Separating Science and Religion

I read this article for school:
Lightman’s The Accidental Universe

When asked to write an essay about it, this is what came out. I don’t normally post essays like this, but I’ve been meaning to write a post much like this for a while anyways, so it’s convenient.


Lightman descends into the realm of religion, masking his language with a thin film of scientific consideration, but none of its hard, decisive, rational edge. Lightman never even touches the basic principles of science, but uses philosophical arguments to parade a seemingly-scientific theory around.

Falsifiability is a method for evaluating scientific theories popularized by Karl Popper. It contends that a theory cannot be proved by showing evidence in favor of it. A theory may be shown to be strong if it can make empirically confirmable and correct hypotheses, but a theory can never be proved – only disproved. So to be a scientifically valid, a theory must have a way to be disproven (thus by not being disproven, it continues as the dominant theory). This is one of the problems with the multiverse theory, the theory of intelligent design, and even string theory: it is most likely impossible to disprove them. If an intelligent creator revealed itself, such a turn of events would not inherently make the multiverse theory wrong, per se (a multiverse theory can coexist with intelligent design). It would only make it irrelevant. Of course, this reveals an even bigger fundamental problem with those theories: they don’t explain the mechanics behind physical phenomenon in the traditional sense. Instead, they provide a framework of thought into which actual scientific theories can be slotted. But the multiverse theory is only one framework among many, and there is no way to show that one framework is strictly better than another.

Is it not just as reasonable, just as falsifiable (or not, as the case may be), to conclude that the universe as we know it is the only one, albeit a very lucky one? One could posit that it is indeed accidental. How does this postulate contend with the others on the battlefield of scientific thought? In some regards it may triumph over its opponents, because it relies on any contrary observation to disprove it, while both the multiverse theory and intelligent design can be valid even in the face of one or the other being true. So really, the Random Chance theory is more falsifiable, and thus more scientific.

But of course the Random Chance theory is completely unpleasing to the philosophical human mind. A much more palatable theory is the multiverse theory, which, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, slips in among the legitimate scientific advancements and completes a scientist’s world view satisfactorily. But is a scientist’s world view scientific? No. Science is a tool for developing a physically accurate view of the world, and we employ it because the human mind is not built to obey scientific rules. Our capacity for cognitive dissonance is astounding. Thus a scientist can in good conscience accept a non-scientific belief to assuage his existential conflicts by slathering the belief in the manner of other physics theories.
Another such unfalsifiable belief system is string theory. String theory is a self-consistent way of interpreting physical data using notions that fall out of mathematical equations but have no basis in experimental science. Indeed, string theory exists only as a way for some physicists and mathematicians to unify all of reality under some Platonic mode. But it is only that; a way to think about the universe, to help explain the Great Unexplainable, as Sax Russell calls it. String theory cannot produce hypotheses that can be tested to confirm the mode of thought. It can explain the observed, but only as well as previous existing theories. While it is nice that it can bring physical laws under a single wing, niceness is not a necessary quality of scientific theory. It is a subjective human measurement applied in the realm of philosophy.

Philosophy is not useless. It is a tool, like science, for examining the world. However, instead of measuring and describing physical phenomenon objectively, it takes human concepts or unimaginable realities (such as that beyond the realm of science) and compresses them down and creates a set of rules for the human mind to follow. It generates modes of thought that allow us to function and think about that which might otherwise turn us into quivering lumps of existential dread.

But assembling a philosophical system of thought only to pass it off as a product of science is dangerous. Besides preying on those incapable of evaluating the modes of thought on their own, it tricks the creator as well. Thus we can see the inevitable and unending conflict between the “rational” scientist and the “faithful” man of religion. Neither of them realizes that they are jousting with philosophical ideas, and as a result keeps hitting his opponent not at the weak spots, but at the bastions of his belief. The scientist calls his mode of thought “scientific truth” (a misleading term in and of itself), and the religious man calls his mode of thought “religion”.

Unfortunately for the world, nobody (certainly not the loud ones) seems to realize that science and religion are not diametrically opposed. Religion is not taken entirely on faith; while it does depend on some unfalsifiable core, it builds up a philosophical belief system around that which, beyond the basic axioms, is self-consistent and pretty damn useful. The scientist, used to tackling scientific theories, thinks that by attacking the core tenets of religion, he can bring down the entire system. But the core is unfalsifiable, so the methods of science are useless. Science and religion shouldn’t even overlap in their realms of explanation. In truth, they don’t. But unfalsifiable philosophy is given the title of science, and physical explanations are given the title of religion, so two incompatible systems are faced against each other. It would be better for everyone if both sides retreated to their realm of the human experience, but since they won’t, we get tripe like Lightman’s essay.

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A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

Mediocre Super-heroes

It was just another ordinary day: I was letting Wikipedia impress human knowledge upon me. Suddenly, as happens often, a mildly interesting idea sparked within my mind.

To begin, let me explain some of the things I was looking at. Magnetoreception, for example, is an incredible phenomenon that seems drawn straight from science fiction. Yet, in nature it is fairly common. Of course, we only have inklings about how the mechanisms behind it might operate. To sum it up, many animals have the ability to detect magnetic fields and use them to navigate. This can be seen in migratory animals, for example. In addition, some aquatic creatures have the ability to detect the faint electrical impulses given off by other animals nearby; it aids them in hunting.

Moving into the realm of human-enabled abilities, I was looking at radio-frequency hearing, which is actually a quite common occurrence. As the name suggests, people have been known to hear sounds, ranging from buzzing to knocking (similar to the sounds of tinnitus) and seeming to originate from above and behind the head, when electromagnetic waves in the frequency of microwaves (300 MHz to 300 GHz) are within their vicinity. As it turns out, this is caused not by vibrations in the eardrum but by slight expansion of brain tissue within the skull creating pressure waves which stimulate the inner ear. Pretty crazy, right?

Then I remembered a documentary video I had seen about a guy who exhibited immunity to electricity. I looked it up, and it turns out that there are a couple of people like that. It comes from having naturally thick and dry skin, which increases resistance and lowers the amperes to a non-lethal level. The areas of the body which this applies to ranges from just hands to full-body and mouth.

On the level of increasingly bogus, take a look at this video, in which a Chinese man living in Java claims to be able to control Chi (funky electricity). I don’t believe it myself, but the video was well done and it looked credible enough.

Anyways, this got me to thinking about the show Heroes. Franchises which share that premise, such as x-men, try to explain the super-powers scientifically, but then introduce ridiculous powers (like vortex generation). I think that a movie/show in which both the super-heroes and the super-villains are both relatively mediocre would be excellent. For instance, one person might have the ability to regrow limbs, eyes, and organs not unlike a Caudata; and like a salamander, it would take them 2-3 years to regrow something like an arm. They would be able to afford being stabbed or shot or losing a finger, but they wouldn’t immediately be back in the fight. People could have enhanced magnetoception, RF hearing, electrical resistance, and electrical generation.

On the same thread, I highly dislike explanations that involve either the “10% of the brain” cliche, or the entire “brain wave” concept. Both are unbased in reality and are overused. Powers would be strictly based on phenomena that occur in the natural world. Devices that rely on technological concepts that have been conceived of but not yet well mapped out would be out. As a corollary, Batman-esque powers (i.e. being rich) would be discouraged for super-heroes. Super-villains, of course, almost always need to be rich. More important than riches is genre-sight (or lack of Genre Blindness), and awareness of things like the List of 100 Things to not to do as an Evil Overlord. Their mediocrity would lie in their plans and powers, not intelligence.

That train of thought can be taken a couple of stations farther. The villains may ultimately be more likeable than the heroes. Since the heroes have weak powers, they obviously have personality flaws (like Watchmen) as well (e.g. Superman is almost invincible, so he is almost perfect) and poor planning. Overall, however, both the heroes and the villains are playing a losing game. The villains’ plans aren’t that devastating (except for the occasional climax of a world-threatening plot), and the heroes are disliked by the media due to their imperfections.

Looking farther into the universe, the news of real super-heroes would no doubt spawn a wave of popularity within certain sects. Eccentric individuals or crazed fans would take a low-powered Batman approach and utilize cool pieces of technology for crime fighting, such as d3o or this (the guy made it himself for about $35,000, although prototyping cost him nearly half a million):

That was the essential fabric of my idea, but it could definitely use some ironing.

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