Insights from Science

I’m not a scientist and I don’t read science journals, but do enjoy reading the more “popular science” reported in DISCOVER magazine.  In the November 2017 issue there were two articles that had quotes that caught my attention.  These are a bit random, but here goes:

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(Photo by Seth Bobosh)

 Max Tegmark in an article, “Our Next Billion Years: Humanity only just arrived on Earth.  But its future is in the Cosmos” writes:

“Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our universe has awoken and become aware of itself. . . .  Although these self-aware stargazers disagree on many things, they tend to agree that these galaxies are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics.  So before our universe awoke, there was no beauty.  This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: It transformed our universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope – and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose.  Had our universe never awoken, then it would have been completely pointless – merely a gigantic waste of space.  Should our universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless.”

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The appearance of conscious beings on earth – namely us humans – has impacted the entire universe.  This is not merely the claim of believers, but is now acknowledge in the scientific world as well.  Humans by being not only observers of the universe but conscious and intentional participants in it have altered the universe.  Humans give meaning to the cosmos as well as derive knowledge from it.  We are not merely along for the ride with no ability to affect our destiny.  Humans do not merely observe, but even have taken our own development (our genetics, our evolution) into our hands.  (see also my blog The Antropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?)  We can and do impact not just human development, but we now affect the entire world and our influence is expanding into space.  The arrival of humans, self-conscious beings, in the universe is awesome, and that awe has led humans to acknowledge their own coming into an already existing cosmos.  We stand in awe before the cosmic reality, but we give it meaning and purpose.  In awe we celebrate creation by worshiping the Creator.  Our self-awareness serves a purpose, allowing us to come to know not just the empirical universe, but the God in whom the universe itself exists.

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Not only are humans self-aware, but they are also very creative and have managed to take items which occurred in nature and reshape them into useful tools, which further advanced human development.  This is the segue into the second article.

2.  Bridget Alex writes in “Stone Cold Science”:

“Because stone tools are a forgotten technology, the purpose behind different styles is not self-evident.  Scholars in the 19th century devised names, like scraper, point and burin, based on shape and assumed function.  But they had no evidence that scrapers scraped or points impaled.  Unsure how stone tools were used, archeologists fared better at determining how they were made.”

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Something I’ve not thought much about in terms of archaeology.  Stone items are discovered which are thousands or tens of thousands of years old.  We look at those items from a 21st Century perspective and try to determine what purpose the item served.  But we are anachronistically reading into the item what its use must have been based on modern tools, methods and assumptions.  We really don’t know what the original intent of the tool was.  Tools might have been invented for one purpose but then through time it is discovered the tool is very good for a purpose totally different than its original intention.  The original purpose is lost in history and all that remains is what purpose the tool served later in history.  We may never know what a stone knife was originally conceived as.  All we can know is how the knife became used at some point in history – a use which was passed down from that point on to our generation.  Thus when looking at archaeological finds, we have to be careful not to overly read our understanding into an early time period. What we might use a tool for today may never have been conceived by the first inventors of the tools.

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Egyptian Deity: Genius

The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self

“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them…?”    (Job 7:17, NRSV)

Icon Detail: the Creation of Adam

Back in January I read Evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne’s USA  TODAY article,  Why We don’t Really Have Free Will, in which he dismisses the notion of self and free will claiming science has proven these to be illusions.  I didn’t find his evidence or arguments all that convincing and wrote my own blog series in which I questioned his claims.  The point in the blog series where I begin discussing Coyne’s arguments is Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2) .

It so happened that about the same time I read the review of two books, written by scientists in which they call into question the conclusions and claims  of some of the neo-atheists like Coyne regarding the brain and free will.   I purchased the two books and read them which in turn prompts me to write this blog series.

The two books I read are Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.  Both authors accept evolution and Darwinian claims and both acknowledge the value of much of the neuro-medical research currently being done.   But each author also reservations about some of the claims being made some neuro-scientists based on this research.  The questions they raise about the research varies from scientific questions to philosophical assumptions.  Does the research really prove there is no free will, or does it philosophically assume there is no free and then interprets the data in the light of its philosophical bias?

The books were interesting, but difficult reads at points – sometimes because my lack of medical training made the science difficult to understand and sometimes because the issue being raised was critically looking at philosophical issues and points of logic, which I am also not well versed in.  So I had to stop at points to keep terminology and points of logic straight.

Tallis is a self-professed atheist, secular humanist. I first encountered his arguments in the June 2011 issue of the The Wilson Quarterly.   I wanted to read him because though an atheist he defends both the notion of ‘self’ and of ‘free will.’   I found it interesting that theists and atheists may find common cause in resisting some of the claims of the neuro-scientists as we defend the reality of free will and the self.  Tallis writes:

“In defending the humanities, the arts, the law, ethics, economics, politics and even religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause and, in reductive naturalism, a common adversary: scientism.”  (p 336)

Tallis has coined phrases to derisively portray what he sees as the misreading of the scientists by those not being guided by the scientific method but rather who use philosophical biases to determine how to read the evidence.  He opposes biological determinism, known as biologism which is based completely in a materialist viewpoint and says basically that everything that happens in the universe is simply the result of previous materialistic causes.  Thus no one has free will, rather the universe, including all human behavior,  is unfolding according to the laws of nature.  Tallis’ arguments say that many scientists have completely bought in to two errors which are against both science and logic:

1)    Darwinitis – “the ‘Darwinization’ of our understanding of humanity”; and

2)    Neuromania – “the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science, to explain our behavior”.

Tallis complains that by scientists describing animal behavior anthropomorphically what results is “the Disneyficaton of animal consciousness” meaning we really psychologize all animal behavior reading into animals human emotions and logic and we animalize human behavior.  We assume that animals think like humans, and we come to believe that humans are nothing more than an animal.  These notions are false and both Tallis and Gazzaniga  set out to show why they are false assumptions.  Tallis cautions:

“… what I am attacking is not science but scientism: the mistaken belief that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) can or will give a complete description and even explanation of everything, including human life.” (p 15)

Gazzaniga expresses it this way:

“I think that we are facing the same conundrum that physicists dealt with when they assumed Newton’s laws were universal. The laws are not universal to all levels of organization; it depends which level of organization you are describing, and new rules apply when higher levels emerge. Quantum mechanics are the rules for atoms, Newton’s laws are the rules for objects, and one couldn’t completely predict the other. So the question is whether we can take what we know from the micro level of neurophysiology about neurons and neurotransmitters and come up with a determinist model to predict conscious thoughts, the outcomes of brains, or psychology. Or even more problematic is the outcome with the encounter of three brains. Can we derive the macro story from the micro story? I do not think so.”   (Kindle Loc. 2070-75)

Next:   The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self (II)

The Genetic Side of Being Human

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Mystery of Ourselves.  We are now looking at some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Le Fanu raises some serious questions regarding the limits of evolution to explain the how and why of genetics.   He argues that there really is much more mystery to being human than evolutionary theory admits.

“… there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. The ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans-but we have moved, in the wake of the Genome Project, from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only don’t understand the principles, we have no conception of what they might be. We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller puts it: one of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility…”  (Kindle Loc. 413-19)

One of Le Fanu’s insightful questions has to deal with “why?”   Whereas geneticists might be able to link a particular gene or series of genes with a particular body trait (2 arms, large brain, etc), still that doesn’t answer the question why it is so.   Le Fanu sees in humans, as well as in all creatures, an awesome mystery.  We have discovered genes, the genetic code, the genome, but we have no way of knowing the principles which govern how the genes “know” what it is they are to reproduce.  This is a mystery which causes Le Fanu to marvel, and to criticize science for not recognizing the awesomeness of what it built into nature.

“Why then, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint in the Human Genome of those unique attributes of the upright stance and massively expanded brain that so distinguish us from our primate cousins?”  (Kindle Loc. 545-46)

All genes for all living species basically are made up of the same few proteins.  Yet in those same  few chemical components are all of the codes which enable the genes to make not only a particular organ but to have it be in the exact right location of a particular life form.  But what makes it just so, remains a hidden marvel.

“So, while the equivalence of the human and chimp genomes provides the most tantalising evidence for our close relatedness, it offers not the slightest hint of how that evolutionary transformation came about – but rather appears to cut us off from our immediate antecedents entirely.”  (Kindle Loc. 874-76)

These are the questions which Le Fanu believes evolutionary theory and genetics cannot answer.  He sees this as a serious limit to the theory, but more importantly they raise issues whose explanation may lie far beyond what science is capable of answering.  They suggest that there are forces at work in the gentic code which are not physical/material but which are real and essential to life.

“The elegant spiral of the Double Helix, like Newton’s law of gravity, combines great simplicity with phenomenal power. But the practicalities of what it does, how it imposes the order of ‘form’ and all the complexities of life on the fertilised egg, are of a qualitatively different order – and for the obvious reason that ‘life’ is immeasurably more complex than ‘matter’.”  (Kindle Loc. 2112-15)

The amazing capabilities of genes give Le Fanu pause – is not life more than simply matter?

“This automated factory carries out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on Earth … but with one capacity not equalled in any of our most advanced machines – it is capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours.”  (Kindle Loc. 2137-39)

Of course science often responds to such claims of wonder and marvel with the words “yet.”   We cannot answer the questions “yet” but one day we will.   And many are convinced that the answers will be found in matter since the empirical world is the only world which exists.   The questions Le Fanu raises are sometimes thrown into a category of being questions that focus on the “gaps” in our knowledge, and believers often attribute these gaps in our knowledge to God.  Which causes some to characterize these doubts about evolution as the God of the gaps.  But then the scientists believe that in due time our scientific efforts  will fill these gaps.

And some scientists do marvel at nature.  The November issue of DISCOVER magazine (“The Bug with Built-in Sidekicks”) reported the marvel of the citrus mealybug, which contains within it the bacteria Tremblaya princeps.  Neither species can live without the other.  But then within this bacteria is an even smaller microbe Moranella endobia and again all three species are interdependent on each other for survival as they each contribute some of the amino acids that are necessary for all there to survive – no one of the creatures is capable of making all the amino acids necessary to live.   The scientists studying the bug-within-a-bug have no idea how this arrangement evolved or how it works.  “It’s a fascinating quirk of evolution,” said one.   Indeed, life in its most simple forms (Tremblaya has the smallest genome of any living thing) elicit wonder.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

The Mystery of Ourselves

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  In the previous blog, Christianity and Science, we looked at some of the comments of Dr. Gayle Woloschak in her article “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   With this blog we begin our look at some of the claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Part of Le Fanu’s criticism of science is that it is so focused on materialism that it misses the greater mysteries which are visible in the science itself.

“We have lost that sense of living in an enchanted world. We might now, thanks to science, comprehend the universe of which we are a part, only to discover that its properties, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, ‘are precisely those we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good – nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’. We have lost, too, sight of the most significant factor of all – the exceptionality of the human mind.”   (Kindle Highlight Loc. 4195-98)

Some scientists who reject the idea of a Creator are hostile to Le Fanu’s thoughts as they are to theists who embrace many of the claims of science.   I, however, do not think that believers should feel so threatened by atheistic science.  According to modern physics, a little less than 5% of the universe is made up of matter,  about 25% is dark matter, and about 70% is dark energy.  So when we are looking at biology, we are to begin with looking only at that 5% of the universe which constitutes matter that we can study through the biological sciences.  And then we realize that the total percent of the matter in the universe which is properly the realm of biology and evolution is a much smaller portion of the total matter in the universe.  On the grand scale of things any theory of evolution is talking about a disproportionately tiny part of the known universe.   So for all the bluster evolutionary theorists like to muster against theists, they are talking about a small fraction of the universe anyway.  Theists are holding to ideas that take the entire universe into consideration not just that that miniscule portion of our planet that is the limit of evolutionary science.  Evolution at best describes a small fraction of the entire matter of the universe.  Of course it is the matter that is important to us, because it is our story and our history which is being discussed.  But for those who embrace scientific theism, there is a whole lot more to the universe than is being described or accounted for by evolution.  As Harvard science professor Lisa Randall says in her article on dark energy and matter, “If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be the shortsightedness of believing that what we see is all there is.”  (DISCOVER, November 2011, p 59)

Nevertheless, the fight between faith and reason, science and religion is mostly led on the religious side by fundamentalists and biblical literalists  as is obvious in such articles as the 17 October 2011 NY Times  The Evangelical Rejection of Reason by Christian authors and college professors Karl W. Giberson and Randall J. Stephens.  They belong to an evangelical tradition but distance themselves from those fundamentalists who reject science and reason.

“Americans have always trusted in God, and even today atheism is little more than a quiet voice on the margins. Faith, working calmly in the lives of Americans from George Washington to Barack Obama, has motivated some of America’s finest moments. But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians.”

So while the anti-scientific and anti-reason rhetoric belongs mostly to fundamentalists and literalists, the rest of Christianity cannot just look askance and avoid the discussion.   We have a responsibility to make the effort to bridge the gap between those who claim to embrace Christianity but who fear and oppose the claims of science.  It is the same science which made computing possible which measures the age of the universe.  While some people’s faith rests on the claim that Genesis is literally true, Genesis itself was not written to be a modern scientific study.   Namely, it doesn’t present claims that can be verified by tests of falsification.   It is a document that rests on faith, and doesn’t itself require that it be read literally.

James Le Fanu takes on the atheistic claims of some scientists and basically charges that some scientists have lost sight of their objectivity and the limits of science.  These scientists make atheistic assumptions about the universe and then try to conform the facts and reality to their assumptions, which is the opposite of the intellectual rigor which the falsification process in science demands.  Rather scientists should follow the facts to whatever truths can be derived from them.

“But that Fall of Man, toppled at last from his pedestal to confront the meaninglessness of his existence, has resulted, as we have seen, first in the most grievous social policies and, second, in his being deprived of his freedom, to become no more than a plaything of his genes. The source of all this mischief lies in the necessity to portray man not as he is, but as he has to be in order to incorporate him into an evolutionary theory that requires him to be different ‘only in degree but not in kind’ from his primate cousins.”  (Kindle Highlight Loc. 2947-50)

So Le Fanu claims to set out what man is, not what evolutionary theory needs him to be, and thus he reads the scientific evidence in a way different from the atheist.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human

Science and the Church: Are the facts in?

One reason why I became interested in theology was my own seeking for truth.  No doubt in my younger years I had a simplistic idea about truth – truth would be so obvious that no one could resist or refute it.  Probably the idea was based in my own self-arrogant notion that if the truth was convincing to me, then eventually everyone else would recognize it as well.   In my eyes both science and Christianity were interested in truth, and there was no difference between scientific truth and the theological truth of Christianity.  Truth is truth.  All truth, even scientific truth, is Christian truth.

Such naïve thinking hit a wall with the notion of evolution.  The topic of evolution was for many a divide pitting Christianity against science.  It confronted my own ideas of Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”   (John 18:38)      For many on both sides of the evolutionary debate, the truth of science and Christianity were irreconcilable.  Some on each side denied the other had anything to do with truth.

For my part, my ideas on the nature of truth kept evolving as I tried to incorporate in my thinking the issues raised by the debate on evolution.  While not abandoning the love of and pursuit of truth, I have come to recognize the complexity of the issue and that for some the notion of truth in science and religion will never be reconciled partly because some don’t want such a reconciliation.  They want either science or religion to be true.  (See also my blog Well Reasoned Words for further thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion.)

Recently I read James Le Fanu’s  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves .  I appreciated the book’s critical evaluation of evolutionary theory.  It raised for me some of the most serious challenges to evolution that I have read.  On the other hand, I was unimpressed with the concluding chapters of the book as I felt he over reached on his conclusions which weakened the book.

At the same time that I was reading Le Fanu, I also read Dr. Gayle Woloschak’s “The Compatability of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Orthodoxy” in the ST. VLADIMIR’S THEOLOGICAL QUARTERLY, Vol 55, No. 2, 2011.   Woloschak as the article’s title implies defends both evolutionary theory and its compatibility with Orthodoxy.

In this blog series I want to explore  the ideas these two authors raised.  For my part, I am still at peace with the search for truth represented by theology and science. I continue to read the debate with interest even if I hold little hope that the debate can be resolved.   Evolution for a theist is  nothing more than the scientific description of the mechanisms at work in our world which describe the unfolding of life since God brought life into existence.  Once creation existed it follows properties and laws which can be observed – and that is the nature of science to test these observations against the theories describing how the empirical world works.

Woloschak’s article has no connection to Le Fanu’s book.  I bring them together solely on the basis that I happened to read them both at the same time.   Both accept many of the basic claims of evolution.  Woloschak’s take is that evolution is dealing with a discovered truth about life on earth which is heavily supported by scientific evidence especially DNA.   Le Fanu’s argument is that human life as can be understood through the study of genetics and the human brain is far more complex than can be explained by evolution alone.   He argues that evolution simply cannot account for some of the greatest wonders of the human brain and of how genetics actually works.  While his book raises in my mind serious questions as to whether the theory of evolution fully explains what has unfolded on planet earth, no doubt his questions are still in the realm of pointing out gaps in the theory – not completely refuting the theory, but pointing to pieces of the puzzle that just don’t quite fit (and some scientists would add an emphatic “YET!”).

First I will look at the thinking of Dr. Woloschak.

“Often in everyday language, people equate the world ‘theory’ with ‘speculation’ or a ‘conjecture.’  In scientific practice, however, the word theory has a very specific meaning – it is a model of the world (or some portion of it) from which falsifiable hypotheses can be generated and verified (or not) through empirical observation of facts.  In this way, the concepts of ‘theory’ and ‘fact’ are not opposed to each other, but rather exist in a reciprocal relationship.” (Woloschak, p 210)

Charles Darwin

For the sake of the discussion on evolution the implication is that evolutionary theory is not implying speculation but rather forms a way of seeing and understanding the world that is based in observable facts that have gathered and explanations that have been tested against the facts that come to form the best picture that can be offered to account for the known facts.  Theory is our best approximation of accounting for the known facts.  Science is that process by which hypotheses are tested against empirical data in order to determine which ideas are false and thus can be dismissed.  In theological terms one can argue that the falsification process of science is really an apophatic way to come to the knowledge of the truth.  Science is forever skeptical and works to deny hypotheses in order to form the best understanding of the truth.

As Corey Powell, Editor in Chief of DISCOVER noted in the magazines November 2011 issue:

“Science is relentless this way.  Its practitioners are fallible and often mistaken, but over time its process holds all ideas and hypotheses accountable to the same standard of proof.  It is a beautiful paradox:  Uncertainty as the optimal path toward certainty, or at least the closest thing to certainty we can get.”

That is the beauty and awesomeness of science – two descriptive words that might make some scientists cringe for their unscientific standards.  But they are words that continue to convince me that science’s own interest in truth is a pursuit worthy of God.  Powell’s emphasis on uncertainty as helping us get as close as we can to certainty is welcomed by theistic scientists.  The troubling issue for theists is when some scientists proclaims themselves absolutely certain, embracing a determinism not completely supported by the facts, and then push that certainty to rejecting theology as well.

Next:  Christianity and Science

The Word, The Information, The Bit (II)

This is the 2nd Blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1).

Socrates (d. 399 BC) according to Plato (d. 347 BC) worried that humans would become increasingly forgetful due to the invention of writing.  The written word would mean memorization was obsolete.  There would be nothing for students to learn.

Repetition was the mother of all learning, learning mostly meant memorizing the wisdom of the past.   The written word was a technology that though making  a more permanent record (memory!),  threatened the very nature of what learning was thought to be.  You no longer needed to memorize to be wise if you knew how to read and how to research.  And the written language allowed not just memorization but also analysis.

“In the ancient world, alphabetical lists scarcely appeared until around 250BCE, in papyrus texts from Alexandria.  The great library there seems to have used at least some alphabetization in organizing its books.  The need for such an artificial ordering scheme arises only with large collections of data, not otherwise ordered.  And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence…” (p 58)

Hieroglyphics

Ordering letters and then books by alphabetizing helped make the written language even more useful since greater quantities of information could now be found even in large collections of writings.  There was then a leap from the technology of writing to the technology of machines which could reproduce, use and code writing.

Charles Babbage (d. 1871) became fascinated by a loom whose weaving pattern was controlled by punch cards.

“Inspiring him, as well, was the loom on display in the Strand, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, controlled by instructions encoded and stored as holes punched in cards.

What caught Babbage’s fancy was not the weaving, but rather the encoding, from one medium to another, of patterns.” (p 109)

An artist designed the cards, the weaver could use different threads and colors to produce the artist’s patterns.   A machine that could convert abstract ideas into physical things, and cards that could store memory – the artist’s patterns.  The basis for computing was being formed.  And collaboration between art and science was being established.

“The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols.  In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together.”  (p 177)

The use of machines gave rise to a mechanical view of the universe.  Everything was following a pattern, perhaps pre-determined, and science was intent upon discovering those patterns in order to explain the universe.  But then these machines opened to our observation the atomic world and sub-atomic world, and suddenly the world was not quite as predictable as thought.

“It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. . . .  More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.”  (Alan Turing  d 1954, p 212)

What science was becoming aware of is the notion of entropy – randomness that was actually related to the idea of information.    Randomness which could be measured – it contained information.  Heat for example is caused by the random motion of atoms.  That randomness can be measured, and so can the “unavailability” of energy be measured.   Such randomness and “unavailability” actually contain information! (pp 270-271)

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

Truth is Truth: the Affect Heuristic and Temptation

“All truth is Christian truth” is a phrase often attributed to St. Justin the Philosopher (d. ca. 165AD).  It is an axiom which has influenced many Christian thinkers through history.  It is based in a belief that truth is truth – there isn’t one truth for Christians and a different one for scientists and yet another for Buddhists.  Truth is from the one God.  We are in search of truth.  Jesus claimed to be the truth.  All truth thus has the same source and reveals to us the underlying unity of the universe which is our Creator.  Whatever the science is that explains how it is possible for life to exist on earth, is the same science that allows God to become incarnate.  The universe is one, just as God is one, and truth is one.

Such thinking has also allowed many Christians to be at peace with the truths about the universe that science has uncovered, including the origins of the universe and its evolution through billions of years of history.

While I believe the Bible is true, I don’t look to Genesis to give me a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe.  But sometimes I am amazed how the truth presented in an ancient religious document like Genesis resonates with modern scientific ideas.

Jason Daley in the 8 July 2011 issue of DISCOVER magazine writes an article about how humans assess risk entitled, “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You.”   It is a fascinating article but here I want to focus on one quote and compare it with something presented in the Book of Genesis.   Daley wrote about the findings of psychologist Paul Slovic and how we make decisions which involve a choice with some type of risk:

“But of all the mental rules of thumb and biases banging around in our brain, the most influential in assessing risk is the ‘affect’ heuristic (note: a heuristic is a mental shortcut or bias which our brains use in making choices which allows us to make instant decisions).  Slovic calls affect ‘a faint whisper of emotion’ that creeps into our decisions.  Simply put, positive feelings associated with a choice tend to make us think it has more benefits.  Negative correlations make us think an action is riskier.  One study by Slovic showed that when people decide to start smoking despite years of exposure to antismoking campaigns, they hardly ever think about the risks.  Instead, it’s all about the short-term ‘hedonic’ pleasure.  The good outweighs the bad, which they never fully expect to experience.”

Speaking about risks and warnings, long before there were anti-smoking campaigns, we can think about the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, contemplating the forbidden fruit:

 “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”  (Genesis 3:6)

The mental mechanics of decision making and weighing risks has not changed in humans in the past couple of thousand years.  Health campaigns and even dire warnings from God do not stop humans from giving in to the “affect heuristic”, aka as temptation.   We may have much more information than the ancients, but our brains work the same.  Despite highly informational warnings, we take risks because we convince ourselves the pleasures outweigh the negative consequences.  The story of Eve is the story of us all.   We don’t read Genesis to discover ancient history and or modern science.  We read it because it offers us insight into what it means to be human, and why the world is the way it is.  Despite the Enlightenment’s optimism that all humans need is to be better educated, information and education don’t always outweigh our desire for pleasure and self-satisfaction.  What science calls the “affect heuristic” is called temptation to sin in Christianity.   Same concept in different contexts.  And on issues such as smoking, despite huge differences in assumptions, much of science, Buddhism and Christianity agree:  it is bad for you and you need to learn to say no to your desire.  Truth is truth.

An Evolutionary Alternative?

Though the controversy between evolution and creation science is not always on my front burner, I do see articles on the topic from time to time that interest me.  Such was the case of the interview with “self-described ‘evolutionist’” Lynn Margulis in the April 2011 issue of DISCOVER.  Though an accomplished scientist who has contributed to an understanding of evolution, she doesn’t believe neo-Darwinism has the ability to explain evolution fully.

Margulis says, “Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.”  She says if you look at the studies of Gregor Mendel and his rule of heredity, you see stasis not change.  “There is no gradualism in the fossil record.”  Field studies show variations within a species and then suddenly a new species.  Margulis thinks the critics of evolutionary theory offer valid criticisms of the theory, but she finds no scientific support for ideas of intelligent design.

Her alternative is the theory of “symbiogenesis” in which genetic changes enter into a species through their biological relationships with other species or even bacteria.  She says most evolutionary biologists ignore the relationships between species, between “bacteria, protoctists, fungi, animals and plants.”  She thinks neo-Darwinism is just too narrowly focused – even as it studies a genome it fails to take into account how species interrelate with each other and also with all other environmental factors.

Margulis shows that a scientist can hold unconventional and even unpopular views and yet still respect the scientific enterprise and be respected by it.  She acknowledge in the interview that some scientists are not governed by a search for truth, but by what research will win them more grant money.  She doesn’t resolve the divide between evolution and creationism, but she thinks critically about the problems both present and offers a scientific alternative.

Genetic Engineering (I)

(Originally written in 2003)

Dachau Crematorium: Genocide is Genetic Engineering

Though much attention gets focused on the work of genetic scientists and their potential impact on the human gene pool, in fact modern geneticists are not the inventors of “genetic engineering.” Ever since humans began making choices regarding mates and mating, the value of various human lives, and warfare, policy makers have been engaged in a process of genetic engineering not based in modern science but in ideologies, nationalism, and economic self interest. The question is not only should policy makers oversee genetic science and technologies, but how can all humans use the knowledge of the genetic sciences to understand, be aware of and influence the decisions of humanity’s leadership. Humans as a species have conscious self awareness, only now are we becoming consciously aware of the power of this knowledge.

Becoming Aware of the Impact of Human Consciousness

Scientists involved in various forms of genetic research and technology have become the focus of attention in the debates regarding their potential effect on the human gene pool. The reality of life however is that current geneticists are not the originators of efforts to manipulate the human gene pool. These scientists have merely helped focus our attention on the effects of human conscious choice on the gene pool. Policy makers worried that such genetic scientists need to controlled have in fact dangerously narrowed the perspective required to understand the issues involved. It is not science alone that has, is, or can change genetics, nature and humanity. Politicians, ideologues, industrialists, doctors, and military leaders have been shaping these same issues for all of human history. Geneticists by helping us understand how genetics work and by mapping the human genome have helped reveal how the genome is also a written history of the effects humans have made through time.

Humans emerged as beings with conscious self awareness. Individuals and decision makers throughout history used this consciousness to make a wide variety of policy choices. These decisions have impacted and been recorded in the human gene pool. That is the story of humanity. Intentionally influencing genetics is not the invention of science. What is new to us recently is our becoming aware of the meaning, implications and the power of this consciousness. This is what genetic science is helping us to understand. The mapping of the genome helps reveal to us how human choices enter into our hereditary nature and are recorded within each person’s genome. The policies we adopt and employ thus do have an impact on all of human history.

Humanity now becomes cognizant of how human policy decisions in so many realms of life effect humankind and our human hereditary future. The mapping of the human genome is making it possible for us to trace the history of human choices as recorded in our genes. What needs to become clear to policy makers is that these issues are not merely scientific. To understand what is at stake for the human species requires a much broader perspective than focusing on the scientific community. Human activity in the realms of politics, government, the social sciences, ideologies, economics, are all shaping human genetics, natural selection and thus nature itself.

For example issues of genetic control of the human race, predate the modern world. For at the very moment that humans began making conscious choices based in self awareness (rather than purely instinctual behavior), humans began affecting and changing the genetic makeup of humankind. This certainly predates any awareness of what was being accomplished. Humans began choosing mates for particular reasons (strength, looks, wisdom, family blood lines), rather than instinctively copulating. Tribes, villages, or nations adopted rules about who could marry whom, again forming the basis of “genetic engineering.” The same is true when tribes and hordes and nations went to war. Modern genocide is in fact a form of genetic engineering not being engaged by scientists (though as in Nazi death camps science intentionally aided the process), but in fact an engineering condoned by politicians, ideologues, armies.

As another example of how the human gene pool is altered by human decisions we can consider medical science with its many advancements in prolonging human life, in helping diseased and genetically mal-adapted people to live not only productive lives, but reproductive ones. The human desire to relieve suffering from poverty, famine, disease, and to lengthen life has in fact been another form of “genetic engineering” undoing natural selection’s tendency toward the survival of the fittest, perpetuating gene problems into future generations.

In addition, reproductive technologies of all kinds in as much as they help infertile couples have children, or help children (including premature) come to term, are in fact changing the gene pool. No longer is human reproduction guided merely by the creative chance of natural selection, for now humans are introducing into nature a conscious creative element for procreation. This can keep in the gene pool genetic forms of infertility as well as perpetuating previously inviable genes or gene combinations. We have thus by human intelligent design already altered the human gene pool and contributed an intelligent, conscious and intentional factor into human evolution and genetic makeup. Chance alone is not the sole factor now shaping human evolution.

Next:  Genetic Engineering (II)

(see also my blog series DNA: The Secret of Life)