Science Archives

On Science and Religion

Over the next week or so I have to write a short essay for our parish newsletter on the topic “Science and Religion.” I’m going to do the work online here “in public” as it were and see if the comment process can get me a better essay. Anyhow … to start the dread bullet list, i.e., ideas and brainstorming about things I might discuss.

  • It might be interesting to mention the two tensions that have historically, especially in the West, influenced some of the reflections of the religious though on science. St. Augustine, as noted by Mr Polanyi, had an overall negative effect on science. Mr Polanyi notes that this was because of some statements by St. Augustine that science should restrict itself to those studies which bring us closer to God. Yet, St. Augustine writes as well in his Confessions that the Nature itself worships the Creator though our understanding of its workings, intracacies, and beauty. It may be that the former statement took a wrong turn because the latter sentiment was forgotten or misplaced.
  • Three major revolutions have marked our deepest physical understanding of how to view the underlying nature of the material world. Sometime between the Galilean/Copernican era and Newton’s Principia, the older notion of a geometrical order to the universe was dominant. At that time it was the Pythagorean philosophy of science dominated by geometrical concepts. This was replaced by a algebraic interaction view, with Newton and later Gauss making that explicit with the development of calculus. In the early part of the 20th century this too was replaced in turn by the idea that symmetries (gauge theories) shape the structure of physical interactions and relations. Patristic theology arose in the context of a Pythagorean view of nature. Did and does that theology depend at all on our conception of the underlying structure of nature? How might it have to adapt and change as our notions of the universe change?
  • Physical theories of the Universe give us a notion of the large scale structure of space-time, especially dynamical aspects for how to make sense of it. Mathemeticians have solved the Poincare conjecture giving us a classification of all the possible ways in which our three (apparent) spatial dimensions might be constructed. Additionally quantum mechanics yields notions of free-will or indeterminacy at the atomic level. Yet theological discussions, as far as I’m aware, haven’t really confronted the implications of a God existing out of time and what that means with respect to a quantum mechanical relativistic space-time.
  • Eugene Wigner penned a paper on the unreasonable nature of the success of mathematics in describing the universe. It isn’t just that we can use math to describe things we already know, it’s that math so used is unreasonably successful. The mathematical ansatze (guesses) that Newton used to describe planetary motion can without change work in regimes many orders of magnitude in precision and scale afield from the scale of the data supporting them. Mr Wigner did not connect the unreasonable success of mathematics to theology, Scripture, or God. However, that connection is an easy one to make, Genesis 1 with its ontological ordering of nature suggests that nature itself is comprehensible by the mind of man. That nature is unreasonably well described by mathematics, which in turn is an essential part of the mind of man, might suggest that this is not unintentional.

Clearly if put in an essay for a newsletter these ideas have to be clarified and expounded. All are things I’ve touched on in prior essays. Suggestions? Comments?

The Laplace Fallacy (continued)

Recently I had noted earlier, following my reading of Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, that between the Galilean/Copernican period and Newton’s Principia no new scientific data (no facts) arose to distinguish between these two theories. Yet by the time of Newton’s writing of the Principia the dispute was settled. This was settled not by facts but by a process that has more in common with religious conversion than than the popular notions of what is comprised by scientific method.

Physics has seen three major revolutions. Following the development or conception of what we in this “late modernity” [aside: more on that later] period call Physics by the Greeks the overriding principles underpinning reality were driven by a belief that the world and cosmic bodies followed geometric and numeric patterns. Observation and insight were interpreted within this framework. During the period noted above, a conversion began to occur. A mechanical constraint arithmetic model replaced the old. This held until the latter part of the 19th to the early 20th century when it too was replaced. Currently the view of how to best understand the universe is one driven by mathematical invariances (symmetries). Data and experiment are not and have not been the driving force in moving persons and communities from one to another underlying model for how to perceive nature. Passion and persuasion and conversion are better descriptions of what occurred.

Yesterday I began to unwind what Polanyi was driving at with his attack on the mechanistic view of nature. He principally objected to the idea that that the all kinds of experience can be understood in terms of atomic data. This is more than just a rejection of reductionist methods of scientific advancement. And it is not something which today is abandoned with the discovery of quantum uncertainty, i.e., the free willed electron. Scientific metaphors have a way of becoming dominant metaphors applied outside of their realm of application. Consider how uncertainty, relativity, and evolution are examples of scientific ideas have been abused when used as metaphor in the social arenas. The scientific community using those ideas has given a strange credence to their application in other arenas. So too has the notion that man and his society is ultimately are just collections of clockwork apparatus. It is the dangers related to those, essentially abuses, of the conception of a comprehensible, mechanistic, deterministic universe applied to social studies (econ and politics) and life sciences that the chief dangers lie.

Consider the following abbreviated example, which I hope to elaborate on later. Man when viewed in a mechanistic way enables one to set aside models of human dignity in favor of man as a consumer. Hedonistic consumerism can replace a more, well, frankly human (and realistic) view of man in society.

Laplacian Fallacy

Laplace, some years ago, came up with a notion. This idea was that if one could determine the position and momenta of all the particles in the universe at a given time, then the time evolution of the universe would fix all future events of the universe. This notion is one which persists as some level today. The notion that the all kinds of experience can be understood in terms of atomic data. This is an impossible scenario, yet it persists.

Polanyi writes (pg 141) in his book Personal Knowledge:

Yet the spell of the Laplacian delusion remains unbroken to this day. The ideal of strictly objective knowledge, paradigmatically formulated by Laplace, continues to sustain a universal tendency to enhance the observational accuracy and systematic precision of science, at the expense of its bearing on its subject matter. […] I mention it here only as an intermediate stage in a wider intellectual disorder: namely the menace to all cultural values including those of science, by an acceptance of a conception of man derived from a Laplacian ideal of knowledge and by the conduct of human affairs in the light of such a conception.

There are two threats Polanyi envision to such a notion. One would be a systematic sweeping cultural rejection of science as a perversion of truth. Polanyi wrote this in the 50s, today these currents are becoming perhaps more relevant. The root cause of the modern rejections of science are due to the corruption of science itself by the errant (and dominant) Laplacian error. The second threat is the peril to science from the very acceptance of a scientific outlook based on Laplacian fallacy being used to guide human affairs.

I’d planned to get further on this today … but it’s after ten and I have to turn the pedals some more today. I’ll get back to this.

On Science and Method

The Galileo/Copernican and the Ptolemaic views of the solar system lay in dispute for the 150 years between Galileo and Newton (specifically between the dates of the publication of Copernicus De Revolutionibus and Newton’s Principia). In the period of time between these events, with the possible admission of Kepler’s third law) there were no facts to distinguish these theories. In fact, glancing far to the future, the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrating that the Earth was at rest would have been a point to the Ptolemaic not Copernican view. The scientific (heuristic) passions of the proponents of the Copernican view is what drove the outlook of astronomers to the point where at the publishing of the Principia the Copernican viewpoint was dominant. Attached to the prologue of Galileo’s thesis was a forward by Osiander expressing the point that this view was not necessarily “true” but instead was a “fruitful” way of approaching astronomy. This is a red herring. Ptolemaic astronomy was a fruitful source of inquiry for thousands of years. Astrology has been fruitful employment for 2500 years, Marixism was (and remains alas)
a fruitful mechanism for obtaining political power. Fruitful by itself is not sufficient. Theories are fruitful in that they are believed to be fruitful mechanisms for getting to the truth of reality.

In 1914 TW Richards was awarded the Nobel prize for an extremely accurate measurement of atomic weights. Fifteen years this result was completely scorned as useless, for as that measurement made no allowance for isotopic ratios those painstaking measurements were rendered useless. This was a measurement, of high accuracy, of a value that was discovered to have no correspondence to any features of nature. Accuracy qua accuracy is of no value. One misconception about science is that it is experiment that drives progress. Yet it is theory that is required before experiments to provide the basis for how experimental data is interpreted and in fact for what experimental data is deemed to have any value at all.

New visions and insights drive theoretical breakthroughs. Yet the history of science is littered with far more failures than success. This is not limited to “lesser scientists”. Einstein’s vision following Mach imagined Relativity and against Mach solved Brownian motion. Yet Einstein same said vision rejected quantum randomness. Major theoretical breakthroughs in science require a major reworking of our view of nature, a replacing of an older view with a newer one. Proponents of the new, driven by their heuristic passionate belief in the correctness of their vision, must pursuade on the basis of future intimations of fruitfulness in the search for truth of their vision. In doing so, they also must invalidate the older vision. This process of invalidation is often rancorous and ugly. This “feature” is common and perhaps not easily escapable.

This then suggests some striking things about the scientific process. Theory preceded and both validates and interprets experiment. Major theoretical breakthroughs require persuasion. The passion of scientific discovery must be transformed and moved to the passion of persuasion that the new vision of the truth has intimations that it might be fruitful for further deepening of our understanding of nature. Yet a problem remains. Is there anything left? What differentiates the project of chasing the structure of matter at CERN and Fermilab from astrology? Why was it right for the Copernican view to supplant the Ptolmaic in the period between Copernicus and Galileo and before Newton? There are good answers to these questions but that will have to wait until a later essay.

The first parts of this essay draw heavily on Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge which is an epistemological inquiry looking toward a “post-critical reality” epistemic framework. It might also be noted, this book predated Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Critical reality is the idea that our physical theories accurately represent reality. This is in contrast to the Positivist (which is not as far as I can tell the same as Logical Positivism). This view espoused for example by Stephen Hawking suggests that the question of whether the underlying matches the theory is irrelevant and that physics (or theory in general) merely is a mechanism for predicting experimental results.

Atheist. Christian. Push and Pull

One of the arguments that atheists often bring forth is that the Christian notion of God is logically inconsistent. 1+1+1=1 they will point out doesn’t logically make sense. Well, on the other hand a fundamental particle being simultaneously a mathematical point and and extended object is logically inconsistent as well. Yet the latter is presently our best understanding of how nature presents itself, quantum objects, leptons and quarks that is to say matter is in fact point-like and extended at the same time. The atheists failing is that they, when confronted with the first logical inconsistency insist is it fundamental and when confronted with the second, insist that the human mind and our learning will encompass and explain the paradox more fully. I would suggest that the latter confidence can equally be applied to the former and that if they cannot yet understand it, that is because they are not engaging their imagination and optimism in the same way for reasons which have little to do with the problem posed.

Yet at the same time, there is an accusation of lack of imagination which might be returned to the court of the Christian believer. Modern physics has deepened our understanding concerning space and time. Applying the Minkowoski metrics to a four dimensional Riemann manifold describing space time as governed by a dynamical equation by Einstein in his proposal of General Relativity is a powerful way of envisioning our Universe. Similarly, Yang-Mills gauge theories, either classical or quantized provide a beautiful geometrically motivated understanding of the forces and small scale structure of space time. Ernst Mach a physicist and philosopher, prior to Einstein considered abstract ideas regarding motion and inertia, with the idea suggested that a single object in space (in the absence of any other “things”) has no inertia. In fact motion can only be described as a relation between two things. Christian conceptions place God, or at least his essence if not His energies following St. Gregory Palamas, outside of time. Certainly God prior to creation and the eschaton are placed by theologian to be outside of time. Christians have, as far as I know, not connected either large-scale or small scale (Minkowski-Riemann space-time or Yang-Mills quantization of U(1)xSU(2)xSU(3) gauge theory) to the notion of what “out of time” means. For myself, while I’ve thought a little about this and have nothing useful to report as yet, this book by John Pokinghorne might spur some ideas, The God of Hope and the End of the World. it should be noted that Mr Polkinghorne was an accomplished theoretical physicist before he became a Anglican priest and theologian.

Humans endow the world with meaning. Semantic content flows from our every thought and our conversation finds expression and meaning in semantic intercourse with others. Yet, in a purely material world semanatic content is meaningless. A pattern of electro-chemical discharges invoking vibrational patterns in the air is devoid of meaning. Yet humans call that speech and embue it with semantic import in a way which can be translated to word, text, and image. Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge recounts that when reading his morning correspondence which arrives from friends and peers the world over is unaware during the act of reading the language in which the text he reads is transmitted (obviously he is very fluent in a number of different languages). When he wishes to share something, for example, with his son, who only knows English, he has to check to see if the letter or passage of interest is in English or not. He is not, in the act of reading, consciously aware of the langauge which he is reading. On this matter theists and atheists point the “lack of imagination” finger at the other, the latter insisting that the semantic boostrap from the material to the semantic is lacking in the imagination of the former and the former insisting that the latter cannot imagine how the semantic boostrap itself might be the essence of the soul.

Logic and Ontology: Dual Nature
Man/God & Wave/Particle

In a recent extended discussion of a Christian apologetic nature, the claim was made that Jesus dual nature of being God and man is logically impossible. I think the argument that this is in fact logically possible is independent of the actual Scriptural/doctrinal basis for the claims that He does in fact posses such dual nature. I suggested at the time that the situation found in nature regarding the dual nature of matter as wave and particle has an incomplete logical resolution but which suggests a similar solution might be found for one person being both God and man.

The essential logical problem is categorical or ontological in nature. A wave is an extended effect, a point-like particle is is not extended. The notion that something can be extensive and localized at the same time is a inconsistent or illogical. It’s akin to suggesting a number can be composite, prime, and/or a unit at the same time. However, the notion that this illogical turns out to be the error, that is to say the error is not that a thing cannot be a extended and point-like at the same time … for the universe is demonstrates that the error is not that this is impossible but that it is observed. Whether it is illogical or not is irrelevant, it is in fact the case that particles are wave-like and point-like at the same time. The error is in the ontological notion of “what is matter”. Matter exists in a different way altogether. Matter is best given a description which actually does posses these qualities simultaneously. The technical details of that particular construction (and its own peculiar limitations are not salient at this point, but for some non-technical descriptions lay-level I’d recommend Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Paperback or the more recent release of that for an introduction).

My suggestion is that the God/man duality problem is similarly solved. That is the suggestion is that a being cannot be man and God at the same time. The error is perhaps in what you mean by “a being” and not that the notion of having that particular dual nature is impossible. In the matter example it was the notion of what constituted matter that was in error. Perhaps what is in error here the conception of personhood or being, that is what it means to be man or God. Metropolitan John Zizioulas in Being as Communion discusses the development of the idea of person though antiquity into the developments required by theological developments that unfolded in describing precisely the issue of the dual nature of Christ and an understanding of Trinity. In Classical Greece, person was had a dramatic understanding, that is one’s person related to one’s role in family and society. In Rome, a juridical understanding prevailed, that is that a person primarily meant one’s legal standing within society was how personhood was identified. In the fourth century theologians in Alexandria and the Cappodocian Fathers arrived at an idea of hypostasis as person. This notion of hypostasis in fact aligns quite well with some modern notions of personhood, Vladimir Lossky goes so far as to suggest that the modern notion of person derives from the developments by the Cappadocian fathers, but for myself I wonder if that can be established. That is to say, that the notions of person are in fact very similar and from that evidence the hypothesis that they are related is suggestive but the development might be independent but arriving at the same conclusion.

Within the modern notions of person, consider the science fiction/fantasy notions involving transfer of person from one body to another (or to a machine). The hypostasis or person is not directly tied to body. In stories, such as Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels persons can be “uploaded” or transferred from one person to another. This idea makes narrative sense in the context of our modern notion of personhood. A friend or mine (and as well my experience with my children) noted that infants from the very first moment, to his surprise demonstrate and evidence distinct personality. One might suspect that personality develops later in life, but from the first moments an infant expresses a distinct personality.

Hypostasis is separate from memory. If I lose or gain memories, I remain myself. The kernel of what constitutes the unique hypostasis or self may not be identifiably definable in a propositional manner but if one turns that around and defines the unique person as the kernel of person which is distance from particulars of memory, ability, and body. So the, what is occurring in the notion that Christ has dual nature as God and man. Simply that God (or one of the three hypostasis within the triune Christian conception of the Godhead) condescended to allow his hypostasis to be expressed in a particular man, Jesus. That is, Jesus developed into a grown man from infancy whose kernel of self was God translated to a (fully) human person just in the same manner as from a narrative perspective one might find a person “uploaded” to a machine in a sci-fi story.

The point is, while the factual details might be disputed, i.e., non-Christians in particular might dispute that this true and a accurate account of what happened from a logical standpoint what is being claimed makes logical sense. The hypostasis or kernel or personhood from one being was translated from one body to another body. If it makes sense in the context of narrative it makes sense in the context of Christ.

Is Pi Real?

From a short dialog today in my combox as an aside to our discussion of Natures lack of determinism and any consequences on discussions of free will.

So you think the universe is not continuous because irrational numbers are not real? Do you think that differentiability is a useful concept but doesn’t really apply to reality? Why then Wigner’s “unreasonable success of mathematics” if there is no underlying reality to those mathematical concepts (like pi).I wasn’t clear. Pi does not exist in the real world. It’s not that we can’t measure pi exactly, but that it’s literally impossible for it to exist, exactly. How could you have a circle in the real world whose radius or circumference is an irrational number? You couldn’t. So pi, and math generally, is just an elegant approximation of reality.

This is worth a little elaboration. Continuity, mathematically speaking is all “about” that dense uncountable set of irrational numbers. Differentiability likewise requires not just continuity but that the manifold in question be “smooth.” Pi as was noted in a following reply is not limited to the ratio of circumference and diameter but crops of in a myriad of places. My interlocutor JA offers that just like that ratio for pi, all these others are “idealizations” and don’t reflect any reality.

When we make mathematical models of the Universe in Physics the common way of approaching these models is to assume that our measurements are inexact and that many of these models are closer to what is “really” being measured than our inexact measurements. When pi appears in descriptions of electron orbits we think that this value pi is “real” and the measurements of electron energy levels which depend on fundamental constants like pi and Planck’s constant and the electron mass are approximate. Someday we expect that we will arrive a a theory in which Planck’s constant and the electron mass like pi fall out as consequences of a mathematical understanding so that just like circumference/diameter all these numbers will be arrived at via fundamental relationships.

Or take the continuity/differentiability matter, which by the by depends as noted above on irrational numbers as well. Early astronomers like Galileo and Kepler took very imprecise measurements to deduce some relationships to describe motion. Newton and a host of later mathematicians went to work with this erecting an elaborate and very beautiful framework which today are known the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian descriptions of classical mechanics. These equations then can be pressed into service many many orders of magnitude past their original measurements without requiring modification and allow for example cis-lunar docking of spacecraft. These descriptions as well drive our methods and intuitions in the quantum (very short distance or high energy) regions and the relativistic ones as well. One suggestions as to why the mathematics of continuous differentiable manifolds is so important and successful at describing nature is that this description of nature (as continuous and differentiable) is accurate, that is it reflects reality.

Current Physics understands a number of fundamental particles to be “point-like”, that is to say that their best description physically speaking is as a “point.” A point in space is commonly thought to be an idealized mathematical concept. There is no “such thing” as a real “point.” Small dots or specks of dust are used to illustrate for the imagination what something approaching a point might be as a learning aid. However quarks and electrons, for example (and setting aside String theory for now) are described in the theory which we use today that best describes nature, the Standard Model, are point-like objects. Our best description of these (real) things is as a point (and it might be added that protons, neutrons, and baseballs are not point-like in our best descriptions). My eldest daughter recoiled when she heard my description of an electron as “point-like.” The principal problem for her was that electrons could not be point-like and massive. Yet mass is just a property. Like spin and charge, mass is just a numerical value assigned to that point-like object which affects how it interacts with other objects.

That being said, which is more real? The inexact measurement values or theoretical value which they approach? If the things you see with your eyes and other perceptive senses are seeing things which you believe to be real, then I offer that these concepts, pi, continuity, and point-like electrons represent our best understanding of what that reality “really” is. They are as real as the chair you sit upon for they are fundamental pieces of our understanding of how that chair is best described. If the chair is real then there are only two possibilities. Either our current (Standard Model) as our best description of that said chair reflects reality (in which case pi, irrational numbers and so on are also real) or there exists a future theoretical model (consistent with our current measurements) will replace it. If that future theory also has properties like continuity and constants (some irrational like pi) arise naturally in that future (correct) theory then … aren’t irrational numbers therefore real? How could it not be so?

Free Will and the Universe: Part 1 (The Axioms)

As I mentioned Friday in my blog, I’m going to begin a short discussion about this paper on some consequences of special relativity and quantum mechanics on our view of determinism and the Universe. The authors, John H. Conway and Simon Kochen, establish three “axioms” (and a “paradox”) and from these statements establish consequences which have wide ranging implications. All of these measurements and the following discussion regard the behavior of a spin 1 massive particle. Spin 1 massive particles can have three possible measured values of quantum mechanical spin, namely -1, 0, or 1.

The first of these axioms is a consequence of spin statistics known in this paper for reference as the SPIN axiom. If we take three orthogonal measurements and the norm (or square) of that spin value then the only possible value for a spin measurement consistent with quantum mechanics is that two of those squared spin values are 1 and one is 0 (or “101” in the paper for brevity). This leads to a paradox, named the Kochen Specker Paradox. This paradox arrives as follows.

If we were to set aside the more troubling aspect (from a classical viewpoint) of quantum mechanics for a moment and imagine that the values of possible measurements of the spin was known before the measurement was taken. If we then examine the set of 45 degree rotations about any and all possible axis from the original orthogonal axis. Takeing a subset of 33 of these possible axis and then attempt to assign “1” and “0” values for the axis points spread about the surface. If the measurement values were known ahead of time, then a value should be pre-assignable via some function to these nodal points. But it turns out that no such function exists. That is, it is impossible to assign these values consistently throughout all permutations these 45 degree symmetry transformations. Therefore no such function can exist. Yet of course, experimentally it does. Quantum mechanics is very well established experimetnally. This function does not exist yet this is what is observed. Which means that values of those experiments are not preassigned.

The next quantum mechanical conseqence that is used is called the TWIN axiom by the authors. This is the basics of quantum entanglement. If we create two particles “twinned” or created by a particle anti-particle pairing their squared orthogonal SPIN measurements will be the same if the two measurements of the two particles are taken on the same axis.

Finally the last axiom (MIN) isolates a particular peculiarity of special relativity and brings that into the context of this discussion. In special relatively simultaneity is not a clear cut matter as it was in a Newtonian system. An “event” in a relativistic setting is an occurrence, like the (idealized) snap of a finger which occurs at a singular point in space and time for any given observer. In special relativity two events separated in space can be seen to occur in the opposite order in different inertial frames. That is one observers moving past (and by internal frame that means the observer is not accelerating) by in different directions might observe event “A” to occur before “B” while another observer might observe “B” to have occurred before “A”. The MIN axiom basically asserts that our two experimenters measuring two entangled spin one particles SPIN measurement can independently and freely choose the axis by which they measure the particle.


Early next week, I’m going to blog about the contents of this paper, via slashdot.

Your (optional) “homework” is to read through it … so our possible discussions might be all that more fruitful.

In an number of previous essays the notions of Bertrand de Jouvenel regarding political theory have been utilized. One of these ideas in particular is that government is rightly formed for a particular society and culture when its authority is freely granted by the people, that is it utilizes the authority granted to it by the people and does not have to resort to coercion. This idea of government does not stem from rights or freedoms and the “standard” contract terminology stemming from Hobbes/Lockean political philosophies. Limitations on government stems from both the withholding of authority and that what actions and freedoms state may grant to a person, does not by that granting make that action ethical or moral. For example, the Roman state (and in fact many states) granted the power of life and death to the state over individual citizens. For over 200 years, Christians were put to death for their faith under this power granted. That however, did not make it ethical or moral for a particular Roman to do put a Christian to death. Or more plainly, it was within the boundaries of Roman rule to put a Christian to death but it was unethical for individual Roman to do so. Nero as Emperor could execute Christians as such but it was unethical for Nero the man to do so.

Christians for just slightly under two thousand years have opposed abortion. A statement regarding abortion made today of and by those against abortion that fixes the idea that the act of abortion is a equivalent to murder and the actor be it the mother or the doctor, is equivalent to a murderer is not unheard of in pro-life circles. Some pro-life activists “go this far” and those criticizing the pro-life Christian position remark that this should be a logical consequence of ascribing personhood to the fetus. It is not necessary to ascribe full or even partial “personhood” to a fetus in order to oppose abortion. But even granting that, a view of government as expressed above combined with Christian ethics does not necessitate that step of equivicating abortion with murder. Read the rest of this entry

Obama Displays His Value System

President Obama, demonstrating another example of what Jim called an "incomplete life ethic", rescinded Bush’s executive order, reversing the ban on most federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  Bush’s restrictions were informed by his moral beliefs, but Obama will have none of that.

Aides to Obama told reporters in a phone conference Sunday that the new administration intends to be led by a “responsible practice of science and evidence instead of dogma.” Harold Varmus of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said, “We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs.”

He once said that determining when a baby gets human rights was "above my pay grade".  Apparently, deciding when to destroy them isn’t. 

This, then, is apparently the "rightful place" that he promised to restore science to.  It doesn’t sound like morals and ethics are part of the equation anymore. 

Ryan Anderson, writing in the Weekly Standard, brings this point home (as well as noting a "big lie" that Obama continues to perpetuate).

During the ceremony this morning, Obama announced that by signing this executive order "we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research." Of course there never was a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush was, in fact, the first president in history to fund embryonic stem cell research. The compromise Bush reached, however, put restrictions in place that prevented the further destruction of human embryos. It is these restrictions protecting human life that Obama has lifted.

Anderson notes that, while Obama did appeal to "moral values", he set up a straw man that he could easily knock down and brush aside, supposedly taking the issue off the table.  Anderson’s article covers this and a number of other objections that Obama’s decision simply ignores.  Read the whole thing.

The Washington Post headlined their article, "Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics".  It not only touches on the signing of the EO, but notes how this value system will affect us going forward.  A memorandum was issued along with this signing.

The memorandum will ensure that "people who are appointed to federal positions in science have strong credentials and that the vetting process for evaluating scientific information doesn’t lead to any undermining of the scientific opinion," he said.

That is to say, Obama wishes to shield science from similar ethical concerns, or indeed any debate, during his administration.  Heck, his spokesmen injected politics into the debate by trash-talking "the last administration as one  manifestation of failure to think carefully."  One wonders how the WaPo headline writer actually came up with that summary of the story.

And finally, Scott Ott satirizes this whole situation, such that it can be, with this:

As he signs an executive order Monday lifting limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, President Barack Obama said he intends to make the wealthiest Americans “bear their fair share of the burden.”

Following through on his inaugural promise “to restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost“, the president will order the National Institutes of Health to extract stem cells from embryos whose parents earn more than $250,000 per year, and to inject them into “the sick and crippled middle class.”

“Let me be perfectly clear,” Mr. Obama said, “if your family earns less than $250,000 per year, the federal government will not harvest one single stem cell from your embryos…not one single cell. In fact, for 95 percent of working families, my stem cell plan contains nothing but miraculous healing. That’s right, the cures are on the way.”

Again, read the whole thing, and get a good chuckle.

Science In Its "Rightful Place": Another Stem Cell Alternative

After President Obama’s inaugural speech, when he said, "We will restore science to its rightful place", I wondered aloud (as did others, see that post’s comments) if this had anything to do with his stance on embryonic stem cell research.  Well, it looks like we’ll find out soon enough.

A new way has been found to create stem cells like embryonic ones.

Scientists have developed what appears to be a safer way to create a promising alternative to embryonic stem cells, boosting hopes that such cells could sidestep the moral and political quagmire that has hindered the development of a new generation of cures.

The researchers produced the cells by using strands of genetic material, instead of potentially dangerous genetically engineered viruses, to coax skin cells into a state that appears biologically identical to embryonic stem cells.

"It’s a leap forward in the safe application of these cells," said Andras Nagy of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who helped lead the international team of researchers that described the work in two papers being published online today by the journal Nature. "We expect this to have a massive impact on this field."

Click here to see all the posts just from us on this issue, and how many alternatives to embryonic stem cells there are (include the hundreds of successful uses for adult stem cells).  All of these methods sidestep completely the ethical question surrounding the use of embryos.  You’d get no hollering from religious conservatives over the possible use of embryonic stem cells as an incentive for, or at least a slight guilt relief from, having an abortion.  That question goes right out the window.

But the scientific and the religious communities hold their breath.

In addition to the scientific implications, the work comes at a politically sensitive moment. Scientists are anxiously waiting for President Obama to follow through on his promise to lift restrictions on federal funding for research on human embryonic stem cells. Critics of such a move immediately pointed to the work as the latest evidence that the alternative cells make such research unnecessary.

"Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T," Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said. "No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach."

We will see soon enough where Obama thinks that science’s rightful place is.

Cutting out Spurgeon’s words

Here’s an interesting post from Beyond Creationism regarding how Answers in Genesis (AIG) apparently edited out some text from a Charles H. Spurgeon sermon, ostensibly to exclude Spurgeon’s positive reference to an Old Earth Creation scenario.

Spurgeon’s original text in question is:

“In the 2d verse of the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” We know not how remote the period of the creation of this globe may be—certainly many millions of years before the time of Adam. Our planet has passed through various stages of existence, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God. But before that era came, wherein man should be its principal tenant and monarch, the Creator gave up the world to confusion.”

And here is what AIG posted:

“In Ge 1:2, we read, ‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Our planet has passed through various stages in creation, and different kinds of creatures have lived on its surface, all of which have been fashioned by God. But before that era came, when man should be its principal tenant and monarch, the Creator initially created the world as a chaotic mass on the first day of creation.”

Rather than me highlighting the excluded text, simply look for the sentence, in the original, which contains the phrase “millions of years”.

Says Beyond Creation,

Spurgeon’s sermon has been sanitized for the AiG audience. Apparently, the reality of Spurgeon as an old-earth creationist is too much for AiG to allow the viewing public to know about. They even rewrote a portion at the end to change Spurgeon’s statement that “the Creator gave up the world to confusion” to make it appear that Spurgeon said merely that “the Creator initially created the world as a chaotic mass on the first day of creation.” And presto! The editors turned Spurgeon into a young-earth creationist, even though he said no such thing.

After initially posting their cleansed version of Spurgeon’s sermon, AIG did post the excluded text, in a note, with the following explanation,

Bracketed text removed from the sermon. As brilliant as Spurgeon was, even he did not understand the age issue. –Editor

Lucky for us, it would seem, at least AIG understands the age issue.

John Holzmann, provides a more in-depth analysis of the fancy editing that appears to have taken place at AIG.

Man, Society, and Science

Carl Olson of the Insight Scoop notes an article noting a term which he predicts will be in our future, scientific authoritarianism. The cited article notes:

Scientific authoritarianism, as I am using it here, holds that political decisions should be compelled by the political preferences of scientists. It is a very strong form of the ‘linear model’ of science and decision-making that I discuss in my book, The Honest Broker. Hansen believes that the advice of experts, and specifically his advice alone, should compel certain political outcomes.

There are just a few matters that need to take into account in this matter.

  • First off, it is my experience that there are two features found in many of the first rank scientists in our midst. First off, the best and brightest scientists in various fields don’t have the slightest interest in giving advice to politicians and in fact when they do offer political advice they offer very bad advice. I might add that theologians and religious leaders as well, for the most part, also are very horrible when they enter into the political world. There are some good reasons for this. Skills are involved in politics. The ability to read people, judge motivations and to have an estimate of the possible and so on are political skills. To become talented and to rise to the top of a scientific discipline requires three things: talent or genius, a love for inquiry, and a concentration on that field virtually to the exclusion of all else in life. Those people who are at the first rank usually have no talent, or frankly, desire to spend any time with exercising any authority. For them, their life is wholly given to the chase for the truths hidden by and in nature. To make an analogy with popular culture from cinema, while we might hope for our scientific authority to rise from the Mozarts in our midst, we’re going to get the Salieri’s who are the ones who will sully themselves with such matters.
  • Second, those scientists who are not blinded by the possibility of exercise of political authority, i.e., those who are honest with themselves, are aware of the vast gulf between what we know and what is out there to be known. To put it baldly, any scientist who assures you that we “know” the best policy is a liar or a fool. We “know” so very little about ourselves, our universe, and how it is put together.
  • Michael Polanyi in Personal Knowledge offers for us a glimpse at how much we deceive ourselves regarding about the epistemological certainties in science. I cannot recommend this book enough (although I’ll ruefully admit I really do need carve out the time to finish it).

A joke which is part of the culture of Physics and the pursuit of knowledge in that discipline.

A policeman encounters a drunk one night, who is on his hands and knees searching for something in the night beneath a street light. The policeman asks him, “What are you looking for?”
The drunk replies, “My keys.”
“Where did you drop them?” asks the bobby.
“Over there,” the drunk points down the block.
“Why are you looking here then?”
“I can’t see over there, because the light is here,” replies the drunk.

Our search for the mysteries of the universe and ourselves are a lot like that. We search under the light. Our keys … our understanding is to be found, so often, elsewhere down the road … in the dark.

So much of physics and our physical understanding of the universe assumes linearity. The mathematical behaviour and our understanding of linear PDEs and non-linear ones are much like comparing oranges to not-oranges. We look at and search for understanding under the light of just a few lamps. Gradually we uncover and begin to use a few more. But, we are just beginning. To pretend otherwise is foolishness. My advice would be to spurn those offering to give us scientific authority are who are assured in their results and their knowledge and don’t first show evidence of humility and uncertainty and demonstrate they posses a firm grasp of the magnitude of our ignorance.

Public Service Announcement on Stem Cell Research

No, Bush did not ban embryonic stem cell research.  Never mind what left-wing talk radio host Ed Schultz keeps saying.  Like the House Republicans, perhaps you, too, should listen to Rush Limbaugh.  Perhaps Ed should, as well, to get his demagoguery straight.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

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