Things Happen, Not Always for a Reason

By Sean Carroll | November 27, 2007 5:46 pm

Two stories, superficially unrelated, neatly tied together by a deep lesson at the end.

The first is the case of Lucia de Berk, a Dutch nurse sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003 for multiple murders of patients under her care. However, there was very little direct evidence tying her specifically to the deaths of the individual cases. Much of the prosecution’s case against her was statistical: it was simply extremely unlikely, they argued, that so many patients would die under the care of a single nurse. Numbers like “one in 342 million chance” were bandied about.

But statistics can be tricky. Dutch mathematician Richard Gill has gone over the reasoning presented in the case, and found it utterly wrong-headed; he has organized a petition asking Dutch courts to re-open the case. Gill estimates that 1 in 9 nurses would experience a similar concentration of incidents during their shifts. And he notes that there were a total of six deaths in the ward where de Berk worked during the three years she was there, and seven deaths in the same ward during the three years before she arrived. Usually, the arrival of serial killers does not cause the mortality rate to decrease.

But patients had died, some of them young children, and someone had to be responsible. Incidents that had originally been classified as completely natural were re-examined and judged to be suspicious, after the investigation into de Berk’s activities started. The worst kinds of confirmation bias were in evidence. Here is a picture of what de Berk actually looks like, along with a courtroom caricature published in the newspapers.

          445254a-i30.jpg                     1045d-1-thumb.gif

Also, she read Tarot cards. Clearly, this is a woman who is witch-like and evil, and deserved to be punished.

The other story involves a brilliant piece of psychological insight from Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice, previously lauded in these pages. It involves the reason why people play slot machines, or gamble more generally. There are many complicated factors that go into such a phenomenon, of course, but it nevertheless remains a deep puzzle why people would find it so compelling to roll the dice when everyone knows the odds are against you.

Peter asks us to consider the following joke:

An old man goes to the synagogue and prays, every day, thusly: “God, let me win the lottery. Please, just one big win. I’ll give money to the poor, and live a righteous life. . . . Please, let me win the lottery!”

For years, he comes to the synagogue, and the same prayer goes up: “Let me win the lottery! Please, Lord, won’t you show your grace, and let me win the lottery!”

Finally, one day, after fifteen years of this, as the man mutters, “The lottery, Lord, let me win the lottery. . . ,” a golden light suffuses the sanctuary, and a chorus of angels singing a major C chord is heard. The man looks up, tears in his blinded eyes, and says, “Lord . . . ?”

And a deep resonant voice rings out, “Please . . . would you please BUY A TICKET already?”

And that’s why we gamble: so God can answer our prayers. Fortune’s wheel, in other words, might occasionally want to favor us, but how can it if we don’t give it a chance? By playing the slots, we make it so much easier for Providence to bestow its bounty upon our deserving heads.

The common thread, of course, is the deep-seated aversion that human beings have to accepting randomness in the universe. We are great pattern-recognizers, even when patterns aren’t really there. Conversely, we are really bad at accepting that unlikely things will occasionally happen, if we wait long enough. When people are asked to write down a “random” sequence of coin flips, the mistake they inevitably make is not to include enough long sequences of the same result.

Human beings don’t want to accept radical contingency. They want things to have explanations, even the laws of physics. They want life to have a purpose, chance events to have meaning, and children’s deaths to have a person to blame. They want life to make sense, and they want to hit the triple jackpot because they’ve been through a lot of suffering and they damn well deserve it.

Of course, sometimes things do happen for a reason. And sometimes they don’t. That’s life here at the edge of chaos, and I for one enjoy the ride.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, World
  • fh

    As an aside:
    So is it necessarily irrational to gamble because statistically you lose money on it?

    How about insurance, almost everybody is going to pay in more then they get out. In a way insurance is like gambling on the event that something bad happens to you.

    The point is that the many small payments into the insurance don’t decrease our quality of life significantly, whereas the big loss in the unlikely event that something bad happens would have a significant negative impact outweighing the cumulative small negative impacts of the cost of the insurance.

    The same logic in reverse can be applied to gambling, gambling would not make sense if you paid in 6€ and had a 50-50 chance to win 10€ back. but paying in 6€ and having a 1 in a million chance to get 5 million € back makes sense, since the cumulative negative impact of 5€ a week is insignificant (just give up smoking) compared to the positive impact of winning the lottery once (even accounting for how unlikely this is).

  • Belizean

    “We are great pattern-recognizers, even when patterns aren’t really there. ”

    This also explains the tendency of many to invest deeply in various conspiracy theories.

  • George Musser

    I agree with your basic sentiment, but for sake of argument, let me push a little. The only indeterminism in the laws of nature is in quantum measurement (assuming, for the moment, the standard interpretation). So are you saying that the vagaries of life are quantum in nature? How, then, do we observe any regularity in the world at all? Does it go back to cosmological ICs? If so, then everything *does* happen for a reason!
    George

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Unless we know the precise state of the universe, the exact laws of physics, and have access to a computer comparable in size to the universe itself, there’s a whole lot of randomness other than that arising from quantum mechanics.

  • aphrodites

    Lovely post :D

    aph

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    “When people are asked to write down a “random” sequence of coin flips, the mistake they inevitably make is not to include enough long sequences of the same result.”

    Well, 95% rate of difference is not “inevitable” – I’d like to know about the people who *can* do a good enough fake, just like I’m interested in those who did not follow through on Milgram’s obedient torturer experiments, etc. These are the ones we can learn from, psychology etc. is too fixated on the norms (except for intelligence per se and illness.)

  • chemicalscum

    The only indeterminism in the laws of nature is in quantum measurement (assuming, for the moment, the standard interpretation). So are you saying that the vagaries of life are quantum in nature? How, then, do we observe any regularity in the world at all?

    There is regularity in the universe because quantum theory makes very accurate predictions of the probability of events occurring.

    This is true whether you accept the Copenhagen Interpretation or are sane and accept the unitary evolution of the wave function and favour the Everett interpretation. The calculations come out the same.

    “Cosmology is the Killer App for Everett Quantum Mechanics” – James Hartle

  • Åka

    I think people buy lottery tickets because of the feeling of exitement that you can get by knowing that you will probably lose but you might win. You can actually get a kick out of that even though you are perfectly rational and know that if you keep buying tickets you will lose in the long run. It’s not about thinking wrong, it’s about playing with the emotions you can induce in your body. Nothing strange about that.

    But that kind of game should have nothing to do with what’s going on in a court room.

  • Thomas

    Each of us beat considerable odds just to be here worrying about randomness. We probably realize that fact at some deep level and gambling is just another method we use to validate that fact. What’s with that?

  • George Musser

    Sean, you have changed the question from “do things happen for a reason?” to “will we ever know the reason?”
    George

  • Aaron F.

    Sean, you have changed the question from “do things happen for a reason?” to “will we ever know the reason?”

    But in the sense you seem to be taking it, “this happened for a reason” is a pretty vacuous statement. Consider a toy model universe: a bottle of classical ideal gas in which the initial position and velocity of every particle is known. Suppose you take a snapshot of the gas, draw a line down the middle of the bottle, and count the particles on each side. You find that there are 1.03 billion particles on the left side of the bottle, and 0.97 billion particles on the right. Then you ask me, “did this happen for a reason?” I could answer you by writing down the equations of motion, plugging in the initial conditions of the particles, and showing that at the time you took the snapshot, there would be 1.03 billion particles on one side of the bottle and 0.97 billion on the other; the equations of motion and the initial conditions would be the “reason.” But if you accept my answer, you are forced to conclude that everything happens for a reason, so answering the question “did this happen for a reason?” doesn’t give you any information at all.

    If you argue (as I think you’re doing) that most of everyday life is essentially classical, and that everything therefore happens, trivially, “for a reason,” go ahead—but I don’t think your definition of “for a reason” is a good one, because it doesn’t give me any useful information about the world!

  • John Merryman

    And once they think they’ve found those patterns, they usually need to be hit with a cinderblock to convince them that those holes in their theories are more than incidentals.

  • Jud

    “That’s life here at the edge of chaos, and I for one enjoy the ride.”

    Reminds me of the two pieces of music I’d like played at my funeral: Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Wall of Death,” and The Band’s “Life is a Carnival.”

    Enjoy the ride.

  • George Musser

    Aaron, I don’t need to know any of the details of elementary particles to live my life, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what happens down there. There’s a big conceptual (and, in some cases, empirical — cf. Bell) difference between uncertainty in principle and uncertainty in practice.
    George

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    B. F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner [20 March 1904 – 18 August 1990), Ph.D., leader of Behaviorism, was offered a lucrative consulting contract from a slot-machine manufacturer to make a more addictive gambling device. They’d heard him comment that gambling is addictive precisely because of the random mixture of reward and punishment. He declined, on ethical grounds.

  • EdM

    I had a period of about a year in which I was working at a customer’s site in Virginia. People seemed to buy a candy bar or some other treat or go out for drinks on payday. Instead I spent two dollars for two lottery tickets. Yes, my chances of winning the millions were poor. However I received as much satisfaction as those who bought a candy bar and far more than those who were nursing a hangover the next day.

    Spending a trivial amount in a contest where a win provides an amount similar to a lifetime’s wages is not necessarily an irrational act.

  • Anthony Shaughnessy

    Changing focus slightly, you say “Here’s a picture of what de Berk actually looks like…” – its interesting that you place so much credence on the accuracy of the photograph. It would probably be just as easy to look through her family snapshots and find a picture of her where she looked like any stereotype you care to name and say “this is what she actually looks like”. Photographs can be just as misleading as statistics.

  • John Merryman

    Having grown up in the horse racing industry, I’ve never bought more then a few lottery tickets, because I know what five to one means and if I gave serious consideration of the odds lotteries entail, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning, given the fact that the odds of dying are far, far greater then of winning the lottery.

    Hi George. You may not remember me, but I used to pester you on occasion with evidence against BBT and you were kind enough to respond.

  • David

    fh: Your comparison of gambling and insurance is interesting. According to Kahneman and Tversky people are loss averse–a loss has about 2 1/2 times the impact of a gain of the same magnitude. Thus, we would expect people to pay about 2 1/2 times more for insurance to avoid a loss than for lottery tickets that offered a potential gain with similar expected returns. For a $200K home, given a 1/500 change of total loss by fire, the expected return of fire insurance would be about $400. Given that the average state lottery returns about 50% of the ticket proceeds to ticket buyers, buyers would need to buy about $800 in tickets for an expected return of $400. Even without loss aversion we should not expect rational people to buy lottery tickets.

  • Elliot

    following on the insurance theme, I think this is exactly why insurance coverage should be state sponsored program paid for by income taxes on people/employers. Insurance has the economic effect of a VAT tax and a parasitic one at that because only the insurers profit.

    If you calculated all the insurance that you pay and is embedded in the cost of goods and services you buy it would be staggering. It would not surprise me if 25-40% of take home income is spent directly indirectly on insurance.

    e.

  • Ryan

    “Human beings don’t want to accept radical contingency. They want things to have explanations, even the laws of physics.”

    This reminds me of Dirac’s large numbers hypothesis. This idea was based on the observation of (numerological?) coincidences in certain dimensionless length and force scales set by the size of the observable universe, planck’s constant, G etc.

    Was Dirac unwilling to accept this “radical contingency?”

    I’ve always been troubled with Dirac’s sudden interest in physics numerology.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    The key observation is that we must acknowledge that radical contingency is a possibility without asserting that we can ever know for sure that it is the case.

    At some point, talking about reasons for things may not even make philosophical sense. At some point, we may just never be able to answer some questions, nor, even more oddly, even know if those questions make philosophical sense.

  • citrine

    I’ve always wondered why the fundamental equations of physics involve integer or “simple” rational powers (e.g. 1/2, 2/3) of physical quantities. Of course, when it comes to fluid dynamics and Chaos theory, for example, we begin to see messy equations. But until one achieves that level of mastery, the formulae encountered are mathematically elegant and simple. Anyone here care to elaborate?

  • Belizean

    “I’ve always wondered why the fundamental equations of physics involve integer or “simple” rational powers (e.g. 1/2, 2/3) of physical quantities.”

    The simpler the pattern, the sooner it’s discovered.

    Modern physics is only 350 years old. We’ve discovered many of the simpler patterns, but might not for many millennia discover any pattern whose most concise statement is, say, a gigabyte long.

  • Ahmed

    It seems not too harsh that we require the laws of physics to be mathematically necessitated, and that we inquire into the origins of that relationship at the most fundamental levels. Causality is logical, and science works, b!tches :)

  • http://www.math.leidenuniv.nl/~gill Richard Gill

    Anthony Shaughnessy wrote: “Changing focus slightly, you say “Here’s a picture of what de Berk actually looks like…” – its interesting that you place so much credence on the accuracy of the photograph.” This is a good point. At http://www.luciadeb.nl you can seen just about all the family snap-shots which are around of Lucia. I think they make a consistent 3+1 D view of the woman. She was BTW prom queen when at high school in Vancouver.

    The artists’ drawings of Lucia de Berk during the trial showed a woman who *everyone* at that moment knew to be a dreadful killer. I should imagine that she was somewhat stressed by what was going on to her (supposing just for a moment that she was innocent). Did you know that the Dutch police are the last police force in the civilized world who are not obliged to tape interogations with suspects? And that the suspects’ lawyer is not allowed to be present either? (they say it would cramp their style). The wily judges were out to trap her with little inconsistencies in her statements about events of 5, 6 years previously where her word was pitted against the word of a top medical specialist. She speaks rather low class Dutch and the judges and scientific experts of course all speak terribly proper.

    So she looked haggard. She has a rather striking profile, I guess that when she is 70 or 80 she will might look quite witch-like from some angles. She will certainly look like a very strong very wise old woman by that time, if she is still around, who has been in hell and come back to tell us about it. You can see her daughter – who looks much like her – on some tv interviews on the web. Vivacious, intelligent, independent minded.

    I have visited Lucia a few times in jail now, and I can vouch for the fact that if she is at her ease, she comes across as a very warm and open and intelligent and perhaps a little naive woman [I gues her naivety will have been cured by now after 6 years in jail], she does have a theatrical style, and is definitely not a run of the mill person. A strong personality (and in fact she must be incredibly tough still to be up and fighting, despite the stroke she has had – on hearing the incredible Supreme Court verdict – which paralysed the right side of her body.

  • http://www.math.leidenuniv.nl/~gill Richard Gill

    “the deep-seated aversion that human beings have to accepting randomness in the universe” – yes this is a good point.

    I think there is a deep-seated aversion among physicists which is holding physics back, these days, from the great challenge of sorting out the relation between quantum theory and relativity. IF ONLY physicists would realise what quantum theory and experiment has been shouting at them in their faces for nearly a hundred years now: nature is fundamentally random. Nature is continually choosing, for no reason whatsoever, one of many possible branches on which to travel further. But: it is not chaos. There is method to nature’s madness, and that method is that the probabilities satisfy beautiful physical laws which are as accurate, as far as we can see, as any laws known yet in physics.

    Quantum physics is also saying that there is an arrow of time. Nature is continually choosing, at random, one of many possible branches. When you run the film of actual reality backwards, it does NOT look the same. The dice does not jump back into the beaker. The coin does not return to your fist.

    Computational cosmologists do seem to understand this well. In Leiden, Vincent Icke’s group makes beautiful movies of the universe. The simulations are stochastic. They never produce OUR particular universe; they keep producing possible universes, which tend to look quite like ours in general features, but all the stars and all the galaxies are born in quite different times and places, if at all, in every alternative universe. In each step of the simulation, all the particles of the universe decide where they are going to be next, according to the stochastic laws of quantum physics. Space-time is continually “collapsing” out of the waves of all possible future space-times.

    Those movies do not look the same, when they are run backwards.

  • http://www.loblog.de Lore

    Talking about “expectation values” and accusing people of being irrational is sometimes also a stupid and self-satisfied behaviour.

    The EV only makes sense, when the law of the large numbers has already hit (or you’re expecting it in your near future/lifetime). Your house has to burn down several times and you have to win a bunch of lotteries to rate insurances on the base of EV.
    Otherwise. you have a huge intervall of possible outcomes and the EV is only the mean of these outcomes.
    Furthermore, you should not use the bare money values, but your personal utility function for such calculations (meaning to value a win in the lottery more, than the losses). So fh’s comment could also make total sense from a statistical, “rational” point of view.

  • John Merryman

    Richard,

    Quantum physics is also saying that there is an arrow of time. Nature is continually choosing, at random, one of many possible branches. When you run the film of actual reality backwards, it does NOT look the same. The dice does not jump back into the beaker. The coin does not return to your fist.

    Space-time is continually “collapsing” out of the waves of all possible future space-times.

    Those movies do not look the same, when they are run backwards.

    Are the dice and the coin moving in an absolute frame of reference, or one where ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaaction?’

    To the hands of the clock, it’s the face going counterclockwise. The “waves of all possible future space-times” are collapsing into the order of past circumstance. The information of events goes from future to past, as energy creates future events out of its past order. Energy does not move along the dimension of time, it creates it.

  • Ghiret

    That’s life here at the edge of chaos, and I for one enjoy the ride.

    I think that it should be complemented with:

    Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘WOW What a Ride!’

    (I saw it at:
    http://hittingthefanrenaissance.wordpress.com/2007/09/13/mientras-pienso/ but they didn’t know the author).

  • The Celestial Toymaker

    I think I can see where Sean’s going with this.

    It’s a similar argument to that advanced by Gregory Chaitin, e.g. in “Meta Math!: The Quest for Omega”.

    If the whole ‘universe’ follows an algorithm (assuming the whole universe can be defined) it’s necessary to be able to produce a program desribing its behaviour that’s smaller than all of the data, or states that it’s composed of.

    For sub-systems of the ‘universe’, that’s often possible – and often not.
    For the ‘universe’ that’s not been achieved at all.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Celestial Toymaker: The universe can’t follow an algorithm, since true probabilistic collapse events and decays etc. are really not produced by any algorithm. You can use kludgy psuedorandom approximations like digits of roots (but application to a universe simulation would have to be “put in by hand”), or cheat and pretend that “random variables” can be defined and used by fiat even though no mathematical process actually produces true unpredictable randomness in principle (or it wouldn’t really be a mathematical structure at work.) As for the BS pretensions that there are valid schemes to avoid collapse, please see my contemporaneous post at the Turtles thread.

  • Belizean

    Neil B wrote:

    The universe can’t follow an algorithm, since true probabilistic collapse events and decays etc. are really not produced by any algorithm.

    But, as you are probably aware, the evolution of multiverse of the Many Worlds interpretation is fully determined. Its evolution can therefore be expressed as an algorithm.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Belizean (resident of Belize I presume?): Sure, the evolution of the “multiverse” is determined in the sense that it’s just the evolution of “waves” with a pretense of collape events sprinkled all over and then separated (like powdered sugar instead of a single event: e.g. we just cover the sphere surrounding the photon emitter with impacts all over and pretend that each little sparkling is in its own “universe” and so on ad nauseum.) I consider that utterly worthless. If collapse never occured, it just wouldn’t occur period and it would just be the waves forever and ever (like waves on a pond) and not a way to dodge or explain the localization events. And I still can’t predict what *I’m* going to see with such notions, which is what “science” is supposed to be all about. The multiple worlds conceit won’t even let me ask, “What pattern will I see next” because there’s no real future for “me” as an individual – but we all experience that there is, and the whole scam is a silly geeky pretension. An honest person would just admit that we don’t get how that works and find another way to deal with it.

    Actually, in practice we can’t even measure the form of the wave functions themselves (even if we can create specific ones like a linear polarized photon at 20 degrees) so their having a particular deterministic magnitude at each moment of time is not really effectively/knowably “there” but just assumed for mathematical modelling. Consider for example, we can’t find the absolute phase of a single photon, which means it isn’t “given” the way the equation of a sine or other wave is an explicit and exact amplitude being function of space and time. We don’t know exactly when the photon was emitted, or its exact coherence length (number of “wavings” from the Fourier composition) and ergo it does not even constitue an exact mathematical function of a “wave.” So, even that pretense isn’t really true in any *meaningful* sense. Whatever happened to empiricism, logical positivism, etc? It looks like “the rules are for the plebes” to many theorists.

  • Marius Andersen

    Is that a reference to Bill Hicks at the end?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Neil, the wavefunction of the multiverse is actually static. It satisfies the equation:

    H|psi&gt=0

    Time evolution is an illusion. You exist now and you have a copies that exist yesterday and tomorrow etc. There exists a mapping that preserves information which we call “time evolution”…

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Typo, let’s try again:

    H|psi>=0

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Iblis, you shouldn’t say “The wavefunction of the multiverse is actually static” as if anyone actually knew that – it’s just how those who believe in this conceit think that it should be described. And, it still doesn’t really derive or explain there being any “hits” at all – whether the wave is “static” (in the silly sense of misinterpreting the ultimate significance of the Minkowski diagram, just because time was simply *graphed* with space all in one piece, as if that actually made time go away?) or “dynamic.”

    Glib talk of our most fundamental experiences (in the classic shared scientific sense too, not the highly individual/subjective sense) as being “illusions” is presumptous and so antithetical to the orginal spirit of empiricism – I see no reason to surrender the empirical given to a bunch of affectedly too-clever-by-half, post-modern pseudoscientists. If you or I decide to do an experiment, you or I will get such and such result. Denying that is crank science of another sort. Why don’t all the neo-atheists who gripe about “woo-woo-ism” whenever it might support “purpose” in the universe, jump on this flaky indulgence? For the same reason political partisans ignore anything wrong their own party does, etc.

    No offense to you Iblis – I always got the impression you’re sincere and guileless. If you really believe in that mess, well OK some dig surreal fantasy worlds of physics even though the “real” world is biting us very differently in the @$$. Actually, I wish you’d post again to your interesting blog, but here’s another request for now: take a critical look at what I’ve been ragging against and tell me if you really still think it’s attractive in the sense of being valid, not in the sense of providing “relief” from being irritated by the inexplicable (like WF collapse, which a real man or woman just says “it is what it is…”)

    Say, can you or anyone else make out and critique what Greg is trying to say about different rates of free fall not really being different in the sense that matters? He seems hip to the high-brow theory, but to be torturing the semantics.

    Marius: I had forgotten about him, but did find the quote “The political class that rules always feels there is one set of rules for the plebes and another set for themselves.” at http://freestudents.blogspot.com/2007/02/one-law-for-us-another-for-you.html which BTW is very interesting commentary, and before that I heard it or similar somewhere (Will Rogers?) Say, if you’re into this stuff, what do you think of these issues?

  • Jason Dick

    IF ONLY physicists would realise what quantum theory and experiment has been shouting at them in their faces for nearly a hundred years now: nature is fundamentally random. Nature is continually choosing, for no reason whatsoever, one of many possible branches on which to travel further.

    This doesn’t appear to be the case. There is no need to assume that there is any such thing as wave function collapse. If we leave that out of the theory, the appearance of collapse arises naturally from the other axioms. It comes in when you pay close attention to how the environment acts with the particles in question. By including these interactions, we find a thermodynamic effect that mucks with the phase of various parts of the same wave function, preventing coherent interference. Once a wave function has so decohered, it can never interact with itself again. To an observer which is represented by any piece of the wave function that has decohered, it will appear as if the other pieces of the wave function don’t exist at all. This is known as quantum decoherence.

    Since there is no need to assume that there is any such thing as wave function collapse, then, Occam’s Razor tells us we should reject it.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Jason, go and read and understand my critiques of the decoherence scam elsewhere on these threads (compare to what I just said about the equally wooly “multiple worlds” racket.) Specific localizations are what we actually observe, unless you are BSing us with that “illusion” and “appearing” conceit which violates all classic standards of empirical frankness. A wave which doesn’t collapse is just a wave, period, forever, not one or even a bunch of localizations (separated from each other by literally God only knows what – do you?) If they decohere, they would just forever stay “waves” which aren’t in the same relationship as before, unless you assume the consequences to begin with, that you were trying to prove. None of the mathematics of waves per se does or even *can* express or contain the localizations (since mathematical structures can’t produce true randomness, they are in effect “deterministic”! – so-called “random variables” are fiat entities of discourse about probabilities in general, not a genuine, formed machinery that can give us actual sequences.)

    Collapses/localizations are a bizarre and logically absurd feature of the like-it-or-not *universe* we actually live in, for honest folk to acknowledge first and foremost even if *maybe* explainable in a sincere sense someday. Decoherence is a circular argument using the surreptitious putting in by hand of the very events it is presuming to explain.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Also, she read Tarot cards. Clearly, this is a woman who is witch-like and evil, and deserved to be punished.

    You would not be so kind if she was, say, a church-goer.

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  • http://orgprepdaily.wordpress.com milkshake

    I wonder why nobody is prosecuting the lotery jackpot winners, for cheating – even if there is no evidence they actually fixed their winning. After all we know how infinitissimally small they winning odds were – so the possibility that they won by a chance is practically zero.

    Feynman once pointed out this silly fallacy by saying: Right before this lecture I got into a taxi cab that had a this particular license plate. Isn’t it amazing that of all possible plates it was gonna be just this particular one? Now calculate the chances of this happenning by coincidence!

  • Belizean

    Neil B. wrote:

    I still can’t predict what *I’m* going to see with such notions, which is what “science” is supposed to be all about.

    No. That’s the old-fashioned operationalist/instramentalist (Logical Positivism applied to physics) view of science. Science is not about predicting personal experiences, it is about finding patterns in nature. If the deepest pattern (i.e. that with the most explanatory power) conflicts with our common sense intuitions about reality, we need to discard our intuitions.

    Whatever happened to empiricism, logical positivism, etc?

    Logical Positivism and its ilk are moribund ideas (if they live at all) in that some of their fundamental postulates are problematic. For example, the axiom that “there is no reality beyond our sense experiences” has hard time explaining quantum computation, as the computations themselves cannot be observed — only the final output. The Logical Positivists axiom that “any statement that is not experimentally verifiable is meaningless” falls when applied to itself.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    Belizean: Your critique of logical positivism is right on, since it fails its own test (but then what does it say about so many scientists and philosophers that they belived in it, and many still do (or at least, use it hypocritically as an anti-“woo” device of selective application only to the opposition?)

    You misunderstood my point about empirical results. When I said “I” for an experiment, I didn’t mean, my personal subjective experiences as such, but the *public* results like the pattern of hits on a screen. That is “real” in any rational person’s world, and not something to be BSed off as “illusion” or whatever effete post-modern pretension. Of course that might conflict with “common sense” and down goes common sense, since I fully accept the bizarre world of quantum mechanical *results.* But if “results” conflict with “theories” then to hell with the theories. If you really think that I should even consider public results to be “illusions” and discarded in favor of what some vain theorists want to consider that things “ought” to be like (as do the hard-line multiple-worlds crackpots), then you’d be a crank (and I get the impression that you aren’t.)

    PS: From Belize?

  • John Merryman

    Neil,

    Specific localizations are what we actually observe

    I admit I don’t follow all the debates on the issue, since much of it is conjecture based on some intial assumptions that I feel to be wrong, but I do think some of these problems might be cleared up if we don’t try modeling time as a form of linear dimension.

    Think for a moment about a thermodynamic medium, say a pot of hot water, with lots of water molecules moving about. It might be compared to a crowd of people moving about in a room. Now if one were to construct a time keeping device out of this situation, we might take the motion of one of these points of reference and measure it against the medium it is moving through. A more general model might take several of these measurements and average them out.
    The point is the hand and the medium is the face of the clock. Obviously all the other points are hands of their own clocks, but are medium/face for all other clocks. As Newton pointed out, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So the motion of any point/hand is balanced by the reaction of the medium/face of the clock. To the hand of the clock, the face goes counterclockwise.
    Now time is assumed to be a dimension because it only goes from past circumstances to future ones. As I’ve pointed out previously though, these circumstances go from being in the future to being in the past. Tomorrow, today will be yesterday. Going back to the thermodynamic medium, at any one moment, the positions of all these points constitute an event, so while any and all of them go from past events to future ones, the medium against which any point is being judged is the overall context, which once created, is displaced by the next, as all these individual points move around.
    So the illusion of dimension is created because the physical reality of the points moves one way through the series of circumstances, but they are created by motion, rather then the basis for it, so to the extent time is a dimension of events, they go from future to past.
    Now put this in the context of the collapsing wave paradigm; Because it is assumed time is a fundamental dimension, it is modeled as a wave of potentialities that collapses into actual circumstance. So how do we tie this one dimension to the whole range of interaction occuring simultaniously? We model it as a series of collapsing events in a linear narrative, Say the quantum event, the bottle of poison, the cat, the box, our eyes. This narrative is simply the stream of specific detail, much like a particular molecule traveling through the larger medium and the series of encounters involved. Yet, as I pointed out in that description, there are innumerable other points of reference also describing their own narrative and all this activity exists in an equilibrium, so there are waves of all these other narratives crashing around and nothing really collapses to a point, just continues on its merry way, because every narrative amounts to its own particular dimension, going its own particular way and there is no one dimension of time.
    I’ll leave it at this and see if it makes any sense to you….

  • Jason Dick

    John,

    We’ve had this discussion before, but there remains a fundamental flaw in your analysis. You assume that the appearance of time as a dimension is a result of interactions. The problem with this assumption is that time is treated as a dimension in the field equations which govern the interactions themselves.

    Now, there may yet be interactions which we do not yet know how to describe which produce space-time as an emergent property. But time is not an emergent property of the physical laws that we know so far: that time is a dimension is, instead, an assumption that goes into the equations to begin with.

  • John Merryman

    Jason,

    Yes, I’m perfectly aware that “time is treated as a dimension in the field equations which govern the interactions themselves.”

    As I’ve pointed out, the equations are a model of reality, not an ideal form of it, even if some people(re; Max Tegmark) think they are. They don’t govern anything, they attempt to describe it and given that the two main models don’t even fit together, they obviously don’t do a complete job of that. As I keep pointing out, I think that treating time as one dimension is a major flaw in the equations.

    You are exactly right; “that time is a dimension is, instead, an assumption that goes into the equations to begin with.” Time as a dimension is an assumption. As I pointed out in my more detailed effort to present my observation, it isn’t just one dimension, but every clock and every potential clock is its own dimension. The reason they work together is that similar effects yield similar results and nearly identical effects yield nearly identical results.

    I realize you are not about to question your own faith in the equations, as it is likely bound to your basic sense of identity, but realize you have to give me some reason to further question my own point, beyond saying that it is just not the way it’s done.

  • Jason Dick

    As I keep pointing out, I think that treating time as one dimension is a major flaw in the equations.

    Yes, but your objections to this are rather meaningless. You keep ignoring that it’s not time per se, but space-time. This is how reality actually behaves: like space and time are not two fundamentally separate things, but rather different aspects of the same thing. This isn’t faith, it’s a fundamental aspect of Einsteinian relativity, the reality of which has been confirmed again and again in experiment after experiment.

    As I have already stated, it is possible that this is due to the collective action of some interactions we have not yet described, but it is [i]not[/i] possible that it is due to the collective action of interactions which we already know how to properly describe. It is because you are focusing on the action of particles whose behavior we already know how to accurately describe, and because you aren’t considering space to be on the same footing as time, that I state that your objections are bunk.

  • John Merryman

    Jason,

    We can describe things in many ways and all of it generally requires the projection of time, but the simple fact is that past and future do not physically exist. That is because what physically exists is the matter and energy in its current state, not all past and potential ones. Space is like a noun; it is. Time is like a verb; it does. A verb is not a noun. You can’t have your cake and eat it to. You can’t have both position and momentum.

    There are a lot of things that can be proven by repeated observation and experiment that may not be completely true, because all aspects haven’t been taken into account. It has been my personal experience that every day of my life, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Because it repeats with such regularity I can even do other experiments based on it, such as giving an approximate time of day, or being able to determine what direction I’m facing. Does that all prove that it is the sun moving, or am I missing something?

  • Jason dick

    We can describe things in many ways and all of it generally requires the projection of time, but the simple fact is that past and future do not physically exist. That is because what physically exists is the matter and energy in its current state, not all past and potential ones. Space is like a noun; it is. Time is like a verb; it does. A verb is not a noun. You can’t have your cake and eat it to. You can’t have both position and momentum.

    This is so wrong on so many levels.

    1. The past and the future do not physically exist in the present. But that’s just tautology: the past and the future have different times associated. The fact that choice of time coordinate depends upon the observer and can mix with spatial coordinates indicates that the past and the future do have physical existence, at different values of time.

    2. Time and space are two different aspects of the same thing. The only difference is a sign in the metric. Time doesn’t “do” anything any more than space does. Time, like space, is part of the background within which all of the physical laws of which we are aware act.

    3. Yes, you can have both position and momentum. Though through quantum mechanics we can’t measure both to infinite accuracy, particles do indeed have both position and momentum. In the realm where classical mechanics dominates, one cannot fully specify a particle without specifying both its position and momentum. In the realm where quantum mechanical effects need to be taken into account, of course, fully specifying a particle requires only fully specifying the wave function, which may be in position space, momentum space, or a number of other potential spaces or combinations of spaces. But in any case, at any given time, one can make a statement about both the position and momentum of a particle given this wave function (specifically, one can make a statement about the probability distribution of the outcome of measuring one or the other or both).

    The thing is, you are continually neglecting the observed fact of Lorentz invariance. Your idea that time is different would necessarily violate Lorentz invariance, and for your idea to have any merit at all it would need to rest upon an observation of breaking of Lorentz invariance. None of the arguments you have made would require breaking of Lorentz invariance, and therefore none of the arguments you have made are of any relevance.

  • John Merryman

    Jason,

    1. The past and the future do not physically exist in the present. But that’s just tautology: the past and the future have different times associated. The fact that choice of time coordinate depends upon the observer and can mix with spatial coordinates indicates that the past and the future do have physical existence, at different values of time.

    What do they consist of? Presumably much of the physical material that I was composed of yesterday, is the same material I’m composed of today. Yes, there have been some changes, but is this due to continuous physical interactions with my environment, or because I’m traveling along this other dimension?

    2. Time and space are two different aspects of the same thing. The only difference is a sign in the metric. Time doesn’t “do” anything any more than space does. Time, like space, is part of the background within which all of the physical laws of which we are aware act.

    Space can be static. The ruler doesn’t have to move to measure it. Time is dynamic. The clock has to move in order to measure it. They are related, because motion requires space, but does space require motion?

    3. Yes, you can have both position and momentum. Though through quantum mechanics we can’t measure both to infinite accuracy, particles do indeed have both position and momentum. In the realm where classical mechanics dominates, one cannot fully specify a particle without specifying both its position and momentum. In the realm where quantum mechanical effects need to be taken into account, of course, fully specifying a particle requires only fully specifying the wave function, which may be in position space, momentum space, or a number of other potential spaces or combinations of spaces. But in any case, at any given time, one can make a statement about both the position and momentum of a particle given this wave function (specifically, one can make a statement about the probability distribution of the outcome of measuring one or the other or both).

    I did mis-state that; You can’t measure both position and momentum, but the fact still is that time requires change and change means one set of circumstances has been replaced by another and therefore the previous set no longer exists.

    The thing is, you are continually neglecting the observed fact of Lorentz invariance. Your idea that time is different would necessarily violate Lorentz invariance, and for your idea to have any merit at all it would need to rest upon an observation of breaking of Lorentz invariance. None of the arguments you have made would require breaking of Lorentz invariance, and therefore none of the arguments you have made are of any relevance.

    Alright, math isn’t my strong point. Is time a measure of change, or is change a measure of time? It seems describing time as a dimension is to say that change doesn’t happen. So what is change?

  • Pingback: Perceiving Randomness | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

  • Linneasophia

    No one asks, “Why do humans want (need) order? Why do we want to make sense of our lives?
    Don’t worry–I can’t stand any organized religion so don’t pin that on me.

  • Pingback: Another Reason Scientists Don’t Always Make Great Storytellers | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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