An Audio Interview

A couple of weeks ago, I did an audio interview with someone I met on twitter calling himself Max Kolbe (a pseudonym, the real Max Kolbe is a Polish saint). Max runs an anti-atheist group and is very active on twitter. The interview has been posted on the Freedom from Atheism channel that Max runs with some friends.

I am pleased that this blog, as well as my John Templeton Grant are mentioned during the interview. I has some fun doing it, although it is a bit long. Feel free to take a listen when insomnia is keeping you awake, or if you have a long wait at the Motor vehicle bureau. Among the benefits is to hear my (no longer as thick as it used to be) New York accent.

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Reductionism

My friend Dr. Randy Isaac read my recent post about emergence and got in touch with me about it. Randy recently retired from a long stint as the Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation. A physical scientist and a pretty brilliant guy, Randy is the archetype of the perfect blend of science and faith. We became friends years ago, when I joined ASA and Randy often came to the Washington DC meetings.

As it turns out, Randy is writing a review for the ASA journal (PSCF) of a book by the famous physicist George Ellis that has a bearing on the subject of emergence. The review will appear in the June issue of the journal, and we will discuss  it here when it appears. Ellis has written extensively on cosmology, theoretical physics and the nature of reality. His new book is titled How Can Physics Underlie the Mind? Top-Down Causation in the Human Context.

While I don’t have the book yet, the first chapter and contents are available on Amazon. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter:

ellis-quote

Reductionism is the principle that all phenomena can be traced to lower level components, so that an object can be “reduced” to the sum of the materials that make it up, and each such component can be further reduced to its component molecules and atoms and then particles  Reductionism is often  an important part of atheistic philosophy, since it leaves no room for anything other than what we can measure and describe. But one need not be a theist to reject reductionism, as is demonstrated in Ellis work.

Here are a couple of blurbs for the book, written by people I know. Both are leaders in the Christian/science dialog:

AEG

ALI also came across a video of Ellis speaking at a symposium on causality, which I think gives a pretty good summary of his views (although it moves very quickly).

Ellis speaks of emergence as something apart from the reductionist laws of nature we are familiar with, but the ideas are scientific, with no reference to God or  supernatural forces.  He makes a strong case that the emergent complexity we see everywhere we look is not readily accountable by the reductionist paradigm of rational materialism as we know it. I think it is important to hear this from such an authority on the physics of the universe.

There will be another post on emergence once Randy’s review is published – and if we are lucky, we might get a guest post directly from him. And after I have read and hopefully understood (at least part of) Ellis’ book, I might have more to say about reductionism as well.

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The Origin of Chance

After many many attempts (don’t ask how many, it was a very large number), God finally made the perfect universe. Everything worked great; the stars shone, the sun was brilliant, plants and animals, birds and fish were everywhere, and humans were happily living in the Garden. There was no sin, no death, no misery, and no surprises. God looked at His creation and saw that it was perfect.

But Archangel Michael was bored. So were all the other angels. Now that God had (finally) gotten everything right, including those pesky laws of physics with their infernal constants (see On Constants, Dec 10, 2015 ), there wasn’t much for anyone to do. Satan kept himself busy by trying to tempt some human (for some reason he always tried the women first. That Satan). But he had no success. They always smiled and turned down his offers. Apparently none of them were very curious about the Tree of Knowledge, nor of disobeying the Master of Creation.

As the years and millennia rolled on, not much happened. The snake kept running around like all the other reptiles, and the humans kept loving each other, smiling and praising God. They also sang a lot, and played with each other. One day, Michael was hanging out on Earth, watching a small group of humans who seemed to be amusing themselves quite a bit. They had invented a new game. They would take different-sized sticks and throw them around, and depending on how and where they landed, they did something or other, which often made them laugh.

Michael saw that the humans apparently had no idea where the sticks would land. At first he found that strange until be remembered that humans were not very smart, and probably were not able to predict how the sticks would fall based on the precise configuration in which they were held, the wind speed and direction, and the force and direction of the throw.

None of this was a problem for Michael, of course, but then he was an angel. He envied the humans their excited anticipation and cries of joy or disappointment at the results of the game, and wondered if he would be happier if he were more stupid. But then he had the germ of an idea.

“Satan,” Michael called out, after returning to heaven “I want you to hear something. I have had an idea”. Satan came over and said he couldn’t wait to hear Michael’s latest idea.

“Maybe we should ask the boss to try out one more universe, different from this one.”

“Different how? This one is perfect”

“Yeah, but it’s so boring.” And then Michael told Satan about the game he had seen.

“Yes, I have seen that also. They call it a game of chance.”

“A game of what?”

‘Chance. That means they aren’t smart enough to calculate future events based on causation.” Michael nodded. “But what if the boss made a universe where chance was really  real, I mean, even for us?”

Satan thought about it. “You mean, no laws of physics? How else could you do away with determinism?” Michael didn’t know, but suggested they take the idea upstairs.

As it turned out, God (omniscient as He is) had been thinking along the same lines. Not that He was bored like His angels, but for other reasons that are beyond the comprehension of either the readers or the writer of this tale. Satan made the case for a world where random chance played a big role. In fact, where truly stochastic random chance was at the heart of the behavior of matter. Which nobody at all (“except the Lord God, Master of the Universe, of course,” Michael hastily interjected) could possibly predict.

God liked the idea, and began to think. I don’t how long it took God to think of the answer, because God is not that connected to time, so it’s really hard to say. But at some point he called his angels together and said:

“OK, I am going to try again. Let’s see how it goes.”

And that’s how quantum mechanics was born.

As soon as the new universe was built, God looked it at with satisfaction. “Not perfect this time, but good”. Satan saw the two people in the Garden, and got ready for his latest temptation attempt. “Will this one be different, Lord?’ he asked the boss. After all God could see the future as well as the present.

God smiled. “Oh yes, it will be. And I promise you one thing. It won’t be boring”.

 

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Surprise!!

There is a remarkable thing about scientific discoveries in all fields. They generally tend to be surprising. Nobody (meaning, no scientist) expected that the universe had a clear beginning – that space and time started at a particular moment, before which there was….. well, nothing. Not even time. How surprising was that?

The fact that the speed of light is a constant, whether you are moving toward it or away from it, was a big surprise, and a very disturbing one at that. It made no sense at all, until Einstein came up with special relativity. Which is pretty hard to understand. But even Einstein never quite liked quantum mechanics, with photons playing tricks and going in all possible directions at once until they are observed. What is that all about? Quantum entanglement, “spooky action at a distance”, makes relativity look simple.

And what’s the story with all these particles, and with spin and color, and those dimensions? I mean, what is matter, anyway?

Biology is worse than physics. Genes are made of huge DNA polymers, and there is a code (where did that come from?), but when you look at genes, they are interrupted. This is a surprise – why should genes be interrupted? We (biologists) were pretty sure there had to be around 100,000 human genes, in order to code for all the stuff we have and do, but surprise! There are only about 20,000, less than some plants and flies. How does that work? (We are getting there on that one).

So here is my point. Why is the universe so surprising? Why can’t we ever seem to predict what we are going to find out next? Doesn’t it seem that at some point we should get to a stage of knowledge where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and say “OK, just a few more discoveries, and that will be that, we will finally fully understand….something, anything”. Nobody thinks that is ever going to happen. The sum of our knowledge is a fractal: it just keeps going on and on from one scale to the next, never showing any sign of reaching an end point, or even a plateau.

Recently it was discovered that photosynthesis is based on the quantum coherence of photons acting in the plant pigment to try out all possible pathways simultaneously before settling on the one with the highest efficiency. So all of life on Earth is based on the strangest phenomenon of physics.

How does this all point to God? I think a universe without God would be much more boring and ordinary. The wondrous complexity of everything, from galaxies to protein synthesis, is a reflection of the immense majesty of the Creator. When we study molecular biology, we are doing theology. When we map the new exoplanets circling faraway stars, we are learning about God’s infinite power. When we look into the eyes of our beloved and see the love there, we are witness to the miraculous nature of God’s creative genius.

Evolution is a beautiful mechanism for the generation of millions of species, living creatures of every conceivable kind. But what was the agent that set evolution in motion? And Who is the Agent that produced us, an animal with this strange gift of being able to understand the world? As we learn more and more, as one discovery after the next surprises us, makes us wonder, forces us to think and work harder, we should grow closer to God, the source of  all of this beauty. There is nothing “mere” about our world, there is nothing ordinary about any of us: everything we do is an experimental confirmation of the great scientific finding that God made the world, and that we are loved by Him.

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Evolution and Christian Belief: How Bad is it?

At a recent symposium I attended, I heard a speaker say that Americans are still ignorant about science and reject evolution. The speaker put a good deal of the blame on Christianity, saying that the majority of the major religion in the US (meaning the majority of Christians) reject evolution.

While this kind of statement is good ammunition for both of the extreme ends of the warfare model between science and faith, it has one problem. It isn’t true.

The data on this issue come from a Pew Research Trust survey that has been ongoing for many years. Here are what the data actually show.

About 62% of all American adults believe that humans and other animals got here through evolution. A little less than half of these people also believe that God is somehow involved in the evolutionary process. That might be bad news for atheists, but since I am in the category that believe God is involved, it doesn’t bother me at all. A substantial majority of mainline white Protestants and white Catholics hold to evolution (65% and 66% respectively. Only 38% of Evangelical Christians  believe that evolution is real. This seems depressing, but in fact the trend is positive, since at the previous survey the figure was only 27%.

So, even with the strongly anti-evolutionary sentiment among evangelicals (many of whom are continually being told that evolution is atheistic), 55% of all Christians  accept evolutionary origins for humans and other animals.

Not great, but not as bad as it could be, considering all of the propaganda poured into anti-evolutionism in so many evangelical churches. Even so, more than one third of evangelicals have come round to reject the anti-science bias of their denominations. It is certainly not true that a majority of Christians reject evolution. We have a lot of work to do, among Evangelicals, and others who reject evolution. But the trend is in the right direction, even as fewer people identify as Christians.

That is the trend that should be worrisome, and I think there is a connection between the two issues. Other surveys have found that many college-age and post-college young adults are leaving their Christian faith behind. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most common is that they see religion as being in conflict with science. (evolution being the most direct case). What we need to do is evangelize and explain to  Christian young people that science is not only NOT in opposition to Christian faith, but is one of the strongest pointers to the truth of the majesty of the creator. As I have said before, science is distilled doxology.

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Is there Purpose in Life?

Not a simple question. And the answer depends on who you ask. A Pastor will say yes, of course. Many biologists will answer no, the whole idea of purpose or, the ancient philosophical concept of teleology, has no place in science in general. Things happen in obedience to the laws of nature, not for any purpose.

But I am not so sure this is true when if comes to life as we know it.

I have just had a paper published in the journal Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith, a peer reviewed, scholarly/scientific journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. The paper is called “Teleology and the Origin of Evolution“, and can be found at the journal’s web site .

Here are some extracts from the abstract and body of the paper.

The key to biological evolution is a tight linkage between inheritable genotype and gene-directed phenotype, which allows the phenotype to be the target of selection. It is theoretically possible for some forms of life to exist without evolution; thus, the origin of life and the origin of evolution are two separate research questions. The classical problem of teleology in biology may be approached by a close examination of the mechanism behind the universal genotype-phenotype linkage: the protein synthesis or translation system. This solution to the problem of converting nucleic acid chemistry into protein chemistry may be the fundamental root of teleonomy and inherent teleology in living organisms.

The roots of biological teleology do not lie in the action of evolutionary processes. Instead, I believe they can be found in the very fabric of the evolutionary process. In other words, purpose is built into the central, deepest biochemical meaning of what evolution is.

Cells do not see the future and do not decide to change based on what is needed. And that is the point. Cells do not need to see the future, because evolution provides a way to deal with any novel circumstances or challenges in the absence of sight, thought, will, or any form of consciousness. Evolution by natural selection is the cellular biological alternative to survival by conscious struggle.

If you would like to read the whole paper, and are not yet a member of the ASA, you can get the pdf from this link. 

I expect the conclusions of this paper, namely that teleology is a real part of biology based on a scientific argument, will be controversial, to say the least. I am interested in any thoughts from readers.

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Why Charles Bastian isn’t Famous

Charles Bastian was one of the leading biologists of the 19th century. A professor of Pathological Anatomy at University College, London, Dr. Bastian was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Linnean Society. He was the author of several books and numerous scientific publications in the 1860s and 1870s. Contemporary thinkers listed him along with Tyndall, Pasteur, and Darwin as one of the most important living men of science.

Yet today he is unknown. His name appears in no textbook, nor in any scholarly review of 19th century science. His works are never quoted, and his reputation, once mighty and proud, has simply evaporated. Why? What did H. Charlton Bastian do to merit total obliteration?

Simply put, Bastion was wrong. In fact, he was spectacularly wrong.

The 1870s, of course, were a period of fierce debate about one of the most important  revolutions in biology: Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Many eminent biologists, geologists, and philosophers were opposed to Darwin’s ideas, but Bastian was not among them. He was a supporter of Darwin and Huxley.

The controversy that embroiled his career, and for a while that of his famous contemporary John Tyndall, involved a much older issue: the spontaneous generation of life. The idea that living organisms could arise spontaneously from dead or decaying material was an ancient one, based on repeated observations that maggots or microscopic “animalcules” can appear on a piece of rotten meat or in liquid infusions of organic matter. But by the second half of the 19th century, many scientists repeated the experimental work of the Abbé Spallanzani showing that prior sterilization resulted in an absence of living organisms, and the theory of spontaneous generation of life was fairly widely discredited. At the same time, the whole issue of spontaneous generation became more pressing.

Pasteur’s work, along with that of Lister, Semmelweis, and Koch had shown that many of the serious diseases of the time were caused by microorganisms. The germ theory of disease provided the first solid scientific and theoretical foundation for Western medicine, and for the first time doctors had real hope of eradicating horrible infectious diseases that had ravaged mankind throughout human history.

But at the beginning of this new era of hope and progress, a dire warning was sounded, casting a shadow over the excitement of the early microbe hunters’ work. This pessimistic voice proclaimed that if diseases are caused by microorganisms, then we are actually worse off than ever, because thanks to spontaneous generation, we can never truly eliminate the birth and growth of disease-causing germs from a putrefying wound or from our sewers or water supplies. This voice belonged to Charles Bastian.

What led this distinguished Professor to suddenly raise the old ghost of spontaneous generation at the dawn of a new age of advancement against germs and disease?

Like Pasteur, Tyndall and others, Bastian had repeated the Spallanzani experiments. In his flasks, however, new bacterial growth always appeared. Since he was an eminent man of science, few members of the public doubted his results (which were published in the prestigious journal Nature) or his methods. Some, such as Huxley, suggested that perhaps not all the dormant bacteria in Bastian’s initial infusion had been killed by the heat treatment. Bastian gleefully seized on this argument and proved it to be wrong in a series of experiments, which he published in a book.

In the introduction to this book, entitled Evolution and the origin of life, Bastian states, “Well-informed men of science no longer doubt that swarms of bacteria can be made to appear within sealed glass vessels containing suitable fluids, after the vessels and their contents have been exposed to the temperature of boiling water.” This statement in a book published in 1874 is a bit presumptuous. Certainly, many well-informed men of science had grave doubts about Bastian’s work. A spirited, almost nasty exchange of letters between Bastian and John Tyndall was published in Nature, with both men pointing to their own experiments as refuting the results of their adversary.

Finally, the two men agreed to allow each other to come to their respective laboratories and observe the experiments. Following this exchange, there is only one more pair of letters, because the issue had been decided. Tyndall reports that after observing Dr. Bastian’s experimental apparatus he has solved the mystery. Bastian had meticulously cleaned and boiled his glass vessels, including the broth inside. He had correctly covered the opening of the vessel with a plug of cotton wool dense enough to prevent the entry of even the smallest germ. But Bastian had neglected one step. He had not sterilized the cotton plug before inserting it into the mouth of the flask. Tyndall concluded that live bacteria adhering to the unsterilized cloth had fallen into the broth, giving the false impression of spontaneous generation.

Bastian was quick to reply. He was outraged. He demanded to know how an eminent scientist with a reputation such as Professor Tyndall’s could stoop so low as to try to discredit an entire body of experimental work, as well as a complete biological theory, on something as trivial as a piece of cotton! He vowed to repeat his experiments with boiled cotton in order to demonstrate the absurdity of Professor Tyndall’s infamous suggestion.

After this, nothing was heard from Bastian again. There is no record of his further activities; he simply vanishes.

This tragicomic story has lessons for modern scientists. In the long run, Bastian’s work and writings caused very little harm, if any. His error was an honest one, and I believe that his sudden plunge into obscurity was due more to his initial self-assurance than simply being mistaken. Bastian’s pomposity, his willingness to try to thwart an entire scientific enterprise at its inception, his refusal to admit the possibility of error, and his certainty of being correct while all others are wrong should teach us caution, humility, and the value of criticism from peers.

 

 

 

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