Science Archives

"Restoring Science"

President Obama took a jab at former President Bush with this phrase from his inaugural speech; "We will restore science to its rightful place….".  This implies that science has been taken down off of some pillar that it should reside on.

Science is important in the betterment of humankind, but science must be tempered by morality (as must all things).  Dubya, for example, kept federal funding for embryonic stem cell research for those cell lines already existing at the time, but his moral concerns over the issue prevented his allowing it unhindered.  (Private funding is still available and, indeed, the research is continuing.)  Is Obama suggesting he’ll place science above morality?  Is submitting science to the scrutiny of morality robbing the former of it’s "rightful place"?  Is this his worldview?

Two Fewer Reasons to Use Embryonic Stem Cells

FuturePundit reports on two more papers that show we can take adult stem cells and turn them in pluripotent stem cells; those just as useful and flexible as embryonic stem cells.  Since there are absolutely no ethical issues with the use of adult stem cells, the question then has to be; why don’t we funnel the research dollars going into embryonic stem cells into this instead?  You would think there’s some ulterior motive or something.

Global Warming Update

With a hat tip to NewsBusters, a report on polar ice from this past June:

It seems unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.

The disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, making it possible to reach the Pole sailing in a boat through open water, would be one of the most dramatic – and worrying – examples of the impact of global warming on the planet. Scientists say the ice at 90 degrees north may well have melted away by the summer.

"From the viewpoint of science, the North Pole is just another point on the globe, but symbolically it is hugely important. There is supposed to be ice at the North Pole, not open water," said Mark Serreze of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado.

That was then.  This is now.

Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago, when the year 1979 also drew to a close.

Ice levels had been tracking lower throughout much of 2008, but rapidly recovered in the last quarter. In fact, the rate of increase from September onward is the fastest rate of change on record, either upwards or downwards.

(That rapid recovery in the last quarter is what we in the northern hemisphere call "winter".)

So all the experts and nifty computer models were absolutely wrong.  We’re not sailing ships through Santa’s workshop; instead we’re seeing ice levels we haven’t seen for 30 years.  Why were predictions so wrong?  The article explains:

Researchers had expected the newer sea ice, which is thinner, to be less resilient and melt easier. Instead, the thinner ice had less snow cover to insulate it from the bitterly cold air, and therefore grew much faster than expected, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Maybe, just maybe, the earth has cycles and this icing is just one of them.  Cycles like this are one of the reasons that the Huffington Post — no member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy they — are now preemptively accepting Al Gore’s apology for the lies he’s been telling us.

Read the rest of this entry

Considering Demons, Intelligence, and Inspiration

I’ve been recently pondering whether older notions of demons and modern notions of ideology, meme, and the like are not unrelated. Along those lines, this brings in questions regarding the detecting of intelligence. How can we locate and find (non-human) intelligence among us? Assume for a moment that intelligence other than us is at work in our local sphere, i.e., the earth, how might we locate it? How might we detect it?

Another analogy might be to consider these intelligences (or our intelligence) might be actually something akin to second order forces, like the relationship between the internal electrical forces holding atoms together and Van der Waals forces between atoms. This could go in either of two ways. That is inspiration, flashes of genius, might be really “from outside of us” … or the other way, that humans collectively form social networks which themselves might exhibit intelligence independent of individuals. Consider an ant colony. Imagine an ant colony that collectively as a colony exhibits intelligence. Now consider that those ant’s are us … individually intelligent and having exhibiting some number of colonial intelligences at a macro level. Why not?

On that note … does any reader have any suggestions further reading on either identifying intelligence or a modern theology of demons?

Aliens: Maths and Gods

In this recent post arguing for the converse of cogito ergo sum, two comments were elicited for which the response I felt was better promoted to a new post. Plus, of course, the ever present problem for the regular blogger is solved … that is on what to write? Two responses, not entirely unrelated by frequent commenter, the Jewish Atheist who first remarks:

Intelligent space aliens would discover i2=j2=k2=ijk=-1 but would likely have a completely different theology. Math equations are universal. Theological angel-pin-dancing calculations?

There are two problematic features of this response. The first is the (especially the first) Star Trek alien problem, that is all too often aliens are portrayed as humans in rubber suits. Their concerns, appearance, and their communications are all to often human with a small twist. JA elaborates:

People from different cultures on Earth come to the same conclusions about math. They differ on theology. This is because math is a formal system learned by humans and theology is just made up.Are you really denying that given an intelligent civilization elsewhere that they would almost certainly discover i2=j2=k2=ijk=-1? And that they would almost certainly have created thousands of their own theologies that bear only superficial resemblances to Earth’s theologies? If they had theologies at all?

This follows much the same vein. So there are really two questions at hand here. The first is how fundamentally immutable are mathematical truths and how much of our mathematical construction is human, or to coin it more poetically what parts of math are divine and what parts mortal? The second issue offered here is on the theological side. To put it bluntly, our interlocutor insists that theological ideas are “just made up” and specifically made up in a way that math (such as the Brougham bridge example noted earlier) is not. Read the rest of this entry

Math, Nature, and Knowledge

This paper by Eugene Wigner entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” gets too little play in the faith/science discussions. He begins:

THERE IS A story about two friends, who were classmates in high school, talking about their jobs. One of them became a statistician and was working on population trends. He showed a reprint to his former classmate. The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. “How can you know that?” was his query. “And what is this symbol here?” “Oh,” said the statistician, “this is pi.” “What is that?” “The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.” “Well, now you are pushing your joke too far,” said the classmate, “surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.”

Perhaps a little note to preface this is appropriate. Wigner is adamantly not an uncredentialed crackpot, far from it. Of him, and a select few others, a science historian might write a paper on the “unreasonable effectiveness of Hungarian mathematicians” in 20th century physics and mathematics … and Mr Wigner would be a prime example. Read the rest of this entry

Mr Obama’s Evil Idea

Rights are a very confusing notion. It seems to me there are two possibilities regarding Mr Obama’s recent claim that “health care is a right.” Either he means something completely different by “right” than I might understand it to mean (which is to say not a common notion of what is casually meant by “a right”) or he should not get anybody’s vote because he’s, well, insane. Bill Whittle, former democrat, at NRO puts this one perspective:

Well, back in the day, we would simply say that a right has legal authority — it’s in the Constitution and therefore it’s a not just a right, it’s a birthright. So why shouldn’t we amend the Constitution to include the rights to health care, food, housing, education — all the rest? What’s the difference between the rights we have and the “rights” Obama wants to give us?

Simply this: Constitutional rights protect us from things: intimidation, illegal search and seizure, self-incrimination, and so on. The revolutionary idea of our Founding Fathers was that people had a God-given right to live as they saw fit. Our constitutional rights protect us from the power of government.

The Declaration states that the “rights we hold to be self-evident” (and perhaps granted by Nature’s God) where Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Happiness almost certainly mean for Jefferson, Adams and Franklin to be the Aristotelian eudomonia (definition #2 at the link). Rights for our founders are emphatically not consumables that the government should provide for us.

There are two essential problems with Mr Obama’s (insane?) claim that health care is a “right”. The first is illustrated above, and that it is not a right as normally thought. The notion that health care is a fundamental right to which every person is entitled is radical policy of redistribution at best. The second problem with the idea of healthcare as thing which government can cure is that it’s wrong! Read the rest of this entry

Less and Less of a Need For Embryonic Stem Cells

The latest advancement in stem cells is that it’s getting safer to convert adult stem cells to “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells” (basically what embryonic stems cells are).  Adult stem cells are already curing loads of diseases, without the need for destroying embryos.  This is just one less reason to want to rely on the ethically murky embryonic ones.

Revelation and Reality

A discussion I had at my blog a long time ago resurfaced. Long time commenter The Jewish Atheist today “reposted” this. The gist of the discussion boils down to on the one side:

  • Millions of people have had “revelatory” experiences.
  • While certainly some of them are due to insanity or fraud … clearly by the numbers not all are.

The counter argument, provided in the link above argues:

  • Yes, but that doesn’t mean they are “real” experiences of what you perceive them to be.
  • In fact, look here, some researcher has produced an apparatus which by putting on this large helmet and applying large (fluctuating?) magnetic fields to the cortex one can simulate similar experiences.

There’s a problem with that counter argument. And the problem is that it is irrelevant.

Consider CGI in the cinema. Now good CGI which looks “real” takes a lot of stuff. You need, in the theatre, a good sound system and good quality projection, and a good audience. On the production side, you need a staff of talented programmers, artists, and a big bank of dedicated graphics “super-computers.” With that, you can give the impression of “seeing something real.”

To “mimic” the revelatory experience you need an experienced technician and some specialized equipment. Just any strong magnet won’t do. I performed experiments and TA’d in labs doing NMR (MRI without the “imaging”) in school. Those experiments produce very strong (not so quickly fluctuating) magnetic fields. People coming out of MRI machines aren’t claiming “I heard the Virgin speak” in great numbers. No. The magnetic field application has to be specifically engineered to simulate this effect.

Humans are physical. If we have revelatory experiences, they impact our physical being. If you cannot mimic that experience with some sort of apparatus or cortical stimulation of some sort then one has to wonder if in fact those people are actually lying. That this experience is something of which the human organism is incapable … and if incapable, how is it happening?

The problem is that “intense specific pattern of electro-magnetic stimulation” to the brain … OK say that can simulate a revelatory experience. Nobody is suggesting that stray radiation is floating around causing it spontaneously. If you see a series of images flash before your eyes in the absence of the cinema you suspect it might be real. If you have a revelatory experience in the absence of a laboratory … you also might suspect it is real. And in both cases, that might be a better guess than not.

Update: Edited, some grammar corrected and language clarified.

There’s No Place Like Home

Used to be that scientists thought that our solar system was pretty normal, and that there were plenty just like it out there.  TV shows like Star Trek and Stargate:SG1, among many others, traded on that to create unlimited worlds to explore.

On top of that, the idea that man is special in the universe, as suggested by the Bible, was taken down a few notches by that assertion.  If there are so many systems that would support life as we know it, the idea that God created just us seems a quaint anachronism. 

Well, as it turns out, our solar system is "pretty special", according to the headline in ScienceDaily last week.  Remember the old analogy of monkey’s typing on a jillion typewriters just waiting for a Shakespeare sonnet to come out, and its parallel to evolutionist theory about random chemicals banging together to create life?  Well, time to add a few jillion barrels of monkeys to the mix.  Apparently, coming up with a solar system like ours ain’t that easy.

Prevailing theoretical models attempting to explain the formation of the solar system have assumed it to be average in every way. Now a new study by Northwestern University astronomers, using recent data from the 300 exoplanets discovered orbiting other stars, turns that view on its head.

The solar system, it turns out, is pretty special indeed. The study illustrates that if early conditions had been just slightly different, very unpleasant things could have happened — like planets being thrown into the sun or jettisoned into deep space.

So what did they find out?

Before the discovery in the early 1990s of the first planets outside the solar system, our system’s nine (now eight) planets were the only ones known to us. This limited the planetary formation models, and astronomers had no reason to think the solar system unusual.

"But we now know that these other planetary systems don’t look like the solar system at all," said Frederic A. Rasio, a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is senior author of the Science paper.

"The shapes of the exoplanets’ orbits are elongated, not nice and circular. Planets are not where we expect them to be. Many giant planets similar to Jupiter, known as ‘hot Jupiters,’ are so close to the star they have orbits of mere days. Clearly we needed to start fresh in explaining planetary formation and this greater variety of planets we now see."

The more we find out, the more we see that we really got "lucky" (in scientific parlance) to have such a nice place to call home.

[tags]solar system,planetary formation,Frederic A. Rasio,Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences[/tags]

Returning to That Free Will Thing

I don’t know if discussions of this sort occur on this blog, as I’m a new contributor. Should I offer more like this? Whaddya think?

Blog neighbor Jewish Atheist in a “interview/meme” offers this:

Q7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Without God, I can’t see how we have free will. It appears that we have free will, therefore God must exist. Curiously, nobody seems to make this argument except me, on Opposite Day.

My refutation is that we actually don’t have free will. This has disturbing implications, which I have not yet come to terms with.

Not to stab the theistic argument in the foot, but there are a few short remarks I’d like to make here, some of which I’ve touched on before, but perhaps restatement will bring out some interesting details and conversation:

  • A deterministic universe exhibits simple free will in the following way. Consider a baby (classical relativistic) universe/close system which consists of a experimental  Feigenbaum mapping (google it), tuned past simple period doubling and to the onset of the chaos. In this situation, the mapping acts as a bit shift, xn+1 = Fraction(2 * xn). Initial conditions become amplified by a factor of two every iteration. However, soon over time the Planck distance will intervene, that is the bit shift will probe distances unspecifiable in the initial system, for to specify the system to that accuracy would require probing length scales/energies which would form a black hole … and thus cannot be specified. The system will not “fail” but will exhibit free will, that is the system is “free” and unconstrained by initial (unsettable/undefinable) conditions to take whatever value it wishes. In fact, ever after that point, the system is “free”.
  • Suggesting that initial conditions of our universe sets the behavior today, besides the difficulty/impossibility of setting those conditions suffers from a dimensional problem. If the Universe is D+1 dimensional (D=3+1 or 10 … doesn’t matter for this argument), then the “boundary” at T=0 is D a D-dimensional phase space. To line up the bank shot so that Beethoven will, while deaf, compose the Ninth Symphony (or whatever other work of art you find transcendent or inspired genius) that requires setting the conditions and a space (the evolving Universe) of dimension D+1. Fine tuning/accuracy is required to “finesse” the evolution on a large, if not infinite, time axis.
  • Another issue facing the fine tuning hypothesis, is the current “best understanding” physics gives about the early Universe, to whit inflation. Small quantum (or thermal) fluctuations present at the onset of the inflationary regime (when space-time is “e-folding” or exponentially expanding) are largely flattened out, those fluctuations survive as galaxies and galaxy clusters today, and form the large scale structure of the visible universe. Setting up the Beethoven bank shot has to survive inflation.
  • One way additional way to isolate the free will problem, is genius. That is, I contend genius requires free will. Genius exists. Therefore free will does. To counter that, one must explain how genius can exist without free will. JA, repeatedly contends, without proof, that free will cannot exist in a deterministic system, I disagree. However, on my side I contend that genius, especially as demonstrated in “transcendent” art, cannot exist without free will. The “bank shot” for a deterministic system to create it is too far fetched.

For myself, I would contend free will does not require God. Semiotic content in the Universe however does. If our words have meaning, God exists. 🙂

Missing: Bold Leadership

This week I’ve had the privilege to preview a new series that will debut on the Discovery Channel on Sunday, June 8th entitled When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (click here to read my review). The six part series traces the first fifty years of NASA’s missions to explore outer space.

While watching the series I was struck by how we no longer consider the exploration of space as something that is important for our country to invest in. It does not seem to hold the same interest for us as a nation as it did when I was a kid growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Perhaps that is because we don’t have bold leadership any longer in Washington.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space by piloting his Mercury spacecraft on a twenty minute sub-orbital flight. A little less than three weeks later, President John F. Kennedy declares before a joint session of Congress that the United States will land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. At the time, many in the space program thought Kennedy was crazy to make such a suggestion. But as audacious as his boast may have been, he inspired thousands of individuals associated with the program to work harder to ensure that his goal was met.

President Kennedy said it best in another famous speech that he made about why we must explore space:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

We need a leader who is willing to challenge us to do hard things.

Macro and Micro economics normally look at the economics of nations (and I’d think multi-nationals) vs the economics of individuals and smaller corporations. There is less discussion, as far as an outsider like myself, in making similar distinctions about Macro and Micro political theory, that is the theory of the body politic at the small scale (family/village/precinct) vs the theories of the same at the larger scales. In this essay, I’m not going to talk about the continuing dystrophy evident in the micro-political in America and how that anticipates movements towards autocracy at the macro-political level. For there is another “macro” to be discussed. That of time.

If we imagine the goal/end of government is to establish a small subset of Goods for its people, e.g., Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness for not just tomorrow but larger timescales. The Ancient Coptic society and it’s form of government lasted for an astonishing length of time, from about 3000 BC through until about 500 BC and Assyrian conquest (although “officially” it really fell in 31 BC when Rome conquered it). The point is, right now our leaders and thinkers about policy and politics do not try to imagine America and its democracy and how their policies might fit into a nation lasting for millenia. Heck, given medicare and social security and demographics and a little math and logic it is hard to imagine that they think much beyond the next election [ed: There is of course the possibility that they do in fact “think” beyond the next election but because of fundamental innumeracy the term “think” deserves scare quotes.] However this is not just their fault for very few people do consider the consequences of policy and praxis, of custom and lifestyle and how that will play out if repeated (and perhaps amplified) for 1,000 generations or beyond. Read the rest of this entry

They Get It

A group of evangelical Christians is trying to get the point across that the science isn’t settled on global warming, and indeed that the “cure” may be worse than the disease.

While it may seem like everyone believes in global warming and the impending catastrophe it will bring, a group of conservative Christians countered that message Thursday by launching a national campaign to gather one million signatures for a statement that says Christians must not believe in all the hype about global warming.

The “We Get It!” declaration, which currently has nearly 100 signers, is backed by prominent Christians including Tony Perkins of Family Research Council, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, award-winning radio host Janet Parshall, and U.S. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

What supporters of the statement seek is to inform Christians about the biblical perspective on the environment and the poor, and to encourage them to look at the hard evidence, which they say does not support the devastating degree of climate change claimed by mainstream society.

The point is that there’s more to global warming than carbon offsets and fluorescent light bulbs. There are people to be considered.

Read the rest of this entry

On the basis for morality

Back in March / April, I had a lengthy discussion with commenter Psi regarding my post on Mindless-process Design, with regards to evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Towards the end of the discussion Psi brought up the topic of ethics and morality, to which I responded,

…how does a purely naturalistic methodology, in a purely natural realm, produce an abstract notion (e.g., evil)? And further beyond that, how does one’s mind, built purely by mechanistic forces, not only comprehend that something is evil, but that evil is wrong? For that matter, why would something – anything – be considered wrong? On who’s authority?

Psi responded by referring me to a couple of posts he’s prepared under the subject “Being good without god”. Although I promised to respond to Psi’s posts within “a few days”, it’s been over a month… sigh. Well, here is my lengthy response, albeit passed the “few days” boundary. (note: I encourage you to read this comment in our thread, as well as Psi’s posts, to get a groundwork for my text) Also, I have mined posts that I previously wrote, at New Covenant, which pertain to this topic, although in some cases I have rewritten my original commentary for clarity towards this discussion.

There are quite a few issues that Psi writes on in his posts. Rather than simply address them one by one, I will attempt to comment on them topically. Essentially, I think that Psi is positing that religious belief is inherently irrational, that humans can behave in morally upright ways without the need of adhering to religion or belief in a deity, and that ethical thought and standards for humans came about through the strictly natural processes of evolution.

If you want to skip my lengthy post, and simply get to gist of my point, then here it is: It is my assertion that while humans can be good without [the existence of] god, they have no basis with which to justify why they should be.
Read the rest of this entry

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