Wednesday, 25 March 2020

A Model for Intelligent Evolution

Several cumulative pieces of evidence point to the role of an intelligent agent in the existence of life.  Some people who don't want to seriously consider Intelligent Design (ID) raise some supposed objections to the theory: who is the designer, and how does the ID process work?  In one sense, these are unfair questions.  One can identify clear fingerprints of design work without knowing who did it; for example SETI researchers would be overjoyed to find a designed message from outer space, clearly from an intelligent agent, without needing to know who sent it.  Similarly, knowing that something has been designed does not tell you how the design proceeded.  Nevertheless, I think biological sciences are now revealing a few pieces of the puzzle, that start to lift the curtain on the how and when of ID, at least as it applies to biology on Earth.  This approach is not the same as my prior speculations on this subject, although it may mesh with it.  Rather, this post looks at the science and then extrapolates to a possible ID process.
First the science. There are two principal lines of evidence to consider, the fossil record and modern molecular biochemistry.  Charles Darwin expected the "tree of life" in the fossil record to look something like Fig. 1, with "species" constantly but gradually changing and occasionally splitting in two as branches appear and diverge.  However, even he noticed a paucity of "transitional forms" in the fossil record.  Instead fossilized species appear suddenly without obvious precursors or intermediate steps from the supposed previous branch of the tree, change very little over the millions of years and then fade out and (mostly) go extinct, with no obvious new species arising from them, as shown roughly in Fig. 2. Science articles often add horizontal dashed lines to such "trees" to show the supposed connections and transitions, but those do not represent the actual fossils.

The fossil record aspect most perplexing to Darwin was the so called Cambrian explosion.  Some 540 million years ago (MYA), at the start of the Cambrian period of geological history, numerous new complex lifeforms, with sophisticated features like eyes, body plans, legs, swimming, mouths and guts, nervous systems, etc. burst into existence over just a few million years, with no apparent precursors from the previous Ediacaran age, which recorded only simple worms, algae mats, sponges, and the like as fossils.  Darwin hoped that subsequent fossil finds would fill in the blanks, but that has not happened for the most part, and the same is true all through the fossil record.

This conundrum for gradualist evolution remains as true today as it did 150 years ago, with no credible naturalistic explanation.  Indeed, the problem was so clear in 1972 that Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould suggested the Punctuated Equilibrium (PE) model for evolution, claiming that the transitions happened so quickly that none of them were fossilized, and that the new species became populous as equilibrium forms, with little of no further phenotype (physical) changes until the next punctuation hit.  Not only does this go against Darwin's clear requirement that there be no sudden major changes ("saltations" he called them), but it also goes against population genetics, which shows it is much harder to get major mutation changes - the kind needed to create a new species - over short period and in a small population, as required by the PE theory.

On the other hand, ID says, of course species remain largely fixed phenotypes as long as they exist, because the Darwinian mechanism, working in known ways on genomes, cannot create new features or the major genetic changes needed for totally new species.  Many - perhaps most - species have one or more gene unique to them, with nothing similar in any other species.  These so called orphan genes cannot be explained by a Darwinian mechanism (random mutation, plus natural selection) working on precursor genomes in any reasonable geological time.  Any new feature in the fossil record would have required many new proteins (and hence genes) to construct the feature, and others to integrate it into the lifeform and make it functional, thereby rendering the transition even less likely for any purely natural process.

This finding of molecular biochemistry leads to the second piece of evidence for the process I will outline below.  Studies of extant species demonstrate that for the most part, any traceable genetic effects leading to new species have arisen by devolution, that is, the damaging or removal of one or more genes in a pre-existing genome.  Hence polar bears, for example, evolved from brown bear cousins by damaging the genes that limited their fat intake, allowing them to eat fatty seals without health problems, and by damaging the gene for melanin that produces dark pigments, leaving their fur white.  Presumably such mutations first occurred in brown bears, but were not beneficial to them. However, when the polar bears forebears migrated into the arctic, those mutations were beneficial, helping the polar bear thrive in the new environment, and so were selected and then fixed into the growing population.

Yes, this is a clear case of Darwinian evolution producing a new species, just as Darwin claimed. Sometimes, Darwinism actually works!  Note however, that although beneficial, those mutations damaged the genome, knocking out or damaging multiple genes.  No new genetic information arose.  Michael Behe, in his book Darwin Devolves describes this effect in depth.  The same finding applies to almost every known case of beneficial mutation.  Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics by damaging the genes that generate the cell-wall portals through which the antibiotics attack them.  This is like an army burning its bridges behind them during a retreat: yes, it saves your army and slows down the enemy, but only by destroying part of your infrastructure that's needed in normal life.

Behe describes numerous examples, his first rule of adaptive evolution is to, "break or blunt any functional coded element whose loss would yield a net fitness gain".  In hindsight, this effect should have been obvious.  For any given gene, damaging mutations are far more likely than ones that might improve the gene somehow.  Any new feature or function in an organism requires new proteins or enzymes, which therefore require new genetic information, and not just one or two minor changes.  Most genes are hundreds of nucleotides long, and the probability of a new functional gene arising de-novo, by random mutations is all but negligible.  On the other hand, a single point mutation in a gene is often enough to damage or render inoperative the resulting protein molecule.  Thus, if a benefit to the species can be had by knocking out or damaging a  particular gene, it is easy to do - just wait for almost any mutation to that gene - and very effective.  It is easier and quicker to burn your bridges than to develop new weapons and rebuild your army to counterattack.  Other research supports Behe's arguments and conclusions.

So Darwinism works, at least in this very limited sense.  However, evolution by damaging the genome does not get us new biological features and functions.  The polar bear is still a bear, and indeed could still mate with brown bears in principle.  Devolution can only take you so far.  Another example is dogs, which apparently evolved from wolves, via selective breeding - not quite natural selection, but the same rule applies.  Most of the variations and new breeds of dogs have arisen by knocking out or damaging genes, or gene variants (alleles) found in wolves.  Sure you get new breeds, but all dogs are still dogs - no new features - and one does not have to think too long about how most dog breeds would survive in the wild competing with wolves (natural selection).  By damaging or removing parts of the genome, you can indeed get somewhat different life forms, but you cannot get anything completely new.  For that, you need to add new genetic information, new genes that work together for new functions or phenotypic features.  The Darwinian process of random mutations and natural selection simply cannot accomplish that.

In addition to the Cambrian explosion, there were other brief periods (almost moments) in geological time when whole batches of new life forms came into existence suddenly.  Some examples include the Avalon explosion, and the bursts of new life forms following mass extinction events.  Naturalist Darwinians claim these extinctions opened up numerous ecological niches which were then filled with newly evolved life forms.  Yet they have no mechanism to credibly account for where the new genetic information came from for these new species that suddenly pop into existence.

The evolution model I would like to propose to account for the tree of life as it appears in the fossil record, builds on these findings of the last century or so.  Figure 3 sketches what I have in mind, essentially an expansion of the PE model, with ID added in to account for the punctuations.  Most of the time life goes on without much change.  Species remain largely unchanged with some going extinct, and only occasional "new" species arising via devolution.  These new species are very similar to their precursors.  Think of all the dinosaurs, for example; numerous ones look very similar to each other, changed only in size or minor tweaks to their bones, yet each one gets a new name when unearthed.  This is Darwinism at work, tweaking the world a little bit over millions of years, while the fossil record remains in equilibrium mode or "stasis".

Then, at detectable moments in geological time, blasts of new species, genera, or even families arise almost suddenly, as "design" events, when new genetic information is injected into the biome.  A brief period of "consolidation" would occur as the new information is integrated and accommodated by the new life forms.  Some of those die out immediately as non-viable, or too few in number.  Others adjust their phenotype or morphology as the new genes take effect, and settle out as new species.

Numerous plant and animal species have no known transitions from prior species; bladderworts and squids for example.  Even some of the iconic transitional fossil sequences like horses and whales are not what they are presented to be in evolution textbooks.  The steps (saltations) between the supposed intermediaries are huge from a genetic perspective, requiring many genetic additions and long fixation times.

In the case of whales, for example, only a few million years separates the supposed Pakicetus, land-based starting point from the earliest known, fully-formed aquatic whale.  Such a transition would require an enormous amount of new genetic information in the form of many new genes.  Meanwhile, population genetic models suggest that the time required for even a single mutation to be "fixed" in a population of say, 10,000 whale precursors with a ten year reproduction cycle, could exceed that time frame.  It is beyond belief that many thousands of just right mutations, arising randomly, could occur in that time frame, resulting in a totally new family of whale species.

It is much more reasonable to suggest that, at such moments, an intelligent agent interceded somehow, to develop an array of new species and introduce them into Earth's biosphere.  How that could be done, whether by purposely adding to or modifying DNA in various extant species, or by "creating" new species using similar genetic building blocks, with a few additions, cannot be known at present, although I have previously speculated on how this might be done.  The injections of new information would likely occur in small populations, which are then released into the wild.  With low numbers and short times during these consolidations, few if any fossils would be saved for us to dig up, and the fossil record would appear the way it does in Figure 2.

With a batch of new genetic information added into various genomes, the initial "explosion" of different lifeforms would be huge.  Many of those would not be viable, perhaps, depending on the distribution of the new genes, and many new "lines" would doubtless go extinct even before they got started, either due to detrimental effects, or the exigencies of life - most individual lives are lost by random chance rather than from being slightly less fit.  Nevertheless, enough new life forms would survive the first few generations, and would quickly settle down, via Darwinian selection, into separate, stable, viable species.  By the time these became numerous enough to get one or more preserved in the fossil record, they would be a thriving species, now in equilibrium with its environment.  Hence the punctuations in the fossil record, leading to steady state or "stasis".

This model suggests a range of potential research areas.  The fossil record is an obvious starting place.  Look for and catalogue all the sudden eruptions of new life forms without apparent precursors. How often do they occur?  Are they all at once for all of life on Earth, as in the Permian extinction, or are they smaller in scale, limited to one area of the globe, or one set of lifeforms at the genus or family level?  The fossil record is well established, even if it is still filling in slowly, so the data to do this must exist, even if no one has looked at it in this way.

On the biomolecular side, continue to research and collect the genetic changes that have caused known speciation events.  In some cases, the "molecular clock" (such as it is) for random mutations, can be used to estimate when certain genes, similar among different species, were once the same gene, suggesting a branch point in life's tree, or at least in the subsequent existence of that gene.  Similar approaches can be used to estimate when a given gene, perhaps one unique to a particular species, first came into being.  For example, by looking at the variation in a single, uniquely human gene among extant human beings, the "age" of that gene - when it first arose - based on the accumulated variations, can be estimated.

It is conceivable that, as the fossil record is looked at more closely, and as the picture of genetic histories becomes clearer, the groups, dates and possibly locations may start to overlap, pointing to when and where the injections of new genetic info occurred.  This is obviously a long term project.  There will be lots of "noise" and gaps in the data, but if such a consilience or agreement between fossils and molecules can be found, it would be a major discovery.

The third piece of research would be to use comparative genetics to estimate how much genetic info was injected at these supposed design interventions by the intelligent agent.  For example, what features and functions existed in possible partial precursor species, and what additional genetic information would be needed to account for the added or different features seen in the new species that arose?  This could be done by carefully examining what genes are needed for similar features or functions seen in extant species.  None of this would be precise or definitive, of course, but it could be useful and could hint at how the information was added.

For example, if some newly arisen species had (or its extant descendants have) a set of genes required for some new feature, and it can be shown that those genes could have come from two different families that cannot breed together, then clearly, one good explanation is that the agent took existing genes from two disparate species, and combined them to produce a novel feature in a new species.  This would rule out the small genetic tweaks approach to developing a new line of lifeforms.

Instead of trying to debunk Darwinism on the one hand, or completely dismissing Intelligent Design on the other, we should combine them into a better scientific paradigm for evolution.  As I understand the current situation, some form of ID theory is gaining credibility among scientists of various stripes, and in various places.  Once ID is allowed to exist peaceably alongside the 150 year sole reign of Darwinism and its neo-synthesis, then the above research can begin in earnest, exploring the model offered in Figure 3.  It may be that the above suggestions will lead nowhere or to a mishmash of uncertainty, but even that would tell us something.  Surely, however, even the possibility of finding out something about when and how the intelligent agent was at work, would be a huge addition to our scientific knowledge about the origin and history of life on Earth, and our relationship with the creator and the cosmos.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

The Problem of Evil - Theodicy 101

A common argument against God's existence is, "How can a good God allow bad things to happen?" For Christianity, this is "the problem of evil" in the world. One formulation of the argument says, if God is all powerful, he could prevent evil, and if he is all good, then he would surely do so; therefore, either he cannot or does not want to, and either way, he is not the theist idea of an all powerful, all good God. Of course this argument does not support atheism, but it does appear, on the surface, to undermine the Judeo-Christian view of who God is.

Theodicy is the term used for the apologetics of the problem of evil; explaining why there is evil in the world, and how a good God can allow evil to exist. Many explanations have been offered by better authors than me, and in more depth than I can go here. For example, C. S. Lewis has a go at it in his book God in the Dock. The topic is huge and, in the end, the sum of the responses and explanations is probably inadequate or unsatisfying to many people, perhaps especially for atheists. Nevertheless, I will have a go at it from my own perspective.

Few people will doubt that evil exists in the world; bad things do happen to everyone at some point. It is widely accepted that there are two types of evil in the world. Moral evil can be attributed to humans: starvation, war, murder, theft, rape, abuse, cheating, etc. Natural evil, on the other hand, refers to other forms of suffering not attributable to people: diseases of various sorts, earthquakes, tornados, floods, and other natural disasters, often referred to as "acts of God", even though they are all in the natural realm. In some cases, there is overlap between these two types, as when humans purposely spread, or withhold treatment for an otherwise natural disease, for example. There is also a third type of evil; spiritual evil, as in the actions of demons, curses, spells, and other occult phenomena. But if you don't believe in God, you probably don't believe in such things anyway, so here I will focus only on the moral and natural evils afflicting our world.

At the highest level, the explanation for both types of evil is The Fall. Man rebelled against God, so things broke down and went wrong. In the garden of Eden, the first humans decided they knew better than God what was good for them and so went their own way, separating themselves from him. As a result they were evicted from the garden and had to deal with the resulting problems. Adam and Eve could have stayed in Eden with the tree of life, enjoying easy living forever, but foolishly they chose to rebel against God's simple instruction, and got what they were warned about. According to this doctrine, even the world itself suffered, and became less comfortable for people, animals and the rest of creation. Creation was damaged by man's disobedience, resulting in ongoing sin, death, suffering and evil.

No one is perfect and we all make stupid mistakes that sometimes cause hurt or damage, and sometimes we do these things on purpose. In Christianity, this tendency is called original sin.  Whether you take the Eden story literally or allegorically, all humans are clearly prone to sin and, without guidance and discipline, do not naturally seek God and their neighbour's good. Even with careful upbringing and education, all people sometimes do things they know they shouldn't, or fail to do what they know is right. With this understanding, we see that God did not create the evil in the world, but he allowed it to happen. This explanation does not satisfy most people, so I will need to expand on it.

We humans were created with free will, the ability to choose between different actions for our own reasons. God values and honours our free will, in particular, our ability to ignore or deny him, so he allows evil to exist in the world as the direct result of our choices. The Bible teaches that we all have some evil in our hearts, that none of us on our own will seek God or always do the right thing. This doctrine of original sin is easy to demonstrate: every honest person will surely admit to knowingly doing things that were wrong. Pride, greed, envy, vengeance, hatred, fear, jealousy, ill wish, competition, and so on, are feelings experienced by all humans, and we all at various times succumb to and act (or fail to act) on them, causing bad things to happen. This explanation accounts for most if not all moral evil at the individual, group, national and global scales.

Suppose that God were to step in to stop our actions or block our evil intentions in order to prevent the evil from happening. We would then not be truly free, as for example, in a 1984-like police state where our every thought and move are monitored, and we are coerced into only one path at every choice of consequence. Not much free will there! Of course we are all free to choose the good and right, and perhaps we mostly do so, but we are still prone to evil choices and deeds, and God usually allows us to proceed, regardless of the consequences. God does not like what we do wrong, but he constrains himself in order to honour our free choices.

In addition to our free will, God values faith and wants us to recognize his existence, as well as his goals and desires for us. If God acted all the time to stop evil, there wouldn't be much room for faith since his actions would be obvious and predictable. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that believers don't continue to sin. We are ALL broken and fallen and need God's grace to grow in goodness, and we ALL need his forgiveness for our misdeeds. With sin and evil all around, it is hard - even impossible - to think and act perfectly, unless your name is Jesus the Messiah.

In this approach to the issue, God's highest priority is not our health, comfort, safety, or well being, although he does want those for us. Rather his highest goal is for us to seek and find him, to turn our lives, hopes, dreams, behaviour, and thinking over to him willingly, trusting that he knows what is best for each of us. Our relationship with him is more important than minimizing or removing evil from the world. To maintain our free will, God allows our evil acts, even when they cause serious harm to others or his creation. And of course, he sent his Son Jesus to take the burden of our sins so that we would not have to pay the penalty for them - a penalty we could not possibly ever pay.

Some apologists for Christianity point out that not all pain and suffering is necessarily evil. Pain serves a purpose as physiological warnings: remove hand from hot surface, avoid those cactus spines, stop exercising when it hurts, etc. And we know we should seek help for injury or prolonged pain; e.g. toothache, sickness, overwork, self-harm, etc. Rest that sprained ankle, it hurts for a good reason!
Moreover, some types of suffering may build strength of character; the Christian version of, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you better". Some people who go through evil times come out wiser and better for it, and in hindsight, no longer condemn the suffering they faced. Many Christians even report that more serious evils in their lives helped them grow as persons or believers. Some readers may find this questionable, but it is an oft-reported reality.

Humans may also be personally complicit in some types of seemingly "natural" evils. It is hard to blame God for your lung cancer if you've been smoking all your life. If you break his rules about sexuality and catch a serious disease, don't rail against God. If you live on the shallow waterfront of a river, or ocean beach front in Florida, don't complain to God when you are flooded during a hurricane or spring runoff. Many similar situations could be listed. God gave us minds to make wise decisions, not to ignore danger signs we know about and understand.

According to Bible, the Fall also caused some natural evils to arise: labour pains for women, tough soil and weeds in gardens, and ultimately, death itself (see Genesis 3:16-19). The moral aspects of all of creation are entwined together, so that our hereditary rebellion affects everything. This concept of evil could therefore be extended, in principle, to other perceived evils: animal attacks, sicknesses, even natural disasters.

It will, of course, be argued that natural disasters are entirely natural and not man made. But as science and technology progress, we have an increasing ability to mitigate or prevent these "evils" through, for example, tornado and tsunami warnings, rescue teams, safety standards and building codes, hurricane evacuations, reliability improvements, vaccines, cancer treatments, modern health-care, etc. To the extent that we do NOT develop and widely apply these so that suffering continues and people are hurt, some of these natural evils begin to look more like moral evils - largely intentional failures or oversights on our part in caring for our fellow humans. If we collectively choose to fund weapons development above health care or disease prevention, do we not become complicit in the resulting evils?

Nevertheless, these broad "explanations" cannot cover all forms of perceived evil in the world. They are particularly unsatisfying for certain specific evils: children dying of cancer, healthy people dying of heart attacks or struck by lightning, tornado deaths, random accidents, etc. These seem like real evils that mankind cannot completely mitigate or prevent. So there is always some residue of evil that is difficult to "explain away". In such cases, Christians fall back on trusting God and knowing that his ways are largely inscrutable to us mere mortals (see Isaiah 55:8-9, or Romans 11:33). That explanations will, of course, be particularly unsatisfying to non-believers. Theodicy can perhaps account for and explain most forms of evil to some degree, but the problem of evil does not go away, and remains one of the most difficult areas of Christian theology.

To turn the tables, however, atheism also has a serious problem with evil. In a materialist world (nature is all, there is no God, no heaven or hell, etc.) there can be no good or bad other than how we individually or collectively feel about things. There is no absolute right or wrong, no "ought", only "what is". So how can atheists complain about evil except as special pleading, "I don't like this or that"? After all, we do not consider a lion to be evil when it kills an antelope to eat. If we are all just evolved apes, then how can we cry foul when bad things happen to us, or to our family and friends? To complain about evil in the world is to recognize that good and evil truly exist and that we have a moral compass to recognize unfairness and to express our deepest indignation about the suffering and harm so apparent around us. Ultimately to recognize good and evil as realities implies a moral source and some standard above material existence to judge events and their effects. That begins to look like spirituality, pointing to a Source for truth, or even to God. In this way, "the problem of evil" becomes a pointer to God's very existence.

There are many other similar postings, essays and entire books on the subject. Here, for example, is an excerpt from one article:
"For Augustine the Fall is central. According to him, God created an idyllic paradise with no suffering, death, or natural disasters. It was human disobedience that introduced these things into creation. Most educated people in the West no longer find that account plausible. The whole process of evolution involved the suffering and death of millions upon millions of creatures, within a context that included occasional earthquakes and floods. These facts are now part of the scientific data we must accept. And they strongly suggest that God, in the process of creation, built in the inevitability of suffering as a part of His method."
I hope my writing here at least partly answers the widespread complaint against Christianity regarding evil in the world. I am aware that it does not completely satisfy, but perhaps it cuts evil down to something less enormous and impossible to deal with. And discussion about evil should not be all negative or unhappy. There are things each of us can do to limit or mitigate evil in and around us. The next time you are upset about some particular evil in your life or in the world, consider:
  1. Have I helped bring this on by my own choices and actions? e.g. obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, unwilling to share my resources, being unkind, ignoring warnings, taking risks, letting anger, revenge, or hatred loose. There are many ways we can contribute to or aggravate evil around us.
  2. Is there something I or we could do to mitigate the effects of this wrong? e.g. can I help with pollution, hunger, loneliness, pandemics, poverty, crime, distrust, etc. How could I live better? e.g. honesty, generosity, love, compassion, gentleness, etc. There are many things even individuals can do to make the world a better place.
  3. If the "evil" is truly not my fault and cannot be significantly prevented or mitigated, then where do I go for comfort, solace, support, etc? Family, neighbours, agencies, government, or maybe, perhaps even God? God invites us to bring our cares to him in prayer, and many people do receive these, along with a degree of peace.
In the end, we are all dismayed by the evil we see. We think, "this is not how it is supposed to be!" We all suffer and see others suffering, we all bear it as best we can, we all strive to minimize pain and suffering, and we can all do better to alleviate hurt and danger for others, helping our neighbours here and around the globe to live better. Ultimately, we will all die and then what? Only belief in God holds the final key to overcoming evil with good, God's own good, through Jesus, for those he created and loves.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Some Favourite Sayings

Here are some bits and pieces that I have collected over the years - a very mixed lot. I reserve the right to add more as I find them. Enjoy!

"Science advances one funeral at a time." Max Planck

"The foolish are often in error, but never in doubt." Modern proverb

"When all is said and done, more is said than done." Aesop

“He who marries the spirit of the age is soon a widower.” Dean Inge

"The problem with a quarrel is that it spoils a good argument." G. K. Chesterton

"When the observed facts come into conflict with a cherished theory, then it is so much the worse for the facts." Ernst Mach

"Everything we call real is made up of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet." Niels Bohr

“Heaven has a wall, a gate and a strict immigration policy. Hell has open borders. Let that sink in.” Published by Reggie McDaniel

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality." T.S. Eliot:

"The first moral obligation is to think clearly." Blaise Pascal

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Hanlon's Razor

"Science is a good servant but a bad master." Michael D. Aeschliman

"Religion without science is lame, but science without religion is blind." Albert Einstein.

Here are some of my own - not necessarily original:

You can't read while eating a grapefruit!

Immoral + cross = Immortal

Funny how all free thinkers seem to think alike.

People more often take offense than give it.

Most of the cells in your body are not human!

For me He died, for Him I live!

Monday, 30 December 2019

Small Could be Beautiful?

Over the past two centuries, the average height of humans in developed countries has increased; microevolution in action, although it can be argued that this effect is more due to improved health care and nutrition than to any significant genetic changes.  One doubts that tall people have more children than shorter ones.  In any case, this shows that it is possible to breed humans for simple changes in stature, just as we have bred dogs and other animals of different types and sizes.  Leaving aside the shadow of eugenics for the moment, I want to suggest that, instead of breeding taller humans, we should breed ourselves shorter -- significantly smaller.

Taller people are not necessarily healthier, smarter or more successful, just as shorter people are not less well off, unhealthy or of lower mental acuity in general.  However, it is clear that taller or bigger people need and use more resources than smaller folk.  Very tall people, aside from being better at basketball, have serious problems with doors, cars, chairs, clothing, and other standard acoutrements of civilization than normally sized people.  Moreover, very tall people and certainly oversized (that is, wider) people have health issues that occur less frequently in smaller (or thinner) people.

We already have some small people with us, those with dwarfism of various types and degrees, often proportionate (sometimes called midgets), for example.  Although they may have some associated health issues, they can live happily, even in our normal-sized cultures.  Now imagine what would happen if everyone was smaller, say about one meter tall, give or take -- child, or hobbit size you might say.

There would be significant benefits to humanity and the world if we were all smaller.  If houses, cars, roads, etc. were designed for people one meter tall, instead of 1.7 m tall (5 ft 6 in, the approximate current average), and were proportioned about the same as hobbits, or normal five year old children, our average weight would be only around 20 kg or 45 lbs.  This would solve or mitigate all sorts of obesity issues at the very least!  It would also mean that we would need less food and numerous other resources to live a healthy and fulfilled life.

A world of hobbits could include at least twice the number of people as our world for the same resource usage.  This would solve the "overpopulation" problem many seem to worry about.  In any case, being 1m tall would greatly reduce your "carbon footprint", not to mention your actual footprint!  Small shoes should be cheaper to make, transport and stock.  This saving applies in spades for houses and cars, and all that they entail.  Instead of 8 ft ceilings, queen sized beds, doors 32" wide, and so on, we could have 5 ft ceilings, and everything else proportionately smaller too.  A 500 sq ft house would serve as well as a 1500 sq ft one does today.  Think of the heating and air conditioning savings that could accrue, not to mention the capital cost of building and buying the house.  Smaller schools, malls and other buildings would multiply this benefit.

In particular, cars could be four feet wide (1.2 m) instead of six or more, and much shorter in length and height as well.  This would reduce their weight by 70% or more, while increasing their gas mileage accordingly.  Trucks could also be smaller since most of the cargo they carry would be reduced in size and weight accordingly.  I suspect that less human and metal momentum would make traffic accidents less serious as well, even without reducing speed limits.  Of course, smaller vehicles would mean narrower roads, smaller bridges, and other infrastructure, all saving additional cost and resources.  Lower taxes maybe? (dream on).

Narrower roads and smaller buildings allow more people to live in the same area, or the same numbers to live in less than 35% of the area for cities and towns.  Smaller cities means quicker commutes, less pollution, and freed-up land for agriculture, recreation or nature.  One can envisage all sorts of benefits that would accrue if humans were about one meter tall on average.  Even space exploration would be easier and less costly, given the cost per kg of placing humans into orbit and maintaining them there.  Little green men, meet little pink men!

With everything human much smaller, unchanged natural environments - trees, plants, animals, rivers, etc. - would seem larger to us, but human activity and interactions would be largely unaffected.  There is little, aside from most sports, that would suffer from making people significantly shorter, and sporting achievements should be easy to reset for smaller folk -- scale down Olymoic records, football fields, etc.  In developed countries, there are few jobs that still require large people, aside from the arbitrary standards for firefighters, military, etc.  Indeed, smaller soldiers would be harder to target, and could fly smaller airplanes, or drive smaller (and cheaper) tanks. Big construction equipment could be just as easily driven by smaller workers, as could farm equipment.

With some joint effort by all nations, coupled with advanced genetic knowhow, we could easily breed ourselves to have smaller stature, and could probably achieve the one meter average within, say six generations, so that by 2200, the goal would be achieved and we could start reaping the benefits noted above.  This would go a long way to addressing the climate change worries that some people have.  In principle, meter high humans, with associated right-sized infrastructure, should used less than a third as much carbon as we full-sized ones, even without other changes.  If we can breed dogs one quarter the size of wolves, reducing the average human height by only 40% should be easy.

This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, I am not seriously proposing that we try to shrink humans over the next 150 years.  Not only would that proposal be laughed away as a joke, impossible to enact meaningfully, and attract lots of negative responses, but it would raise the ugly prospect of eugenics, the use of genetic manipulation and coercive laws to make humanity "better" according to some elite goal or standard.  Eugenics has had a nasty track record in 20th century Germany, the USA and elsewhere.  If we start breeding smaller humans, why not smarter, or more beautiful ones?  That way leads to a Brave New World that inevitably results in totalitarian measures, and groups of people judged unfit, or of lower importance, by those deemed superior somehow.  I certainly do not want to go there.

So, people as hobbits is an interesting exercise, but it must remain a thought experiment.  We will have to find other ways to limit our footprints on the world we have, and make more efficient use of its limited resources.  Alas, our track record for doing that in the developed world has been less than stellar.  So unless everyone is willing to shrink their stature, we should all try harder to shrink our negative impacts on the planet.  If we all did that, we would not have to wait 200 years to see the benefits.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Is Science Going Off The Rails?

Science is a human pursuit based on asking intelligent questions, making educated guesses, trying different things, and then seeking to understand what it all means.  The scientific method applied over past centuries has greatly improved life for humans all around the globe and has increased our understanding and control of nature enormously.  I love science and have studied it all my life, but in recent times, the practice of science seems to be going off the rails in some ways.  Science should not be influenced, much less directed by personal power, fame or greed.  It should not be swayed by political or ideological biases.  Yet scientists too are human, and the institutions, research centres and funding agencies are also all too human, so those unwanted influences have been creeping into many aspects of scientific work.

The most well known examples of this are in the so-called soft sciences - sociology, psychology, anthropology - as well as in health sciences such as psychiatry, nutrition, medicine and related specialities.  There have been recent attempts to verify or reproduce published findings in some of these areas, and in many cases - even most in some reports - the published results were found to be wrong or not supported by the evidence.  Then there are the human studies that tend to confirm politically correct assumptions and biases, regardless of the evidence, or where the experiments are skewed to yield preferred results irrespective of the truth.  There has been much soul searching in some quarters, and the number of retracted papers continues to mount.

We all make fun of the nutritional flip-flops from experts on things like the health dangers (or benefits) of wine, salt, animal fats, eggs, coffee, and so on - to the point that few people take such pronouncements seriously now.  Even the gold standard of randomized, double-blind drug studies can come to unwarranted conclusions based on selection bias, corporate pressures, statistical legerdemain and other human foibles, conscious or otherwise.  Doubtful therapies, unnecessary procedures, questionable medication regimes abound, all at great cost.  Such concerns are now a regular component of science publishing.

In the area of psychology and mental health, discounted Freudian theories and social Darwinist influences can still be found.  Then there is the over-medication for any "condition" considered outside some assumption of "normalcy".  Hence we get huge numbers of people on anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, ADHD medications, and so on.  Over-medication has led to the problems of antibiotic resistant diseases, and much of the opiate crisis that is currently devastating many in our society.  Yet the pharmacology industry continues to promote new and often unproven drugs.

Under the spell of political correctness, many scientists and related professions pretend not to know when human life begins - a simple scientific fact understood for more than a century.  More recently, under the fad of transgenderism, we allow doctors to experiment on children with hormones, to mutilate their otherwise healthy bodies, and to leave them infertile and on drugs for life, all supported by pseudo-scientific pronouncements from "gender theory experts".  Meanwhile, we make certain types of counselling illegal because powerful interest groups don't like them and dredge up "studies" to support their agenda, despite evidence that other people want and benefit from them.  The ever-progressive media lap this up, and the confused public is left wondering or silenced by self-censorship on social media.  Yes, some of what passes for science these days can be autocratic, obsessive and quite ugly.

The hard sciences are no longer immune to such improper influences and the need to follow certain ideas and approaches in order to chase further research dollars.  Climatology is unduly enamoured to the "settled science" of climate change, notwithstanding the lack of hard evidence and the mounting strikes against the theories, models and over-hyped alarmist pronouncements.  Regardless of what you think about climate change, it is not good science to overstate selective or uncertain findings while shutting down or denouncing research results from the other side of the issue.  False projections, fear mongering and demonizing your doubters do not promote public respect for the authority of science.  Scientists are supposed to try to disprove their theories, not shore up their preferred hypotheses with filtered data, while ignoring results they don't like.  "Science is faith in doubt", as some have said, but this does not seem to apply to certain favoured theories these days.

Biology in general has been wedded to Darwin's theory of evolution far too long, ignoring or denying counter evidence that continues to pile up.  This faith in an unproven theory-by-extrapolation has led to factual errors such as the myth of "junk DNA" for instance, and epicycle-like attempts to account for all the myriad complexities of life forms.  The Darwinian paradigm is crumbling, but most biologists still fail to recognize the fact, and many go out of their way to censor, dismiss and shut down alternative viewpoints and their findings.

Some branches of chemistry are likewise swayed or even blinded by their deeply held, but unscientific preconceptions.  The obvious example is origin of life (OOL) research.  Not a year goes by without some scientist publishing yet a new "breakthrough" in OOL research, which is then published as if it is just a matter of connecting a few dots to explain how life arose on Earth.  Meanwhile, the truth is quite the opposite: the more we learn about biochemistry and related areas, the harder it becomes to find credible natural pathways from non-life to life.

Even the king of hard sciences, physics, is not without its defects.  At the limit of the very small, theoreticians are looking for ever more esoteric "particles" which they hypothesise existing (such as WIMPS, MACHOs and AXIONs), but for which there is little or no experimental evidence.  There are now pleas for many billions more dollars to build ever larger accelerators to look for such imagined particles.  Meanwhile, whimsical and esoteric "grand unified theories" (or theories of everything) attempt to account for all the known forces, while postulating various new unknowables.  Yet our two most successful theories in physics - quantum mechanics and relativity - are mutually incompatible.

At the other end of the scale range, cosmology is tripping over various murky hypotheses about what makes up 95% of the universe, while pretentiously explaining in great detail what must have happened in the first attoseconds of the big bang, using ungainly theories of "inflation".  Meanwhile "dark matter" and "dark energy" continue to elude capture and even consistent definition.  And recently, to avoid the need to acknowledge that the universe had a definite beginning and the obvious precision fine tuning that goes along with that, some posit an increasing menagerie of unobservable and complicated multiverses, setting aside Occham's razor in favour of elegant mathematics.

Again, don't get me wrong, I love science, and especially physics, but in general, much of the scientific enterprise seems to be wandering beyond reality.  Retractions are on the rise, more and more time is spent publishing the latest marginal findings, and chasing continued funding or the all-important citations in the literature.  Reputation and the reigning paradigm seem to trump actual content, valid conclusions, and credible advances.  Overstatement, emotive appeals and even unfounded hype leak into publications and get blown out of proportion by the eager science media.  Interpretations go beyond the evidence, especially in controversial areas, while unpopular implications of research are denied, ignored or suppressed.

Meanwhile, there is now a whole breed of publicity-seeking scientists making pronouncements way outside their areas of expertise, and the public toss about unfounded statements of what "science says" or "studies show", without even being able to cite their sources.  Much of science has become politicized with favoured viewpoints skewing or sometimes even dictating how experimental results shall be interpreted and reported, even if the conclusions are not supported by the data.

All of this serves science poorly.  Instead of neutrally investigating hypotheses and welcoming alternative perspectives and theories, much of science is now stuck in favoured paradigms and looking mostly to shore up reputation, funding, esteem and legacies.  Thus, science has shifted from the idealized view of Karl Popper, that only falsifiable hypotheses are science, to the more cynical views of Thomas Kuhn, where paradigms of belief are held firm until the old guard dies off.  As Max Planck famously said, "Science advances one funeral at a time".

A lengthy look at the trends in modern scientific studies led one non-scientist observer to write:
"Both natural and social science investigators have exhibited many of the pathologies of modern science, i.e. failing to report negative findings, ignoring counter evidence, relying on correlation rather than on more rigorous test for causation, failing to pursue replication studies that would confirm - or refute - earlier results, misusing data, attributing higher levels of accuracy to their data than warranted, and torturing statistics in order to produce more useful outcomes. Much of this abuse is driven by competition for funding and prestige that characterizes modern academic research, but some of it is driven by ideological preferences."
Michael Hart, Hubris: the Troubling Science, Economics and Politics of Climate Change, pg 565.

Even at Scientific American, blogger John Horgan has unkind things to say about the declining state of science today: the replication crisis, questionable motives in the healthcare industry, the overhyping of incremental research findings, untestable hypotheses touted as science, and so on. Here is another blog saying much the same thing, but in better words than mine above.

I am not a scientist myself, and do not have firm suggestions to improve how science is done.  Fortunately, however, many people are beginning to take note of the problems outlined above and wiser heads have made suggestions on how science can be made fairer, more open and transparent, and less connected to financial and societal success.  Science is important to future human and environmental well-being, and the better scientific establishments are at doing true science, the better the public will accept their results and appreciate the work they do.

By all means everyone should study science, but it is best to do so with a sceptical mind, looking for weasle words, hidden biases, unstated assumptions, and unsubstantiated conclusions.  Consider alternative interpretations and look for critical analyses of published findings.  The deeper you delve into science, the more interesting it gets, even as it remains a messy, all too human pursuit.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Starship Technologies

Forgive me for dabbling in some science fiction here, but for decades on and off, I, like many others, have speculated on what it will take to build and send out an effective Starship; that is, one that can take humans to another star system beyond our solar system in anything like a reasonable time line.  This is, of course, a long term conceptual dream, with negligible chance of coming to fruition in the next 100 tears.  However, I also believe it is not an impossibility, and that, barring human extinction or other catastrophe, mankind will eventually cross the huge voids between stars and begin populating the galaxy.  Bear with me as I conjure up some technologies I feel will be needed for this ultimate human adventure.

First, I am assuming that any starship will take the slow-boat approach to Alpha Centauri, or wherever we decide to send it.  Between now and then, solar-system based technology such as precision telescopes and radio astronomy, will have helped us know more about nearby star systems so that we can choose the one most likely to support some sort of human colonization effort, assuming that is the ultimate goal.  It is probable too that before building a manned starship, we will have sent robotic ones to nearby stars by some method; enough to have explored them somewhat, so that we are not sending people in blind.  That would presumably take several decades, but would also serve as preliminary work for the Starship development itself.

The slow-boat approach assumes no "warp drive", magic gravity-changing techniques, or other speculative ways to achieve non-reactive thrust and thus, sustained high acceleration.  The slow boat is just a continuous push at low acceleration, over a long time (decades), something we can mostly understand today, with no new physics required.  See more below on Starship drive possibilities.

Biotechnology will be one key component for sending people and other life forms to the stars with minimal weight penalty, little life support requirements, and no worries about boredom en route.  We are already developing the means to go from DNA to living lifeforms in the lab.  With further development, it should eventually be possible to reliably reconstitute many different animals and even humans from a DNA library.  Plants can be grown from seeds, and in some cases, animals can be transported as frozen embryos.  We already have that capability for simple lifeforms, and we can store human ova and sperm, or embryos for years.  Future technology may approach artifical-womb status, at least for animals, allowing various species to be regenerated at the far end of the voyage.

The ultimate would be an automated laboratory that can generate any DNA from a data file and then use biochemical and cellular mechanics to grow each lifeform from its particular DNA strand.  Using such an approach, a Starship could carry a significant population of numerous species - even an entire biome - to another star system, with minimal mass/volume and life support costs.  The laboratory I have in mind does not yet exist, of course, it would have to be highly automated, and reliable enough to work properly after decades in space - a major hurdle for something so complex.  Some sort of advanced AI and general purpose robotics would be needed to do most of the work and render the lab operational after the long flight.

To maximize the chance of a successful trip, a Starship will most likely need some live, trained humans at some point during the voyage, to handle unexpected emergencies, or at least to kick start and supervise activities upon arrival.  Therefore it may be good to send a few (perhaps six?) actual human adults along in some sort of yet-to-be-developed cryosleep.  I envisage a technique for greatly slowing human metabolism, supported by blood additives and a variety of chemical drips, cooling down the human body to perhaps 10°C.  The human would then be in a coma, monitored by the robotic AI, and could remain in that state for years with perhaps little aging.

There has been some work in this area, but it obviously needs a lot more research to become practical, especially for reawaking the person at the end of the trip, or if needed earlier.  I assume the robotic AI would be in charge of the Starship through most of its voyage.  Awakening one or more humans only when needed at the end, or perhaps in an emergency.  The human crew would likely be all female so that they can have children (via in-vitro fertilization) in the new world.  Biology is not  destiny, but it helps in this situation.

To minimize travel time, the starship would likely have to get up to somewhat relativistic speeds midway through the voyage. Thus, the people and stored DNA inside would be subjected to increasing, and increasingly directional, ionizing radiation in interstellar space: high energy photons, electrons, neutrons, protons and an occasional atomic nucleus.  To shield the biological "cargo" against radiation damage over decades, heavy water could be used to surround the sensitive humans and other biological specimens.  Of course, the same heavy water could provide the fuel for a fusion drive for the Starship.

Ultimately, of course, the primary limitation on any Starship design is the drive; how to get decades of significant acceleration out of an engine, using less than 100% of the starship mass for fuel.  At present, if I may be so bold, the only significant hope here is fusion power.  Granting that any practical fusion generating station is many decades off (see this for an explanation), the concept of directed fusion exhaust pushing a starship with some reasonable efficiency, is not impossible, at least in principle.  No, we cannot do it today, but maybe in a hundred years we will be able to harness the materials, physics and other technologies needed to do so reliably and sustainably.

The idea is to take tons of heavy water (D2O), break it down, and use the deuterium atoms to fuse into helium nuclei, yielding enough energy to blast the helium, loose electrons, and perhaps the left over oxygen out the back of the ship, at high speed, more or less in one direction.  Fusion energy gives the biggest push per unit mass of fuel that we are likely to see for a very long time.  The starship would be built in orbit and then accelerated at some low but steady rate until halfway through the voyage. It would then turn around and decelerate the rest of the way so that it could arrive at a low enough velocity to successfully enter the target system and orbit a planet there.

What realistic acceleration a fusion drive would yield and what ratio of fuel mass to ship and cargo mass it would need to travel a few light years, is for others to calculate.  They have done so under varying assumptions, and although not a slam dunk obvious success, there are some hopes of eventual good results.  Aside from the technical hurdles of achieving continuous fusion, keeping the torch burning successfully for decades would also require major engineering design work. Nothing in Starship design is easy!

I have mentioned robotic AI above, and that is a more promising area of development.  There have already been major advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, and these will doubtless continue and become more advanced over the next century.  While I doubt we will ever make a human-like AI system, the software will surely advance to the point that most controls and processes can be fully automated.  There would have to be numerous repair mechanisms, contigencies and reset protocols built in, along with considerable redundancy, but we humans already do a lot of that for other purposes.  Fortunately, AI software does not take up much space or power, and robots needs no life support systems.

There would also be major technology requirements at the end of the trip. What needs to be done when the Starship has arrived at its destination and enterred orbit around a selected planet?  The human crew (or cargo) would have to be awakened from their deep sleep, and allowed to recover.  The AI could continue operating the Starship, and could perform much of the lab work and orbital tasks before anyone or anything actually goes down to the planet.  The fusion drive could be shut down or turned way down to provide ongoing electrical power.

Previous, unmanned missions would most likely have occured to test the Starship technology, and to deliver most of the hardware needed by the crew at their destination.  Landing shuttles and their fuel, supplies for the crew, materials for on-orbit construction, research and communications equipment, extra habitat modules, and so on could be delivered in advance of the manned Starship. These earlier missions would also be scouting out the system for potential habitations such as asteroids, moons, or "goldilocks" planets, and collecting long term data to minimize surprises after the ship's arrival.  Thus the crew would have a head start via robotics at the far end, and their ship would only finalize its approach once everything was reported to be in place and ready.  Moreover, they would likely stay on orbit for months in preparation for descent or major construction projects.

After arrival, detailed plans would be made to begin colonization.  The crew, aided by the robots, would prepare needed equipment, likely by cannibalizing the Starship materials, which would have been designed partly for that purpose. The (female) crew would become pregnant (IVF), deliver babies occasionally, with some eventually being males.  If artifical wombs are then possible, they could be put into service instead.  The crew and support robots would grow or synthesize food, perhaps initially using algea and yeast cultures on orbit.  Most supplies can be recycled, and materials could be reused or remodelled into needed equipment or tools, probably using some form of 3D printing.  Similar to the plans afoot at NASA to set up a colony on Mars, materials could be used for a larger habitat.  With a suitable habitat, they could grow plants and start to generate live animals.

Eventually, the colony would want to descend to the surface.  For that, they would need to have studied the planet in detail from orbit, and made plans and contingencies for every scenario.  Probably only a small team, complete with robotics would be sent down initially to get things going, build the infrastructure and test out the processes for living there.  It is unlikely the planet would have abundant life and an oxygen atmosphere, so processes and equipment for life support would have to be made or taken down from orbit.  The planet-bound people would work on developing soil, water supply, power, waste management, and all the myriad other things needed to support a small colony, using mostly materials extracted from the planet.  None of this will be easy, and people will probably die along the way, but none of it is impossible in principle.

Once the initial colonists have shown they can live on the surface, grow food, recycle effectively, and generally make a go of it - possible over a year or more - the remaining people on orbit, and the DNA database and labs could be brought down as needed, and the colony would then grow slowly and carefully.  Whether some crew remain on their now demoted Starship in orbit, or they leave that up to the robotic AI, can be decided at that time. However, the idea is that there should be no need for people to return from the surface back to the Starship, thus simplifying the colony transportation requirements (no huge rockets needed).

Aside from the fusion drive and the futuristic human biotech, the other major hurdle will probably be reliability.  How can we ensure the AI, robotics, and bio-lab will continue to function, or can be self-maintaining over decades in the unforgiving environment of interstellar space?  How could we maintain complex systems without human attention over the same period?  Given the track record of computers, complex factories, and mechanical hardware, even here on Earth, the prospects are daunting.  This calls for careful engineering and probably redundant design at each level, up to and including multiple Starships to same destination.  Having a human crew available during the trip might improve the chances of success, but would entail other requiremnts and raise other problems, such as life support and human sanity over decades in space.

Serious science fiction writers have grappled with these issues and suggested future technologies along these lines for a long time.  As technology advances and our understanding of physical processes and the requirements for space travel improve, the fiction becomes more detailed, and in some cases, more believable.  At some point in the distant future, perhaps a century from now, the science fiction will turn into science reality, and serious engineering can begin to design a real Starship, perhaps using some of the above concepts.  By then, mankind will have learned to live on Mars, and possibly other planets or asteroids, and nearby star systems will have been studied in great detail.  By that point, sending off a Starship to seed the galaxy will not seem so far fetched, but will simply be the next giant leap for mankind.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Philosophy 102 - The Nature of Reality

To summarize my previous Philosophy-101 post, I exist, there is most likely some reality apart from me, and you, dear reader, probably exist as a mind separate from mine.  How's that for a recap?  Now let's explore a bit further into this supposed reality.

Maybe the "reality" as I perceive or experience the sensations coming into my mind bears no resemblance to what is actually outside my mind, in the "real world".  How can I know that I actually have hands and eyes, that what I "see" as I am apparently typing out my thoughts is indeed a computer screen with words on it and a black keyboard, along with opaque walls, transparent windows, etc.  Can I be certain that the noises I hear reflect traffic on the street or music in the next room?  Here too, all I have for certain are the sensations (or perceptions as John Locke calls them) coming into my mind.

As mentioned last time, I could be trapped in The Matrix, with a data stream generated by a super-AI feeding my brain stem.  At a different level, even assuming that these sensations bear some semblance to the "reality" around me, how can I be sure that the "real objects" they seem to represent are actually as they appear to my mind, are stable in time and space, and continue to exist as I see them now, when I am asleep or just away from this room?  Is there really anything behind the wall in front of me?  Is my wife really in the other room watching TV, or is this all some sort of Holodeck program for my confusion and deception?

In this regard, Bertrand Russell made a key observation in 1927: “We do not know enough of the intrinsic character of events outside us to say whether it does or does not differ from that of ‘mental’ events”, whose nature we do know.  He never wavered from this point.  In 1948, he noted that physics simply can’t tell us “whether the physical world is, or is not, different in intrinsic character from the world of mind.”  In 1956, he further remarked that, “we know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events except when these are mental events that we directly experience.”  In other words, our mental reality is the only reality we know for sure exists!

However, there is a high degree of coherence and consistency among the various aspects of the stream of sensations entering my mind.  When I reach out my hand and touch my desk, the position of my hand correlates well with the intention I had in moving it; the touch sensation of the hard surface is consistent with what I see and what I remember from the past.  If I tap on the desk, the sounds I experience are consistent, and if I press too hard, the pain I feel fits into the same overall mental picture or model.  When I remove my hand, the appropriate sensations occur on cue and are all consistent.  This applies regardless of what I do.  Even when I make a mistake or stumble, or something unexpected happens quickly, it all fits together, into a real, coherent perfection of virtual reality, if that is all it is!

What's more, in my interactions with the "other people" around me, they seem to be in the same reality as I am.  If I ask someone to pick up that book over there, they seem to hear my words, see the same book as I and understand what I want, and if they are agreeable, they can pick it up.  We both then see the same action occurring, albeit from different perspectives, and if we continued talking about our own sensations about the event, they would agree reasonably well.  Thus, other people seem to have a very similar view of the reality around them.  This suggests that there is indeed something real about that reality.  The two of us, and others as well, can navigate and operate in complex ways around the same objects and spaces, and interact with each other physically as well as verbally in very consistent ways.

The exceptions sometimes offered by philosophers just prove this point.  The stick in the water that appears to be bent due to refraction effects is seen the same way by anyone looking from the same position, and is well understood to be an exception to seeing a straight stick.  The same holds for optical illusions.  The very name says that we understand they are not representative of the true reality but are just artifacts of how our visual apparatus works.  We can usually explain the apparent abnormality in a cogent way, acceptable to most people.  Thus, these "exceptions" do not seriously undermine our models of the reality around us, nor our belief in its true existence and nature.  Indeed, one could say that magicians present stronger evidence against our models of reality when they fool us with their tricks.  But there too, we know they are not messing with reality, even if we don't know how they fool us.

This gets to my primary reason for accepting that our perceptions of the reality around us are fairly accurate, and that reality is, by and large, as we experience it.  The reason is that if there is any reality beyond our minds, then the apparatus we have for perceiving it is simpler if it is fairly accurate.  As an Engineer, I know that simple, semi-linear sensors, transducers and detectors are much easier to design, make and use than ones which send out signals (to our minds) that bear little resemblance to the reality they transduce or sense.  If reality existed, but was significantly different from the way we perceive it in our minds, then the intervening transducers and sensors would have to be extremely sophisticated.  Worse, the coordination among all these errant data streams would have to be continually correlated in complex, high-speed, non-linear ways in order to fool us into interpreting them as simple, yet consistent inputs for a coherent reality.

Evolution (if you believe in it) would surely adopt the approach that an accurate representation of the "real world" is better for survival than an inaccurate one.  If various people can get together and agree on the attributes of say, a table in front of them, and that say, a photo of the table seems to represent the same object, then the simplest hypothesis is surely that the reality is to a large extent as we perceive it to be.  How would evolution proceed to give us such a mental model of reality if that reality was totally different from the model generated in our minds?  Any biological equipment to do this latter would have to be very complicated, and could not arise by a series of simple evolutionary steps.  Of course, this particular argument assumes that we are indeed biological creatures, so perhaps it is merely begging the question.

Obviously we do not perceive reality perfectly or completely.  We cannot see in the dark, or detect radio waves or X-rays, we cannot accurately quantify the sensations we do detect in terms of decibels, brightness, intensity, force, taste, etc.  But most of what we see, touch and hear is most likely a reasonably accurate representation of what is around us; at least the parts of reality important to our continuing existence in the environment we find ourselves.  All people with normal colour vision will agree that this desk is brown, and that if we have only a red light in the room it will, of course, look red.  Imperfect perception does not imply perception that is totally wrong.

Another approach to this question might be to consider a new-born child.  Born into the world with no apparent mental model of reality, each baby must create and assemble her own such model, based on the sensations perceived by her developing mind.  This is a major undertaking, making babies the world's busiest scientists and philosophers!  What are these random blobs of shade and colour that I perceive somehow.  As I grow, I find that they go dark when I close my "eyes" (something that initially happens without my control).  Then I notice that when I move my "head" (also uncontrolled at first), everything shifts, but in a consistent way.  Later, I discover that these things waving in my visual field can be controlled, and eventually learn they are my "hands", which prove to be quite useful as I explore their movement and purpose.  In such a way, a child discovers her world and builds up her mental model of reality.  Of course, none of that is done consciously at first, making it even more likely that it is real.  But here too, perhaps this is just question begging since I am assuming that eyes, head and hands are actually real.

All of this still leaves open the possibility of a very clever virtual reality; that there is nothing apart from our minds and we are operating in a totally deluded state, either self-delusion, or generated by some other entity to deceive us.  For my best shot at getting past that hurdle, see Philosophy-101 again.  If other people truly exist, then we all occupy the same reality, or at least think we do.  A virtual reality capable of fooling billions of people, continually over decades of time, would be beyond anything we could do, and would raise the "why?" question.  What possible purpose would be served?  Yet, we cannot completely discount this possibility.  Nothing in reality can be proved or disproved absolutely!

The final option to reality being real, is that we are all part of some grand simulation somehow.  Like a vast video game, we are software constructs in some immense computer.  This staple of science fiction is taken seriously by many people, and cannot be totally disproved.  However, if this option is true, then the simulation would simply be our true reality, so that, once again, "reality" would be as we perceive it.  After all, even in our taken-for-granted reality, everything we see and do is just atoms and electromagnetic fields interacting, and we don't perceive things at that level.  So whether atoms or bits in a computer, our reality is as we perceive it.

Having attempted to solidify our belief in the reality around us, I should say that there is considerable and growing evidence that, at least at microscopic scales, reality only exists as such when we observe it!  Quantum physics experiments bear this out for photons, electrons, atoms, and even fairly large molecules.  Until we (or some mind) observes the experiment, or the interaction of these particles, the outcome remains a set of probabilities in superposition, that remain unexperienced, and so undefined or even in some sense, unreal.

This finding has serious and troubling implications for philosophy, science and consciousness.  When I close my eyes, does the computer in front of me continue to exist?  Is there really anything behind the wall in front of me if I am not actively thinking about it?  Such questions seem silly to most of us, but they are the sort of thing philosophers delve into.  And more and more, cosmologists and physicists are also considering questions like that.  That mind may be essential to the existence of reality is a serious topic of ongoing study and debate.

Nevertheless, like 99.999% of humanity (assuming such exists), I will go on believing that my mental model of the world around me fairly represents reality, and that the sensations I perceive are good representations of what is going on outside my mind.  I cannot prove that for certain, but little in life is certain, and the assumption surely makes life easier and more interesting.  In any case, these questions are fun to explore and discuss.