Magical Narrative Thinking

Before I begin, this focuses on a very specific example – so, if you have time, have a think about how it generalises. There are countless examples out there, in fiction especially, but where it bleeds over into real life we can run into serious problems.


Yes, it’s a post dedicated to Ken Ham, the dumbest person on the planet not named Ray Comfort, who recently said this in “celebration” of the same-sex marriage ruling in the United States:

hambow

Specifically, I want to look the part that says “Well, the president did not invent the rainbow; God invented it.” (emphasis added)

I’m sure many Christians out there think God is the de facto inventor of the rainbow by virtue of being the creator of the universe, but I’m not talking about that. That’s actually fairly self-consistent, and I can’t really fault it much. This is different. Remember: Ken Ham is a literal Biblical creationist.

He genuinely, literally believes the Bible is the historical book of record for all of history. And by extension, all of physics, too.

He honestly, really, genuinely doesn’t believe in any science that contradicts the Bible, never mind any historical fact that contradicts it.

He literally, actually, genuinely, really believes that the Book of Genesis is correct that the atmospheric phenomenon we call a “rainbow” is a sign from God, an apology for taking his anger management issues out on the entire population of the world in the single biggest act of genocide in “recorded” history.

Ken Ham literally, really, honestly, actually, literally, genuinely, properly, really, actually thinks that the rainbow was invented by God after the flood.

It didn’t, therefore, exist before the flood.

This is what Ken Ham actually believes – otherwise his entire world collapses in on itself faster than the rectal prolapse suffered by a homophobic televangelist after too much anal sex with gay hookers on speed.(That’s quite enough of that, Ed.)

Now to cut a long-winded pseudo-intellectual story short; we simply cannot build a universe where a rainbow cannot exist.

Well, we can, but we have to understand its wider effects. I’m perfectly okay with God Almightly clicking his non-corporeal fingers and altering physics in such a way that one moment there was no optical phenomenon in the sky and then suddenly there was… but we have to follow those changes to their logical conclusion. In stories, with their narratives, you can get away with changing one thing, but in real life you can’t.

There are three things you can change in order to stop a rainbow from being physically possible: the light, the principles of optics, and the source (I suppose one could call it the “material cause”?) of the refraction. Remove one of those components, and no rainbow is physically possible.

The details makes a fun and entertaining thought-experiment: what would happen if we stopped a rainbow from happening?

  1. Remove the light – No light, no rainbow. But then we can no longer see, either. Our vision requires light, so any antediluvian civilisation would be blind and incapable of sight. It doesn’t stop there, though. Without photons, chemical reactions that are sensitised by photons or that emit photons wouldn’t happen. Energy level changes at the quantum level would all have to take place non-radiatively. There would be no mechanism to masslessly transfer energy about the universe. Quantum mechanics breaks at the seams as it can’t shed energy around as photons. At the very least, the Earth would freeze solid as the sun was no longer capable of warming it from across the void of space with a massive influx of solar radiation.
  2. Remove the optical effects –  Now we’re cooking! We can keep the light, but let’s kill the concept of refraction. Okay… now we can’t see either, since our (allegedly “intelligently” designed) eyes have to bend light twice in order to focus. Once through the main cornea and then through our squishier lens. Antediluvian civilisation is still blind. Light now travels at the same speed through all media, not slowing down or altering. Light is no longer interacting with matter in the way it should. Quantum mechanics as we know it again shatters into a thousand pieces, the universe dies of entropic heat death before it is even born.
  3. Remove the water – Okay… let’s keep all the physics behind the rainbow! The universe exists, light interacts with matter, let’s just kill the rainbow at its source – the condensed water droplets in the atmosphere. Immediately we all die of thirst and starvation as there’s no water, so let’s put the water back. Oh, wait, the hydrogen bonding between water molecules, as well as the mass of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom give bulk water very specific properties such as its vapour pressure, and its melting/boiling points – that means if we put the water back we’ll have water vapour, and it’ll condense around any particulate matter in the atmosphere… back to the drawing board, let’s alter conditions so that water vapour can’t condense! Aha! Let’s lower the pressure of the atmosphere, that should keep it in the gas phase… oh, wait, now people can’t breathe because the partial pressure of oxygen is too low for haemoglobin to work properly. Let’s up the molar proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere so the partial pressure is still ca.0.2 atm as it is now…. oh great, now not enough nitrogen for nitrogen-fixing bacteria to work with and we all die of starvation and let’s not even start with what the lower pressure does to the boiling point of the oceans and the gases dissolved in them… okay, so let’s boost the temperature above the dew point of water… bah, we’re all dead again… quantum mechanics remains in tact, but chemistry explodes in fireball of icy self-contradicting death and destruction that renders the planet inhospitable to everything that isn’t a self-contained abstract concept.

That’s consistency for you. There isn’t a world where you can’t have a rainbow yet let it still work exactly as it does today. You can’t pick it apart from the rest of the universe and treat it as a narrative block, a piece of magic with its own separate rules. If you change one rule, it changes for everything.

Archimedes Plutonium

Addendum: Oh wait, you’re serious? Let me laugh even harder.

Via PsyGremlin via PZ Myers, this is Archimedes Plutonium, my new favourite crank hat. I was really fucking surprised to have taken this long to come across his own breed of Wrongness, having been a fan of the internet for many years, as apparently Mr Plutonium (yes, allegedly his actual deed-poll-altered name) has been a Usenet Celebrity since before the beginning of time. Or, about the time of the early 1990s Usenet boards at least. Plutonium is the perfect crank. The whole package. A perfect, crazy blend of Gene Ray’s Time Cube and Dewey Larson’s Reciprocal/Reciprocating System and ramping it up a notch of “I can do bullshitting better than you, you pussies”.

For those who might not know (and we all have to experience this thing for the first time at some point), Time Cube is a badly-written, badly-formatted, horrific eyesore of a website which is internet-famous for being long, virtually incomprehensible in content, and so off-the-wall rambling that it’s author, Gene Ray, was invited to speak at an MIT conference specifically for students to laugh their asses off at him. Time Cube’s four-corner-day non-Singular-God fag-hating educated-stupid hypotheses can’t even be judged on the criteria of whether it’s right or wrong, because there’s hardly an idea there to judge. The interpretations vary, but the most realistic is that Ray simply jumped up and down a keyboard several times and out it popped. The late Dewey Larson (and his extant successor, Ron Satz), meanwhile, presents something more coherent (only just), and perhaps evangelises my favourite theory-of-everything going. Being qualified engineers, they at least can string sentences together, but that hasn’t stopped them being considerably wrong about everything. Larson’s biggest claim to fame (he’s not even Wikipedia-notable) is gettings The Case Against The Nuclear Atom read and reviewed by Isaac Asimov, who promptly dismissed it as a ludicrous that doesn’t stand up to testing (though frequently the review is quote-mined to the part where he calls it “an interesting exercise”). Larson doesn’t use 10 words when he can use 500, and despite his insistence that ideas should stand up to both logic and evidence, presents neither in his work.

Ray brings the crazy, Larson brings the wrong. Archimedes Plutonium manages to bring both to the table in one solid block.

Like Larson and Satz, Plutonium’s claims rest on pimping his extensive collection of self-published books. Over 100, it seems, are in Plutonium’s pipeline and due for completion. Some are already out there in the wild, with bemusing titles like “All Matter is made up of atoms, and the Universe is matter, hence the Universe is one big atom; Syllogism”. Which certainly puts the most commonly-cited unwieldy book titles to shame, and has the founders of formal logic spinning in their graves. The only difference being that at least Larson was self-publishing back before internet-based print-on-demand rendered the enterprise depressingly hilarious.

The central thesis that Plutonium has been peddling since the days of Usenet is the “atom totality” theory. This states that the structure of the universe is actually that of an entire atom. Specifically, the plutonium atom. Why the plutonium atom? It’s the first synthetic element, as naturally occurring elements end at uranium (well, to a first approximation) but other than that it seems like an arbitrary choice.

Why? That’s summed up, of course, in the book title above. The universe is made of atoms, therefore the universe is a giant atom. The logic is as airtight as P(A|B) = P(B|A).

Okay, so time for some more specific crazy. This is the fun part, after all.

Plutonium Atom Totality theory. According to this theory, there was no Big Bang, but rather progressive growth from a Hydrogen Atom Totality into the present “Plutonium Atom Totality”, in which the galaxies are dots of the electron-dot-cloud.

Now, I’ll go ahead and assume no prior knowledge of quantum mechanics for a moment and go through this really quickly. An electron isn’t the little planet-like thing orbiting the atom that you were lead to believe at GCSE-level science. Your teachers lied to you, kids. They lied big. The electron’s position isn’t fixed in a circular orbit, but is actually governed by a three-dimensional wave (it’s just a mathematical function, not too significantly more complex than, say, y=sin(x). It’s nothing disgracefully scary) that represents the probability of finding it at any one place around the atom. Some of the time we expect to find it over here, other times we expect to find it over there. But we know the equations governing this probability. In chemistry it’s convenient to represent it as a boundary that surrounds the space where we expect to find the electron 90-99% of the time. On a chemical scale, it’s easy enough to think about this as the actual shape of the electron itself, or the density of it as it’s smeared out over time.

This is the shape a 2p orbital looks like, which is like a big fuzzy dumbbell. Though the dz2 is my personal favourite, these higher functions do put to rest the idea of circular, planet like orbits.

This can be a bit misleading for some tastes, as this sort of representation removes much of the 3-dimensional component. If we were to freeze this function at any one time, we’d locate the electron precisely – not that the uncertainty principle makes this possible, but lets assume for the sake of argument that it does. This allows us to build up a picture of the electron cloud as a series of dots, with each dot representing the randomly selected “position” of the electron at any “one time”. Like so:

This is what Plutonium is saying the universe looks like. It looks like this sort of structure, a dot diagram of an electron cloud, or building up the time-averaged probability density of finding an electron at any one point in space. Specifically he talks of an f function in a plutonium atom, not a p function, but the difference is negligible for our purposes here. Trouble is, the universe doesn’t look like it’s governed by the spherical harmonics of Laplace’s equation. It looks like this:

On huge scales the universe and the galaxies in it do seem to form structures that are bound by gravity. These seem to be filament-like structures scattering across and stretching from one end of the observable universe to the other. If Plutonium was suggesting that galactic super-clusters looked a little like neurons in the brain, he might be onto something. But no. He says it looks like an atom. Specifically a plutonium atom.

 The large-scale structure of the universe is fairly well known (dark energy/matter excluded) and the equations governing the electron are also pretty well known. Forget the horrendous syllogism Plutonium uses to come to his conclusion, the bottom line is this: these two types of structures are characterised quite well, and don’t match up.

The Nuclear-Coulomb force arises from the *nuclear electron* which is inside every neutron in the nucleus of atoms wherein this nuclear-electron spills out and runs around holding together all the protons in the nucleus.

I really don’t want to get into this shit right now…

Now, this is why I brought Dewey Larson into the equation earlier. In The Case Against The Nuclear Atom, he makes a staggering claim against the electronic structure of the atom as described above. He actually claims (as I made the mistake of actually reading it, I know he gets to this point by about 70% the way through it; he doesn’t get to the point very quickly) that the electron is part of the nucleus, much in the same way Plutonium assumes an electron does here. It’s a shame Larson died a few years before Plutonium became really active, seeing those two in a debate would have been priceless!

The main error here is that we know quite a lot about the strong force that holds the atom together. Particle physics explores this all the time when it decides it wants to start the day blowing atoms apart. The forces governed by the Standard Model are pretty much correct as far as we can tell right now.

As a result of these forces, an electron won’t go running around inside the nucleus as described. The energy barrier is simply staggering for a particle to do that, and the wave nature of the particle itself simply doesn’t allow it to do so. The lowest ground state of a free electron is in the 1s orbital. If the electron could conceivably get closer to the nucleus – bear in mind that it’s being continually yanked in there by the highly attractive positive force of the protons – it would. It’s the energy-quantised nature of quantum mechanics that actually stops it from doing that. Once it’s in that 1s ground state it doesn’t go any lower, and it’s this property that keeps atoms stable – otherwise they’d just collapse into a dense steaming heap of neutronium. At least, it can’t do this without hopping a serious energy barrier to instigate a fusion process – a process that can have its energy barrier reduced by replacing the electron with an analogous, but heavier, muon. Again, this is nicely quantified stuff. If there is an “electron” running around inside the nucleus, its properties will be nothing like the electron we know and love, and so it may not make sense to even call it an electron.

But the main problem with how Larson and Plutonium treat the behaviour of electrons is that the theories we have about how they work are very, very successful. The wave mechanics governing electrons and the molecular orbital theory (or band theory in solids) explain, very successfully, all of chemistry. Literally everything that atoms and molecules do can be framed in terms of electronic structure methods. We don’t simply fail to gain an improvement in accuracy by switching to these crank theories, we can’t even begin to make any predictions about the world by using them.

For biology, the theory of Darwin Evolution is flawed, it is not a theory but a rule or algorithm that captures some of what happens in biology. What replaces Evolution is Superdeterminism. The Bell Inequality with the Aspect Experiments show us that Quantum Physics is on the large-scale and that events are connected stretching across the entire distance of the Universe. You cannot have both Evolution which is based on free-will and probabilities, and also have Superdeterminism. Only one can be true.

Now, this is special. Really fucking special. It’s common amongst cranks who think they understand quantum mechanics, and, naturally, they all seem to have problems with evolution.

Bell’s theorem basically states this: Nature doesn’t give a fuck what you think makes sense and is under no obligation to bow to your opinion. Or, in less colourful terms, that classical or quasi-classical physics (i.e., the physics/mechanics that “makes sense”) cannot replicate quantum mechanical effects. No matter how you fudge your theory and your equations, if you try to make it “classical” the actual experimental results of quantum mechanics will throw it back in your face and tell you that you’re wrong.

This is unless you have a loophole that gets you out of this obligation, and one of these loopholes is superdeterminism. This states that the universe is entirely deterministic with zero deviance from it, and so the indeterminacy we see in quantum mechanics (such as the probability function of the electrons described above) is actually a complete illusion. Indeed, this is generally considered incompatible with “free will” (Plutonium is just about right here), but that depends entirely how broadly you want to even define free will in the first place (it’s not that simple) and whether the lack of it even matters. It’s also considered a highly unlikely proposition to be true.

Plutonium simply thinks superdeterminism is the only way quantum theory can make sense. And given his horrific understanding of the spherical harmonics of an electron, where he seems to think a dot cloud represents some kind of real picture rather than a very strained abstraction of a probability distribution, this is unsurprising.

Alain Aspect is a French physicist most notable for his work into quantum entanglement; how particles can apparently interact at a distance and supposedly violate a lot of known laws and “common sense” at the time. Whether it be people trying to say the universe is a simulation inside a giant alien supercomputer or whether it’s a crank pushing a Theory of Everything, or some naive idiot who thinks entanglement can cause information to go faster than light, they will probably cite Alain Aspect or a branch of his research as confirming their theory. If you drink every time you see a crank reference Alain Aspect’s experiments, you will die a horrible alcoholic death.

What unites them all, however,  is that they never say how this exactly happens. I’ve never seen any of them even vaguely attempt to make this leap. That would, you know, require actually understanding what is going on.

Though not 100% conclusive, Aspect’s experiments into entanglement have been cited as strong proof for quantum mechanics being non-deterministic, and that Bell’s theorem holds true (that it can’t be married up with “common sense”). So, this is where I don’t quite get what Plutonium is even hinting at here. He’s actually trying to get two things that say completely different things, (that the universe is superdeterministic, but Bell’s theorem is true, I think…) and get them to say the same thing. As I said, this is nonsensical on a level with Time Cube, and wrong on the scale of Larson and Satz.

How this fits in with a macroscopic theory of evolution, which certainly does not rely on free will, isn’t clear. In short, even superdeterminism isn’t incompatible with evolution. Evolution is simply a process. If the universe repeats itself and does exactly the same thing again because of superdeterminism, this doesn’t violate the mechanism of action involved in making evolution by natural selection occur. And therein lies the problem with conflating determinism and no free will – can you even tell the difference? That’s beyond the scope of this rant right now. Regardless, the theory still retains its predictive qualities – which is why it’s a theory, despite Plutonium’s objections – and its explanatory nature for the processes involved on a higher, slightly heuristic, level than brute sub-atomic collisions.

There’s a lot more in Plutonium’s work, including the idea that all anthropology can be explained by people throwing rocks, but I’m hitting the limit of how long these things can be and remain sensible. Maybe another time.

Now go away.