Home > science > Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

Over a year ago I wrote a blog entry titled “what do we know?” where I discussed various scientific mysteries which we have no definite answers for. Well we still don’t have answers for those but, after reading an article from New Scientist titled “13 Things Sent to Try Us” I realise we know even less that I previously suspected.

The mysteries mentioned in that article were: the axis of evil (an odd alignment of hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background), dark flow (the observation that some galaxies are moving in an unexpected direction due to some unknown force), prehistoric hothouse (the unexplained anomalies in temperature in the eocene period), fly-by anomalies (extra speed various spacecraft have gained while flying past the Earth), hybrid life (the observation that some animal species seem to be formed when two separate species merged in the past), Morgellons disease (a medical condition which may or may not exist), the bloop (an unexplained noise picked up by sonar), antimatter mystery (the question about why there seems to be so much more matter than antimatter in our universe), the lithium problem (the apparently anomalous amount of different lithium isotopes which differs from the prediction of the big bang), MAGIC results (the observation suggesting different wavelengths of light travel at different speeds which is not predicted by relativity), the elusive monopole (the lack of a discovery of the magnetic monopole), noise from the edge of the universe (strange “noise” which might support the idea that reality is generated through the holographic principle), and the nocebo effect (the link between the mind and negative physical effects on the body, including death).

There are various hypotheses to explain these mysteries but nothing that is so compelling that it is widely accepted and some of which are really only vague ideas that might indicate a direction that research on the topic should take. I would also have to admit that some are so odd I’m not even sure I fully understand the implications, especially the “holographic principle”. That’s something I want to do some research on!

Obviously some of these effects are far more mysterious than others. The nocebo effect, for example, doesn’t seem like a great mystery to me although the exact mechanism involved is unknown and could be very significant if it was ever fully understood.

The most interesting to me are the physics/cosmological mysteries. Maybe many of these effects (both those mentioned here and others I have discussed in other entries) are related and many of these mysteries might be resolved when (or if) we finally create a unified theory of physics to replace quantum theory and relativity.

One which is particularly intriguing is the dark flow. A possible explanation for this is that the galaxies are flowing towards another universe which has a boundary with our universe in the direction the galaxies are going. I am increasingly persuaded by multiverse theories and this would appear to fit in with that idea. Unfortunately there is no way I can see that we could ever know what is beyond the boundary of the universe where light hasn’t reached us yet because that border is shrinking and it appears impossible to ever gather information about what is beyond it.

Multiverse theories might also fit in with the inflationary universe theory and would also explain the fine tuned nature of the constants of our universe, which is one of the most puzzling things in modern cosmology.

These are big questions and it might appear that science really hasn’t got a clue what’s going on but that is a bit misleading. At least science knows enough to know what the questions are. Compare that with pseudoscience, religion, and most philosophy. They aren’t even asking the right questions!

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  1. March 11, 2010 at 1:01 am

    I loved your post! Wouldn’t agree that religion and philosophy are asking the wrong questions. My opinion – they are asking different questions, excellent questions.

  2. ojb42
    March 11, 2010 at 1:06 am

    Maybe it was too strong to say that all religious and philosophical questions are wrong. The sorts of questions I was thinking of are things like: “can we understand the mind of god”, or “why are we here”. These make all sorts of assumptions (that god exists or that there is a reason for us being here) which make the questions invalid. The fact that many philosophers and theologians are still asking the same questions after thousands of years indicates to me that maybe the questions really have no meaning.

  3. March 11, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Well science has plenty of unproven assumptions underlying it’s approach too, if we applied your methodology the entire discipline would be ‘invalid’. I do not think that science is invalid, nor philosophy, nor religion.

    Has philosophy or religion made progress? Well religion doesn’t really seem to require progress, by definition. Most major religions assume that the truth has already been found…

    Do you have a personal dislike of religion, or religious institutions?

  4. ojb42
    March 11, 2010 at 4:42 am

    Technically you are right about the underlying assumptions but practically its not true. Science’s underlying assumptions are reasonable and logical. The fact that science gets results also demonstrates the credibility of its assumptions.

    Religion doesn’t need to make progress? Really? So why do we have theologians at all? Maybe individual religions are stuck with their own dogma but the bigger subject of religion surely progresses.

    Yes, I do dislike religion because it has caused so much conflict over the centuries, its also an insult to intelligent people to believe such nonsense, and extremists still cause problems today. I dislike the idea of religion in general and I dislike various religious institutions to varying degrees.

  5. March 11, 2010 at 5:01 am

    I would say that the results are taken on the basis of the same faith. It’s all circular.

    Religion doesn’t need to make theological progress… it needs to do things like ‘change people’s hearts,’ ‘convert unbelievers,’ ‘tend to the poor,’ etc etc etc. Or perhaps reclaim lost truths. Your opinion may be that religion needs progression. A religious person should not believe so. I think it is more fair to judge them on their own criteria.

    I do not believe that Christianity is an insult to my intelligence.

    I agree that religion has caused much suffering. I do not blame religion, I blame humanity. We will use any excuse to divide. Athiesm is a very powerful excuse too.

    I also dislike most religious institutions.

  6. ojb42
    March 11, 2010 at 6:58 am

    Can you tell me what this “faith” you claim science operates on actually is? You are very vague about your exact meaning which makes it hard to comment on.

    So you think religion is perfect as it is? Really?

    If anyone really believes the literal truth of Christianity then I would question their intelligence. I find it impossible to believe anyone would believe such a load of childish nonsense in the 21st century!

    Well I think I could blame religion directly for the crusades, witch burning, religious genocide, etc. I can’t think of anything which resulted directly from atheism though (I realise that’s debatable because people’s motivation is hard to judge).

  7. March 11, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks mate

    You are right, I was very vague. I’ll quote someone far more literate than I to show my position –

    “A premise is something proposed as the basis for something else. For my purposes here, “premise” is synonymous with the term presupposition. Not to put too fine a point on it, literally everything that everyone believes rests upon usually-unspoken premises or presuppositions. And here is one of the dirty little secrets about premises: they are by definition unprovable!

    We live with many such assumptions. Let’s list just a few of my own unprovable presuppositions. The big one is that I exist, that I am actually here to do this typing. The second is that anything outside of me exists: the keyboard, the monitor… you. I assume that what I am seeing here on the screen corresponds to something in reality, and that you will see the same thing that I see when you look at these words. In other words, I assume the fundamental reliability of my senses, and I assume that we share a common experience.
    And on and on.

    Now, the splash-in-the-face surprising aspect of this is that none of this is provable, apart from an appeal to other premises! For instance, you say, “Well, I know that I exist: I can feel myself with my hands.” There you go again, assuming that sensory data are real. In other words, just because you think you are feeling an object with your hands, you believe that it is actually there. “But I think, therefore I am!”, you reply. Yes, you think you think; but is it you, or are you the dream of another, thinking that it thinks? Or of still another, dreaming that the first dreams that it thinks?

    What I am trying to establish at the outset is that the supposedly big, bad, bold “rational objections” that many make to Christian faith are actually shallow, unexamined, and ultimately self-destructive. “Ah yes, faith,” they say sagely (meaning by that term “a tenaciously-held wild guess”). “You religious people are content to accept everything by faith. Well, not me. I am a Scientific man. I demand proof!”
    Nonsense.

    You see, 9.999 times out of 10, when you so much as challenge these “Scientific” men to prove to you that they even exist to be argued with in the first place, they refuse even to try. That in itself is remarkable; one might suppose that the disdain they show for “faith” indicates that they have something vastly superior. But if they even try, they cannot prove something as basic as their own existence, without resorting to unprovable assumptions — that is, without faith. From the fundamental proposition of their own existence, to the existence of the external world, the whole fabric of their daily lives is a finely-woven web of faith in unprovable assumptions. Yet they live quite comfortably with these assumptions, all the while displaying contempt for others who, in contrast to themselves (or so they imagine), live by “faith.”

    They are stark-naked Emperors, absurdly faulting the masses about them for their supposed nudity.”

    Moving on – Do I think religion is perfect.

    Well firstly, I want to make it very clear that religious people are not perfect, and indeed according to the bible may be worse than average.

    Secondly I do not believe that religious institutions are perfect, or even close. And I have an enormous disdain for the history of the catholic church. I wonder at times whether it could possibly move further from the bible

    But yes, I do believe that the biblical text, read in its correct context, is perfect. Now it is my turn to accuse you of being vague. What in particular do you object to from it?

    I do not think you could blame religion for the Crusades. To me it was a financially, politically motivated situation that clearly contravened the main message of the bible. I refuse to call it a Christian activity. It was a political activity that manipulated the good power of religion in order to raise support. It was irreligious people manipulating religion for irreligious ends. Religion has often been a tool misused for political or financial gain. I do not blame religion, I blame the irreligious individuals that manipulate it.

    The whole religion causes conflict thing is pretty much dead though as an argument. It had its time. That was so early 20th century, before athiesm came to power. With 50% of the world’s population under athiestic regimes mid century we had a clear means to evaluate the alternative. The Soviet, Communist Chinese, Khmer Rouge and indeed Nazi regimes were all founded upon athiest philosophy. Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, who once held the world in sway with the very argument you still use, were debunked. All are now fallen idols of the intelligentsia. Those athiest regimes, as I am sure you know, suppressed and killed millions of religious adherants. They were among the most violent regimes in history. You point back to witch burning and the crusades to discredit religion, a tenuous link. I point to the major historical massacres of the last century. And let us remember that athiesm does not have a long history in power. The brutality it produced in a short period of time must be unmatched in history.

    I don’t mean this as a personal attack on athiests. I know some stunningly intelligent, moral athiest people that I am honoured to call friends. But as a philosophy I am very glad that it has returned to the sidelines of world governance and opinion.

    Sorry for the longest post ever, it’s 2am, and I’m sorry if it’s a bit of a ramble.

    I appreciate your patience, and the fact that a discussion about religion and athiesm seems to be occuring without hyperbole or insult.

  8. ojb42
    March 11, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Yes, yes, yes, we all know that ultimately nothing is provable. Descartes and “coigto ergo sum” and all that. But that line of philosophy is useless, almost like nihilism. The way I look at it we should accept that ultimately that is true but for practical reasons let’s move on with the minimum number of assumptions (or tenets, premises, presuppositions, call them what you want).

    It seems to me that science has the minimum number of assumptions and those it does have are both the most sensible and the most open to negation and questioning. Compare that to faith-based belief systems and you see they are based on more assumptions, and those assumptions are less based on logic, and they are rarely questioned.

    Comparing the supposition that I exist with the idea that some guy existed 2000 years ago and died and came back, etc, (with no support in history except in a religious book) are quite different. One seems quite reasonable, the other is absurd.

    In fact science is vastly superior to faith. One proof of this is results. In all the years we have had religion how has it improved the world? War, superstition, genocide, suppression of opposing ideas (OK, there is a small amount of good too but in balance its bad). The the couple of hundred years science has been around: life span doubling, hugely improved conditions, transport, the internet, the space program, etc.

    I totally disagree with your allusion to the emperor’s clothes. Science is constantly tested and improved. The level of delusion is very low.

    You seem to equate religion with Christianity. Does that mean you reject other religions? If you had been born in India you would be a Hindu. If you had been born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. Why would you be so confident Christianity is right?

    The “main message of the Bible” is hopelessly obscure. For every interpretation you show me I’ll show you a contradictory one. That’s because the Bible is the incompetent ravings of a collection of nomadic tribes and barely sane fanatics. Its not worth reading, except for the mythology (which is fun).

    You may think the idea that religion causes conflict is dead but I think the majority would disagree. If there was ever any doubt it was dispelled by 9/11!

    Atheism isn’t a philosophy and it isn’t a political movement. Its the lack of belief in god, therefore it can’t be blamed for anything. Most atheists do have a philosophy, often secular humanism. That’s what you should be talking abut, not atheism.

    I respect your opinion but I think its based on the need to support your religion whatever the facts may be. In my opinion you’re wrong about everything!

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