Ovid (publius_ovidius) wrote,

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What the Bleep is a Self-Sealing Argument?

So celibot and I went down to the Bagdad Theater to see What the #$*! Do We Know: A Quantum Fable. If you know me and you've seen the movie, you probably already know my take on it because I'm one of those poor, close-minded fools who's skeptical when you assert that clowns are hiding in your attic and torturing puppies at night to maintain the cosmic balance.

This film had some bright points but was incredibly frustrating. Here's a quote from one review:

The filmmakers have done a remarkable job not only in making Quantum Physics interesting and accessible to us common folk but in ...

Ding. Wrong answer! Thank you for playing. We have wonderful consolation prizes for you.

Much modern scientific thought has been discussed in the movie, but if anyone thinks that they have learned anything about quantum physics in that film, they're fooling themselves. It was not made "accessible" because at no time was it really explained. Disconnected bits and pieces were mentioned, but it was the "we don't understand this" implications that were focused on. Recent theories about holographic universes were alluded to several times, but never explained. But hey, it sounds kewl! Possible theories about alternative universes were mentioned, but again, there was not much connection drawn between these ideas and the content of the film.

I have to confess that celibot and I couldn't stop laughing when the film claimed that the first Native Americans who encountered Columbus couldn't see his ships until a Shaman noticed disturbances in the water. Conveniently forgetting that Native Americans used boats extensively, the film claims that these poor fellows had no concept of "ship" and thus Columbus' ships were invisible. I think our laughter upset some of the film-goers.

Of particular interest was the water crystal studies done by Dr. Emoto. In these studies, Dr. Emoto insults water and says it looks ugly when it freezes. Then he writes books about it. Unfortunately, what he doesn't do is perform double-blind experiments, nor has his work been replicable (except by himself) in controlled settings. James Randi has offered one million dollars if Dr. Emoto can reproduce his results in controlled conditions, but, to the best of my knowledge, Dr. Emoto has not accepted.

Another curious character to appear, this time by being interviewed, rather than just referred to, is JZ Knight, channeling "Ramtha." Ramtha is allegedly a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis and Lemuria. Some people think that JZ Knight is a "f***ing lunatic." I don't think that's fair. I think she's what is technically referred to as a "charlatan."

char*la*tan - (shärl-tn)

A person who makes elaborate, fraudulent, and often voluble claims to skill or knowledge; a quack or fraud.

She is, however, a charlatan who makes a thousand bucks a pop at seminars. I'm in the wrong industry. I don't want to disparage her for making money, though. There's nothing wrong with that. I want to disparage her for making ludicrous claims about advanced civilizations on Earth that have been here since the time of the dinosaurs and came here from "beyond the North Star." I've read fantasy, too, but I have no delusions that I'll be getting it on with Galadriel at any point in the near future.

Ramtha, surprisingly, is not only a warrior, but also a shrewd businessman. JZ Knight, who had previously copyrighted Ramtha, learned that Judith Ravell of Berlin was also "channeling" Ramtha and thus cutting into Knight's territory. Knight sued Ravell and won, thus forcing Ravell to quit channeling Ramtha. Given this and Knight's other activities, it should come as no surprise that she also charges thousands of dollars for private sessions.

The title refers to a self-sealing argument. What the heck is a self-sealing argument? It's a particularly insidious logical fallacy in which is constructed in such a way that not only can nothing refute it, but nothing can be conceived which could possibly refute it. These arguments add nothing to our body of knowledge and wind up leading people into long, pointless debates. This doesn't mean that the conclusions are invalid. It does mean that the arguments used to bolster the conclusion are useless.

Consider the "universal selfishness" hypothesis. This is the oft-held claim that all human behavior is selfish. We don't do anything we don't want to do. This may very well be true, but it's not possible to prove. What about the mother who smothers her child because she doesn't want her pursuers to hear her? Did she want to kill her child? The response is something along the lines of "but she obviously wanted to stay alive more than she wanted her child to stay alive."

At first blush, this seems reasonable and, in fact, it can't be refuted. The problem comes in when we try to construct an argument that can falsify the hypothesis; it turns out we can't. Not matter what outlandish scenario I come up with, there is no way that it can't be explained away by the hypothesis. We can't test the hypothesis because it doesn't make any testable assertions.

In contrast, consider the theory of gravity. Even if we can't demonstrate it to be false, we can at least conceive of an apple falling upwards. Depending upon the conditions, this might refute the theory of gravity, so said theory offers testable hypotheses. The universal selfishness concept contributes nothing to the body of knowledge, but the theory of gravity does.

The world is truly a wonderful, mysterious place. There are plenty of things that we cannot explain. I've had things happen to me that I cannot even begin to understand, nor would I attempt to put them into any sort of natural framework. In fact, I left the movie wondering, yet again, about the nature of consciousness. If there is any evidence of the divine, our mere ability to contemplate it is, to me, a compelling argument. However, tossing in pseudo-scientific snake oil merely cheapens the wonder of creation.

At the end of the movie, there was quite a bit of applause. I wasn't really surprised. I couldn't help but consider the synthetic ecosystems that I've been designing on my computer. Due to a small programming error, my animal programs could think and see, but they couldn't think about what they saw. I idly fantasize that I had programmed the audience. There was an abundance of fascinating information contained in the movie, but there was so much ridiculous crap that it was tough to take seriously. Seeing it was celibot's idea. I think he owes me three bucks.

Update: one thing I failed to make abundantly clear was how so much of the ideas presented in this movie were "self-sealing arguments." One man claimed that anyone could walk on water if they believed enough. Naturally, if anyone fails to walk on water, we can them claim they didn't believe enough. It's impossible to come up with any test of such a foolish assertion. Unfortunately, that sums up the movie.

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