Sunday, November 10, 2013

A question for Brian Greene

 I was listening to a podcast of Radio Lab yesterday, and heard an interview with the physicist Brian Greene. The topic was the possibility of a theory of everything (a fundamental theory of physics that could in principle explain everything else about the universe). Recently some cosmologists have been thinking about the implications of the multiverse theory on the possibility of a theory of everything. If millions of different universes exist, it is difficult to see how a single theory could explain everything about all those universes. In the course of the discussion, Greene was pushed on the idea of a multiverse, and was asked if the multiverse was really more of an object of faith than of science, since we don’t have any observational evidence that it exists. Greene was adamant that it did not require faith, that the known fundamental mathematical equations that govern our universe indicate that other universes exist. He insisted that we are simply following the equations when we posit the existence of the multiverse. I want to know: is this true? 

My understanding of the multiverse is that it was postulated as an explanation for our universe’s improbable existence. The chances of our universe having the exact set of properties that it does, ones that allow life, are exceedingly slim. To make chance a plausible explanation, we posit that there are perhaps an infinite number of universes. At least one universe of the millions is bound to have the set of properties required for life. Ours happens to be it. An illustration I’ve read is as follows: An arrow is randomly fired into a huge forest. The arrow hits Mr. Brown. This is an exceedingly unlikely event. One hypothesis that could explain this event would be to suggest that the forest was full of people (rendering Mr. Brown one among many possible targets). This hypothesis, like the multiverse hypothesis, therefore possesses explanatory value. But without any independent evidence, it necessarily remains speculative and ad hoc. The hypothesis was invoked specifically to render chance a plausible explanation, not because there was any empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis. Critics charge that the multiverse theory is an artificial inflation of one’s probabilistic resources when the known probabilistic resources are deemed insufficient to explain an improbable event. 

So back to my question: is there mathematical “evidence” that other universes exist? I’m not asking if the mathematics suggest or allow the possibility of other universes. This is obvious and uninteresting. We do not need any equations to know that it is possible that other universes exist. I want to know if there is something in the equations that indicates other universes do actually exist, as Mr. Greene suggested.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

One Reason Why I Am A Christian

I just finished reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and I have to say the man was brilliant, witty, passionate, and more than a little strange. This makes for very interesting reading. Chesterton's whirlwind tour through his philosophy of life, morality, mysticism, religion, and the universe, among other things, has given me much to think about. Over the years I've come to feel that most people, including me, believe the things they believe mostly for complex emotional, social, and experiential reasons. Intellectual issues are certainly real and play some role, but I guess I've grown tired of the endless, hateful rhetoric between religious believers and non-believers. Still, Chesterton's take on things was lively, engaging, and quirky enough to get me excited again about some of these intellectual issues. Chesterton spends some time on determinism, the idea that the universe is a closed physical system (a viewpoint known as materialism) in which every event is predetermined, or fixed, based on prior events. Determinism is really the only way to think about the universe if scientific materialism, or naturalism, is true (quantum physics does complicate this somewhat, but that is a story for another day; besides, Chesterton and others argued against determinism before anything was known about quantum physics).

Chesterton reminded me of one reason that I am a Christian who believes in free will: I find determinism untenable. Certainly much of the universe is deterministic, or at least appears so. But a complete determinism I cannot accept. Humans are agents, by which I mean they have, within limits, the ability to choose or act in a way that cannot be reduced to the physical, to interactions of matter and energy. For example, if you lob a beach ball at me, there are probably a near infinite number of ways that I could respond. I could catch it. I could punch it. I could stand there and do nothing. I could catch it and eat it. I could karate chop it with my right hand. Or with my left hand. You get the idea. I believe that you could have the most advanced scientific instruments hooked up to my brain, monitoring every last bit of matter and energy, and you could still not predict which ninja move I may perform (or not).

This is fundamentally different than, say, flipping a coin, or predicting the weather. We might be tempted to think that these also are difficult or impossible to predict. But this is only due to incomplete access to information and instruments advanced enough to process the information. The way a flipped coin will land is in fact completely determined, though we may not be aware of the outcome. If instruments were available to precisely track the force applied to the coin, the angle the force was applied, the minute air currents the coin will pass through, etc., predicting how the coin will land is quite straightforward. The coin does not have a mind or agency (free will). The same is true of the weather. It would be an enormously complex practical matter to track all of the air molecules, water molecules, and energy involved to be able to accurately and exactly predict the weather, but in principle this task too is fairly straightforward. The weather is determined by prior events. When it comes to human agents though, I believe that even if we are supplied with complete information about the brain, we will still be unable to predict specific acts, such as a response to a thrown beach ball.

Of course, I don't know any of this for sure. Possibly in the future scientists will be able to perfectly understand and predict your every move before you even decide anything. But I doubt it. There is a healthy debate concerning the nature of consciousness, with strong arguments coming in from many different viewpoints, but I think the strongest case can be made for the idea that consciousness cannot be reduced to physical stuff (e.g. see David Chalmer's The Conscious Mind for rigorous arguments for consciousness having an extra-physical dimension). The idea that the mind has the ability to transcend the physical to make free decisions and feel non-physical things such as pain has strong philosophical support and squares well with each of our experiences as humans.

The thought may have crossed your mind that even if the human mind is partially non-physical, and free will is real, that this does not then point directly to Christianity. This is true. Some Christians believe in a sort of theological determinism, and many non-Christians have argued in support of free will. Really, my point here is that the Christian faith, the way that I see the world, is a reasonable one. I do not believe that Christianity (or any other worldview) can be flat-out proven to be true. But there are perfectly reasonable (and even, gasp, compelling) ways of understanding the world that fit very comfortably within the Christian faith. Many people seem to have the impression that to embrace a religious faith means to abandon any hope of having a coherent, reasonable understanding of our world and universe. I simply do not believe this to be the case, and I am thankful that Chesterton has deftly and happily reminded me of this in his strange little book.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus and the Flat Earth

One of the great modern day myths surrounding science and religion involves Christopher Columbus and a flat Earth. Most of us were taught in school that Columbus wanted to travel the world despite all the dire warnings about falling off the edge of a flat Earth. He bravely set sail anyway and changed the world through his discoveries, or so the story goes. Many of us were taught in school that throughout the early and late Middle Ages most people thought that the world was flat. In addition, we are told that this state of affairs was the result of the oppressive religious authorities of the time. 

The truth, however, is that the West has known the Earth was a sphere since at least the 4th century B.C., when Greek philosophers like Pythagoras followed by Aristotle and Ptolemy all laid out arguments for a spherical Earth (a few, like Eratosthenes, even took a shot at calculating its circumference). This knowledge survived into the Middle Ages, and virtually all educated people and scholars still affirmed a round Earth. Columbus and company all believed the Earth was round; no one warned him about falling off any edge. He was warned about his faulty calculations, which led him to believe that the Earth was much smaller, and India much closer, than it really was. As we all know, he ended up in North America instead.

So how did we end up believing this fable about Columbus and the rest of Medieval Europe? Historians have traced this flat Earth myth to the 19th century. One of the first appearances was in the early 19th century in Washington Irving’s fictional account of the Columbus story, and sometimes Irving is given most of the credit for the flat Earth myth. However, recent scholarship shows that the myth became a staple in textbooks in the late 19th century after the publication of two books by John Draper and Andrew White. These men were overzealous secularists who wrote distorted (but highly influential) histories of science. Their intent was to provide a narrative involving science and religion where science is struggling for truth and progress and religion is doing its best to hamper scientific advances. The flat Earth myth was one pillar in their overall thesis: religious superstition is always trying to snuff out scientific progress. 

How exactly did Draper and White convince us that Medieval peoples believed in a flat Earth? They found two minor figures (no others have been found), Lactantius (245-325 A.D.),  a North African writer, and Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 540 A.D.), a Christian merchant from Europe, that wrote in support of a flat Earth and made this minority opinion appear to be the norm from the Dark Ages and onward. In fact, from the patristic period to the late Middle Ages (i.e. whenever you look), all church scholars, ranging from the Venerable Bede to Augustine to Aquinas, affirmed a spherical Earth.

Historians of science have dismissed Draper and White’s books as sloppy, selective scholarship that ignores the bulk of the historical data. Unfortunately, the myth persists. When I was teaching, I would ask my students each year if they had been taught the Columbus myth, and each year at least half of the hands were raised (I suspect most of the rest had also been taught it, but had forgotten). This is kind of sad. Here we are in the 21st century believing that people in the Dark and Middle Ages were fooled by religious authorities into believing in a flat Earth, when in fact we are the ones clinging to a discredited myth.

Further Reading: 
Stephen J. Gould's essays Dinosaur in a Haystack 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

I Liked the Old Atheists Better

Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion at BU, recently wrote a book titled God Is Not One. It is mostly an interesting read and is essentially a brief tour of major world religions with the intent of highlighting their differences. He includes a chapter on atheism which, while not a religion, is nonetheless an important and influential worldview (some contemporary forms of atheism, however, do seem very much like a religion).

Atheism is not new. It has been a significant intellectual viewpoint since at least the ancient Greeks, though atheists have always been in the minority. Prothero points out that some of greatest intellectuals (e.g. Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre) as well as some of the worst dictators (Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot) have been atheists. The so called "New Atheists" (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) have given a new public face to atheism and have written some of the best-selling books of the past decade. Prothero observes that this particular group of atheists seems to be very religious, holding their beliefs "with the conviction of zealots and evangelizing with verve." Chris Hedges, a former writer for the New York Times, sees the New Atheists as a "secular version of the Religious Right." These self-proclaimed freethinkers end up being just as hate-filled, bigoted, and dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists they usually take aim at.

Prothero writes, "One of history's most dangerous games begins with dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys and ends with using any means necessary to take the villains out. New Atheists play this game with brio, demonizing Muslims, denouncing Christians and Jews as dupes, and baptizing their fellow "brights" into their own communion of smarter-than-thou saints. Like fundamentalists and cowboys, they live in a Manichean world in which the forces of light are engaged in a great apocalyptic battle against the forces of darkness. They, too, are dogmatic and uncurious and every bit as useful to neoconservative policymakers as right wing televangelists."

Prothero asks why we can't recognize that we can just as easily kill in the name of progress (the French Revolution and the brutal dictatorships of Stalin and Lenin come to mind) as in the name of God. Sam Harris actually writes, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." The problem here is the strange but seemingly attractive notion that it is OK to be ultra-dogmatic and aggressive as long as you are "right." To me, the Spanish Inquisition would still not be acceptable even if the Roman Catholic Church's dogma was correct and the heretics indeed held false beliefs.

Prothero also mentions an interesting tidbit about the French New Atheist Michel Onfray. Onfray accuses fellow atheists like Dawkins and Dennett of being "Christian atheists." In other words, these atheists embrace Western moral values (which are predominantly Judeo-Christian) while rejecting Christianity and Judaism. Onfray, to my mind, is a bit more honest when he follows Nietzsche and insists that if atheism is true then there is no need for man to follow conventional morality. Onfray too recognizes the religiosity of many of today's atheists, writing (quoted by Prothero):

"The tactics of some secular figures seem contaminated by the enemy's ideology: many militants in the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy. Unfortunately, contemporary freethinking often carries a waft of incense; it sprinkles itself shamelessly with holy water."

Prothero doesn't only discuss St. Dawkins and St. Hitchens, though. He also tells the story of Amanda Gulledge, an "Alabama mom" and an atheist whose children have been shunned by other neighborhood children because they "haven't accepted Jesus as their Savior." Gulledge spoke at an atheist conference Prothero attended, and he noted the sharp contrast between the apparent goals of the more public New Atheists and "normal" atheists like her. One group wants to eradicate religion from the planet and the other wants atheism to be considered a valid viewpoint "deserving of a fair hearing." Prothero further contrasts the two different approaches in terms of the gay rights movement: "One is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for homosexuals."

I appreciate Amanda Gulledge's story, and I am ashamed that Christians would treat children like they have treated Amanda's children. I find it much harder to appreciate what the New Atheists seem to bring to the table: angry, overblown rhetoric and an astonishing level of close-minded, self-righteous hubris. I like how Prothero closes his chapter:

"I wouldn't walk around the block to hear Christopher Hitchens take cheap shots at Christians. But I'd get on the subway, and maybe even a plane, to hear Amanda Gulledge tell me why her kids are good people too."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pagans, Sex, and St. Paul

So a while ago I wrote a little bit about God and sex and attempted to clarify what Christianity actually teaches about sex. In that post I mentioned the apostle Paul.

In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul writes that it is good for husbands and wives to have sex and says that it is perfectly all right for people to get married if they want to. I see this as a pretty clear endorsement of sex and marriage, but Paul also states that while it is fine and good if people marry, it is better to be celibate. Paul doesn't say this because he thinks sex is bad, but because those with the gift of celibacy (which, Paul writes, only some possess) have more time to devote to God. Still, in my mind this put a bit of a damper on the endorsement.

I'm currently reading The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity and came across an interesting note. Early Christians varied in their beliefs regarding whether or not they still had to strictly follow Jewish law or if they were free from the law or other social conventions. According to historian Henry Chadwick, "the pagan world was familiar with the widespread belief that sexual contact between man and woman hindered the soul's rise to higher things." This belief was adopted by some groups within the church, and was one of many reasons Paul wrote to them. Paul was not writing to people who thought that sex was good and telling them yes, sex is fine, but refraining from sex is better. He was writing to people who thought that sex was bad and was telling them no, sex is good, even if being celibate is better. Set in this context, Paul's affirmation that marriage is a good and acceptable thing is a stronger statement than I originally thought.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Limits of Science: Debating "Denialism"

Last time we saw one problem with having an exaggerated sense of the objectivity and purity of science. Another has to do with how many scientists and non-scientists (mostly self-proclaimed rationalists) deal with people who disagree with them over one theory or another. This view seems to be epitomized by Michael Specter is his book Denialism.

I haven't read the book, and don't plan to, but I read the introduction and I think that was enough to get a flavor of the book. I'll sum it up for you: if you don't love science as much as I do and disagree with scientists on anything than you are obviously stupid and irrational and should be sterilized. And your children should be kidnapped.

Attitudes like this drive me nuts for several reasons. One, scientists themselves disagree about a great many things in science. There are equally "scientific" papers that argue for either the primacy of astronomical causes (e.g. orbital changes) or terrestrial causes (e.g. greenhouse gases) of past climate change. There is disagreement over the composition and source of the early Earth's atmosphere. Or, think about how many times we've heard things like chocolate is good for you, wait it's bad for you, oops now it's good for you again. There is simply no such thing as "science says this about something and that's the end of it." Within the scientific community there exists a myriad of viewpoints, theories, and interpretations of facts relating to just about any scientific topic. To adopt one particular theory and dismiss everyone else as being part of "denialism" seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Secondly, philosophers of science as well as scientists themselves often write about how science will never truly end, about how there is always more to discover, and that this fact is partly why science is so exciting. Nicholas Rescher lays out rigorous philosophical arguments for this idea in his excellent book Nature and Understanding, and this was also the main topic in a recent editorial in the journal Science. Though frequently acknowledged, many people fail to appreciate what this means for any particular scientific theory: it is subject to revision and/or complete reworking.

A brief look at the history of science reveals the same story over and over again. Proponents of one particular theory demonize, ridicule, or ignore their opponents for daring to question established wisdom. Consider Ptolemy's geocentric universe, Wegener's theory of continental drift, or Newton's theory of gravity. Wegener was ridiculed viciously for his "wild" ideas by the geological community, yet now the fact that continents have moved over time has become the new established wisdom. There isn't any reason to think that we are so special as to be immune to this sort of thing. Our scientific theories are also under constant revision and scrutiny. It is ironic that self-proclaimed rationalists end up speaking of particular scientific theories in the same way others might speak of an unquestionable religious dogma.

Dreaming up some perjorative labels for people who disagree with you is not new. Mike Specter just adds "denialism" to the vocabulary of people who want a way to pat themselves on the back for being right while being comforted by the fact that all those other people who disagree with them are so obviously stupid and irrational. It's not that people can't be irrational. They can be, and many people are. But Specter's particular approach to this problem strikes me as profoundly unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and dare I say it, unscientific.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Limits of Science: when scientists speak

Rich Lewontin, in his book Biology As Ideology, writes that science is "a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions." Lewontin is a leading geneticist and is certainly not anti-science. He simply calls for a "reasonable skepticism" when it comes to evaluating scientific claims and theories because scientists, like everyone else, can be influenced by a variety of other factors.

Having an exaggerated view of science's objectivity and purity can lead us to make some mistakes. First, it can lead to an exaggerated belief in the objectivity and purity of scientists. We need to be careful to distinguish between science (i.e. empirical claims) and what scientists say. It is common for scientists to express personal opinions within the pages of science texts, and it is also common for these pronouncements to be seen as "scientific" by the public. For example, in his influential book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O.Wilson makes sweeping claims about human nature that go far beyond what any empirical biological studies can tell us. One example, described by Lewontin:

     "He [Wilson] says, 'Human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate. They seek it...Man would rather believe than know.' That statement is, we must note, found in what is called a scientific work, used as a textbook in courses all over the world, filled with the mathematics of modern population biology, crammed with observations and facts about the behavior of all kinds of animals, based on what Time magazine has called the "iron laws of nature."

For many readers Wilson's statement will be perceived as having the same scientific authority as other claims in the book. Please do not misunderstand my point; I am not commenting on whether this particular claim is true. Rather, I wish to point out that Wilson's claim, though thrown in with the mathematics and science, is not itself supported by that science. It is actually an expression of Wilson's own social and political views.

Another example comes from zoologist (my favorite and yours) Richard Dawkins, who in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, writes that, "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." Really? Which microscope, telescope, or meter stick did he use to discover this? The content of this statement falls almost completely outside the bounds of science. Science may have something to say about design or purpose in the universe, but good, evil, or "pitiless indifference"? No way. This is his particular view and interpretation of the how things are, and we need to be careful to distinguish between someone's scientific work and the opinions of a scientist in areas outside of their own expertise.