big multiverse lottery (I mean hey, for a super-rare event like a universe supporting conscious life, you shouldn’t push your luck any further than you have to), then Houston, we have a problem.

And that problem is that Boltzmann Brains, which are a kind of physical arrangement having the minimal organization needed to provide self-aware consciousness, are much more likely than the high-maintenance, whole-lot-of-work arrangement that our Universe went thru to get to where conscious humans presently exist. Boltzmann Brains are much more likely, probabilistically, than what we know. But BBs would not have a nice planet in a nice solar system in a nice galaxy to reside in. They MIGHT temporarily be deluded into thinking that they exist in such a happy arrangement. But in truth, the most probable Boltzmann Brain is aware that it is alone. Or perhaps it is drifting back and forth between changing, inconsistent psychedelic delusions and the awareness that he or she or it (i.e., the consciousness of the Brain) is really isolated in the void; a little planet / life support system unto it’s own, having just the minimum to get by for a while. And not in the lavish and extremely unlikely arrangement of oceans, mountains, clouds and stars, of earth, wind and fire that we have.

So . . . Dr. Craig likes the Boltzmann Brain idea, because it helps him to counter attack the atheistic scholars when they push the anthropic aspects of an eternally diverse multiverse upon him. (Oh, as to diversity — sorry, Dr. Craig says that the Old Testament is right, homosexuality is immoral).

And thus . . . you can see why Dr. Carroll seems so hell-bent (even though he believes not in Heaven or Hell) on destroying the possibility of Boltzmann Brains — because that would preclude those like Dr. Craig from impeaching the multiverse hypothesis as being inconsistent with what humankind actually experiences (i.e., we ain’t Boltzmann Brains). Remember that Craig did indeed debate Sean Carroll. Carroll said that “it went pretty well, although I certainly could have done better”. Hmmm . . . sounds like this thing ain’t over. And if Sean Carroll has to destroy the whole universe in order to get back at William Lane Craig, well so be it!!!

Personally, I say . . . a pox on both your houses, at least at their extreme ends. If you know anything about me or have ready some of my past blogs, you know that I am no fan of the New Atheism and New Scientism. I hold out hope for a God, one to whom we can belong (to quote a line from a David Haas song). I feel that faith in a loving God is a good and reasonable thing, although I readily admit that human-kind can never know whether the existence of God is real or not. This is probably for good reason, given that we would not take a God that we knew as well as our mother-in-law or next-door neighbor seriously. As the great teacher (sensei) in my Zen sangha keeps on saying, “not knowing is most intimate” (that’s from a Japanese Zen koan). My faith is something more akin to the nuanced view of God held by those like Jacques Derrida — yes, the great skeptical deconstructionist himself was something of a hopeful agnostic, someone who could not throw God entirely out of his life.

And also, interestingly, it is somewhat like the views of Ludwig Boltzmann himself. Let’s first establish that Boltzmann did not invent the “Boltzmann Brain” concept. The idea emerged from two modern scientific papers published in 2002 and 2004. Dr. Boltzmann was long gone by that time, having committed suicide in 1906 at age 62. He is famous for the theory of entropy which underlies the BB concept, and Boltzmann himself suggested something that could lead one to imagine a “minimum thing that would support consciousness”, saying that the universe that we observe is seen to be in a highly improbable non-equilibrium state, because only when such a state randomly occurs, can brains like ours (which are highly complex and thus improbably) exist. But it took a century or so for physicists to get where they could actually relate the notions of entropy and probabilities in the universe to what lies beneath our own bodies and minds.

So Boltzmann himself didn’t see the need for a Boltzmann Brain. Did he see any need for a God? Interestingly, he in fact did. Of course, Boltzmann is famous for his scientific and mathematical achievements, but he was also a bit of a philosopher. In his philosophical studies, he corresponded with Franz Brentano, another scholar of philosophy who had previously been a Catholic priest but left to marry while remaining religious. (Footnote: Sigmund Freud took a course with Brentano while at university; so perhaps Brentano was not a rabid rhetorician for God and religion, akin to Dr. Craig.) In a 1905 letter to Brentano, Boltzmann said: “you can see that I also believe in God, as a symbol, that our own will is not sufficient to achieve our purposes . . . I pray to my God as ardently as a priest does to his.” Boltzmann reportedly claimed himself to be both a materialist and a religious man. Boltzmann could not be described as a fervent believer, but he certainly did not embrace the modern atheist’s notion that humankind alone is able to achieve goodness in the world. His approach to God was arguably not all that different from Derrida’s . . . and from my own. I.e., a “hopeful agnostic”, someone who respects empiricism and critical reason, but who believes that humankind needs something more than itself to fulfill its promise and find truth. Obviously, Dr. Boltzmann would still not be “God-fearing enough” to gain Dr. Craig’s favor. (And neither would I.)

And by the same token . . . I could see Ludwig Boltzmann disagreeing philosophically with the credo of Sean Carroll’s blog. I.e., I don’t believe that Dr. Boltzmann would accept the notion that “truth = only atoms and the void” (from Democritus, one of those early Greek intellectuals). Perhaps science should deal exclusively with atoms and the void, but science cannot then prove itself to be the absolute and entire truth. Ironically, Carroll’s blog header also shows a photo of Boltzmann’s entropy equation S = k. log W as inscribed on Boltzmann’s tomb. I believe that Dr. Boltzmann would roll over in his grave if he could be aware of the unreasonable, hubris-driven lengths that both a capable philosopher (Dr. Craig) and a famous scientist (Dr. Carroll) are taking his ideas and works to, in modern times.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:16 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again, this is a topic over my head. Yet, it seems to me you’ve hit the nail on the head and said just about all there is to be said about this topic in the first paragraph where you say the whole thing turns “out to be a battlefield of hubris, a battle between smart people who become really dumb just about how smart they really are.” Reading the rest of this post brings me right back to that line.

    The whole thing also reminded me of meteorologists predicting the weather: Well, there’s a 50/50 chance it might rain and a 50/50 chance it won’t. Maybe the world will end, maybe it won’t; maybe it will go on forever, maybe it won’t. (I’m presuming here I understand what this discussion is about; I may be way off the mark here.)

    Then too, I find myself wondering just how physicists got into the “business” of theology and have anything at all to say about God – whether he exists or whether he does not. Seems to me it’s out of their league.

    Then too, (and once again, most likely I just don’t understand this whole business about Boltzmann Brains and all the rest that goes with it) I find myself in the same position as I mentioned before. This whole thing reminds me of theologians arguing about God and everything about God. Nobody has been to heaven to investigate God, nobody has come back to say I have been there and have seen him. How do they really know? Maybe it’s a love of how smart they are and a being impressed with their own ability to think about things that makes them think what it is they think about God. That’s about what I’ve tho’t a lot of theologians have done. If I understand this physics involved here correctly, much of this is someone’s guess or presumption or speculation that he hopes may be correct – or perhaps as you say, because they are so smart, they are sure they are correct.

    Atheists, believers, agnostics . . . (and actually it seems lately one can plug any topic at all into that list) I find myself wondering why it is that everybody has to be *right* and then, furthermore, insists on everybody else believing as he/she does. Somewhere along the line, might it not be interesting to find out what another person thinks without any judgment and/or imposition of one’s ideas on another? Even when those who have the ideas are pretty smart?

    The whole discussion seems beyond me, to say nothing of each of the “brains” imposing their opinions on everybody else, insisting “I’m right; you’re wrong”.

    While you say that the CBS comedy series “The Big Bang Theory” may turn out wrong; I find myself thinking of 2 episodes and an ongoing character that fit here: Sheldon Cooper insists he’s the genius that is the point of the evolution of man to a higher level and all others are lesser than he. Seems to me these gentlemen are coming pretty close to that characterization. I wonder if someone was thinking of these gentlemen when that character was written – just a wonder on my part.

    Then too I think of the episode of the same show that that had 2 of the physicists working on a problem; it showed them “thinking and thinking and thinking”, yet getting nowhere. Lastly, and perhaps most perfectly, is the business in that show where the 4 characters find themselves arguing endlessly about some arcane point of the “Star Wars” series (or some other futuristic, pseudo-scientific movie).

    I don’t mean any of these comments to be insulting as such and I say this respectfully: Perhaps the gentlemen arguing about the physics topics might give these characterizations a check and see if any of it applies.

    Sorry I cannot give you a more scientific and perhaps to the point comment, but this is the best I can do with what I understand of this topic. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 28, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

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