Friday, November 28, 2008

Blackburn on Pinker

Looking at Simon Blackburn’s webpage linked to by Humphrey in his post below, I came across this review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. Regular readers will know that I am a fan of this book and it regularly gets me into trouble. I am pleased to report that Simon Blackburn doesn’t like it at all.

In the review, Blackburn attacks Pinker from several directions. The first is to accuse him of rhetorical trickery. There is no doubt that Pinker’s prose is quite punchy but he also provides plenty of evidence for what he says. The evidence must be the basis of any assault on his ideas. Blackburn also complains that Pinker’s three targets in the book (dualism, the noble savage and the blank slate) are mutually incompatible. This may be true but it is no reason not to attack all three. Besides, holding mutually incompatible ideas in our heads is a typical human trait that Blackburn himself excels at.

But it is with his attacks on behavioural genetics that Blackburn goes well off the rails. He simply doesn’t seem to understand the subject. We get the usual explanation of exactly what heritability means (which you can copy and paste of thousands of internet sites). Yes, having two legs is 100% inherited and 0% heritable, but that is not the traits that we are talking about. Heritability is only meaningful for traits that vary across populations and to point out it is useless in other cases is simply point scoring. If intelligence is 50% heritable (which is almost certainly in the right ballpark), then that means 50% in the variation in intelligence is due to genes. No amount of muddying the waters is going to change this. The bizarre thing is that if Blackburn does not think human intelligence has a sizable heritable portion, then presumably, he also believes that it could not have evolved. If it did not evolve then it must be a miracle, which would make Simon Blackburn a creationist, together with several other stalwarts of the secular left like Johann Hari and David Aaronovitch.

Blackburn then goes on to prove he simply doesn’t understand behavioural genetics at all. In a discussion on the findings by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson that step-fathers are more likely to abuse their partner’s existing offspring than natural fathers are to abuse theirs, he makes a daft comment. Mothers, he says, don’t scowl at their children’s classmates because they are genetic rivals. Well no, because unless the classmates are living with the mother and are someone else’s child, they are not genetic rivals of her own children. And Blackburn makes the wholly irrelevant point that we might also not be so attached to our partner’s existing dogs and sofas. I think he is trying to say that Daly and Wilson’s result might not depend on genes but he provides no evidence for this at all. It’s just an assertion based on intuition which is all the counterarguments to behavioural genetics ever seem to amount to.

Overall, Blackburn’s review, dressed up in his typical too-smug-by-half prose, is a typical example of how wilful misunderstanding of behavioural genetics is an intellectually respectable position. But just because a scientific discovery conflicts with your politics or intuition (or religion for that matter) does not make it false. Blackburn’s distortions of Pinker’s conclusions bear more than a passing similarity to accusations of distortion he migth level at creationists.

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The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 2

In part 1 I explained what the Anthropic Principle is and gave some examples to illustrate it. Basically, the idea is that certain conditions must be met in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe at any time in its history. These conditions are so numerous and so unlikely that, when added together, they make it virtually impossible for there to be a planet capable of supporting life -- at least advanced life -- anywhere in the universe if left to chance. Since there is a planet capable of supporting life (Earth in case you were wondering) it suggests that it wasn't left to chance, that someone intended that the universe would be hospitable to life.

However, while the basic facts are not disputed by scientists in the relevant disciplines, the theistic conclusion is a matter of controversy; some scientists accept it, others don't (here's an interesting sample). In this post I'll go over some of the most common objections made against this inference. I'm saving two objections that require lengthier responses for the next post.

1. "We would not be here to observe the universe unless the very unlikely did happen, so of course we're going to notice how the universe 'just happens' to have the necessary conditions for life." This was my first thought when I heard about the Anthropic Principle for the first time. However, it really doesn't hold any water if you think about it for more than a few seconds. The fact that we are here of course proves that the necessary conditions for life's existence have been met, regardless of how unlikely it is; but the question is not whether these conditions have been met but how they've been met. And the fact that they are unlikely to the point of being impossible shows that they were not met by chance.

The common analogy I've seen in the philosophical literature is the firing squad. If a man were sent to be executed by a hundred sharpshooters and he survives the experience, he could draw two conclusions: they all missed by chance, or they intended him to live (by missing on purpose or filling the guns with blanks for instance). But he would not take the fact that he was alive as evidence that it happened by chance. He would not say, "I wouldn't be here to observe the fact that I'm alive unless I survived -- therefore they must have missed accidentally." In fact the more unlikely his "being alive" was, the more rational it would be for him to conclude that someone decided he should live. In the same way the rational conclusion to draw from the incredible degree of fine-tuning we find in the universe is that someone decided we should live.

2. "We don't have enough information to warrant drawing any conclusions, much less theistic ones." There is certainly some truth to this; the Anthropic Principle is a relatively young field of study, and we should bear this in mind. However, it should also be borne in mind that all of the research has consistently pointed in the same direction: that the prerequisites for life's existence are very specific. Perhaps future scientific discoveries will overturn this evidence, but this could be said of virtually any scientific claim (although it's less implausible for younger fields of study than older ones). At any rate, this isn't really an objection to the theistic conclusion, but to the data itself, and virtually all scientists in the relevant disciplines acknowledge the data.

I also have to say I find it interesting that when scientific discoveries can be seen as going against belief in God, this objection is rarely given. It's only when science seems to point to God that people start suggesting that we can't really draw any conclusions.

3. "We don't have any other universes to compare this one with, so we can't say how likely or unlikely it is for these conditions to be what they are." In the first post I stated that there are two levels to the Anthropic Principle: the conditions that have to be met within the universe, and the conditions that have to be met in the universe as a whole. The conditions that fall into the latter category are initial conditions that are simply given in the Big Bang itself. Since they are initial conditions, there are no prior physical conditions that force them to be the way they are, by definition. There are only two possible conclusions from this: first, that these initial conditions could have been different. Or second, that there were non-physical conditions forcing the universe's physical conditions to be what they are. The first leads to the problem the Anthropic Principle poses: that the universe simply shouldn't be able to support life if left to its own resources, and yet it does. The second leads to the conclusion that there is some non-physical reality, external to the universe, that is able to exert some degree of power over the universe. Thus, both of these conclusions have theistic repercussions.

As for the the conditions that have to be met within the universe, some of them are indeed speculative. For example, while we have no reason to think that planets inherently form with exactly the same surface gravity or axial tilt as Earth, we have not discovered enough extra-solar planets to test it directly. However, many of these conditions are not speculative, but are easily calculable. For example, in order for a planet to be able to support life it must be in a certain type of galaxy, in a certain part of the galaxy, orbiting a certain type of star, etc. It is easily observable and demonstrable how common these conditions are.

Moreover, the fact that we have a sample size of one actually supports the theistic conclusion. This will be demonstrated in the response to one of the objections in the next post.

4. "Chance and intent are not the only two explanations possible. There's also natural law. If there's a law which makes the universe and planets capable of supporting life, the odds of there being other possible life-sites in the universe would be very likely." Well, as pointed out above, the conditions necessary for the universe as a whole are initial conditions. As such, there is no preceding natural law forcing them to be they way they are by definition. The necessary conditions within the universe could, theoretically, be shown to be the result of as-yet-undiscovered natural laws. But in the absence of any evidence for such laws, this suggestion is completely ad hoc, since virtually anything could be explained as the result of some natural law we just haven't discovered yet. Besides, this would only push the problem back to the level of the universe as a whole: any law that makes the universe hospitable to life would have to be exactly what it is in order to ensure that the specific properties necessary for the existence of life are met. The universe would still be fine-tuned for the existence of life, and we'd still need an explanation for why this is the case.

5. "If you change one physical constant it may throw everything off-kilter, but then you can change the other physical constants to compensate for it, and bring it back to being a universe hospitable to life." Incredibly enough, scientists already thought of that. The obvious problem is that changing the other constants does not merely compensate for changing the first one; it would also have dramatic effects which would require us to change more constants, which would have their own effects requiring further changes, etc. There are a few cases where you could do this and end up with a life-permitting universe, but they would be extremely rare. It's like taking a medication that has significant side effects. You then have to take other medications to regulate these side effects, but then these medications also have side effects, so you need to take more medications...

Of course, this analogy only goes so far: taking more medications may actually bring some degree of health to the body. With the universe's physical constants, however, it is almost impossible to alter them and still end up with a life-permitting universe.

6. "Someone wins the lottery, and it would be irrational for that person to think that the extreme improbabilities involved in her winning would demonstrate that someone set it up for her to win. Similarly, life is the result of this universe. This doesn't allow us to think it was set up intentionally to be this way." To illustrate this objection, say you had, for some ungodly reason, billions of ping pong balls and inscribed each one with someone's name until you had one for every person in the world. Also say you had a big enough basket to hold all of them. You then mix them all up and pull one out while blindfolded. Obviously someone's name will be drawn, even though the odds were one in several billion that you would select that particular ball. Similarly, the fact that we have a universe with the specific properties it has may have been improbable, but that does not allow us to draw any conclusions about whether it was "arranged."

But this is a bad analogy. A better one would be if, every time you tweak the universe's properties, you paint a ping pong ball black if it permits the existence of life, and just leave it white if it does not. What you would end up with is an ocean of white ping pong balls with only a handful of black ones scattered throughout. Now of course the odds that you would pull any particular ping pong ball out is equally improbable; but the odds that you would pull out a white ping pong ball is enormously more probable than the odds that you would pull out a black one. Similarly, the odds that the universe would be life-prohibiting is vastly more probable than for it to be life-permitting -- unless someone decided to make it hospitable to life.

This objection seems to be suggesting that life -- the result of this universe -- is arbitrary. Any other universe would have had results too. The problem with this is that all the other possible universes would have had essentially the same result: just matter and energy in motion, and often not even the motion. Ours has something on a whole different level, and the universe must be balanced on a razor's edge in order for it to be that way.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 1, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How Soon is Now?

I have recently finished Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. Greene is one of the leading cheerleaders for string theory and much of the second half of this book is made up of an explanation of how it works. I’ll leave off commenting on this aspect of the book until I’ve read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics which criticises string theory and complains it gets way too much attention. Smolin himself is a supporter of another and equally unproven theory called quantum gravity.

For the record, I thought The Fabric of the Cosmos was quite good although I couldn’t get as carried away as some of the reviewers quoted on the cover. In particular, I found the frequent references to characters from the Simpsons to be rather grating. (This finally persuaded me that I would have to take the passage about Wile E. Coyote out of my discussion of Aristotelian dynamics in God’s Philosophers.)

In this post, I wanted to share with you one idea of Greene’s that derives from good old relativity theory. An old philosophical saw is the question “Does the past (or the future) exist?” Greene says yes, definitely, and relativity proves it. The argument goes like this:

If two people are standing still relative to one another then they both occupy the same time. For both of them, ‘now’ is at the same instant. But suppose that one of them, who we’ll call Albert, starts to walk away from the other, who we’ll call Bertie. Relativity tells us that Albert’s personal clock no longer runs in synchrony with Bertie’s. In fact, Albert’s clock gets slightly ahead of Bertie’s so that, in effect, Albert has travelled back in time relative to Bertie by a tiny amount.

However, if Albert and Bertie are now on opposite sides of the universe from each other, 10 billion light years apart, the divergence of their personal clocks becomes quite marked. Albert moving away from Bertie at a walking pace means that his personal ‘now’ becomes the same moment as a hundred and fifty years before Bertie’s. This doesn’t cause a problem because there is no way that Albert could get to Bertie’s area of space before Bertie’s now had had a chance to catch up with Albert’s. Because nothing can exceed the speed of light, travel back in time in a particular place is not possible.

But that does not alter the fact that we each carry a personal clock and its relationship with the rest of space-time can alter both backwards and forwards. Since we cannot claim that any clock is privileged, the future and past must exist because we can become contemporaneous with them simply by going for a walk. I’m open to thoughts about what this means for creation, divine intervention and freewill. I’ll be posting my own thinking soon.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The birth of human rights – part one

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies - In Congress, July 4, 1776

‘the very principle of inalienable human rights, conferred on many by the Creator, grew out of the typically modern notion that man, as a being capable of knowing nature and the world, was the pinnacle of creation and lord of the world. This modern anthropocentricism inevitably meant that He who allegedly endowed man with his inalienable rights began to disappear from the world....The existence of a higher authority than man himself simply began to get in the way of human aspirations.’

Vaclav Havel – The search for Universal Laws

The idea of human rights is one which many in the West feel should have universal significance for all peoples; and yet throughout its history, the concept has been precarious and its future far from secure. Despite attempts by some scholars to retrospectively universalise human rights - two examples being the depiction of Genghis Khan, and various Chinese emperors by Nikolas Gvosdev as ‘early champions of human rights’, and the dubious baptism of the Cyrus cylinder by the Shah of Iran as the ‘the first human rights charter in history’ – most historians recognise that the story of human rights is the history of a western construct. All civilized societies have cherished ideals of justice and right order, but they have not normally expressed those ideals in terms of individual rights. It would be hard to imagine a Hobbes or Locke emerging in a Confucian culture where the individual is one who is born into relational obligations and responsibilities; and the societal emphasis is on the readier suppression of individual differences and aspirations. Yet the emergence of natural rights in the west was certainly not inevitable. Plato’s ideal society contained no reference to such an idea. Despite the moral high point of Seneca’s stoic philosophy, Roman society remained a military despotism with scant regard for universal human dignity. Thomas Aquinus seems to have been more concerned with the duties of rulers. Instead, as Brian Tierney has documented in ‘The Idea of Natural Rights’ the concept found its unlikely birth from the development of Church canon law from ancient jurisprudence.

By the 12th century, Medieval Europe was experiencing a new vitality. Great networks of commerce were forged, Universities and great Gothic cathedrals were being erected and the towns and cities enjoyed a fresh and vigorous life. This period ushered in a social, political and economic transformation, and an intellectual revitalization of Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots. In religious life there was a new emphasis on the individual person, upon such matters as individual intention in assessing guilt, individual consent in marriage and individual scrutiny in conscience. Accompanying this was a preoccupation with rights. Monarchs began to assert their rights against the papacy. Other figures such as Thomas a Becket defended the rights of the church against the monarchs. Within the interlocking rights of feudal society the communes and guilds emerged which began to claim specific rights and freedoms for their members. This was to culminate in the 1215 Magna Carta which forced King John to recognise the rights of Lords, Vassals, Merchants, all free Englishmen and the church which was to be ‘free, and shall have all its rights entire’ . These rights mentioned in these examples were those of particular persons and classes. Natural rights themselves would emerge from an unlikely source, the canon law of the medieval church.

The evolution of rights in European thought began with the "Renaissance of Law" in the late-eleventh and early twelfth century. During the 12th century there was a great revival of legal studies, centred around the city of Bologna in Italy. Europe was emerging from centuries of near anarchy and there was a perceived need for more adequate systems of law. In 1100AD the whole corpus of Roman Law was recovered and in 1140 Gratian’s Decretum was produced. This was an immensely influential codification of church law, an attempt to create a new structure of universal jurisprudence for the Christian church. The work included rules and regulations but also documented the judicial life of the church over the previous 1,000 years. Gratian's sources were Roman law, the Bible, the writings of (or attributed to) the Church Fathers, papal bulls, the acts of church councils and synods. These two branches of law, Roman and canon, quickly merged into a curriculum in which students studied both and received the degree of "Doctor utriusque iuris," Doctor of both laws.

The Decretum proved to be highly influential and many different commentaries were written on the work; these are known as ‘glosses’. The first chapters of the Decretum contained several different and inconsistent uses of the term ius naturale, ‘the law common to all beings’. Gratian wrote for example that by natural law, all property was common. But he subsequently wrote that human law contrary to natural law was vain and void; so how could the existence of property held under human law be justified?. It was clear the term natural law was being used in different contexts with different meanings, so commentators began to explain the differences. Hugaccio, for instance, wrote that

"Not all the examples of ius naturale given below refer to the same meaning of ius naturale . . . But, lest the mind of some idiot be confused, I will diligently explain them all."

In developing a number of senses of natural law, the jurists were creating a meaning which was not apparent in the ancient text. Their society was a more personalist, rights base culture and consequently they added some radical definitions. The language of the 12th century canonists is in some ways reminiscent of the Stoic doctrine of a natural law in man, but a decisive shift had occurred. For some of the Stoics and Cicero there was a force in man that allowed him to discern the objective natural law which pervaded the universe, a sort of cosmic determinism. The canonists reformulated this objective natural law as as a power, force or faculty somehow inherent in human beings, an ability rooted in human reason and free will to discern what was right and to act rightly. The canonists succeeded in formulating a foundation for the doctrine of natural rights where Stoic reflection had failed.

Natural right was defined for example, when the canonist Rufinus commented on Gratian's "ius naturale," he made the observation that "Natural 'ius' is a certain force instilled in every human creature by nature to do good and avoid the opposite. This Christianized definition of "ius naturale" became commonplace. The greatest canonist of the century, Huguccio, clearly perceived the idea of "natural right" in Gratian's texts. As Tierney explains:

In his more lenient moods, Huguccio did acknowledge that ius naturale could mean a rule of conduct, a "judgment of reason"; but his was a secondary, derivative meaning. For Huguccio, ius naturale in its primary sense was always an attribute of individual persons, "a force of the soul," associated with human rationality.

Once this definition was introduced the concept could be developed from rightful rules of conduct under ius naturale to licit claims and powers residing in individuals. Among the most radical devised by the medieval canonists was a right of the destitute poor to the necessities of life, even if this meant appropriating for themselves the surplus property of the rich. Huguccio was, again, a key figure. He declared that by natural law we should keep what is necessary and distribute what is left to the needy. This is particularly true in times of famine and great need. Later jurists expanded Huguccio's thought and formulated a "right" of the poor to steal or to take food in times of need. As the foremost jurist of the thirteenth century, Hostiensis, put it:

"One who suffers the need of hunger seems to use his right rather than to plan a theft"

As Tierney points out, the natural rights of the poor to subsistence became a commonplace of medieval and early modern thought. At the end of the seventeenth century, John Locke could express this idea as follows "He has given his Brother a Right to the Surplusage of his Goods; so that it cannot justly be denyed him when his pressing Want calls for it". Locke could also write that "Charity gives every man a Title to so much out of another's plenty, as will keep him from extream want."

In presenting subjective definitions of ius naturale, the canonists had come to see that an adequate concept of natural justice had to include a concept of individual rights. By the year 1300, the jurists of the Ius commune had developed a sturdy language of rights and created a number of rights derived from natural law. During the period from 1150 to 1300, they defined the rights of property, self-defense, non-Christians, marriage, and procedure as being rooted in natural, not positive, law. The jurists also began to argue that the right to appear and defend oneself before a court of law—what we should call a right to due process—was not just a part of the civil law of particular nations but rather was grounded in the universal natural law. They argued that, just as there was a natural right of self-defense against physical assault, so too there should be a right to defend oneself against legal charges.By placing these rights squarely within the framework of natural law, the jurists could and did argue that these rights could not be taken away by the human prince. The prince had no jurisdiction over rights based on natural law; consequently these rights were inalienable.

The middle of the 13th century saw a new context for rights language, one which would have far reaching consequences. Pope Innocent IV, a great student of the Canon law faced the issue of whether rights to property and the creation of licit governments belonged to only Christians, or the whole world including infidels. Following some debate Innocent wrote that:

"God makes his sun to rise on the good and the wicked and he feeds the birds of the air….ownership, possession and jurisdiction can belong to infidels licitly . . . for these things were made not only for the faithful but for every rational creature."

This text was to be repeated in canonistic commentaries and was eventually adopted by theologians to defend the rights of non Christians in an unexpected context.

The achievement of the Decretists was to create a language within which a doctrine of natural rights could be expressed by generations of later thinkers. Their definitions of ius as "faculty" or "power" were to be frequently expressed by jurists and political theorists down to the time of Grotius. Already 1300 a number of natural rights were coming to be recognized, such as the rights of the destitute poor, the right of self-defense against physical assault or in a court of law, rights in marriage. Even the rights of infidels. But this was only a beginning and did not represent a fully coherent doctrine. New situations were soon to arise in which rights language would be developed and brought to the fore.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Inside the Medieval Television Show

When I heard that Professor Robert Bartlett was presenting a series of shows on Inside the Medieval Mind for BBC4, I was quite exciting. Bartlett, of St Andrew’s University, is our leading historian of the Middle Ages and his books are both well-written and carefully argued. This made the series a bitter disappointment because, despite including some titbits that would have interested a viewer who was unfamiliar with them, it dumbed down the subject matter and did little to dispel the commonplace illusions about the Middle Ages.

When I heard that Professor Robert Bartlett’s lectures on The Natural and Supernatural in the Middle Ages were to be published by Cambridge University Press, I was quite exciting. The result did not disappoint. The four essays, originally delivered at as Wiles Lectures at the Queen’s University, Belfast are fascinating, witty and informative. They brim with careful analysis and fascinating anecdotes that dispose of many common myths about the Middle Ages.

So how did Professor Bartlett manage to fail on TV and succeed in print? I’ve no idea. The plot becomes even more convoluted when you compare how the same events are discussed in both the shows and the lectures. Let me give a couple of examples.

In the show, we hear that people reacted to an eclipse of the moon by leaping around and shouting to help the moon because it was being consumed by monsters. Oh, how foolish these medieval folk were! But in the lectures, we find Bartlett has omitted from his TV presentation the all-important point that the Church condemned such superstition. In fact, the early-medieval sermon by Hrabanus Maurus from which we glean the story of the eclipse goes on to accurately explain the physical cause of the phenomenon and explain that it is nothing to be concerned about. Given Bartlett spent the relevant scene of the TV show creeping around a churchyard, the implication was clearly that the Church was somehow involved in the foolish panic.

Later, Barlett mentioned the alleged imprisonment of Roger Bacon. In the lectures he suggests that this might have been due to Bacon’s liberal views on magic. As it happens, the lectures also make a rather better case that Bacon’s troubles (if they happened at all) were linked to his apocalyptic views about the end of the world. But in the TV show, if I recall, the implication was that Bacon’s imprisonment was for his materialist views on Aristotle’s On the Soul. That is one I’d never heard before and does not feature in the lectures (where, presumably, it would have had to have been documented).

I suppose the moral of the story is that academics should avoid the television no matter how distinguished they are. But I can’t see many of them would be able to resist the lure of the goggle box. I certainly wouldn’t.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

About time

E really does = mc2. Finally I can exhale.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Off the hook?

Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lee Randolph argue that as a result of recent advances in behavioral and neural science it is hard to preserve any meaningful concept of moral blame or praiseworthiness. If our behavioral tendencies are largely determined by genetics, upbringing and peer influence, can we say that we are ever truly responsible for our actions? As Randolph puts it: "Since the brain is a biological device. It can be influenced by physiological factors, and physiological factors induce desire and motivation. Since we cannot get outside of our thoughts and feelings, they make up our personality our 'essence'. This renders any judgment by an external supernatural creator meaningless because it would know that we are helpless to feel any other way than our physiological make up will support at the time, and that our behavior and desire will follow that. We are helpless to think any thoughts that are not supported by our physiological make up at the time. The physiological factors would have to be eliminated to make any judgment meaningful."

I would dispute that physiological factors have to be eliminated in order for judgment to be meaningful. One might as well say that 'soul-stuff' would have to be eliminated if that is the basis for our making decisions under a dualistic anthropology. The fact that our decisions have a structured basis constrained by various rules of operation does not rule out intentional agency.

That said, I do agree that a more nuanced understanding of the causes of human behavior is in order. There are biological conditions which should temper our eagerness to assign blame in the case of unusual or destructive behavior. But are there cases where a person with reasonable mental capacity and no obvious psychological imbalances still engages in calculated, destructive behavior that we can assign blameworthiness to? I believe there are many such cases. I list just a couple below:

1) Human trafficking: the sickening truth about the slave trade today is that it is mostly conducted by people who are in it for the money. The traders are for the most part smart, efficient and well-organized. They did not necessarily come from poverty or domestic abuse. Many were military officers who lost their jobs when the Soviet Union dissolved and borders became porous (see Misha Glenny's McMafia, reviewed here). There are certainly trans-individual factors at work which make women and young girls desperate and likely to be fooled by promises of work and money abroad, and conversely the economic deprivation that makes a 'career' in human trafficking seem attractive to certain people. But the fact is that these are not crimes of passion, they are not the result of seratonin imbalances (in fact many of the traffickers have families of their own whom they care about deeply so we can't argue that they're even psychopathic). Brothel owners and slave traders made a conscious, deliberate decision to profit from human misery and are often astonishingly creative and dedicated to honing their 'craft' by concocting elaborate schemes to fool border patrols and transport the girls to their clients. This is evil, not just inconvenience or a socially conditioned taboo, and the people who perpetrate it are completely responsible for their actions. No insanity plea can be effective here.

2) Pelting: despite PETA's notorious and dubiously effective animal rights activism they have put their finger on a horrifying phenomenon that continues unabated to this day: careless and rampant cruelty to animals in the fur trade and other industries. They have put up a truly disturbing video on their website (I warn you, this is NOT for the faint of heart) of pelters in China taking dogs, foxes and other furry creatures one by one, smacking them against the ground to subdue them (but without actually killing them) and then slowly skinning them alive, occasionally stopping to give the animal another good thwack on the ground if it struggles or twitches. After the skinning, with many of the animals still alive, they are left on a heap to die slowly. Again, this is no crime of passion and is not the result of a bad childhood. These pelters are simply businessmen doing their job. They could easily have chosen to mercifully end the animals' lives before pelting them. No seratonin deficiency would have overriden their conscious action. They make a choice every day to inflict the most monstrous brutality on these animals and no one is responsible but they themselves. (I won't go into the question now of whether God is justified in creating a world in which animals suffer in the wild as a result of natural predation. In the above case the chain of responsibility is clear: it lies with human beings. With God and creation the issue is much less clear cut, because we have to take into account the ultimate purpose of creation, etc.)

Cross-posted at Christian CADRE

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The fall of man and the genesis of modern science

The history of Science began as a discipline towards the end of the 19th century with the emergence of such works as John William Draper’sHistory of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ and Andrew Dickinson White’sHistory of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’. These books presented a triumphalist view of science as symptomatic of the progressive nature of western civilisation and anathema to a biblical understanding of nature. The history of the development of science as narrated by White and Draper, represented a series of triumphs of reason over dogma and superstition. This view has been largely overturned by modern historiography, although it is still alive and well in the public consciousness and has become an ineradicable part of popular mythology.

Modern scholarship now favours the complexity thesis which presents the relationship of religion and science as much more positive than is popularly thought. Studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. Some of the most influential work of recent times has come from Professor Peter Harrison, the Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, who has published extensively on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period. Central to an understanding of the European intellectual landscape of the 16th and 17th century – the era of the scientific revolution – is the question of why is it in the west we value scientific activity?. This seems an odd question to the modern mind, but it worth recalling that scientific activity does not deliver much practical payoff for the first couple of centuries. As a result the underlying moral and intellectual values that will underpin scientific activities are key in understanding their development.

In ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science’ Peter Harrison has shown that early modern debates about the acquisition of knowledge were dominated by the Augustinian belief that the 'fall' of Adam in the Garden of Eden not only deprived Adam's mind and senses of their original perfection, but also led to the loss of intellectual capacity in all of humanity. The promotion and practice of experimental science, he argues, were meant to counter these epistemological effects of original sin and scientific techniques were developed explicitly with theological doctrines in mind. One finds this most strikingly in many of the prefaces to works of natural philosophy, and in the intellectual discourse of the time. Robert South, the Oxford orator describes the figure of Adam in these terms:

‘He came into the world a philosopher (a scientist), which sufficiently appeared by his writing the nature of things upon their names; he could view essences in themselves, and read forms without the comment of their respective properties; he could see consequents yet dormant in their principles, and effects yet unborn and in the womb of their causes; his understanding could almost pierce into future contingents; his conjectures improving even to prophecy, or the certainties of prediction; till his fall, it was ignorant of nothing but sin, or at least it rested in the notion, without the smart of the experiment....I confess tis difficult for us who date our ignorance from our first birth and are still bred up with the same infirmities about us, with which we are born, to raise our thoughts and imaginations to those intellectual affections that attended our nature in its time of innocence’

Adam here is depicted as the perfect philosopher with a comprehensive knowledge of the natural world and the ability by looking at the present state of affairs to predict the future. Some figures, such as Luther, even maintained that Adam possessed such attributes as telescopic vision. In the early modern period this was contrasted with humanities present state of knowledge which pales in comparison to that enjoyed by Adam in paradise. The perfections of Adam’s knowledge were held up as an aspiration for the present generation, and yet were regarded as impossible to fulfil due to the damage caused by the fall.

In one of the most famous statements of this kind, Francis Bacon states that:

"Man by the Fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses can in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith; the latter by arts and science, for creation was not by the curse made forever a rebel"

Humans, he asserted, could "recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest," and should endeavour "to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the [entire] universe."

Bacon argued that not merely are there the barriers to knowledge generated by the fallen nature of the human mind but that the natural world itself was also cursed and resists our investigations. The Royal Society founded itself on Baconian principles and adopted as its motto, 'Nullius in verba (take no-ones words for it)'. This choice of words was significant because it demonstrated the academy fellow’s commitment to find out things for themselves and not simply to accept the view of the received authorities. This was a development which was paralleled in the religious sphere with the Protestant emphasis on what was called “experimental religion” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this period the term “experimental” occurs as much if not more in a religious context than a scientific one, and by that term was then meant “direct experience”.

The academy’s response to the state of the human condition as a consequence of the fall was to advocate the particular approach of experimental natural philosophy.

Robert Hooke who became the first curator of experiments for the royal society says in his preface to his famous Micrographia in 1665:

‘By the addition of such artificial Instruments and methods, there may be, in some manner, a reparation made for the mischiefs, and imperfection, mankind has drawn upon it self, by negligence, and intemperance, and a wilful and superstitious deserting the Prescripts and Rules of Nature, whereby every man, both from a deriv'd corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, Is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors…The only way which now remains for us to recover some degree of those former perfections, seems to be, by rectifying the operations of the Sense, the Memory, and Reason, since upon the evidence, the strength, the integrity, and the right correspondence of all these, all the light, by which our actions are to be guided, is to be renewed, and all our command over things is to be establish’

Such thinking was far from being the preserve of the English. In Catholic France the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, claimed that while we have aspirations to perfect knowledge we are acutely conscious that we fall well short:

‘The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood’

In another example, the Cartesian philosopher Nicholas Malebranche titled his book ‘Concerning the Search after Truth - In which is treated the nature of the human mind and the use that must be made of it to avoid error in the sciences’. His emphasis was on the need to identify error, the assumption being that as fallen beings we are naturally prone to it. By understanding the initial conditions of Adam we will be in a position to set up structures to ameliorate the consequences of the fall.

It followed that the experimental method and the more rational approach towards the natural world would provide such a framework. This was an important shift. Aristotelianism was undeniably empirically based, but tended to make generalisations on the basis of our commonsense observations – “heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones”. Nature was read uncritically and taken to be more or less as it presents itself to us. This is in stark contrast to seventeenth century English “experimental philosophy”, which interrogates nature and examines it time and time again under what are essentially “unnatural” or artificial conditions.

What provoked all this discussion centred around the fall of Adam?. The first factor was the renewed interest in biblical narratives understood in their literal sense. In the Middle Ages, Adam’s mastery over nature was conceived as the struggle to establish reason over the more bestial passions. With the arrival of the Reformation, biblical narratives became conceived in a literal sense and In the writings of Bacon and his contemporaries the philosophical life became not just about reordering the mental dominion, but now projecting this order out onto the material world.

The second factor was the revival of ancient skepticism which chimed extremely well with the fall narrative and the idea we consequently cannot really know anything. The early modern period saw what can only be called a skeptical crisis, partly caused by the revival of ancient philosophy, but also importantly, a revival of Augustinian thought. This became a powerful strain in the thought of both Protestants and Catholics and put the question about original sin and its consequences to the forefront. Competing views about the nature of original sin had enormous impact on natural philosophy and informed differing epistemological programs. Those who took a negative view of the damage caused by the fall were more likely to favour experimental natural philosophy. Those who took an optimistic approach were more likely to be rationalists. The intellectual fervour created by the Reformation thus swept over into the natural sciences and helped provide the conceptual framework for modern science.

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The heart of the matter

In a previous post I referred to black holes as ‘the sculptors of the cosmos’. This may actually turn out to be the wrong metaphor. NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory released some fascinating data this week which suggests that the powerful (supermassive) black holes at the center of massive galaxies and galaxy clusters act as hearts to the systems, pumping energy out at regular intervals to regulate the growth of the black holes themselves, as well as star formation.

The scientists observed and simulated how the black hole at the center of elliptical galaxy M84 dependably sends bubbles of hot plasma into space, heating up interstellar space. This heat is believed to slow both the formation of new stars and the growth of the black hole itself, helping the galaxy remain stable. Interstellar gases only coalesce into new stars when the gas is cool enough.

The heating is more efficient at the sites where it is most needed, the scientists say.
Alexis Finoguenov, of UMBC and the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, compares the central black hole to a heart muscle.

“Just like our hearts periodically pump our circulatory systems to keep us alive, black holes give galaxies a vital warm component. They are a careful creation of nature, allowing a galaxy to maintain a fragile equilibrium,”

Finoguenov said.
This finding helps to explain a decades-long paradox of the existence of large amounts of warm gas around certain galaxies, making them appear bright to the Chandra X-ray telescope.

A paper on the research called “In-depth Chandra study of the AGN feedback in Virgo Elliptical Galaxy M84” has been published in Astrophysical Journal.

There has been something of a rehabilitation for black holes, which for decades were seen as threatening and pointless; symptomatic of the random nature of the cosmos. Now science is showing that we owe them a big favour for helping bring us into existence.

Is a bit mischievous to speculate that there may be some more 'fine tuning' issues?. We shall have to wait and see.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Of schadenfreude and mass extinctions

In his Pensées the great mathematician and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal presented the following allegory for the human condition:

‘Picture a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death; each day some are strangled in the sight of the rest; those who remain see their own condition in that of their fellows, looking at one another with sorrow and without hope, each awaiting his turn. This is the picture of the condition of man.’

To improve the accuracy of this metaphor and modify it for the present day I would include a group of sneering Oxbridge dons in the corner of the cell, mocking those who naively attempt to jolly the spirits of the prisoners and revelling in their own self-righteousness and schadenfreude. Latter day members of the intelligentsia condemn the likes of Aquinas for saying that ‘the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked’, yet in their eyes life consists of one long conveyer belt of thoroughly democratic annihilation. All of humanity - the meek, the strong and the downright nasty - burst into existence and then fizzle impotently out again like a collection of 'energy saving' lightbulbs. One such luminary is Simon Blackburn who has reviewed the work of the Reverend John Polkinghorne. Amidst the usual dismal naturalist clichés – who designed the designer?, explaining the unknown in terms of agency is primitive etc, etc – he presents his depiction of the human condition as follows:

‘Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.’

This is indeed the worldview bestowed upon us by science; but what an appallingly depressing spin to put on it. Admittedly not as gloomy as Sir Martin Rees who recently penned a book by the name of ‘Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century’. In this tome he argues that the chances of human extinction are around 50% due to uncontrolled scientific research, nanotechnology, fundamentalist violence, and destruction of the biosphere; hopefully not all at the same time. Clearly the Judeo-Christian longing for the apocalypse is alive and well even in the more hardened materialist. For myself I tend to scorn these predictions, although despite this confident facade I do occasionally listen out for the inevitable flock of nanobots, intent on skinning alive me and the rest of the inhabitants of North London in a fit of robotic genocide.

Blackburn’s view suffers from something I identify as ‘Epicurean syndrome’, the idea that our minuscule size equates to our importance and that in the literally billions of years we have left in the cosmos we will do absolutely nothing to improve our condition. Nature has shown us a spectacular number of favours by giving rise to us as a casual analysis of the various cosmological parameters will demonstrate. If we play our cards right the universe is our oyster; but it won’t be if we don the misery tinted spectacles and set about rationalising away our humanity.

And yet, the don is right when he says that our existence is highly contingent. Not that this should be a particular cause for concern. If say, my parents had decided to settle down to watch an episode of Countdown instead of launching a (fairly) successful bid to pass their genes into the next generation then I and this long-winded blog post would not exist. I don’t think however, given eons of time and the evolutionary process, that it is tenable to regard the appearance of intelligent life in this universe as some kind of accidental end point, especially given the constraints of natural law and the inevitable population of ‘design space’. But what of the Dinosaurs?, would not the continued existence of large mammal eating reptiles prevent our lineage from ever conquering the earth surface, and does that not argue strongly against any sort of teleology.

In the case of mass extinctions in evolutionary history the role of chance and accident, combined with lurid descriptions of the catastrophic circumstances descending onto an unsuspecting world has provided a powerful impetus to evolutionary thinking in terms of the radical, and unpredictable redirection of the history of life. This position was most stridently articulated by the late Stephen J Gould who focused his attention on the end Cretaceous K/T. Here there is compelling evidence for a catastrophic impact from a passing asteroid and the crippling of reptilian diversity. This handed the ecological baton to the birds and mammals, which then were able to radiate into numerous niches. Had the asteroid missed, the argument goes, we would not be around.

According to the Cambridge Palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, this interpretation overlooks several unfortunate facts. First, of the other four big mass extinctions in the Phanerozoic (ie from the beginning of the Cambrian and so an effective fossil record) the net result of three of them (end Ordovician, late Devonian and Triassic) was muted. What succeeded did not differ so greatly from what preceded. Second, a good argument can be made that even those two extinctions, K/T and end-Permian, that are highly catastrophic only served to accelerate or postpone the course of evolution, but they failed to divert the overall path. The world entered a series of major glaciations from about 350 million years ago. There is little doubt that the warm blooded birds and mammals that were co-existent with the dinosaurs would have seized the opportunity to rapidly diversify into the temperate and polar regions. The tropics would remain the preserve of the reptiles but nearer the poles we would predict that the diversification of the warm blooded groups would see the emergence of complex organisations including vocalisation tool making, social play and co-operative hunting. All these attributes have evolved in birds quite independently of the mammals as indeed has warm bloodedness itself (which allows larger brain sizes due to the maintenance of regular temperature). Given that these properties are convergent it seems likely that sooner rather than later, hunter gatherers would have emerged, although perhaps 20 million years 'behind schedule'. Lastly there is growing evidence that the meteor impact was merely the final straw for the dinosaurs which had failed to take advantage of the abundant food supply that emerged during the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution, a time of plenty in Earths terrestrial history in which flowering plants, lizards, snakes, birds and mammals all became much more numerous. Some studies have suggested that they were beginning face stiff competition for example the pterodactyls were increasingly coming up against and losing out to shore birds. Therefore, at the risk of upsetting my reptilian cousins I would have to conclude that they would meet their demise sooner or later; although I’m sure they were more deserving recipients of the evolutionary baton than our species.

The hero of Blackburn’s piece is David Hume who he approvingly quotes as having said that ‘when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal’. True, but Hume himself supported the Church establishment because of the salutary effect of religion on people's lives; his enemy was religious superstition, not religious enthusiasm to which he was more approving. Those who tried to debase people of that belief, he conceded 'may for aught I know, be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians'. The French philosophes scorned him for his 'History of England' in which he argued that 'there must be an ecclesiastical order and a public establishment of religion in every civilised community'. Consequently a friend of Hume’s living in Paris reported that 'poor Hume who on your side of the water was thought to have too little religion, is here thought to have too much'. His position was more nuanced than the knuckle dragging materialists of present day academia.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Homo adorans

Here's a fascinating article about what appears to be an 11,000 year-old temple. That's before written language, before metal tools, before animals were domesticated, and even before agriculture. Recently, J.D. very cleverly suggested that humankind should be designated as homo ideologicus. I'm not so sure, though. Before we can create our ideologies, we have to have a basic experience of and response to what our ideologies eventually center around. It seems to me that man is a worshipping animal, and this discovery of an incredibly early temple may illustrate the point.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

The Multiverse agony aunt

As a compliment to Jim's informative series on the anthropic coincidences I would like to draw attention to Max Tegmark’s excellent page on multiverse theories here. The various multiverses fall into four distinct categories:

Level I: (Open multiverse) A generic prediction of cosmic inflation is an infinite ergodic universe, which, being infinite, must contain Hubble volumes realizing all initial conditions.

Level II: (Andrei Linde's bubble theory) In chaotic inflation, other thermalized regions may have different effective physical constants, dimensionality and particle content.

Level III: Each quantum possibility correspondes to a universe. Suppose your throw a die that contains 6 sides. When the die fall, one could ask why the outcome is the way it is. The answer is: All 6 possible ways the die can fall is actually actualized in 6 different universes.

Level IV: (The Ultimate ensemble theory of Tegmark) Other mathematical structures give different fundamental equations of physics. This level considers "real" any hypothetical universe based on one of these structures. Since this subsumes all other possible ensembles, it brings closure to the hierarchy of multiverses: there cannot be a Level V.

I am delighted to inform you that all of these theories have the effect of turning reality into a sick joke, as evidenced by Tegmark’s agony aunt section in which his baffled readership struggle to come to terms with the implications.

Question : The personally troubling aspect of the multiverse theory, which, fortunately and unfortunately, seems quite plausible, is that---if every conceivable universe exists---that means that your similar being, and mine, somewhere out there is ( be gentle as I can be) an axe-murder and (not so gentle) worse! That is hard to accept for me in this universe, even if true. I guess the good news is that it isn't really me...but pretty darnn close to me since if every iteration is plausible then somewhere our "clone" has seen typed this email and then went out and robbed the local gas station, 7-11, next closest gas station, etc. etc.!

Tegmark : Things inconsistent with the laws of physics will never happen - everything else will. However, to cheer you up: even if some of your twins hold up gas stations, most of your twins certainly don't, given what I already know about your personality; it's important to keep track of the statistics, since even if everything conceivable happens somewhere, really freak events happen only exponentially rarely.

Quodlibeta Comment : Of course, the flip side of all that is, if you happen to be an axe murderer in this universe and this arises from a key flaw in your personality, the chances are that the vast majority of your other clones in the set of all possible universes will be axe murderers too, although statistically some will be peace loving hippies.

Question : Within the context of the multiverse, doesn't every conceivable physical possibility occur? If I'm driving my car and stop abruptly to keep from hitting a squirrel, don't I purposely run over that same squirrel in an alternate universe. And if so, isn't the number of universes that follow each outcome approximately the same?

Tegmark : No - and that's the crux. The laws of physics and your behavior evolved through natural selection create much regularity across the multiverse, so you'll try to spare that squirrel in the vast majority of all parallel universes where "you" are pretty similar to the copy reading this email (just as regards the above-mentioned gas station robbery). The fractions only split close to 50-50 for decisions that you perceive as a very close call.

Quodlibeta Comment : Why must these other versions of the questioner in the set of possible universes be driving cars?. Might they not be riding giant squirrels and swerving to avoid marsupials?.

Question : Doesn't the multiverse theory completely trivialize existence? It puts the burden for individual responsibility on the shoulders of the universe. Why do anything? If you decide to be a lazy slug, that just means that your particle clone elsewhere will be the one who wins the Nobel prize.

Tegmark : I'm not convinced that the existence of parallel universes implies that I should dramatically alter my behavior. Yes, some near-clones of me indeed win the Nobel prize, but only a very small fraction of them! As in the gas station question above, it's important to keep track of the statistics, since even if everything conceivable happens somewhere, really freak events happen rarely, in an exponentially small fraction of all parallel universes. It's these statistics that make existence complex and interesting rather than trivial.

Quodlibeta Comment : Great, now I don't just have to cope with the fact that most of my contempories are more successful than me, a large proportion of my clones in the multiverse are as well!. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that statistically, a large percentage of them will be bums.

Having wiped the tears of laughter from my face, the question remains, should those of a monotheistic disposition believe in the multiverse?. I was delighted to discover that this topic came up during the Middle Ages when a number of clerics asked whether god could create more than one universe or whether he/she/it would be happy sticking with one?. In the event the Bishop of Paris was forced to intervene and said that yes, God could create as many universes as he wanted and there the matter was settled. Later John of Vassals said that God could create an infinite universe provided that it was not too infinite as this would be tantamount to creating another god. Thomas Bradwardine on the other hand (who later became archbishop of Canterbury) insisted that the universe was has to be infinite because god is infinite and exists in the universe. Moreover, present day commentators such as Peter Bussey of Glasgow University warn of the risk of ‘dumbing down God’. A multiverse is, after all, far harder for a deity to create than a single universe. On the basis of that it would be prudent to plump for a multiverse category, although you might want to 'fine tune' it to make it less silly.

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The Anthropic Principle for Misanthropes, part 1

One of the ways in which contemporary science has appeared to undergird religious belief is the Anthropic Principle. This is the investigation of the necessary conditions for the existence of life. It's an entire field of study, so obviously my treatment here is not even remotely exhaustive. There could easily be a blog entirely devoted to this subject reporting on new discoveries and studies on an almost daily basis.

The Anthropic Principle has its origins in the 1960s with scientists trying to determine the likelihood of other possible life-sites in the universe. It was thought at the time that the universe is so huge, there must be plenty of habitable planets, potentially with life and advanced civilizations already present.

What they have discovered is that the number of conditions that have to be met in order for a planet to be capable of supporting life are so numerous and so unlikely that, even when factoring the size of the universe into the equation, the odds of there being any planet anywhere in the universe that would meet all of the necessary conditions by chance is essentially zero. But this raised an obvious problem: there is a planet that meets all of these conditions. You're sitting on it. Since the Anthropic Principle demonstrates that it's improbable to the point of being impossible for this to have come about by chance, it suggests that these conditions are the way they are because someone intended that Earth should be able to support life.

There is debate as to whether the Anthropic Principle applies to all life or only to complex life. Many scientists argue that simple, unicellular life might be able to survive outside of the severe parameters necessary for advanced life, and could even be widespread. Probably the most popular book arguing this point is Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. If we grant this for the sake of argument, we're still left with a universe in which advanced life simply shouldn't exist, if left to its own resources. And yet, as you may have noticed, it does.

There are really two levels to the Anthropic Principle. The first is what has already been mentioned: the necessary conditions that must be met within the universe. For example, the planet must be in a particular part of a particular type of galaxy -- in a spiral galaxy and in between spiral arms. It must also have a particular interstellar history, such as nearby white dwarf binary stars that have lost some of their surface material to interstellar space in order to provide flourine. It must orbit a particular type of star with particular types of outer planets. The planet must have a particular axial tilt, a particular magnetic field, have a moon of a particular size and distance, etc., ad infinitum. Again, it's not an issue of individual criteria being met -- the universe is so big that there will be other places that meet even extremely improbable conditions. The point is that it has to meet them all, and when the conditions are combined it shows, even given the unfathomable size of the universe, that the odds are absurdly improbable that there would be a place that would be able to support life.

One of the properties on this level that has impressed me the most involves the Kuiper Belt. This is an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune. A few years ago, scientists decided (ex cathedra) that Pluto isn't actually a planet, but is just a fairly large and fairly close Kuiper Belt Object.

The gravitational effects from the Kuiper Belt stabilize Neptune's orbit. If the Kuiper Belt's mass were any different (either less or greater), it would start a domino effect, throwing off Neptune's orbit, which would in turn throw off Uranus', then Saturn's, and then Jupiter's. Then the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth, would be disrupted to the extent that none of them would have an orbit stable enough to permit life. It just blows me away that life on Earth is dependent on an asteroid belt outside the orbit of Neptune.

Recently, astronomers have found that our dependence on the Kuiper Belt is even greater than was previously thought (see here, here, and here). Using computer modeling of our solar system's development, they discovered that early on, Uranus and Neptune were much closer to the sun (as was the Kuiper Belt) and possessed much more eccentric orbits. The gravitational effects between the Kuiper Belt Objects and Neptune and Uranus had to be very specific in order for all of them to drift further away from the Sun and then establish the stable orbits they have today.

The second level of the Anthropic Principle is the universe as a whole. Scientists have formed mathematical models with the laws of nature slightly tweaked, and used this to investigate what must be necessary for the existence of life. What they've discovered is that if most of the laws were different by very slight amounts -- if gravity was slightly weaker or stronger for example -- it would prevent any kind of life from existing anywhere in the entire history of the universe. This implies, again, that whatever Agency brought the universe into existence did so in such a way that it could support the existence of life.

The best examples of this are the universe's mass density and its space-energy density (or "dark energy"). The former essentially refers to how much matter the universe contains. As the universe expanded outward from the Big Bang, the amount of matter affected the speed, since the more mass there was, the greater gravity would slow it down. If the mass density was any greater by even a tiny amount, it would have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, causing the universe to collapse back on itself. If it was any weaker, then the expansion would overwhelm gravity enough that galaxies would never form, and without galaxies you don't have enough nearby stars to provide the heavier elements on which life depends. Specifically, the mass density has to be exactly what it is to within one part in 1060 in order for life to exist in the universe.

The second factor mentioned above is dark energy. This refers to the "stretchiness" of the space-time fabric. This concept has its origins in Einstein's cosmological constant (symbolized by the Greek letter lambda), a force that counteracts gravity which he posited in order to escape the Big Bang singularity. He suggested that the further away two objects were, the more they would repel each other. However, no such force could be detected, much less at the strength required for Einstein's scenario. In the past several years however, scientists have managed to detect this force. It's far, far too weak to be used in the way Einstein intended -- to avoid a beginning of the universe -- but it does have a positive value. This force accounts for a very unusual phenomenon: that as the universe expands, it actually seems to be speeding up. The further the universe stretches, the more quickly it stretches. The reason this is called "stretching" is because it's not just a matter of stars and galaxies moving away from each other: the fabric of space-time is actually stretching out further. You yourself are getting slightly bigger each year as the universe expands. And you thought it was the donuts.

If the properties of dark energy were slightly different, it would affect the rate at which the universe expands, and this leads to the same problem as the mass density: either the universe would collapse upon itself (if it wasn't stretchy enough) or it would not form stars and galaxies and the heavier elements upon which life depends would not be available (if it was too stretchy). In fact, dark energy has to be fine-tuned to an even greater degree than the mass density is. It has to be exact to within one part in 10120.

As far as I know, the fact that the universe is balanced on a knife's edge -- that if dozens of its properties were different in the slightest degrees, life (or at least advanced life) could never exist at any time and any place in its history -- is recognized by all scientists in the relevant disciplines. Accounting for this is a different matter. As I've suggested above, many scientists have thought that the fine-tuning of the universe demonstrates that, in Fred Hoyle's terms, "a superintellect monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology." But of course there have been many objections made against this inference. I'll deal with a few of the more common ones in future installments.

Update (13 Feb): See also part 2, part 3, and part 4.

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Admin and some sad news

Two technical points first. Quodlibeta now allows comments. The congregation of regent masters voted that comments should be allowed and, as a humble clerks, we can do no more than execute their collective will.

Also, if you are as behind the times technically as I am, you may not have yet discovered the delights of feeds. If not, I can only recommend setting up an account on something like Google Reader and pressing the little orange button on the right of the screen on this blog. This means that you don’t have to check back to see if Quodlibeta has been updated since your last visit as any updates will, thanks the magic of feeds, be brought to you.

Finally, some news which anyone interested in medieval science will be extremely saddened to hear. John D. North has died at the age of 72. He was the leading scholar in the field of medieval mathematics and astronomy for the last thirty years. He will be best remembered for his work on Richard of Wallingford, recently repackaged for a popular readership as God’s Clockmaker.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Creation Myths

At the heart of the modern day science and religion debate is the conflict between the creation passages of Genesis and Titus Lucretius Carus’s poem ‘On the nature of things’, two competing visions of the meaning and the value of human existence. Both are in a sense cosmogonical myths, yet to recognize them as such is not to diminish their significance or truthfulness. Myths are not lies or detached stories. Rather they serve as imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that can present particular ways of interpreting the world and its meaning. As the British philosopher Mary Midgley argues, the myths we live by ‘shape our symbolism, our metaphysics and our understanding of what is real’. This is a point often missed when referring to Genesis which has come to be regarded as an inerrant repository of scientific truth. Yet to hold its message as literal is to ignore the reality of how we use language and literature in many different ways; as Origen puts it in 'On First Principles' :

‘What man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without the sun and moon and stars?....I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events’

Polanyi in ‘Personal Knowledge’ similarly reflects that:

'The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the frescos of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origins of the universe than the representation of the world as a chance collection of atoms. For the Biblical cosmology continues to express - however inadequately - the significance of the fact the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our vital experience of this world. The assumption that the world has some meaning which is linked to our calling as the only responsible beings in the world, is an important example of the supernatural aspect of experience which Christian interpretations of the universe explore and develop.’

On the nature of things is an epic which moves in lofty and conversational language through such themes as the universe, human beings, the soul, death and the Gods. Lucretius’s pretext for writing the poem is to convert his friend Memmius to Epicureanism; but also to strike a blow against antiquity’s teleologists, the Platonists, the Aristotelians and most of all, the Stoics. He chooses to do so in verse in order to sweeten this bitter pill of his rather dismal and dispiriting philosophy in which life is accidental both in the everyday and in the genesis. To Lucretius, his mentor Epicurius is the spiritual and moral savior of himself and mankind; a man whose teachings have the power to free humankind from the fear of the gods by demonstrating that all things occur by natural causes. The poem seeks to grandly proclaim the reality of humanity’s role in a universe ruled by chance, a cosmos in which we are decoupled from any cosmic master plan. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand, an expression of both defiance and hope in the face of philosophical despair. For Lucretius, one of the chief obstacles to the tranquillity of mind is the fear of death, the fear of punishment after death and the fear of the gods. By showing that the mind and spirit are mortal, and that they therefore cannot live on after we die, the poet seeks to banish these concerns; nothing to us: when we exist death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist. Consequently it does not concern either the living or the dead since for the living it is non existent and the dead no longer exist’

Phillip Larkin certainly didn’t find any scrap of consolation in Lucretius. As he stared into the abyss, the abyss stared back into him. In his great poem ‘Aubade’ he remarked:

‘This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,

That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade

Created to pretend we never die,

And specious stuff that says
No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round..’

If non existence is indeed the eventual state of affairs then Larkin presumably never had to experience the embarrassment of looking down from upon high as his friends and family discovered he had amassed the largest collection of hardcore pornography in the northern hemisphere. Nor did he have to watch on in horror as his biographers poured through his diaries to find he had written of the joys of ‘WATCHING SCHOOLGIRLS SUCK EACH OTHER OFF WHILE YOU WHIP THEM". Perhaps Lucretius was right and eternal annihilation has its plus side.

Of perhaps the most significance in the poem is its depiction of Epicurus’s version of atomism, in which the universe originates at some indefinite point in the past as an infinite number of small, hard, indestructible particles moving downward through void space in parallel. Ours is a world in which bodies composed of many atoms entangled with one another, then move in a variety of ways and interact with one another through collision. Superficially the depiction of reality contained in ‘On the Nature of Things’ would seem to be anathema to the picture contained in Genesis of an orderly Cosmos created and ruled over by an Omnipotent God, yet it was the creative tension between the two which gave birth to the mechanical philosophy of early modern science. The atomistic picture succeeded when it was wedded by Gassendi, Mersenne and Descartes to the purposive understanding of the cosmos derived from Genesis and biblical notions of God’s power. Descartes for example, expressed motion as follows:

‘From the mere fact that God gave pieces of matter various movements at their first creation, and that he now preserves all this matter in being in the same way as he first created it, he must likely always preserve in it the same quantity of motion’.

What we now recognize as a scientific principle was therefore formulated through a theological concept of divine immutability. The universe ran like a clock, but not autonomously; divine preservation shaped it and held it in being . Later theorists such as Boyle recognized the atomistic picture as an ally to Christian belief, divesting nature of all inherent powers and making brute matter subservient to God’s immediate Will, controlled in motion by laws externally imposed. In such a universe God’s sovereignty could be celebrated. Genesis and ‘On the Nature of Things’ appear strange bedfellows but molded together they provided a powerful interpretive framework capable of gaining great insight.

At first glance, the world around us is much as it was described in De Rerum Natura, which has become something of a creation myth for metaphysical naturalism, minus the magnificently indifferent Gods whom the materialists have long since evaporated with their animosity towards the supernatural. In the atomistic picture, the soul is just a collection of particles animated by blind chance, the discovery of the evolutionary process shattered Paley’s watchmaker argument, Laplace eliminated God from the heavens and natural theology retreated into talk of process.

And yet, as Francis Bacon was to write on the difference between the Aristotelian and Epicurean world pictures:

‘Nay, even that school which is most accused of atheism doth most demonstrate religion; that is, the school of Leucippus and Democritus and Epicurus. For it is a thousand times more credible, that four mutable elements, and one immutable fifth essence, duly and eternally placed, need no God, than that an army of infinite small portions, or seeds unplaced, should have produced this order and beauty, without a divine marshal’.

The God has been eliminated by enlightenment doubt, yet the rational ordered universe remains as an inexplicable brute fact, its laws and regularities curiously permitting of our existence. As Bacon would say ‘It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism’. But when one steps back from creation and looks in wonder at the whole majestic sweep, at the finely balanced atomic structures, the infinity of stars across the night sky, a universe of mathematical beauty, and the unlikely emergence of Einstein, Newton and Michelangelo from the blind algorithmic workings of evolution and the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules; then one gets a dim sense of the mind behind this universal frame. We are nothing but atoms, but we are much more than just atoms. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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