What we half perceive and half create

Following up on last week’s post and video of the The McGurk Effect, it would seem that we have in this demonstration of how the mind alters what we hear some empirical evidence to support the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  Which is ironic because Kant’s philosophy  is questions empirical evidence!  To be more precise, he critiques what philosophers call “naive empiricism,” the assumption that what we take in with our senses is the only kind of reliable truth.

Kant says that we do indeed take in sense perceptions from the outside world.  But then our minds actively shape those perceptions.  What we experience is  sensory data as organized by our minds.  As Wordsworth puts it, “what we half perceive and half create” (“Lines Composed above Tintern Abbey”).

The McGurk video gives an example of that.  An even more common and accessible example would be the way we perceive distance.  If we were naive empiricists, believing just in what we see, we would have to believe that objects get smaller the farther away they are from us.  In reality, of course, the objects remain the same size.   We know this intuitively but not from our senses alone.  This is how our minds process, organize, and present the sense data.

There are other examples.  Colors don’t seem to be essential properties of objects, but rather manifestations of how our eyes and our minds process light frequencies.  Dogs are thought to see in black and white but to smell in some olfactory version of 3-D and Technicolor.  Insects whose multi-faceted eyes are raised above their heads apparently see 360 degrees at once, forward and backward and above and below at the same time, something unimaginable to us humans who look at things framed in one plane.  And yet dogs, insects, and people–despite their different sense perceptions– share the same reality.  (Can you think of other examples?)

Kantian philosophy started us down the slippery slope that has led us to existentialism, subjectivism, and postmodernism.  But those take his points too far.  That we half perceive and half create does NOT mean that we construct our own truth, much less that truth is relative or that truth is whatever we want it to be.  In the McGurk Effect video we hear “ba’s” and “fa’s,” not the Gettysburg Address.  We do receive sensory data from outside ourselves; we do not just make it up.  Naive empiricism sometimes is mistaken for science, but actual scientists know they have to employ the empirical method with many checks and balances–formal experiments with  controls and repeatability requirements–to get reliable findings.  They don’t just base science on what they see.

How does all of this relate to a Christian worldview?

Breaking the speed limit

Scientists have found neutrinos that seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light, which, according to the laws of physics since Einstein, is supposed to be impossible:

Puzzling results from Cern, home of the LHC, have confounded physicists – because it appears subatomic particles have exceeded the speed of light.

Neutrinos sent through the ground from Cern toward the Gran Sasso laboratory 732km away seemed to show up a tiny fraction of a second early.

The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics – will be put online for scrutiny by other scientists.

In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

The speed of light is the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his special theory of relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure it ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.

But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.

Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another.

The team prepares a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up a few billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

But the group understands that what are known as “systematic errors” could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.

“My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved,” Dr Ereditato said.

But for now, he explained, “we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result – because it is crazy”.

“And of course the consequences can be very serious.”

via BBC News – Speed-of-light experiments give baffling result at Cern.

I know exactly what our readers Webmonk and tODD will say:  The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal.  Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.  (I know:  Maybe the neutrinos have just jumped into the future.)  Fine, fine.  I hope they will give us their explanation.  I hope they and other of you science types will allow for a mental experiment and instruct us about what difference this would make if it were, in fact, true that some things can go faster than light.

Stem cell sausage


Scientists are on the verge of growing artificial meat in laboratories without the need for animal slaughter, according to a report cited Thursday by The Herald Sun — with one expert predicting a stem cell sausage might be just six months away.

Researchers say the advent of “pain-free” meat produced from stem cells could save millions of animals from the abattoir and help the environment through substantially reduced energy, land and water use.

Dutch researcher Dr. Mark Post, of Maastricht University, predicts the first synthetic sausage could be just six months away.

“I’m hopeful we can have a hamburger in a year,” he told New Scientist.

But a major stumbling block will be turning cultured meat into a tasty, textured and nutritious option that could make mouths water in supermarkets and restaurants. The time and cost involved are also major hurdles.

Post said the meat — pig cells fed with horse fetal serum — he had grown did not look appetizing because it was white.

“It’s white because there’s no blood in it, and very little myoglobin, the iron-bearing protein,” he said. “We are looking at ways to build up the myoglobin content to give it color.”

via Slaughter-Free Stem Cell Meat Sausage Coming Soon | Fox News.

So could a vegan PETA supporter eat one of these sausages that is made without killing an animal?  Or would the fact that it still uses pig cells violate the principles of animal rights?  And in that event, would the vegan PETA supporters join pro-lifers in opposing abortion and fetal stem cell research?

What do you think of this?  Does a stem cell hamburger sound good?  Should we try to synthesize meat so that it would not be necessary to slaughter the animal?

The diamond planet

The universe is just full of wonders, and here is another one:

Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard.

The new planet is far denser than any other known so far and consists largely of carbon. Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond.

“The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest it is comprised of carbon — i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star every two hours in an orbit so tight it would fit inside our own Sun,” said Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Lying 4,000 light years away, or around an eighth of the way toward the center of the Milky Way from the Earth, the planet is probably the remnant of a once-massive star that has lost its outer layers to the so-called pulsar star it orbits.

via Astronomers discover planet made of diamond | Reuters.

He could-a been the champion of the world

Our week that began with an earthquake ended with a hurricane.  But, as it happened, the latest graphic of Hurricane Irene’s path showed the outer edge of the system passing by just 15 or so miles away.  So it really missed us.  We had some rain and wind, but it wasn’t bad at all, and the power stayed on.  (Which, for this part of Virginia, is remarkable, since gentle breezes are often enough to put us in the dark for hours.)

The hurricane as a whole wasn’t as bad as feared, though it killed 18 people, knocked out power for millions, flooded some areas and did other damage.  Now comes the second guessing, criticizing the governors for evacuating areas and making a bigger deal of the thing than it turned out to be.  But I think the officials did what they needed to do.  No one could tell what the hurricane would do.  An excess of caution and of preparation is better than the blind optimism and lack of preparation that we saw with Hurricane Katrina.   A storm whirling like a buzzsaw (a splendid description I read in one report) running along the entire East Coast is surely something to worry about.  That it lost power and turned into a mere tropical storm by the time it hit New York City is something we should just be thankful for.

But I do need to report something:  Many of the plants in our garden were blown down.  The result was something I can only describe as a crop circle.  Which means that aliens landed in our garden!   In a hurricane!

Do any of the rest of you have hurricane stories?

How did the animals know?

Shortly before the earthquake hit Washington, D.C., the animals in the National Zoo started freaking out.   So did lots of people’s housepets, with sleepy cats suddenly jumping up and heading for the hills just prior to the quake.  Scientists can’t figure out how they knew:

Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?

Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend. There has been talk over the years about mysterious electromagnetic fields generated by rupturing faults. There has been speculation about sounds inaudible to humans, and subtle tilting in rock formations, and the release of vapors that people can’t smell.But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.

The zoo documented a broad range of animal behavior before, during and after the tremor that began in central Virginia and shook much of the eastern United States. For example, a gorilla, Mandara, shrieked and grabbed her baby, Kibibi, racing to the top of a climbing structure just seconds before the ground began to shake dramatically. Two other apes — an orangutan, Kyle, and a gorilla, Kojo — already had dropped their food and skedaddled to higher turf.

The 64 flamingos seemed to sense the tumult a number of seconds in advance as well, clustering together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit. One of the zoo’s elephants made a low-pitched noise as if to communicate with two other elephants.

And red-ruffed lemurs emitted an alarm cry a full 15 minutes before the temblor, the zoo said.

During the quake, the zoo grounds were filled with howls and cries. The snakes, normally inert in the middle of the day, writhed and slithered. Beavers stood on their hind legs and then jumped into a pond. Murphy the Komodo dragon ran for cover. Lions resting outside suddenly stood up and stared at their building as the walls shook.

Damai, a Sumatran tiger, leaped as if startled but quickly settled down. Some animals remained agitated for the rest of the day, wouldn’t eat and didn’t go to sleep on their usual schedule. . . .

The belief that strange animal behavior is a precursor to earthquakes goes back to antiquity. A recent scientific study suggested that toads fled to higher ground days before the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. In the most famous case of modern times, snakes and frogs emerged from their holes in 1975 in the dead of winter several weeks before a magnitude-7.3 earthquake in Haicheng, China (the odd animal behavior helped persuade officials to evacuate the city just before the tremor).

via Zoo mystery: How did apes and birds know quake was coming? – The Washington Post.

One explanation has to do with the so-called p-wave, a faint foreshock that precedes the big s-wave in an earthquake.  This is imperceptible to human beings, but maybe animals can pick it up.  The p-wave hit 15 seconds before the big 5.8-on-the-Richter-scale shock.  That would explain some of the animal behavior.  But some of the zoo animals started panicking a full 15 minutes before the quake.