Science Feed

Ridiculous Headline of the Week

A Scientist Has Confirmed That Humans Have No Free Will

This was in Popular Mechanics; you can read the story here. To be fair to the magazine, the tone of the article hints that the writer doesn't take the "findings" of the scientist altogether seriously. And he gives the last word to another scientist who contradicts the first.

But how many people would take it seriously? Science says so! Not surprisingly, the scientist utterly contradicts himself by recommending ways that we should, but may not, choose to think, and actions that we should, but may not, choose to take in response to his conclusion--even to the point of asserting that certain things are good, in some presumably absolute sense, and that we should therefore choose them.

It would be hard to come up with a better example of the absurdity of asserting the findings of physical science as metaphysical truths. 


I may actually start doing this every week. I use the Brave web browser, which includes a news feed that gives me headlines and links to a great range of publications. I can cull out anything I know I'm not interested in, but a fair number of strange, irritating, or ridiculous things still appear. 

On Social Science

There is a lot to say for the scientific method, but in the social sciences it is often little more than a magical trick: the ritualistic application of statistics to poor data measured by imaginary instruments.

Author unknown, found on a sheet of paper in my files, in quotation marks so apparently not my words. There's no mystery about why I copied it, though. I've believed for a long time that the "social sciences" are at best only half-scientific. The hardheaded scientific part is statistics--the statistical methods, I mean, not necessarily any particular instance of their use. As we all know, statistical results are no better than the data which is their raw material. And even valid statistics can easily be manipulated to make them say what someone wants them to say, a practice we can see in action any day.

The real value (where there is real value) is interpretation and evaluation of the facts, which means general intelligence, logic, common sense, insight, intuition, wisdom, imagination--in a word, the subjective. That's not a criticism of the project, but of its claim to being "science." Its worth is very dependent on the gifts of the practitioner. I'm an enthusiastic fan of Philip Rieff, who considered himself a sociologist,

These days there is, apart from those more or less intrinsic limitations, a great deal of social science that is obvious political and ideological advocacy which claims authority by the fact that it comes from someone with a Ph.D.  I don't think this is working very well anymore, with no lack of Ph.D.s proclaiming that the emperor's clothes are a miracle of craft and style. 

A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 

Fun With Statistics

Which is more likely, that you will be killed by lightning or that you will be killed by an asteroid striking the earth?

As you have no doubt guessed, it's something of a trick question, with the obvious answer being wrong. It has to do with the probability of the event compared to the probability that it will kill you. The probability of my being struck by lightning is, obviously, much higher than the probability of an asteroid striking the earth. However, if the latter should happen, millions or billions will be killed, including me. So when you turn the statistical crank, apparently the odds are worse (for the individual) with the asteroid. 

Someone has actually worked out the math. Obviously some assumptions have to be made about the likelihood of a killer asteroid strike, but his seem to be reasonable. He comes up with a 1 in 700,000 chance of death by asteroid, whereas 1 in 1,000,000 seems to be a generally accepted rough value for being struck by lightning. And since most people who are struck by lightning survive (I did not know that until yesterday), the odds against death by lightning are even greater. And they vary a lot depending on where you live. 

And here's an interesting list of the top ten asteroid strikes in the history of the planet. Notice that the two most recent were roughly 35 million years ago, while the others are separated by tens or hundreds of millions of years.

If you had survived the Popagia strike of 35.7 million years ago, you might have thought with relief "Well, we should have at least another twenty million years before this happens again." Imagine your dismay when the Chesapeake Bay strike shows up almost immediately, only .7 million years later. I think that's another statistical misconception, similar to the one that makes a gambler think that he's due for a win after a string of losses. 

These speculations follow from a Facebook discussion about this meme:


I call it temporal distancing and it's my chosen strategy for avoiding death by asteroid.

Man Bites Nuclear Dog

Finland's Greens Now Fully Behind Nuclear Power

I don't think I've ever written a post about climate change here. I don't post all that much about political and social issues anyway, but still, it's mildly surprising that in all the years (eighteen!) I've had this blog  I've never written a post specifically about it, considering how much attention it gets. I've mentioned it here and there, but as far as I can tell only in passing. Part of the reason, the major part I guess, is that I don't take it all that seriously.

As a threat, I mean. I'm willing to believe that it's happening, and to believe that industrialism, the automobile, and so forth are causing it, or at least contributing to it. I'm willing to believe it because many people who know a lot about the climate tell me so. And I'm willing to believe that the rising temperature will or at least may cause problems. I say "may" because there is such a blatantly tendentious (to put it mildly) effort to link any problem, especially but not necessarily if it includes weather or any aspect of the natural world, to climate change. Maybe some of those are valid, maybe not, but the political intention is so obvious that it invites skepticism--practically requires it.

But I'm unwilling to believe that climate change is going to make the planet uninhabitable, or result in the deaths of some large percentage of the human population with the survivors becoming hunter-gatherers, or have any of the other world-ending or otherwise massively catastrophic consequences that are predicted. 

I don't mean just that I reserve judgment, or am somewhat skeptical, but that I actively disbelieve it. One reason is that these predictions, like the attribution of existing phenomena, have an obvious political motivation. Another is that many of them seem implausible, predicting consequences that seem far in excess of the predicted rises in temperature. But the biggest reason is that the environmentalists and others who are loudest in their alarms do not appear to truly believe what they are saying. Maybe they're purposely exaggerating for effect, as political crusaders generally do, not apparently having absorbed the lesson of the boy who cried wolf. 

It's not only because so many of the crusaders are hypocritical--owning multiple enormous homes, jetting to climate conferences, and all that. Yes, it's hypocritical, but hypocrites we will always have with us. The biggest reason is that for the most part they don't allow a place for nuclear power in mitigating the problem. Compared to fossil fuels, especially from the point of view of climate change concerns, nuclear power has some major benefits. I won't bother reproducing the arguments on that score, as they are easily found all over the net. 

Obviously it has significant dangers, too. But to rule it out entirely, and put all your hope on the unlikely prospect that wind and solar power can replace fossil fuels anytime soon, only indicates that you don't really believe that the danger is as great as you are saying. If there's an 18-wheeler coming straight at you, and your only alternatives are to go into the ditch or have a head-on collision which will certainly kill you, you don't say "The ditch is not an option. Much too dangerous."

It's good to see at least one environmentalist group be realistic on this point. I get the impression that a not-insignificant number of young people are being driven into terrified despair by the wild alarmism of many. Poor Greta Thunberg is blaming the wrong people for stealing her childhood. 


The Cosmological Just-So Story

From an anonymous commenter at Neoneocon's blog: 

Multiple universes is the physicist’s version of stacking turtles on the backs of turtles.

See this if you don't get the turtle reference--of course "turtles all the way down" has a Wikipedia entry. And see this for a Wikipedia tour of various multiple universe theories. I've never understood how this could possibly be anything other than speculation, forever beyond the reach of physical investigation.

I think the commenter I'm quoting had in mind the invocation of multiple universes as a way out of the quandaries posed by the "anthropic principle"--the idea that many aspects of the universe as we know it are so finely tuned to support life, and not just physical life but sentient life as well, as to defy probability and raise suspicions of a designer at work. Some people of course do not like that idea at all. 

That's what I have in mind in quoting him, anyway. The Wikipedia article suggests that there are other and more important reasons, arrived at by inference from known physical principles, for hypothesizing that there are multiple universes. That's not something I would presume to have an opinon on, but it does strike me that from the theistic point of view there is no reason why there couldn't be other universes--in whatever sense we might use the word "universe." The Wikipedia article also seems to imply that not all the theorists in this area are using the word in the same way.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

This was mentioned in a weekly Friday Reflection from Touchstone. I had no idea the search had begun so early: 

It began in concept as early as 1896 when Nikola Tesla suggested wireless electrical transmission to contact Martians. In 1899, he thought he had detected a signal from Mars—so he was listening. In 1924, an attempt to listen for Martians from the U. S. Naval Observatory was assisted by Admiral Eberle, chief of Naval Operations: a “National Radio Silence Day” was promoted with radios going silent for five minutes on the hour for 36 hours while a radio receiver in a dirigible floating 1.9 miles up listened for signals.

Personally I am of the opinion that if there are forms of life of a sort with which we could communicate, there is almost no possibility that we will ever know it. Everybody is familiar with the dogma asserted in favor of extraterrestrial life in general: that since there are [very very large number] of stars in the universe, it is so probable as to be all but certain that there will be life of the sort we would recognize as such, and that among those living things there will be some which we would recognize as being like us in having speech and intelligence. 

The proponents of this idea, who usually present it as obvious, and even scientific, don't always mention the materialist and evolutionist axiom that underlies it: that life and consciousness are the products of chance working on matter. If you make that assumption, then it's reasonable to say that given enough stars and enough time, enough planets will form and develop in ways that can support life that enough of these will actually somehow give birth to life, and that enough of these life forms will evolve into intelligent beings that we will probably encounter them. It is all but certain, in this view, that they are out there, and highly probable that they will eventually contact us, or vice versa (or, of course, that this has already happened).  

But if that axiom is not true, the conclusions are in doubt. If chance alone working on a whole heck of a lot of matter is not in fact the explanation for the existence of life and consciousness, then the only reasonable answer to the question "Does intelligent extraterrestrial life exist?" is "We do not know. And moreover we currently have no way of knowing." For my part, I'm firmly, even passionately, agnostic on the question--passionate because the materialist axiom is so little questioned, or even noticed.. 

If materialism as a philosophy is not the correct explanation of the world, then "scientific" pronouncements about extraterrestrial life are only speculation with no solid scientific value. I would argue further that the fact that the materialistic explanation of non-material phenomena such as human consciousness seems more plausible to most people in our time is a mere cultural prejudice. (I don't mean, of course, materialistic explanations for everyday material phenomena. If you're going to study the operations of the physical world, it would be unreasonable not to assume that material effects are produced by material causes. Simple experience and common sense tell us that that is the normal way of things.)

There's another big problem with the whole attempt to detect such life by any means we know. No one seems to believe that any nearby star systems have much potential for supporting life. And if there is life on a system 1,000 light years away, any evidence we receive would only tell us that there was life there 1,000 years ago. And our galaxy is estimated to be between 100,000 and 200,000 light years across. We are not likely to have a very interesting relationship with life forms with whom the exchange Hello. How are you?We're fine. How are you? would take multiple thousands of years. 

And travel across those distances? Well, it's easy to say "warp drive" or "hyperspace" or the more currently favored "wormhole," but these are just words that play the role in science fiction that magic plays in folk tales. The Millenium Falcon and a magic carpet are two instances of the same class of thing. I think I'm correct in saying that even the theoretical possibility of faster-than-light travel is vague, and that no technology implementing it can really even be imagined now--imagined as an actual engineering project, I mean. 

Sure, all that could be proven mistaken and irrelevant tomorrow by some utterly unknown and unforeseen scientific breakthrough. But "you can't prove it will never be possible" is not a scientific position. I really don't have an opinion on whether there are other sentient material beings on other planets, but I do think it's unlikely that we'll ever meet them. 

Now, the possibility of an entirely new order of being in which the spaces and distances we know do not limit us in the way that they now do is another matter entirely. But no possible technology can ever get us there. 

Dark 2

Well. I don't really know what to make of this, and am not at all sure I should recommend it to others. But I think I will anyway. Because, whatever my reservations, I was thoroughly fascinated by it. One big warning, though: the story does not end, just as it did not end with series 1. There isn't even the sort of resolution with a few loose threads that satisfies the desire for an ending while pointing the way to a sequel. According to Wikipedia the third season is to be the last one, so I'm hoping that means the developers actually planned a coherent three-season plot which will have a reasonable ending.

The story only becomes more complex in series 2, and I have major doubts as to whether it makes sense. The pseudo-science makes even less sense than before: opening a barrel of nuclear waste might make those in the immediate vicinity pretty sick, but I really don't think there's any danger of it disrupting the very fabric of space-time. And the use of wormholes to serve as the equivalent of magic in sci-fi has gotten tiresome.

But the complex and confusing plot line is anchored by elemental human drama: parents, children, love, death, misunderstanding, mistakes, separation and reconciliation. Not really all that much of that last one, though, at this point. 

The contradictions inherent in the whole idea of time travel are handled more imaginatively here than in time-travel stories I've encountered. However, that seems to be a confession of ignorance on my part: suspecting that something called "the bootstrap paradox" was not invented by the writers of this series, I searched for it, and found that it goes back at least to a 1941 short story by Robert A. Heinlein. The basic idea is presented in the show as this: you take an object back in time and leave it there. So it exists in the present because it existed in the past. But since it was only in the past because you took it there, it was never created. At any rate, the movements in time are so many and so complex in Dark that the result is either a brilliant juggling act or a big mess. Either way, it's awfully well done--well-acted, well-written, well-produced.

Actually I'm concerned that something that happened in the last minute or so of this season may seal the "big mess" verdict. I'll find out when I watch series 3.

My Career in Information Technology...

...would have been far more interesting if malfunctioning computers would always shoot out noisy sparks, flames, and smoke. Like they do in that TV series I mentioned, Another Life

Even though my wife and I had officially abandoned it, I watched another episode and a half by myself because I really wanted to find out what those aliens were like and what they were up to. But I actually laughed out loud at a couple of not-at-all-meant-to-be funny things. So okay, I give up.

I mostly agree with this review at Some funny comments, too: "Entitled Millenials In Space." And:

Is there something elitist living inside me that I found the crew members unworthy of anything other than maybe stints on The Real World? 

I think "The Real World" is a "reality" series. I've only seen a few episodes of any of those, but the comparison occurred to me, too. Bratty young people engaged in heavy and extremely self-centered emotional dramatics. As another commenter mentions, it's hard to believe these twits would ever have been entrusted with any sort of important duty, let alone manning a spacecraft on The Most Important Mission In Human History.

Why am I even bothering to write this? I guess because I was disposed to like the show, and can't quite believe that it's this bad. It's material for a future Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode.

I am certainly not a scientist, or an engineer, and obviously you have to overlook, if not accept, a certain amount of miraculous future technology in most sci-fi. But this show seemed to me to grossly abuse its privilege. Unlike Star Wars-style space opera, it isn't content just to invoke "warp drive" (or whatever) and have the spaceship travel light years. Too much of it is directly based on applications of scientific or technological pixie dust to create and resolve crises. As best I can recall, this is pretty close to an actual bit:

"We don't have enough oxygen to survive much longer! What are we going to do?!?"

"I don't know...", "Oh my God," etc.

[a few seconds of brow-furrowing]

"Wait--there's a rogue moon ahead. We can mine captive oxygen from its caves!"

Of Course

I saw this headline on Google News yesterday:

Huge New Holes In Siberia Have Scientists Calling For Urgent Investigation Of The Mysterious Craters

and immediately thought "Someone will blame it on global warming/climate change."

I clicked on it and read the story, at the Huffington Post. Sure enough: 

The leading theory is that the holes were created by gas explosions triggered by underground heat or by rising air temperatures associated with climate change, the Siberian Times reported last December.


The Bondage of Creation

As I have written more than once here, one of the two or three most troublesome questions of faith for me is the apparent contradiction between the biblical narrative of paradise and fall, and that put forward by science: millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw, and primitive mankind slowly rising out of beast-hood, no happier or gentler than any other, progressing through millenia of savagery and only recently arriving at a point where, for instance, there is something approaching a general agreement that slavery and torture are wrong. (Here is the first time I discussed it, almost exactly ten years ago.)

This was last Sunday's second reading, Romans 8:18-23:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

I'm pretty sure that the answer to my question, the solution of the great problem, lies behind these words, obscure though they are. In the meantime, we groan in travail with the rest of creation, but also in hope, as the next few sentences say:

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Personally  I don't know about the patience part. But I wait and hope.

Versus Science Versus Religion

The New York Times has been running an interesting (yes, really) series of interviews on philosophical and religious subjects. It's part of a broader series called "The Stone" (the philosopher's stone? I don't know...) and the interviewer is Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. The most recent is with Tim Maudlin, another professor of philosophy, whose specialty is apparently the philosophy of science. The subject: Modern Cosmology Versus God's Creation, and it's worth reading, but Maudlin ends up with the sort of statement that makes me groan:

As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act.  If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon.

"Direct experimental evidence of a deity"? Shall I laugh or cry? When I encounter statements like this I think of those earnest 19th century investigators who weighed dying people immediately before and after death, or with other physical experiments attempted to determine whether a soul had departed the body. I don't even know if those stories are true, but they certainly capture the determined obtuseness of those who believe the existence of God is a question to be studied and at least in principle resolved by the physical sciences. What annoys me is the serene superiority with which they give a confident answer to a question they have not understood.

But it has to be admitted that Christians set themselves up for some of this. There is of course the continuing rear-guard action against the idea that the earth is very much more than a few thousand years old, and was not created in six twenty-four hour days. There's also the more sophisticated attempt to appropriate certain ideas from modern physics in support of theology, such as the use of the uncertainty principle to allow space for the existence of free will. Although these ideas are interesting to play around with, I think it's generally a mistake to make them part of an argument for the existence of God or for some other theological insight. For one thing, to attempt, for instance, an argument for free will on the basis of the uncertainty principle is to give away much of the game in advance, by implicitly accepting the presumption that physics has any light to shed on the subject. For another, I strongly suspect that Christians who are not themselves scientists (of whom I am one) don't fully understand the ideas they're trying to appropriate, and thus risk (or insure) that they won't be taken seriously by those who do.

I am not one to make fun of simple conceptions of God. A six-year-old child, or an adult with the IQ of a six-year-old, may have an intuitive sense of relationship to God that escapes a theologian, and a spontaneous goodness that makes me feel ashamed. And anyway even the most sublime insights of theology are no more than glimpses into the endless mystery of God. But to venture into very abstruse and complex scientific and philosophical debate armed with a conception of God that does in fact resemble the skeptical caricature of a man in the sky only brings the faith into disrepute.

Beyond the superficial oppositions set up by fundamentalists on both sides, there are deeper questions to be pondered. The skeptic would do well to stop thinking of religion as primitive science and consider the philosophical questions: how did we get from nothing to something? how do we get from is to ought? The believer would do well to trust that all truth is of God, and be less anxious about the apparent challenges to belief from science. Both should try to understand where the boundaries between theology and science lie. At least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the "conflict between science and religion" doesn't really amount to very much, as long as each understands its proper function and limits. 

Not that the boundary is always easy to discern. There is one question that troubles me, and which I think about frequently. Since Catholics are not obliged to believe the creation account in Genesis literally, many of us glibly dismiss the whole question: "What does it matter whether the creation took six days or billions of years? The important thing is that God created it." Well, yes, but that really doesn't dispose of the matter. Never mind the time scale--unless we detach Genesis entirely from the physical world and history, we have a conflict between the pre-lapsarian paradise described there and the picture of millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw before mankind appeared, the savagery of which seems to have been our habit from that moment on. 

I discussed this problem at more length ten years ago in this Sunday Night Journal. I'm no closer to a resolution than I was then, and really don't expect one.

I Simply Do Not Believe This

Climate change is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy, sneezy, costly and dangerous, according to a comprehensive federal scientific report released Tuesday.

So says the San Jose Mercury-News apropos a new National Climate Assessment report. Perhaps the actual report is not as excited as the journalism, but from what I've seen of headlines today this piece is fairly typical.

I am quite willing to believe that the overall average temperature of the earth has gone up slightly in the past 100 years or so. I'm willing to believe that human activity is at least part of the reason. But it is abundantly clear that political and quasi-religious convictions are very influential on the climate-change activism side, and if I remain skeptical that the phenomenon is really so terribly serious and dangerous, that's part of the reason. I am not equipped to judge "the science" (when did that annoying term replace "the research"?), but anyone can see that there's a whole lot of emotionalism wrapped up with it, and that makes me skeptical.

"The science" may indeed show warming. But the specific evidence cited for warming's ill effects appears to be selected to fit the prediction. When we have an exceptionally cold winter, we're told that "weather is not climate," which is true. But when there is a drought in California, it seems that weather is climate after all. And you simply aren't going to persuade me that there has been a dramatic change in my local climate, because I have lived in it for some decades now, and there hasn't. Of course that says little about the global picture, but it illustrates the problem with the strategy of anecdotal alarmism. Around ten years ago we on the Gulf Coast had a spate of severe hurricanes, Katrina being the worst. We were assured that climate change was the cause, and that the storms would continue to grow worse and more frequent. Now we've had nine years of very much milder and fewer ones. That certainly doesn't disprove the warming argument, but it just as certainly doesn't support it.

Exaggeration and emotionalism do not belong in science, and they're counter-productive as a strategy when they produce dire predictions that aren't fulfilled. This article is not even a prediction, it's an attempt to paint the situation as verging on disaster now, when it plainly is not. Maybe the activists think apocalyptic talk is the only way to mobilize people. And maybe it works on some. But it isn't working on me. It only makes me skeptical--especially when the claims have become so broad that any severe weather at all, even a blizzard, is claimed as evidence for the theory.

The Mind Is Not A Computer

In Commentary, David Gelernter has a sharp critique of philosophical materialism as applied to the human mind that's very much worth reading. Materialism for many scientists has become a sort of religion, a dogma setting the bounds of permissible thinking. You can't really call yourself a Christian if you don't believe in God, and scientist-materialists would have it that you can't call yourself a scientist if you aren't a materialist--not, at least, if you allow non-materialist thinking to enter into your view of what constitutes objective reality. It's a frustrating position to argue against, because those who hold it believe that any fundamental disagreement is intrinsically irrational.

Yet it is hardly rational to attempt to account for reality while ignoring or explaining away the actual experience of being human, of being a being that wants, indeed desperately needs, to account for reality. It is an extremely mysterious experience, and people have been trying to figure it out for as long as there have been people. Our materialists are certainly not the first to deny that the experience has any meaning, but surely they are among the first to deny systematically that it even exists in any real sense. 

Gelernter, who is not some vague-minded humanities type but a professor of computer science at Yale,  focuses on the school of thought which takes the computer as an analog to the human being: hardware = body, software = mind. The actual experience of being that sort of being--i.e., human consciousness--is reduced to a more or less illusory epiphenomenon of the operation of the machine. 

Gelernter's critique is extensive and deep (barring a passing not-all-that-well-informed reference to the Catholic Church and heretics), and you should read the whole thing. Here's an important passage:

In her book Absence of Mind, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes that the basic assumption in every variant of “modern thought” is that “the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration.” She tells an anecdote about an anecdote. Several neurobiologists have written about an American railway worker named Phineas Gage. In 1848, when he was 25, an explosion drove an iron rod right through his brain and out the other side. His jaw was shattered and he lost an eye; but he recovered and returned to work, behaving just as he always had—except that now he had occasional rude outbursts of swearing and blaspheming, which (evidently) he had never had before.

Neurobiologists want to show that particular personality traits (such as good manners) emerge from particular regions of the brain. If a region is destroyed, the corresponding piece of personality is destroyed. Your mind is thus the mere product of your genes and your brain. You have nothing to do with it, because there is no subjective, individualyou. “You” are what you say and do. Your inner mental world either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. In fact you might be a zombie; that wouldn’t matter either.

Robinson asks: But what about the actual man Gage? The neurobiologists say nothing about the fact that “Gage was suddenly disfigured and half blind, that he suffered prolonged infections of the brain,” that his most serious injuries were permanent. He was 25 years old and had no hope of recovery. Isn’t it possible, she asks, that his outbursts of angry swearing meant just what they usually mean—that the man was enraged and suffering? When the brain scientists tell this story, writes Robinson, “there is no sense at all that [Gage] was a human being who thought and felt, a man with a singular and terrible fate.”

Man is only a computer if you ignore everything that distinguishes him from a computer.

That last line recalls an exchange I had years ago: I was complaining about the artificial intelligence researchers who assume, with no actual evidence, that computers can ever think in the way that people do, and the person I was talking to replied: "You can only assume computers are people if you think people are computers." 

That assumption is one thing that Gelernter doesn't dwell upon, and it needs to be stressed. It needs to be insisted upon. In science and philosophy of all things no one should be allowed to get away with basing a sweeping claim about reality on an unacknowledged and unsupported assumption, and the materialist view of mind as a sort of secretion of the brain is exactly that. This needs to be said again and again: it is an assumption made in keeping with its proponents' philosophical views, and there is no evidence to support it. Sure, there is plenty of evidence of a mind-brain connection. But there is none to support the assumption that the brain creates the mind.

As part of his critique, Gelernter has some rough words for the arguably insane ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who has a lot of followers among technologists. I had a few harsh things of my own to say about Kurzweil a few years ago, in a piece which, if I may say so, also seems worth reading. It contains a more detailed explanation of the fundamental flaw in the assertion that computers do or can "think" in the sense that we do.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

It's a three-year-old piece called "Singularly Mistaken."

Oddly Amusing

Richard Dawkins, generally lauded for his attacks on Christianity, discovers that some religions are still protected classes in the eyes of the enlightened world. I guess I find it amusing because it's two factions of the neo-Enlightenment snarling at each other, and especially because of the wildly inapplicable use of the weapon of first and last resort, "That's racist!". I don't think it's working as well as it used to. There was a time when I would have been angered at being called a racist; now I think I would just snicker.

I'm actually somewhat in sympathy with Dawkins here, first with "Islam is a race?!?" and second with his skepticism about the scientific achievements of medieval Islam. I realize they exist, but have always suspected that they're exaggerated at the expense of Christendom.

Hart On Dennett

In case you missed it in the comments on the previous post, here, courtesy of Rob G, is David Bentley Hart's extremely sharp, in every sense of the word, commentary on a book in which Daniel Dennett explains the phenomenon of religion to us, and advises us as to how to rid civilization of it. It's particularly enjoyable (and impressive) for its succinct demolition of the pseudo-scientific concept of the "meme," which is, in brief, an idea which takes on a life of its own. Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, takes this metaphor literally, and supposes that memes tend toward their own preservation in the same mechanistic way that genes are said to. From this the Dawkins school professes to be able to study culture as one studies biology. But

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one's conclusions will always be unable to command anyone's assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

It's a measure of the materialist's determination to stick to his dogmas that anyone would advance the "meme" idea in the name of science.

On Daniel Dennett

Found this in an old SNJ (I will be sorting through them for a while) and rather liked it (Dennett, if you don't recognize the name, is one of the aggressive atheists, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea). I had just read a piece in which he predicted that religion would soon wither away, now that we have science and stuff:

Does Dennett really think that unbelief is new, and that exposure to science automatically induces it? Does he really believe that indoctrinating young people in it will crush, within a generation, the human desire for the Absolute? Does he think that no one has ever lost his faith by ignorance and regained it by learning, or lost it by emotion and regained it by reason? Does he think atheism has languished only because no one has ever considered its arguments? Does he, in short, understand anything at all about the human soul?

You can read the whole post here.

No doubt you have often wondered... I have, whether an object dropped through the upper surface of a bubble would also pierce the lower surface, or instead arrive at that location after the bubble had finished bursting and was no longer there.  Of course the result would vary with the size of the bubble etc., but this answers the question for a fairly typical case.


An Interview with the Creator of xkcd

It's more about his new venture, which is a series of carefully researched answers to questions like "What would happen if you pitched a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?"  But interesting for fans of the comic as well: A Conversation with Randall Munroe.

(Short answer to the baseball question: 'The answer turns out to be “a lot of things”, and they all happen very quickly, and it doesn’t end well for the batter (or the pitcher).')

(I have actually often wondered about that question involving rain.)

Speaking of xkcd, here's something to mess up the minds of those pesky election pundits (click to enlarge):



Another Near-Death Experience

We were talking about these a couple of months agoThis one is from a neurosurgeon, who had previously believed that consciousness is an entirely material phenomenon. "But that belief, that theory, now lies broken at our feet. What happened to me destroyed it."

I have not read the Newsweek article to which the short notice above, in the Telegraph, points. Just the fact that it's in Newsweek makes me slightly skeptical. But something is going on here.

Update: you really should read the entire Newsweek piece. It's one of the most full and interesting accounts of this sort of the thing I've ever read. If the man is not just flat-out lying, this is, at a minimum, a striking piece of evidence for the belief that the soul does not begin and end with the body.

A Drowned Forest

A fascinating story from the Sunday paper, by environmental reporter Ben Raines: it seems that the sea-floor-shifting power of Hurricane Katrina exposed the remains of an old cypress forest, now 60 feet (roughly 20 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico and 10 miles (16km) from land. In other words, 10,000 years or so ago these sunken stumps were part of the river delta leading out into the gulf. It makes me think that my battle against erosion on the shore of Mobile Bay is certainly bound to be lost in the long run, at least until we have another Ice Age. Watch the video if you can.

Why do they keep writing this story over and over and over?

"Alien earths may be plentiful" This one and the variant about life probably existing on a jillion other planets. They never have any real evidence, and although the details may vary (like the stuff about the metals here), it's always nearly pure conjecture and speculation.

The fascination of the modern secular mind with this stuff is in itself fascinating. It's a little sad, really: as if this is their last possible refuge for hope that the universe is not pretty much a dead place.