Science

Agreeing On Nothing

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve missed you and thought often of you as I fire up the Charity Miles app.  Our RussellandPascal team has 6 members now with a total of 169 miles.  If my math is correct, that is over $41 donated to various charities that move us.  If my musing is correct, that is new money that we had perhaps intended to give but had not acted on.  Please join our team if you are able.  We would like to see half the blog followers join in the next one year and our goal for mileage is >10,000 (time to goal uncertain).

Russell and I had breakfast a week ago and after two hours we agreed upon nothing.  Don’t despair.  The reason I led with the Charity Miles collaboration is to remind you of how much we do agree on.  And, one cup of coffee in, it is quite possible that my insistence we agree upon nothing is a double entendre.  We talked about this book that I lent to Russell over Christmas break – –

the information

I loved the book and further thought that it might help me to understand my friend.  It did.  Here is another book that I’m reading with an extended quote below.

schaeffer

Love is not an easy thing; it is not just an emotional urge, but an attempt to move over and sit in the other person’s place and see how his problems look to him.  Love is a genuine concern for the individual.  As Jesus Christ reminds us, we are to love that individual “as ourselves.”  This is the place to begin.  Therefore, to be engaged in personal “witness” as a duty or because our Christian circle exerts a social pressure on us, is to miss the whole point.  The reason to do it is that the person before us is an image-bearer of God, and he is an individual who is unique in the world.  This kind of communication is not cheap.  To understand and speak to sincere but utterly confused twentieth-century people is costly.  It is tiring; it will open you to temptations and pressures.  Genuine love, in the last analysis, means a willingness to be entirely exposed to the person to whom we are talking.   —  Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There

How did these two books relate?  Gleick, in The Information, helped me to love my friend Russell.  I read the book with fascination and took notes in the cover.  I think I took notes – – Russell still has the book.  I read it around the same time that Russell introduced me to Sean Carroll and Howie and began to think – – why don’t I think this way?  It is quite a beautiful way to think.

Information theory then has become an area of interest for me and obsession for Russell (I’ll ask him to correct me if I overstate; I frequently do for effect).  Information theory found its way into our taco breakfast last week and helped us to agree on nothing.  Please accept a brief paraphrase.

R:  Even in the outer boundary of the known universe there is information.

P:  I don’t see it.  Quantum fluctuation maybe . . .

R:  But, that is information.

P:  I’m tracking – – I just didn’t consider that useful information.  So you’ll accept the noise and not just the signal?

R:  Yes.

P:  Remember how we’ve had a hard time agreeing about the definition of nothing?  How I insist that the Universe can’t naturally be made from nothing?

R:  Yes, but that has never bothered me.

P:  You know it bothers me?

R:  I do.

P:  So would you accept the complete lack of information as nothing?

R:  I would.

There are not many readers of this blog who will recognize the milestone that this represents in Russell’s and my communication.  We have gone to great lengths to understand each other, deconstruct straw men and yes – – to love each other.  As Schaeffer says, it has not been easy.  But this agreement, on nothing, meant the world to me.

Where will it lead?  Do I jump directly to an apologetic based on ex nihilo nilo fit?  Absolutely not.  I finish the post and prepare to run a 10K trail with two of my sons, thankful that I’ll log 6.2 more miles for water.  On that run I’ll thank my God for my friend and thank him for the love that lets us to talk to not past each other.

Pascal – – 1:16

Goodbye to a Man I Admired

Oliver Sacks

photo links to NYT obituary

Dear Russell & Friends,

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose work inspired Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, died today from metastatic ocular melanoma at the age of 82.  I read one of his first books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat last year.  Soon after I completed the book, which still has me thinking, I saw Dr. Sacks’ New York Times op-ed piece about his pending death published 6 months ago.

I admired Dr. Sacks for many reasons.  The two foremost were his ability to communicate and his desire to empathize with his patients.  He was one of the first to write in the popular media about neurobiology.  In a way he was a forerunner of Dr. David Eagleman, but a clinician responsible for meeting and comforting broken people.

The link below is Dr. Sack’s TED talk from 2009 – – an excellent primer and a fond memory.  I say goodbye to a man I never met, but who touched me nonetheless.

 

Pascal – – 1:16

photo credit – – thegaurdian.com

Russell Unplugged

2003_Faith_Saturn_electro-acoustic_guitar

 

Dear Russell & Friends,

Good morning.  I’ve been thinking about this post for nearly a week and the coffee is just right.  Perhaps this will serve as useful background for those new to our blog.  It will certainly serve as therapy for me.  Most of the activity on the blog lately has been on Russell’s post The Problem.  It is one of his most important posts.  He might (would) put iMultiverse in the short list too.  A few miles away from here, perhaps in his sleep, Russell just smiled.

The comments have multiplied on The Problem as Russell has found a new interlocutor, unkleE.  I am 43 years old.  Russell is 7 years younger.  unkleE is twice Russell’s age and is doing, I think, what I want to do when I grow up.  He is reading, writing, engaging those who do not share his perspective of belief.  However, he is doing it in a way that I can’t – – from the personality type of INFP (81%) or ISFP (76%).  If I take the former it is only 1 letter away from Russell – – INTP.  So, from the perspective of age and from the perspective of a similar engineering-type personality he can engage Russell in ways that I can’t.

So what happened?  They both went out of their way not to offend.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  I have Russell’s permission to share our text stream as some of the comments unfolded.  One thing you’ll notice is that these texts had something I’ve never seen before – – an arrow at the bottom designed to reveal the words incapable of display on the largest of iPhones.  For an introvert, Russell has a lot to say.  That belies one of the misconceptions about introverts.  We have plenty to say.  Its just more comfortable in writing or with people we know well.  Russell has posted some of this in his own reply, but I’d like to give you a flavor of the text stream and what it means to know someone.  Concluding at the beginning, it takes time.  Russell and I are 2 1/2 years into a friendship that I hope will last.  It has not been easy to listen well or to be heard.  But it has been worth it.

 

R:  The unkleE comment was focused on one thing… why I’m not highly convinced that fine-tuning is a problem. He things I haven’t read enough, don’t understand the science, don’t understand large numbers, and am too biased against the evidence. That didn’t seriously hurt my feelings. I responded with more details, that’s his punishment for being critical. Haha. Gotcha’ unkleE! 🙂

P:  you two are quite a pair

R:  Indeed. I think we should Skype and hang out. I bet we’d get along great! That reminds me, are you still interested in trying a podcast, hangout-on-air youtube video with just our logo up, or some other type of audio-only conversation sometime?

P:  I actually am.  I’m interested in more than i’m successfully executing right now which is a deep and constant frustration

R:  I ran it by Howie and he’s interested. He’d join us.

I can see it being huge benefit for me for at least two reasons. Communicating ideas will, once the kinks are worked out, hopefully be done more efficiently. And it’s helpful to communicate tone of voice which adds important inflection and other vital information to the topic being discussed. It’s not very search engine friendly, but most of our hits probably don’t come from that and we have plenty of other written content on the site. I’d really like to see a comment on the blog, hit a button, record a response and paste it as a link. Haha. It would also be great to take someone’s question or point and invite people to a round-table discussion via hangouts-on-air, etc. I’d rather not do it live until we polish up a bit, though. 😊

I think I’ve made a mess of things on The Problem. In my very rushed responses I’ve done a poor job of taking the time to be as gentle as I’d prefer to be while disagreeing. Sigh. This is a rough time for me for multiple reasons. I need to learn to deal with those who challenge and criticize my form of reasoning without helping me understand and improve it by explaining exactly where it’s wrong and why. When I feel criticized with nothing to back it up, apparently, I push to hard to delineate my steps and get them to explain, but the only thing that gets discussed are the irrelevant details that aren’t part of the reasoning. I write so much that it’s hard for anyone to focus and I usually make a mistake or two that gets us further off topic. Then I get behind on work and rush my comments even more and, without taking the time to polish them, they sound more confrontational than I’d like. I now have two people saying what you’ve said (I require too much evidence). It’s not lost on me that more than one should sound alarms. Evidently, this is a hot-button issue for me. Not being told that, but being told that without an example to help me learn from. When I list the steps in my reasoning and show where I doubt and why, those specifics are avoided as if I didn’t say them (at least so far). I’m really looking for the place, exactly where my folly resides, but nobody seems to be pointing to it. I’m really beginning to feel like I’m just a very poor communicator. Maybe I am just blind to it and they’ve been pointing all along. But that doesn’t help me. 😟 I fear this is the central issue of the blog. People in camp A think people in Camp B require too much evidence. People in Camp B think people in Camp A are failing to express that they been aware of and properly considered all the assumptions and counter-evidence (often, like you, they have considered it). I don’t think anyone is believing things that are unjustifiable to them, and very few are believing things that don’t make sense. It’s almost always a communication problem where we don’t see everyone else’s evidence. So when other people think my standards are too high rather than assuming, as I do, that I’ve just seen different evidence, I want to either see what they’re seeing and fix the holes in my reasoning or ask them to tone it down a bit. But getting to the point where they point out flaws that are actually there rather than ones they assume because I didn’t clearly state everything in my comment, or getting to the point where they are willing to say it’s just different evidence rather than a high bar for evidence – both seem equally unachievable. Thousands of words later I don’t feel much closer to a resolution and I’ve likely offended people, which is the opposite of what I want. I have learned how to better express my argument for why I don’t have high confidence in fine-tuning, but I don’t think it’s helped. I think I’ve learned a lot of things not to do. No argument or point is worth being anything less than gentle and respectful, even when I feel continually misrepresented and as though almost all my key arguments are ignored, and even when time is short. This was a great lesson. Sigh. Thanks for the advice here. This helped a lot! 😊

P:Talk to your wife and ask her opinion.  She knows your heart better than anyone and will have insight here.  I think you are right about the central issue.  I can’t process the cognitive burden of 5,000 word comments and I accept different evidence in addition to empiric evidence.  The Hume quote bothered me because it was simplistic.  How much of your text do I have permission quote in a post of my own?

R:  Good advice. You can quote anything. I feel misunderstood when people think I only accept empirical evidence. Another sigh. I read interpreted his quote differently, as proportioning the level of certainty we hold to the level of evidence (pro and con). Non-empirical evidence counts, but empirical often should count more, so it’s a balance thing. I think most people agree with this, but we all tend to interpret things, at least initially, the way we’re primed for. That’s why I think the real difference tends to be that some people are comfortable staying in their beliefs if they seem right and feel good. Others have more of a tendency to actively seek out other potential explanations that could also account for the evidence (all kinds) and then hold back certainty a bit in the hopes that they don’t confidently believe false things. That’s why I try to learn about the assumptions and biases and examine them all for most claims. I can see that it’s unusual. But that seems to be the real difference. I don’t require empirical evidence or more evidence for confidence. But if I see other potentially equal or better explanations after actively examining everything, I’ll withhold certainly that my favored or initial explanation is definitely the right one. Does any of that make sense?

Also, I think the more someone is aware of and understands other alternate explanations and is aware of and fearful of their own biases (fear they made lead them confidently away from truth), the more they tend to reserve certainty in more things.  If someone has a personality that isn’t interested in such things, or hasn’t been made aware of both the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations, they tend to see people like me as being too critical. They just don’t think the same way. So I completely get where they’re coming from, I just think that sometimes they assume I just require too much evidence so that science won’t even lead me to confidence. What I really do is balance my confidence against all the factors I see, which isn’t usually what everyone else sees, because more than wanting to be right, I really don’t want to be confidently wrong. I think you and unkleE are somewhere in the middle on that spectrum (believe what feels right vs actively search for better alternative explanations and the modifying weight of our own biases) and I’m just closer to one end. I don’t like being on the end. 😦 Making the bell curve taller is my goal in all of this.

Wait, there are some people who do require empirical evidence and hold strong beliefs against the supernatural, etc., so am a little closer to the middle than I feared. 🙂 I need to be emphasizing caution to them more. We don’t see many. Instead I spend my time taunting biases and other possible explanations to well behaving believers in faith. Anytime I mention bias or MR I cringe. I really don’t like my position. There are very few situations one can feel like they’re being accused of bias and not feel criticized and defensive. It’s like you’re position of discussing sin. It has to start with us. I am biased too, etc. Everything on your side rests on our sin and need for a savior. Everything on mine rests on the flaws in our reasoning and alternative explanations that should keep us cautious of too much certainty. At the same time, you seem to get by just fine without talking about the points that offend people (sin) nearly as much as I talk about my offensive points. Of course, that’s largely because much of your audience doesn’t believe in it. 🙂 Some don’t believe bias applies to them either. Still, I need to learn from you. I feel my position is the more critical. 😦

P:  Wow.  Just read the last comment exchange.  IMO it would not have hurt your position to wait before responding.  IYO there were compelling reasons to respond promptly and perhaps the processing was already complete.  Hmmm…

R:  Haha. I know. I would have liked to have waited. 😦 On the other hand, I’m with family this weekend and have to drive tonight and get an early start tomorrow. I’m so far behind on everything that I really need to not have this dragging out during the week. If I didn’t respond this week I fear I may never respond. Losing momentum would have made it much harder to get back into the process and I likely would choose that over a post or two. I know you think he thinks like me, and in some sense he does because he can be technical, but in many other major areas I can’t see it. He and I process things as differently as you and I do. I wanted him to continue a few posts ago by addressing my responses to the actual argument he had made about fine-tuning rather than his opinion of my reasoning, unless he was willing to provide specifics that were related to the arguments. That’s not what’s been happening. He says it will happen in a future post on his site, but not in these comments, so they’re aren’t very helpful. The current cycle or avoiding those assumptions about his argument has gone through too many loops without being addressed and it’s dragging me down. It’s cut into my workout time more than my work time and that’s eating away at me. I wanted to wait, but more than that I wanted to be done so I can refocus. I caved. 😦 I feel bad about it. There is a lot of pressure from various areas at the moment and it was a huge relief to see something resolve. I realized this morning that what I pasted into the response was not my final draft but my first draft, which wasn’t softened. 😦 I do feel bad that I ended it on that and it was too offensive. Thank you for your follow-up, that helped a lot. 🙂

I just listened to that comment from last night. I wish I could delete it or edited it. But that wouldn’t be right. I really should have waited. 😦

Or at least checked it over to make sure it was the final version I had in the clipboard before I posted it. 😦

I will learn from this. Have a great day, Pascal.
kant_spinoza

R:  The last two points on each seem quite relevant.

Out of the block quotes and back to the coffee musings.  The last two points didn’t move me as much as the third and fourth bullet of the second section.  When I read how Spinoza handled the work of his predecessors and logical contradictions it resonated.  Did Russell feel the same way about Kant’s views?

So there it is – – a text exchange long enough for a post.  Why?  Because I sit across the breakfast table from this friend of mine and want to understand him better.  I like the way his mind works and want to discuss things on his terms, but I get in my own way.  I’m more like Spinoza (not a theist if I recall).

I do think that unkleE and Russell need to take a break.  I honestly agree more with unkleE in his way of processing.  But I won’t be able to communicate that well in writing.  I’ll need to communicate that in person with body language and tone of voice included.  That should happen Thursday night and in the many breakfast tacos that will follow.

If you have ever had the feeling of talking past someone or being talked past (Russell and I have both done that to each other then reconciled in person) how do you proceed?

Pascal – – 1:16

*photo credit:  By Tim Walker from United Kingdom (2003 Faith Saturn electro-acoustic guitar) [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two Way Street – – my heart for believers

The_two_bridges

 

Dear Russell & Friends,

We’re less than a week away from the first anniversary of our writing adventure.  We shall reclaim Friday the 13th for something useful.  As confessed before, I find myself reflective – – almost in a New Year’s Eve-y kind of mood.  Why are we here?  Does it matter?  Recent comments have reminded me.  We are here to form friendships that can ask hard questions in the dining room.  I used to think the family room, but Mrs. Pascal won’t routinely let me eat in there.  Something else has struck me as I better read and understand my friend CC (Russell’s wife).  My call is forming to the skeptical – – I honestly find so many to be so likeable and interesting.  My call is also forming to revise the hearts of people like me who ignored, reviled, or discounted them for so long.  I actually do love the church – – not a building, but a community of Christ followers.  And because I love the church, I am willing to humbly criticize it – – realizing that the first to be criticized is me.

What did I need to hear?  Avoiding the skeptic and painting her with a thin haired brush is too pious by half. She does care about justice and mercy because she was made in the image of God – – whether she has acknowledged that God or not.  She does things that are:  true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.  Think on those things.

What did I need to hear?  Is there anything in my life or theology that is attractive or worthy of imitation?  Has it become about social acceptability and one-off platitudes for me?  Should I defend a broken American church or work to reform her?  I’m landing more on the side of the latter.  Love reforms.  Love criticizes his own heart, his own family, his own motives.

What did I need to hear?  Will I tolerate the continued scandal of the evangelical mind, or join the heritage of the Jesuits and engage my mind, culture, and tribe of humanity?

What did I need to hear?  The health and wealth gospel that I was raised with was a false gospel.  Joel Osteen is a false prophet.  The authentic gospel (discovered in my twenties) changed my whole life.  The authentic gospel saved the greatest wrath for the pharisee, not the sinner.  I have been both.  Remember the mercy you were given Pascal – – how dare you not offer it freely to another?

I am grateful for our friends and readers who follow Christ.  You may be the silent majority.  I hope that reading here will change the inclination of your heart just as writing here has done for me.  If we take Jesus seriously, how can we not weep for the pain caused in his name?  How can we not stand for something different in our generation?  St. Augustine saw the Visigoths sack Rome in 410 AD and died with the Vandals at the gate in North Africa.  He stood in a time of transition and was called to speak truth to his generation – – remember that he wrote to the church.  Now we stand in the post-modern, pre-future chasm.  Can’t we just call it the present?  What will we do?  We will care about our generation and reclaim the authentic gospel that deeply cares about people and profoundly transforms lives.  If we present an authentic gospel, it can rise or fall on its own merits.  I will no longer defend or tolerate the false.

 

Blessings,

Pascal

–1:16

photo credit:  © Frank Schulenburg / CC-BY-SA-3.0, via wikimedia commons

Spirit ≠ Soul

3DSlicer-Mislow-NeurosurgClinNAm2009-fig3

 

Greetings Russell, Friends & Readers – –

I hope that you are well on the way to returning your trees to the earth for mulch or to the closet for storage. Russell will be back to writing soon.  He is blessed to enjoy a traveling vacation with his beautiful family.  I look forward to his return.  Until then I wanted to expand on a topic that I touched on in the last post and one that Howie extended in the comments to Dredbeauty.  Both new readers are very welcome here.  Dredbeauty and I likely align a bit in our thinking as do Howie and Russell.  That is a tentative conclusion based on a few comments.  I hope that they both stay so that the conclusion can be challenged and tested.  Here’s the topic:  do we have spiritis?

First a quote offered from Howie’s link in the comment from Sean Carroll.  He is Russell’s favorite physicist.  I know – – I have a friend with a favorite physicist.  My favorite physicist was Isaac Newton.  He was ignorant enough to be a Christian.  He constructed God of the Gaps apologetics that were later deconstructed by Laplace and many others.  But he was a pretty sharp guy who was humble enough to say that he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I am willing to make Sean Carroll my current favorite living physicist.  Newton maintains my favorite smart dead guy post.  I think Carroll might pick Boltzmann.

Here’s the quote:

I have an enormous respect for Adam; he’s a smart guy and a careful thinker. When we disagree it’s with the kind of respectful dialogue that should be a model for disagreeing with non-crazy people. – – Sean Carroll – – Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

Howie and probably Russell know the context of the quote.  I would invite others to read the brief, instructive post.  Carroll is referring to his friend and colleague Adam Frank who believes that we should remain agnostic (not knowing) about the topic of an immortal soul.  Carroll believes it is an appropriate scientific question, asked and answered in the negative.  If I misrepresent his view please correct me.

Where do I stand?  I suppose that I stand for precise language.  Carroll is a professional physicist and a master communicator.  I will devour everything he has on audible.com this year and help send his kids to college.  He is, by his own description, not a theologian.  He describes his upbringing in a white bread suburban mainstream church.  The teaching captured neither his nor his parents’ imagination.  On arrival to a Catholic university, he was an atheist.  Fair enough.

So should I argue the premise that we have no existence beyond the natural?  What of neuroscience, the functional MRI pictured above, neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters, and the very true arguments that Howie makes in his comments to Dredbeauty?  What of this articulate, intelligent blogger with a compelling story that led her away from faith in a veil of tears?  Will neuroscience solve the issue of soul?

It could.  To honor precise language and the thinking of generations of metaphysicists – – the soul is comprised of the mind, will, and emotions.  Can my mind be mapped now, manipulated later by MRI and ferrous nanoparticles?  Probably.  Can my will be broken by suggestion, sleep deprivation, even torture?  Demonstrably so.  Can my emotions ride the wave of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, THC, or alcohol?  Yes.  Then what is supernatural at all?

In the Christian worldview, spirit ≠ soul.  The spirit of man lives forever.  And what of the connection and relation between spirit and soul.  I don’t know.  In middle age, I just don’t know.  If I live to be older I hope to understand more.  How do I hope to know?

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Hebrews 4: 12 (ESV)

My worldview requires these cornerstones, the final being chief:

Supernatural, Scripture, Saints, Savior

If soul is conflated with spirit, it will be hard for Dr. Carroll and I to begin.  I believe that his logic can be, perhaps should be, applied to soul – – not to spirit.

Pascal

–1:16

Two Smart Guys

Dear Russell,

I’m up early again, but the pressure of work is easing.  I’m looking forward to the weekend and time to finish up Christmas shopping.  The boys start holiday Friday afternoon.  I really enjoyed our breakfast time as always.  I’m posting the video that you recommended.  I primarily listened to it in the car on my short, but cummulative commute this week.  I finished it at home this morning.  I found Sean Carroll’s nerdy voice to be comforting and familiar after spending 12 hours with him here.  Hans Halvorson was new to me.  Rebecca Goldstein is currently my philosopher of choice.  I digested the last 20 minutes of the discussion from my laptop this morning.  What did that add above the voices?  Body language and facial expression.

These two smart guys did not really debate.  They discussed.  They did not talk past each other.  I enjoyed hearing Carroll’s story and was humbled to hear a Christ follower share his struggles.  I think we need more of this type of dialogue.  So – – you and I agree that we’re not as smart as these guys, but I do think our attitude is similar.

More this weekend – – until then blessings on you and our friends.

Pascal

–1:16

 

A simple letter

Pied Piper

Dear Russell,

Thank you.  For so many things – – thank you.  Thank you for opening my mind and heart to a difference that perplexes me.  Thank you for your contagious love of physics.  Thank you for my early Christmas gift – – The Science of Interstellar, by Kip Thorne.  My boys, the oldest in particular, are drooling over it.  Thank you for writing over the last two weeks when I couldn’t.  Thank you for being a new and durable friend.

As I’ve implied here and communicated offline this has been a challenging season at work.  All of the daylight hours have been dedicated to my job in a push to Christmas holiday.  It’s not that I have less time.  The direction of the arrow hasn’t changed and neither has the sweep of the second hand.  It’s just that when one responsibility swells, others must ebb.  When work responsibilities rise, my classic and persistent error has been to pull back from my family.  Thankfully, age and wisdom are dampening my foolishness and my family has forgiven me.  Now when work rises, I double down on my efforts towards them and jettison other responsibilities for a season – – even to the church, even to my friends here and in flatland.  Anything left at the end of 16 (one 18) hour days goes to them.  At the end of an 18 hour day all are asleep and nothing is left.  That accounting had me leaving at 0600 and returning at 0030.  The alarm startles me later in the morning – – I pack and take a boy to practice.  I get home the same night and only want to watch The Middle and The Goldbergs with them.  And that’s what we did.  Lazy.  Unashamed.  Slouched on the couch with too much popcorn.  Useful in the lives of those who love, trust, and need me most.

I read your posts on the stairs while ascending, descending, and sometimes standing in the landing, seeking understanding. That would sound so much cooler with my phat faux-gold chain.  Bear with me.  Fatigue makes me cheesier than usual.

I loved your post on Interstellar.  I would enjoy seeing the movie again with you (IMAX) since we both saw it separately.  I think you write most passionately about science and the wonder of the universe.  Your response to the 4th smaller bite and Romans 1:1-7 was harder.  I honestly had a difficult time reading my own words in quotes.  That’s the problem with words, isn’t it?  You can’t take them back.  Why did I presume on your philosophy?  Why not ask?  Dumb.  Well – – friends tolerate dumb.  Those who don’t find themselves friendless.  Will we ever reconcile our views of scripture and life?  Maybe not.  That’s okay.  I’m starting to think that is the point.  It is really hard for me to get past my desire to convince.  I’m a pretty persuasive person by nature, nurture, or both.  I was always the one to call for the poker game when we really should have been studying.  The pied piper of distraction.

Just 500 words to tell you and our readers that I have not forgotten you.  I’m so glad that we have a breakfast scheduled.  What am I thinking after finishing 12 hours with Sean Carroll’s The Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time?  What am I thinking after finishing Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex?  I have so much to say!  From Carroll – – I think that a creator is a reasonable hypothesis to explain why the universe began with low entropy.  As reasonable as the multiverse, which I thankfully understand better now.  From Goldstein – – could Plato’s work survive the critical approach that you bring to the New Testament?

Let’s keep going.  I’ve said many times that this could take decades.  In truth, I’m not a patient man.  That was probably more for me than you.  You are a patient man and I admire it.  Until we meet in person, blessings.  I know that you commented on several posts and I’ll likely respond to the comments next.

For those who read what we write – – my hope for you is that you find strength in a friendship that stresses the metal of your soul.

Your friend,

Pascal

–1:16

Interstellar – 5 Reasons You Should Watch It (Again) – No Spoilers

I just saw Interstellar, and honestly, it may be my favorite movie of all time. As I consider what it is that put this movie above the others for me, I realize that many readers who have or will see it may not agree with my conclusion. I’d like to explain why it was so important for me, and why I think you should give it a(nother) chance.

After seeing one of the Interstellar trailers a few weeks ago, Pascal let me know about a great article he’d read in Wired magazine. I pulled out my iPad and bought the November issue to see what he was talking about. It described how the movie came to be, starting with a theoretical physicist, Dr. Kip Thorne from Caltech who I’ve read about many times, and his dream to teach more abstract theoretical science to the masses.

As I understand it, Dr. Thorne created new equations to allow their software to generate the accurate gravitational lensing (this isn’t your daddy’s Star Trek, the original series, physics). He presented custom mathematical models for the design team to massage and feed into their custom rendering engine to make light bend in the correct way to simulate relativistic effects. That is way, way harder than it sounds and it’s easy to fail to appreciate it. In addition, he and the team came up with the new equations and simulations to model background accretion disks, tesseracts to represent multiple dimensions, etc.

According to the article, some frames took up to 100 hours to render. All that work is based on mathematics from the latest published, peer-reviewed work in astrophysics. Those equations account for the “bendy bits of distortion caused by gravitational lensing” among other things. The movie is almost 800 terabytes of data to crunch all the equations. Science fiction doesn’t need to be overly dramatized like it has been in many movies. Nature itself is more than capable of compelling the emotions they’re seeking. Here’s a link to the excellent article, Wrinkles In Spacetime – The Warped Astrophysics of INTERSTELLAR. The article includes a video about the physics behind Interstellar.

Here are some relevant quotes from the video:

Neither wormholes, nor black holes have been depicted in any Hollywood movie in the way that they actually would appear. This is the first time the depiction began with Einstein’s General Relativity equations. – Kip Thorne, Eminent Theoretical Physicist, Executive Producer

We found that we could get some very understandable, tactile imagery from those equations. They were constantly surprising, you know, spoke to the maxim that truth can be stranger than fiction. – Christopher Nolan, Director, Co-writer

Dr. Thorne will get at least two papers out of their work on this movie. One aimed at physicists and the other at computer graphics developers. He will discuss the things they’ve learned about gravitational lensing by spinning black holes (from modeling it for this movie) that we never knew before. These will be areas to pursue in physics and in simulating reality in the virtual world of games.

Aren’t the physics of Interstellar wrong?

Before seeing the movie a family member mentioned that he’d seen it and thought the physics were off. I think this is a common sentiment. Those untrained in what to expect of relativity will see problems in the unexpected behavior of black-holes, time warps, etc. Those familiar with these subjects will find problems in the creative license Dr. Thorne, the Nolan brother co-writers, and Legendary Studios took on the more speculative parts of the science and narrative/art direction. After watching the movie I read many reviews of Interstellar that discuss the physics. Some raised problems they believed were present in the science of the movie. I found that I had a response for almost every complaint. For brevity and to avoid spoilers, I won’t mention my responses here. I’ll just say that in each case I either had a different understanding of physics than they did or I gave allowances for narrative, believing the circumstances in question to be at least possible, if not likely. It’s a perspective difference, and I want to try to communicate what I think is the right perspective to view this movie.

Pascal and I have recently been discussing the work of our favorite theoretical and astrophysicist, Sean Carroll, a colleague of Dr. Thorne at Caltech. Dr. Thorne may be even more involved in the theoretical domain of physics, which is a great example of the overlap between physics and philosophy that we’ve been discussing recently. Please refer to my last comment from the recent post titled On Philosophy And Science for more on that overlap (or Dr. Carroll’s own thoughts on the subject). As such, some of the concepts Dr. Thorne considers are necessarily speculative (the philosophical side of his work). However, he did a great job of working with the team to ensure that nothing known to be forbidden by the known laws made it in the movie.

Given this interpretation, did I find the movie accurate with science? Yes! Within obvious parameters. As I mentioned, a lot of it is conjecture, but the simulations of the black holes, wormholes, relativity, gravity, behavior of light at those speeds and gravitational scales, is more accurate that it’s ever been depicted. It was designed in part to pique interest in high-level theoretical relativistic physics through art – the movie spectacle kind. Obviously there are some creative liberties for storytelling, but on the whole, yes, it’s extremely accurate as long as you know which parts are for storytelling. That is always the trick, isn’t it? The same issue arises when trying to interpret the Bible’s narratives.

Still think Interstellar has problems with physics you can’t get past?

Dr. Thorne released a book to help explain the physics of the movie to anyone interested. For all those who question the physics, Dr. Thorne goes into great lengths to clearly mark the reason behind each relevant scene as being backed by either:

  1. Scientific fact/truth – supported by numerous papers and observational data
  2. Educated guess (e.g. supported by math but not observed yet)
  3. Speculation (to varying degrees that he clearly marks).

If you want to publicly call out some piece of physics you don’t agree with, check out his reasons in the book first, and chalk some of it up to art direction or other requirement of the storyline which was the Nolans’ call. As an aside, Pascal, I just bought you an early Christmas present. The Science of Interstellar is on it’s way via Amazon. They only had paperback, sorry. I bought a copy for myself on iBooks.

Okay, Russell. So it was a good movie that modeled certain physics extremely well, but why was it so good that it might be your favorite movie ever?

Why should I watch Interstellar (again) and how should I view it?

First, don’t let the hype make you overly critical. Focus on the fact that all these achievements are in one movie.

  1. Science promotion among minorities and the media – Physicists and engineers are the leading characters, some of whom are women.
  2. Science education – The immense achievement of generating a new graphics rendering engine to simulate and incredibly accurate black hole via Einstein’s equations. The stunning visual representation of the possible behavior of forces within a singularity (I’ll resist defending an apparent science issue here to avoid spoilers). The tesseract brought to life as never before as a compelling way to visualize more than three spatial dimensions (similar in concept to Flatland but quite different, this has left me stunned for days as I try to envision it). The demonstration of gravity as a force that can affect changes across the four dimensions we experience from a higher dimension. The outstanding visualization of out-of-box thinking that pushes science forward.
  3. Spectacle – A tidal wave a mile high on an IMAX screen
  4. Simulating reality – It’s more than just black hole and wormhole simulations. I was familiar enough with those before the movie, though unveiling the universe at that level was a masterful achievement for humanity. We look at the star actors and actresses that perform on screen and stand amazed. We rarely realize the bigger, more inspiring work behind the scenes. Read about Dr. Kip Thorne‘s knowledge and contribution that are made possible by all the generations of scientists and philosophers that came before. This is not just a celebration and perspective alignment for Dr. Thorne, but for humanity. We can accurately model the procession of a black hole on a computer, in a movie, to striking detail and accuracy. You and I are both underestimating that sentence. Most of those words didn’t even make sense a hundred years ago. The stars are not just Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and others. The stars are all of us. Science is a human endeavor. We have to support each other in families, in wider circles, in civilizations in order to allow some to spend their lives working out the details of nature. These simulations on the big screen are a tribute to all of us – to how far we’ve come, and the exciting discoveries just beyond the current horizon that entice us forward.
  5. And the main reason, science value creation. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where ideas turn into MRI machines that save lives. For me, this is what it’s all about. If you want to live in a world filled with people who understand science, a massively popular movie featuring the frontier of the latest discoveries is how to get people talking and thinking. Like gravitational waves, the ripples of science value creation go far beyond the movie itself. The software simulation libraries will be adapted to future games and movies and added to the growing simulations of similar phenomena at the edge of our understanding. They will be open-sourced and built into further applications. They will be consumed on large screens and played in games by children and teenagers. Each iteration will lead to more questions, more interest in science, more discoveries, and better questions.

Bonus follow-up for point #5:

I’ve seen and played some game simulations built by physics and math graduate students specifically to render environments that are visibly affected by the character’s movement at close to the speed of light. The following quote is from Philip Tan, Creative Director for OpenRelativity, an open-source graphics engine toolkit from MIT Game Lab used to simulate effects of special relativity:

“… one thing that games are really good at doing is giving people an intuitive grasp of complex scientific ideas.”

Movies like Interstellar do the same thing. We aren’t wired to understand relativity or quantum physics intuitively. As such, deep understanding of quantum mechanics and the rules that make both systems work together (a problem underlying the plot of Interstellar) have so-far eluded us. The hope is that as simulations like those created for those physics games and this movie become more common, and open-sourced graphics engines are built and put to use, more children will grow up exposed to the odd behavior of the universe at these scales, speeds and masses. Such familiarity, coupled with the interest fostered by seeing cool actors staring in popular movies that bring the frontiers of science to life in compelling ways, may help lead future grad students to understand and unlock even deeper mysteries – mysteries that are naturally difficult to grasp without this mental exposure throughout childhood and adolescence. That is the landmark importance of Interstellar.

This is a blog about theism and atheism. Does Interstellar touch on concepts that affect this debate?

Yes, in several significant areas. Without giving too much away, Matt Damon’s character says something in-line with what Pascal and I learned in the Moral Animal which supports my more naturalistic view of reality. On the other hand, there is a major plot point that fundamentally affects my personal morality in a way that leads me to act as if there is a divine judgement waiting on the other side. This gives me conviction and a moral compass even when nobody is watching. I plan to write about both points in future posts.

Conclusion

Interstellar is not just an epic, intense, emotional spectacle filled with desperation, hope and massive stars (double entendre intended). It is a culmination of humanity’s long march into growing light – an attempt to reveal the very edge of our understanding about some of the deepest mysteries shrouding the fabric of nature. We can talk about black holes, worm holes, relativity, quantum physics and other such topics using vague analogies that are far too oversimplified. In reality, however, these concepts are simply ineffable. Our words are just labels; attempts at descriptions that require a full understanding of all parts of the sentence to fully make sense. In the case of things on the scale of very small, very large, very slow/old, very fast, etc., we humans are just not equipped to grasp those concepts intuitively. Our language is not equipped and analogies all break down at some point. But images, sounds, motion, those we do understand.

Interstellar brings something to the table that no other medium has been able to accomplish to the same degree. Its release as yet another in a long series of blockbuster movies belies the audacity and achievement behind those mathematical equations. In proper perspective, each are the result of thousands of years of humanity – gazing at stars, speculating, forming logic, developing philosophy, conceiving and evolving the rules of science, building models, understanding electricity and how to harness/store/use it, building computers, transistors and silicone, probing space, building successively upon math, unlocking fundamental large-encompassing simple equations about nature, iterating through software algorithms and faster computer chips and architectures, until one day, a very brilliant man works with a team of very brilliant artists and story tellers who, together, crunch a brand new set of equations that surpass all the abstract, inept analogies with a single moving image. The result is a palpable experience of some of the great mysteries of nature, compelling us each to sit down with the puzzle.

You may dislike a movie for any number of reasons. However, whether or not you like the plot, and whether or not you believe the author of nature is a loving God, Interstellar, viewed with the right perspective, should put you in appreciable awe of the cosmos.

What about you?

Have you seen Interstellar yet? What did you think about it?

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

P.S. If you’re more interested in a spiritual analog of these concepts dealing with belief and doubt, I’d like to point you to CC‘s excellent post about gravity.