In all our scientific endeavors, we use similar high-level techniques to understand and study things. The most common technique is reductionism. It is based on the belief that the behavior, properties and structure of large and complex objects can be understood in terms of their simpler constituents. In other words, we try to understand the whole (the universe, for instance) in terms of smaller, reduced constituents (such as particles).
Recently, I gave a talk on particles and interactions to my daughter’s classmates who were planning on a trip to DESY, Germany and wanted to have an idea of what it was all about. As my first talk of this kind, I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know what level, and background, I should peg the talk at. I didn’t want to make it too basic, which I thought would be a waste of time. Nor did I want to make it too technical, which also would make it useless in a different way.
Animals have different sensory capabilities compared to us humans. Cats, for instance, can hear up to 60kHz, while the highest note we have ever heard was about 20kHz. Apparently, we could hear that high a note only in our childhood. So, if we are trying to pull a fast one on a cat with the best hifi multi-channel, Dolby-whatever recording of a mouse, we will fail pathetically. It won’t be fooled because it lives in a different sensory world, while sharing the same physical world as ours. There is a humongous difference between the sensory and physical worlds.
Free will is a problem. If all of us are physical machines, obeying laws of physics, then all our movements and mental states are caused by events that took place earlier. What is caused is fully determined by the cause. So whatever we do now and in the next minute is all pre-ordained by antecedent events and causes, and we have no control over it. How can we then have free will? The fact that I am writing this note on free will — is it totally and completely determined by the events from time immemorial? That doesn’t sound right.
It is a sensible question: What does it feel like to be a bat? Although we can never really know the answer (because we can never be bats), we know that there is an answer. It feels like something to be a bat. Well, at least we think it does. We think bats have consciousness and conscious feelings. On the other hand, it is not a sensible question to ask what it feels like to be brick or a table. It doesn’t feel like anything to be an inanimate object.
A conspiracy theory remains a theory and fodder for crackpots until it is blown wide open. At that point, the crackpots become award winning journalists and the leaders who were considered national heroes become sociopathic criminals. Such is the fickleness of popular opinion, and so it will be with the 9/11 conspiracy when it becomes widely known (if it ever does) that it was a conspiracy.
The atheist-theist debate boils down to a simple question — Did humans discover God? Or, did we invent Him? The difference between discovering and inventing is the similar to the one between believing and knowing. Theist believe that there was a God to be discovered. Atheists “know” that we humans invented the concept of God. Belief and knowledge differ only slightly — knowledge is merely a very very strong belief. A belief is considered knowledge when it fits in nicely with a larger worldview, which is very much like how a hypothesis in physics becomes a theory. While a theory (such as Quantum Mechanics, for instance) is considered to be knowledge (or the way the physical world really is), it is best not to forget the its lowly origin as a mere hypothesis. My focus in this post is the possible origin of the God hypothesis.
Personally, one of the main reasons I started taking the conspiracy theories about 9/11 seriously is the ardor and certainty of the so-called debunkers. They are so sure of their views and so ready with their explanations that they seem rehearsed, coached or even incentivized. Looking at the fire-induced, symmetric, and free-fall collapse of WTC7, how can anyone with any level of scientific background be so certain? The best a debunker could say would be something like, “Yes, the free-fall and the symmetry aspects of the collapse do look quite strange. But the official explanation seems plausible. At least, it is more plausible than a wild conspiracy by the government to kill 3000 of our own citizens.” But that is not at all the way they put it. They laugh at the conspiracy theories, make emotional statements about the technical claims, and ignore the questions that they cannot explain away. They toe the official line even when it is clearly unscientific. They try to attack the credibility of the conspiracy camp despite the obvious fact that it has the support of many seasoned professionals, like architects, physics teachers, structural engineers and university professors.
The only recourse an atheist can have against this argument based on personal experience is that the believer is either is misrepresenting his experience or is mistaken about it. I am not willing to pursue that line of argument. I know that I am undermining my own stance here, but I would like to give the theist camp some more ammunition for this particular argument, and make it more formal.
In the first post in this series, we saw that 7 World Trade Center building was the smoking gun of a possible conspiracy behind the 9/11 attack. The manner in which it collapsed and the way the collapse was investigated are strong indications of a conspiracy and a cover up. However, when I first heard of the conspiracy theory in any serious form, the first question I asked myself was why – what possible motive could any person or organization have to commit mass murder at this scale? I honestly couldn’t see any, and as long as you don’t see one, you cannot take these conspiracy theories seriously. Of course, if you buy the official story that the conspiracy actually originated in Afghanistan among terrorist monsters, you don’t need to look for any rational motives.