Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dark Matter and Layered Assumptions

In 1933, a Swiss astronomer from Cal Tech named Fritz Zwicky made a strange discovery. He was studying a cluster of galaxies known as the Coma cluster. First he calculated the orbital speed of the galaxies at the edge of the cluster, using a theorem called the Virial Theorem. Then, he looked at how bright the cluster was and from this inferred its mass. But there was a problem: the mass that was required to hold the cluster together was 400 times greater than what he could explain from the brightness he had observed. Zwicky, as with a Dutch physicist named Oort had done the year before, assumed therefore that there must be an invisible matter which explains the predicted mass difference of these galaxies.

This matter, which has become accepted more and more widely in astrophysics, is (menacingly) called “Dark Matter”.

Throughout the following decades, as more and more accurate technology resulted in ever-improving measurements of galactic brightness and orbital velocities, the discrepancy between actual gravitational attraction and the predicted mass based upon brightness continued to grow. So more and more, we see that gravitational attraction that we can explain pales in comparison to the way the universe actually operates. So now dark matter is assumed by most astrophysicists to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. It is taken as a basic fact of modern science today.

But let me give you another side of the story.

Remember that dark matter is, by its very definition, something we cannot directly measure. We have no actual evidence for it—I here use the term “evidence” to indicate a priori facts which can be directly observed. Instead, it is an inferred theory. It is inferred based upon at least four fundamental assumptions:

(1) we assume that Newtonian gravitation works predictably in other galaxies;
(2) we assume that the virial theorem is correct;
(3) we assume that the methods we use for assessing stellar brightness are accurate; and
(4) we assume that the relatively small sample size of data that we have collected is representative of the entire population of galaxies in the universe.

Perhaps dark matter really is a thing, and really is causing the issues at play here. That is entirely possible. But also possible is the fact that one of the assumptions above is wrong: perhaps one day we will discover a galaxy that is in fact perfectly predictable with the virial theorem; or perhaps our understanding of stellar brightness (which itself is based upon a host of other assumptions) is actually not correct; or perhaps the virial theorem is incorrect or flawed; etc. Yet none of this is addressed in astronomy texts: it is taken as factual that dark matter is the explanation, and in fact you are looked at rather strangely for questioning the scientific dogma.

This is an example of something that I call layered assumption bias. Science has advanced to a point of such complexity that it is virtually impossible for even an expert to truly understand the whole scope of a theory. So one group of scientists works out a certain theorem, based upon certain observations (and their inherent errors and assumptions which exist in any experiment or theory), and presents this study which gains widespread acceptance. Another independent group develops an unrelated theory, based upon other assumptions and errors. Then a third group of scientists comes in, takes for granted everything done by the first two groups, and comes up with an entirely new theory, layered upon the preceding two. Other scientists will in turn use this third scientist’s study, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes this works great; but it is an inherent flaw of the system. As Isaac Newton famously once said, he saw further than others because he stood on the shoulders of giants—and now we all stand on his shoulders. But if it is found that one of the giants at the bottom has a lame leg, then the whole human pyramid may come crashing down one day.

Layered assumption bias is the tendency to accept a theory or paradigm which makes sense, without any investigation into the assumptions, errors, or details of underlying theories upon which the new paradigm is being built. The same skeptical scientist who is rigorous in investigating the new theory never stops to consider whether the old ones upon which it is built make sense.

You see this frequently in science. I have talked with very earnest and intelligent evolutionists, for example, who still refer to Haeckel’s drawings or the experiment of Stanley Miller as evidence when in fact both of have been thoroughly debunked. These two examples are insufficient to cause the theory of evolution any real harm, but the fact that they are still printed in textbooks and repeated by evolutionists is astounding. Otherwise extremely intelligent and skeptical-minded people seem never to go to that next layer—if they are told “Miller did an experiment which showed life could spontaneously exist in a prehistoric environment”, then they take it as gospel: they never take the time to find out that he only succeeded because of cold-trap ‘intelligent design’ interference, or that he was using an environment which is now known not to be representative of the early Earth at all. So that experiment is thoroughly useless…yet I doubt you can find an evolutionary textbook which explains this; instead it is always shown as positive evidence.

I argue that the layered assumption bias is a natural tendency for all men. (And I can argue that, since I made up the whole thing anyway!) We all have a tendency to accept a worldview with little investigation into what underlies it. This is why our religions are so often determined by our parentage and the culture in which we are raised. This is why you tend to see the world differently if you are from the American South than if you were from California. There isn’t anything in the water which naturally makes people’s politics or religion shaped by geography! Rather, most people have a tendency to accept the paradigms that they are taught by a trusted source, and never actually sit down with a blank sheet of paper, and determine what they believe from the ground up.

One of the reasons that my faith in Christ is so strong is that I came to it independent of most layering of assumptions. My father is an evolutionist whose religious beliefs are best described as Deistic; my mother is a liberal Catholic; one set of grandparents are Presbyterians; the other are die-hard old-school Catholics. In college, I was basically best described as a pro-Christian deist. My high school sweetheart (and now wife) was raised in a fundamentalist Independent Baptist home. And I was being taught at school by almost overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic professors in the sciences. But it was when I began reading Christian intellectuals and took classes in philosophy and history as electives, and then read parts of the Bible, that I found the Bible to be an incredibly amazing explainer of human nature. This started me down my path to faith.

And now that I have faith, I find that mine and my wife’s theology bear little resemblance at all to anything believed by either of our parents! But that theology is all the more firm, because it was reached from the bottom up, rather than being layered on the assumptions of others. So for me, I came to faith not through layered assumptions but through a period of intellectual discovery. Faith is more real to me because I have examined the Bible at its roots, accepting no assumptions of others: I did not just pick a basic theology and follow it, nor did I just accept a certain translation, or the like.

And this is what I recommend for you, as well. Throw off the shackles of layered assumptions. Do not believe something simply because you have been told it or read it (either by atheists or agnostics or believers, by priests or scientists, by Democrats or Republicans). I say boldly that faith based only upon acceptance of something is not real faith (even if you did hear it from a reliable source!). Faith requires you to actually believe and be convinced, in your core, that something is really true. To really believe the scandalous statements of our faith: that Jesus really did live and breathe and eat and hang out with unmentionables and get Himself assassinated and rise from the dead in a new body and ascend into heaven and is planning on coming back to bring us to Him as His eternal bride. And you must have reason to believe that—not simply a “I have felt Him”, because that is too easily pushed out when emotions are running the other direction.

No, make your faith firm. Look at the world around you and study human nature: our frailty, our sinfulness, our evil, our selfishness even from the time we were babies. See how evil we can be (Nazis, terrorists, torture, rape, etc.) and yet how kind. Study the intricacies of the scientific world and realize that there must have indeed been a Creator, that is could not have happened by accident. And then try to discover a philosophy that explains it all.

G.K. Chesterton did so once. He said he sought out to create his own radical, strange religion: and when he was done, he realized that he had arrived back at orthodox Christianity after all. He began his seeking for knowledge without assumptions, and ended up concluding that Christianity had it right all along. And as such, his knowledge was both more real and more fundamental than most today.

I think of a great line in the book A Game of Thrones:
“Opening your eyes is all that is needing. The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.” (emphasis mine)

Throw off layers of assumptions and see the world with fresh eyes. Investigate, test, and then you will gain real knowledge. Then and only then can your faith in something (be it Christ or a particular scientific theory or anything else) be real and unshakeable.

1 comment:

  1. I've gone through the same personal struggle/searching, and you're absolutely right about "making your faith firm"... its so very important to make your faith "your own." In my time of searching, I went by the logic that: 1. Either one religion was right, or none were right. (I'll leave this point a little hazy... too deep to go into here) 2. Careful examination of what is out there (sifting through the foundations of what is out there) in an objective manner would get me where I needed to be spiritually. 3. Logical objectivity is what was is key. My undergrad degree was biochemistry, which was really what spurred me into these evaluations. I tired of people who accepted things at superficial level while staying completely biased by layered assumptions, both those of science/empiracle notion and those of spiritual ones. I tired of people who accepted religious traditions because it was what they were comfortable with rather than because they had studied and found it to be what God desires and deems acceptible/good. In the end, it is of utter importance to know what God wanted to communicate through His word. He gave it to us for a reason, and He has all power over what was added or left in or left out. When we start living by religious/scientific standards that are predicated on tradition or uninformed notions we open ourselves widely to layered assumptions.