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Friday, November 28, 2008

Arguing God From First Cause

FROM ALISTER MCGRATH, PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AT KING'S COLLEGE: We’ve all seen it done: You start by observing nature and then argue that this points to the existence of a God. Of course, it raises as many questions as it answers. Is this the god of deism, theism, or Trinitarianism? Or a committee of gods (not what Christians mean by the Trinity, by the way)? In the past, writers such as William Paley argued that the existence of God could be deduced from the apparent wisdom of the ordering of the created order.
Yet long before Darwin came along, pulling the rug from under Paley’s argument, Christian theologians were expressing doubts about Paley. John Henry Newman famously stated that he believed "in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design." Paley’s argument, of course, could be restated, and salvaged to some extent. Charles Kingsley, for example, noted that it could be salvaged by declaring that God did not simply make things, but made things make themselves. But for many, the idea of arguing God’s existence from first causes, whether physical or biological, was in terminal decline once Darwin’s theories gained the ascendancy.
Yet the passing of time has raised new questions, which have reopened this old debate. The growing realization that the universe is not eternal, but came into being in an astonishingly short time, has raised again the question of whether it was “created.” How could it have caused itself, if there was nothing there to initiate a causal process? If the universe was “created,” then surely there is a “creator”? Things don’t just happen; they are made to happen.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Critics argue that “creation” and “origination” are totally different ideas. The universe may have come into being from nothing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone got it going. Yet the growing interest in anthropic phenomena, such as the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe, has injected new energy into what some had prematurely regarded as a closed debate.
But this is only one way of looking at things. Some have turned instead to the idea of the quest for the “best explanation.” This approach doesn’t require a causal explanation of things. Instead, it looks for a good fit between theory and observation. British philosopher of religion Ian Ramsay likened the idea of "empirical fit" to trying on a hat for size rather than a precise causal account of things. So the question is now: Does belief in a creator God make more sense of what we observe in the world than does anything else? C. S. Lewis certainly thought so: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else,” he said. The jury’s still out on this one, but there’s no doubt that many believe this is the best framework within which to discuss the whole question of whether nature points us to God.

Alister McGrath appears with William Lane Craig, Quentin Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, David Shatz, and Charles Harper Jr. in "Arguing God From First Cause," the 12th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Episode 9: Beliefs That Kill & a Chill

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: A disheveled man rushes into a corporate meeting, apologizes for being late, and launches into his presentation. It goes well, but after everyone else in the conference room leaves, he’s puzzled by a butterfly darting about the room. It lands on his finger for a moment, then makes a few quick passes that leave slashes on his neck and arms. The wings are like blades, he realizes, moments before a swarm of the sharp-edged insects flood out of the ventilation system. They swipe at him relentlessly until, faced with no other option, the man busts through a plate glass window and falls many floors to his death. The building he was in? Massive Dynamics headquarters, of course.
In Boston, Olivia’s getting ready for a friend’s surprise party when Phillip Broyles calls and orders her to round up the Bishops and meet him in New York. He ignores her desire to have a normal life for a few days: “Runway 14. The plane will be waiting.” At the crime scene, Walter looks at the dead man—whose name is Mark Young—and notices that the cuts didn’t come from the impact of his fall. But Olivia is distracted: She sees John in the crowd of onlookers, but he disappears when she blinks. Massive Dynamics diva Nina Sharp informs Olivia that Young was a rising star in the company but that sometimes the pressures of working at the cutting edge of science aren’t for everyone. And with that sales pitch, she once more presses Olivia about coming to work there. Olivia refuses again, instead heading to Young’s apartment. From clues around the place, she and Charlie infer that Young wasn’t suicidal. As she takes note of Young’s day planner, which has MONARCH handwritten on one of the days, the butterfly specimens hanging on the wall start flapping their wings—but Olivia’s apparently the only one to notice. She keeps this observation to herself. At Walter’s Harvard lab, he and Astrid note high levels of a synthetic compound in Young’s blood, while Peter takes a call from a worried-sounding woman who wants to see him.
Olivia does a cursory Web search of “monarch” at home before bed, then shuts down her laptop. But it reboots on its own moments later and calls up her email inbox. At the top of the queue is a new email from John. “1312 Labrador Ln.,” it reads. “Basement level.” Creepy. Throwing caution to the wind, Olivia goes to the address with only a flashlight and her gun. Inside, she finds crates of toads, which she has transported to Walter’s lab the next day. Charlie raises a suspicious eye but is sympathetic when she says she thinks she’s losing her mind due to the emotional fallout from John’s betrayal and death. She’s interrupted when Astrid calls: The toads secrete the same compound that was found in Young’s body. At the lab, Walter says the compound is psychosomatic in nature and can make people believe that horrible things are happening to them—like a swarm of razor-edge butterflies, perhaps?—and that belief can kill them. Olivia realizes that John’s memories are still banging around in her head from the mind-meld, and she wants them out. Back in the tank we go!
Meanwhile, Peter has a tension-fraught meeting with a woman named Tess, who apparently was his girlfriend or something before he fled town. She tells him to take off again because “they” will find him. When he grabs her wrists, she winces, and he confirms that she’s with someone named Michael and that he’s hurting her. Later, Peter confronts Michael, beats the stuffing out of him, and warns him not to touch Tess again. Throughout the interaction, an unseen person watches Peter from afar.
As Olivia gets into the tank, Astrid brings Walter the book he requested: a Bible. He reads from Ezekiel 36:26 which, depending on the version you’ve got, says: “A new heart also I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” Interesting. As Olivia floats and Walter’s voice is pumped into the tank, she recalls her first date with John, and when memory Olivia gets up to use the restroom, real Olivia sits down in her spot and start pouring out her heart to memory John, who Walter repeatedly says can’t hear her. But when real Olivia says, “Mark Young killed himself yesterday,” memory John’s eyes snap to her and lock on. Soon they’re in another of John’s recollections: Olivia watches him and three other men talk about an upcoming deal. One of the men is Mark Young, who leaves with a Latino-looking guy. John remains with the other man, who mentions something about an “Ashley” situation before John suddenly stabs him in the gut. Real Olivia is horrified and begs to be let out.
She and Astrid make a composite of the Latino guy, and Broyles tells her that Young was murdered for selling Massive Dynamics technology on the black market. Olivia and Charlie later capture the Latino guy, George Morales, in New York, after he gets hit by a car during their chase. After showing off insider knowledge of "the pattern," he says he’ll trade all he knows for legal immunity and protection. Olivia promises it, then leaves to taunt Nina. But in her absence, a peaked-looking John enters a frightened George’s hospital room and slits his throat. The shocked nurse that enters the room just then, though, only sees George’s throat opening of its own accord. The psychosomatic toad drugs strike again!
With their smoking gun dead, Olivia pleads with Walter to put her back in the tank. Proving he’s not quite as mad as he seems, Walter says it’s too dangerous and he’ll find another way to access John’s memories. But, um, maybe he should hurry up: That night, Olivia’s computer blinks on of its own accord and there’s another new missive from her dead (or is he?) ex-boyfriend. “I saw you,” it reads, proving that this show is at its best in the small, goosebump-inducing moments like these. “In the restaurant.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Though Walter tells Olivia that he wants the Bible in order to pray for help should things go wrong during their experiment, the Old Testament verse he reads is Ezekiel’s prophecy of the new man, whose—pardon the lay interpretation—heart and spirit have been made new by God. Could this be a veiled reference to John, who may also be in the process of being made new (or re-made in cyberspace) by this show’s all-powerful entity, Massive Dynamics? Now we’re getting somewhere.

It Pays to Give—Even in a Financial Crisis

"No matter your economic circumstance, probably the most beneficial way to cope with the current situation is to maintain a habit of personal generosity,"says Stephen Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics in the School of Medicine at Stony Brook University and co-author of the book Why Good Things Happen to Good People. "There's no way in the world bureaucracies and government requirements can substitute for the authentic actions of giving. It's in these small details that people become fully human."
Post will discuss the "science of goodness" next Wednesday during his keynote address at "Religious Practice and Health: What the Research Says," a one-day conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by The Heritage Foundation. "It's good to be good," he says. "People who live generously are, on the whole, happier and healthier, and they live a little longer than those who aren't generosity-oriented."

Help Draft a "Charter for Compassion"

Now's your chance to lend your voice to a "Charter for Compassion," an online project for people of all faiths around the world. The brainchild of religion scholar Karen Armstrong (who wished for the charter when she won a TED Prize back in March), the project is built upon the universal ideals of justice, respect, and the golden rule.
Collaborative decision-making software lets users contribute language and ideas, and then rate each other's contributions based on a set of criteria. The final version of the charter, based on the best ideas, will then be drafted by a "Council of Sages" made up of religious thinkers and leaders. The plan is to complete it next year.
"The Charter will show that the voice of negativity and violence so often associated with religion is the minority and that the voice of compassion is the majority," according to the project's Web site. "Through the participation of the grassroots, people around the world will expect more out of religious leaders and one another. In doing so, the Charter will shift conceptions of religion for all people." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Gilead" Author Says Science Is "Amazing"

"Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I've found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It's only very recently that you couldn't see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion," says Christian writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and the new book Home) in a Q&A in The Paris Review, in which she talks about her personal relationship with both science and faith.
"The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfaction for me that good theology has," she says.
"As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people's experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that's based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of humans beings, it tends to compare downward: We're intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps. The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: Stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don't behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly."

Watch a Christian Physicist "Save Darwin"

Check out the clips of Michael Shermer interviewing Karl Giberson (editor-at-large of Science & Religion Today) at The Harvard Club in New York last week. The two talk about Giberson's new book Saving Darwin, whether Christianity is compatible with evolution, and the spiritual implications of science. While Giberson is a physicist and a firm believer in evolution, "I think it's very important to acknowledge that there are loads and loads of things that are eminently worth believing that are not the conclusions of scientific arguments," he says. "If the only thing that we're going to be allowed to believe is something that comes at the end of a scientific argument, then we're going to have a very emaciated worldview."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ban on Yoga for Muslims in Malaysia

Over the weekend, the National Fatwa Council, Malaysia's top Islamic body, banned the country's Muslims from practicing yoga, saying that it seeks unity with a god of Hinduism and contains elements of that religion, including worshipping and chanting, which could "destroy the faith of a Muslim," says Abdul Shukor Husin, the council's chairman.
Decisions made by the council are not legally binding until they're enshrined in national laws or Shariah laws of the states, but many Muslims abide by its rulings out of deference. In 2004, Egypt's top theological body also banned yoga for Muslims, even though many practitioners say the exercise doesn't need to have any religious elements.
The decision caused mixed reactions, divisions, and confusion—especially among cancer survivors who practice yoga because it helps promote positive thinking and unity, says Zuraidah Atan, the National Cancer Society of Malaysia’s adviser. "An overreaching fatwa like this is not good for them as unnecessary worry can have a negative effect on them psychologically and physically. Some are already feeling guilty for practicing it," she told The Star, Malaysia's leading English-language newspaper. "There is a need for the Fatwa Council to explain their edict properly so that Muslims who practice yoga, including cancer survivors, are not made to feel guilty.” —Heather Wax

Dispatch From the AAA Annual Meeting

FROM BARBARA KING, PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AT THE COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY: Along with thousands of other anthropologists, I was in San Francisco this past weekend for the American Anthropological Association conference. These annual meetings are always an edge-of-chaos experience of chimpanzee-style fission-fusion reunions, intense talk punctuated by debates and collegial provocations, and visits to the ever-popular exhibits room (where I bought, this year, not only books but also merchandise like a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you understand punctuated equilibria!”)
My own session occurred Saturday morning. Organized by Michael Winkelman of Arizona State University and Carol Weingarten of the University of Pennsylvania, it was called "Religion in Evolutionary Perspective."
Dwight Read of UCLA kicked things off by focusing on humans’ tendency to assign agency to beings in our world, including nonmaterial beings. He asked whether the kind of neural apparatus that underwrites this tendency could possibly exist in the absence of the development of some sort of religious thought—and answered with a "no." While chimpanzees, Read said, have an understanding of causal connections, what’s different with hominid ancestors is that our schema allowed not just outcomes but consciously desired outcomes. Humans, in other words, invoke schema (“if I do x, y will result”) for consistently linking to certain outcomes over and over again, and sometimes do so by incorporating “unseen agents” into their calculus.
Interestingly enough, I found myself speaking after Read, who had wedded himself heavily to mental representations and evolved cognitive structures. At the start of my talk, I noted two papers published last month in our alpha-tier science journals (one in Science, the other in Nature) that converged on a central role for agency-detecting cognitive capacities in the evolution of religion. This focus on thought and cognition seems to be all the rage, but I wished to offer a different vision, a return to an anthropological perspective rooted in emotional ritual. I discussed the evidence in prehistory for emotional relationality and for symbolic ritual oriented toward the supernatural—and, of course, also for belongingness, the concept at the heart of my Evolving God book. Plainly said, I think that reducing religion to cognitive agency-detection misses an awful lot, primarily about how we evolved to co-create meaning through cognitive empathy (and even through a failure of cognitive empathy at times) with those around us.
Feeling this way, I took splendid enjoyment in the next paper. Weingarten and James Chisholm of the University of Western Australia described what it means for “Durkheim to meet Bowlby”—that is, for a focus on “exultation and joy, an overabundance of forces, on effervescence” in religion to meet a focus on attachment. Chisholm (who presented the paper) rooted their points in really deep evolutionary time, pegging the origins of the attachment process to 350 million years ago. For reptiles and nonsocial mammals, attachment is to territory (a specific location in space); for most social mammals, attachment is to the flock or herd. And for humans, attachment is to the cooperative social group. In other words, home for us is the cooperative social group. The origins of religion, then, may in part be traced to the human capacity for attachment—first to the mother, then to other emotionally close individuals, then to groups, then to leaders, then to religious leaders, and eventually to God.
I have a lot more to learn about bringing together Durkheim and Bowlby—in 15 minutes, each of us speakers could only whet others’ appetites. Chisholm and Weingarten’s search for phylogenetic precursors to complex human behaviors was carried forward in a novel way by Winkelman, who spoke next. Winkelman sees the displays of chimpanzees as rituals; in fact, the phylogenetic origin of human shamanism is, for him, in ape display behavior. What bridges the gap from ape displays to human religiosity? Altered states of consciousness. Compared to chimpanzees, “humans evolved to more efficiently process psychedelic drugs.” (Comparative primatology meets the ‘60s?!) Winkelman links some spiritual experiences to extreme neural activation (through dance and even long-distance running as much as through drugs). With co-author John Baker of Moorpark College, he has a new book called Supernatural as Natural that elaborates on these views.
Kathleen Gibson of the University of Texas had the daunting job of trying to tie these wildly divergent papers together, and proved more than up to the job. She was fair and gently provocative. (Thanks to Gibson, I realize I can sound too warm and fuzzy about religion, sometimes, when I mean to focus on evolved violence and failed belongingness as much as on harmony and empathy.) Her spirited support of developmental models was particularly effective in countering what I, too, see as an unwarranted love affair with specific innate modules in the expression of human behavior. In Gibson’s words (or at worst a close paraphrase), “the transformation of rearing”—that is, how a human or an ape is raised by parents or caretakers—can “change brain function.” The social, the emotional, and the cognitive thus come together. A great and fit ending to this set of papers!

Friday, November 21, 2008

A New Science of Virtues

The Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago has launched Science of Virtues, a new research project led by Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher in the Divinity School, and Don Browning, an emeritus professor of ethics and the social sciences. Howard Nusbaum, chair of the school's psychology department, will act as scientific adviser.
In 2010, the project will award about 20 two-year grants to scholars and scientists who have original ideas that "demonstrate promise of a distinctive contribution to virtue research and have the potential to begin a new field of interdisciplinary study." Projects can focus on a specific virtue like courage, honesty, tenacity, generosity, or integrity (looking at it from various angles), or examine the more general relationship between virtue and evolutionary biology, society, human development, modernity, or theology.
“Virtues such as wisdom, generosity, and gratitude are attributes of human behavior,” Nusbaum told The University of Chicago Chronicle. “A submitted scientific proposal might look for genetic reasons why a person might be predisposed to greater generosity, for instance. Or a research team might examine nonhuman animal examples of generous actions and see how such actions can serve as a model for human virtue.”
A council will review applications and invite 40 finalists to submit grant proposals. The deadline for letters of intent is March 2. —Heather Wax

Does ESP Reveal the Nonphysical?

FROM DEAN RADIN, SENIOR SCIENTIST AT THE INSTITUTE OF NOETIC SCIENCES: If by "nonphysical" one means the inner world of personal, subjective experience, then yes, extrasensory perception reveals something about the subjective. But then, that’s the purpose of most conventional psychological experiments, to say nothing of psychotherapy. So presumably we’re not talking about that type of nonphysical.
If by "nonphysical" one means aspects of reality that are neither material nor energetic, and if one is also a “physicalist,” which many scientists imagine themselves to be, then no, ESP cannot reveal anything about the nonphysical because from that framework, there is nothing other than physical.
If by "nonphysical" one means wholly beyond the natural world, or supernatural, then again the answer is no. ESP experiences happen repeatedly, in every culture and at every level of educational achievement. So they are perfectly natural. It’s only their interpretation that is considered controversial. In any case, as science marches on, more and more of what used to be called supernatural, paranormal, or magical inevitably become ho-hum normal. So ESP reveals nothing of interest here.
If by "nonphysical" one means an aspect of reality that is neither material nor energetic but rather informational, then yes, ESP does reveal something. It may seem odd to imagine that there is an informational reality that is not physical, but that’s what logic, relationships, and even the essence of language are all about. There are ways that both the material and energetic worlds are modulated into meaningful patterns, where the pattern alone is the thing of interest, and not the physical medium. If someone whispers “you’ve won the lottery” in your ear, the modulation of the physical world is minuscule. But the meaning conveyed by that informational pattern, and the resulting energetic release, can be enormous. More pertinent to what ESP may be revealing, there are also meaningful correlations that have no known physical carrier or substance at all, such as the space-and-time-transcending correlations known as quantum entanglement.
ESP may be thought of as a means by which information flows between humans, and between humans and the environment, without the use of the known physical forces. In this sense, ESP reveals the nonphysical. Exactly how this all happens is not yet certain, but that it does happen is increasingly supported by empirical evidence collected in controlled laboratory tests, and by an intriguing similarity to the nonlocal nature of reality revealed by quantum mechanics.

Dean Radin appears with Marilyn Schlitz, Charles Tart, Susan Blackmore, Rupert Sheldrake, and Michael Shermer in "Does ESP Reveal the Nonphysical?" the 11th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Earliest Nuclear Family Found—Embracing

A team of researchers has found the oldest molecular genetic evidence of a nuclear family, in one of four graves dating back about 4,600 years to the Stone Age. Using DNA analysis, the researchers identified the remains in one grave as a mother, father, and two sons ages 8 or 9 and 4 or 5. A second grave contained three children, two of which who had the same mother, though they are buried with another woman, likely a paternal aunt or possibly a step-mother. In total, the remains of 13 people were found, all of whom were interned at the same time.
Evidence—like a stone projectile point found embedded in the vertebra of one female and the defense injuries to the forearms and hands found on several of the bodies—suggest that the community was violently attacked by another group. It's believed that those who survived the raid later returned and, using their knowledge of the familial bonds among the dead, took great care to bury the dead according to their relationships in life. Several pairs were arranged face to face, with their arms and hands linked.
The graves were discovered at the early farming site of Eulau in Germany. Before humans began to farm, which caused them to stay in one place, they lived as nomadic hunters and gatherers—and the basic unit of social organization, anthropologists believe, was not the nuclear family, but rather the band or tribe. "By establishing the genetic links between the two adults and two children buried together in one grave, we have established the presence of the classic nuclear family in a prehistoric context in Central Europe—to our knowledge the oldest authentic molecular genetic evidence so far," says Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, who led the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Their unity in death suggests a unity in life. However, this does not establish the elemental family to be a universal model or the most ancient institution of human communities." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Episode 8: Math & Discovery's Path

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: On a rainy night in Middletown, Connecticut, a boy named Ben composes music in the backseat of the family car as his dad notices a woman stranded on the side of the road. Dad pulls over and calls for a tow before lifting the hood of the grateful woman’s car and taking a look. Some pulsing green and red lights capture his attention, and the next thing he knows, time has passed and the tow-truck driver is tapping him on the shoulder. The woman and her car are gone—oh, and so is Ben.
In Boston, Phillip Broyles alerts Olivia, Walter, and Peter that Ben’s abduction isn’t the first of its kind. Three other people, all experts in math or science, report seeing the same woman and some funny lights before they went missing. All later turned up insane. The lights spark something in Walter’s mind: He later remembers that an ad agency hired him to figure out a way to use flashing lights to increase consumer susceptibility to their messages. The flashing pattern, he recalls, induced a trance-like state— which he re-creates, with a disbelieving Peter as his guinea pig yet again.
At Ben’s house, Olivia learns that Ben’s mom died when she and her son were hit by a car. Ben emerged from a six-day coma with the ability to play piano like a virtuoso, even though he’d never had a lesson. Weeks after, he started writing music but seemed “obsessed” with finding the end to a piece he’d started. In a cell somewhere, the roadside woman tells Ben his mom wants to see him, but he has to cooperate.
Charlie finds a name, Joanne Ostler, to go with the description of Ben’s captor: Problem is, she allegedly died in 1998, eight months before the abductions began. As Olivia chews on that, Walter remembers that one of his fellow inmates at St. Claire’s—the nuthouse from which Olivia and Peter liberated him in the pilot episode—had been abducted under circumstances similar to Ben’s, gone crazy, and killed his wife. The crime scene photos show a mathematical formula scrawled across the wall near his wife’s body. Walter translates an expression from the formula into music as Peter explains to Olivia that music is based on numbers. When Peter plays, the expression sounds just like the piece that Ben was writing.
Olivia wants to talk to Walter’s former inmate, Dashiell Kim, but the St. Claire’s staff will only allow him to be interviewed by a familiar face: Walter. So he sucks it up and returns to his former prison, but when there’s a melee in the meeting room, orderlies stick him with a sedative and hold him there overnight. In that time, Walter’s sanity comes very close to leaving him altogether once more—he even sees himself across the recreation yard—but he manages to get Kim to dredge up that the place he was held was a “dungeon in a red castle.” Thinking he’s failed, Walter is despondent when Peter frees him the next morning.
Meanwhile, in the cell, Ben can’t figure out an ending to the piece. This displeases Ostler, who tells him that he’s hurting his mother by refusing to help. Sure enough, his mom starts to bleed all over the piano from what looks like injuries from a car accident. Ben is understandably freaked out. “If you lose her again,” Ostler coos, “you’ll only have yourself to blame.”
Peter, Charlie, and Olivia figure out that Ostler is likely in or near Clarksburg, Massachusetts. While Olivia and Charlie are going door to door in that town with pictures of Ben, Peter calls to tell her about the red dungeon. She looks across the street, to where a large building stands, and notices that it’s red and has turrets. She and Charlie bust in to find Ben hooked up to some kind of brain-stimulating apparatus—hence the visions of his dead mom—and Ostler fleeing the scene. Olivia chases her into the hall, where Ostler manipulates the ceiling lights to blink red and green. Before Olivia realizes what’s going on, Charlie calls her name and she turns around. Minutes have passed, and Ostler is gone.
Back at their hotel, Walter tells Peter he wants his own space, and Peter genially says they can probably find him on-campus housing at Harvard. In another touching father-son moment, a not-crazy Ben and his pop are reunited at the FBI. Elsewhere, Ostler pulls up to a nondescript warehouse and runs in with the formula Ben has apparently solved. Guess who’s there? Mitchell Loeb, the secretly bad FBI agent from last episode! He plugs the formula into a computer, attaches wires to a metal box, then places a red delicious apple in another metal box on the other side of the room. He activates the machine, and the apple seems to transport from one box to the next (though it’s hard to say if that’s exactly what happens). He’s elated, and so is Ostler—until he pulls out a gun, kills her, and takes a giant bite of the fruit.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Memory continues to play a giant role in the drama; without Walter’s spotty recollections, Ben probably wouldn’t have been rescued. But this episode was rather light on the science—even the “fringe” science for which it’s named. An examination of memories, and how our interpretations of our own experiences shape our beliefs, might prove a suitable topic for the future.

The Bible's Secrets—Exposed (by Archaeology)!

A NOVA program called "The Bible's Buried Secrets" premiered last night on PBS, highlighting the archaeological studies that contradict a literal reading of the Bible. The program explores who wrote the Bible—when and why—and examines the origin of monotheism and the idols that suggest God had a wife.
According to William Dever, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona who worked on the show, trying to "prove the Bible" is misguided, and "if we resurrected someone from the past, one of the biblical writers, they would be amused, because for them it would have made no difference. I think they would have said, faith is faith is faith—take your proofs and go with them," he tells program writer-producer-director Gary Glassman in a Q&A. "The fact is that archaeology can never prove any of the theological suppositions of the Bible. Archaeologists can often tell you what happened and when and where and how and even why. No archaeologists can tell anyone what it means, and most of us don't try."
To Dever, the Bible is "didactic literature," full of stories that provide meaning and a morals, composed by many different writers. There's no archaeological evidence to prove the existence of biblical patriarchs like Abraham, he says, and other stories, like the narrative of Moses and the Exodus, have been exaggerated and elaborated. "Are we to become unbelievers if we can't prove that Abraham ever lived?" he asks. "What is the story about? It's a story about freedom and faith and risk. Does it matter exactly how Abraham and his clan left, and when they arrived in Canaan, or where they settled? What really matters is that Abraham is seen later by Jews and Christians as the father of the faithful. Abraham moves out on faith to a land he has never seen. ... We are talking about a journey of several hundred miles around the fringes of the desert. So it's an astonishing story. Is it true? It is profoundly true, but it's not the kind of truth that archaeology can directly illuminate." —Heather Wax


The Templeton Foundation has won a 2008 National Humanities Medal "for opening new frontiers in the pursuit of answers to mankind's oldest questions" and for being a "catalyst of groundbreaking work in scientific, religious, and philosophical exploration of the deepest concerns of the humanities and the human race.” Winners of the medals, awarded annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities, are selected by the president

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dispatch From the Saving Darwin Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: This morning I had my coffee in Penn Station, watching New Yorkers—who seem very nice—and listening to Coldplay on the speakers overhead, which is also very nice. I came to New York yesterday on the train for a special evening at The Harvard Club devoted to my book Saving Darwin, which argues that there is room for God within the grand narrative of evolution. The organizers brought Michael Shermer, the author of many books and the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, to interview me in front of an audience of 120 or so New York media people. Shermer doesn’t think there is room for God within the grand narrative of evolution, or anywhere else for that matter.
Shermer was expected to be a bit aggressive with the interview. After all, he edits a magazine dedicated to proving that sensible people shouldn’t believe things without adequate evidence, and my belief in God was certainly in that category. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guy who hangs out with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who had been at the previous event at the Harvard Club. But Shermer was delightful. He had read Saving Darwin carefully and prodded me on the difficult points—divine action and the nature of consciousness in particular.
He asked good questions—a mix of philosophical and personal issues. Why do I believe in God? (Because I always have, and nobody has convinced me I should stop.) But what are the reasons to believe in God? (It makes a richer worldview and grounds the goodness of the world in something other than mere titillation.) So you believe in God for emotional reasons? (Yes, but not merely emotional reasons.)
I was especially flattered when Shermer encouraged the audience to read my brief narrative of cosmic history near the end of the book, a passage that he described as the “equal of anything that Carl Sagan had written.” Shermer is an outstanding writer and a compliment like this was deeply appreciated. Over dinner later, we talked about writing. Like me, he loves to write and is always happy when the research is done and he can get down to writing. I mentioned that Ed Larson felt the opposite; he told me once that he loves the research but finds the actual writing tedious—hardly what one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
When I got up this morning, I checked the Amazon ranking of Saving Darwin to see if the audience members had all hurried home and order copies. The overnight improvement in the ranking indicated that one copy had sold.

Stone Believed to Hold Soul of the Dead

University of Chicago archaeologists working in southeastern Turkey have found a chiseled stone monument, or "stele," that commemorates the life—and, it was believed, holds the soul—of an eighth-century royal official named Kattamuwa. The funeral monument, which includes an incised image of the man and an inscription, is believed to be the first written evidence that the people in that region believed the soul was separate from the body. The slab is 800 pounds, three feet tall, and two feet wide.
The archaeologists found no evidence of a burial or tomb in the remains of the ancient city of Sam'al (near the Syrian border), but they have found cremation urns dating to the same period in neighboring excavation sites. The archaeologists think the people in Sam'al also practiced cremation—a practice that breached biblical law, according to Semitic cultures like the Jews, who felt the body and soul were inseparable.
The stone's inscription, which was translated by Dennis Pardee, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Chicago, reads, in part: “I, Kuttamuwa, servant of [the king] Panamuwa, am the one who oversaw the production of this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in an eternal chamber [?] and established a feast at this chamber [?]: a bull for [the god] Hadad, a ram for [the god] Shamash and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.”
In the chiseled picture, a bearded man (presumably Kuttamuwa) wears a tasseled cap and fringed cloak, and raises a cup of wine with his right hand. He's sitting in front of table full of food, believed to symbolize the afterlife he expected to enjoy, and the inscription calls on his descendants to regularly bring food for his soul—further evidence that the people in this ancient city believed the soul lived not in the bones of the dead, as in traditional Semitic thought, but in the stone. (In front of the stone, archaeologists found food remains and fragments of the same type of bowls depicted in the picture.)
The stele was discovered last summer at a site called Zincirli (pronounced Zin-jeer-lee) by the Neubauer Expedition, led by David Schloen of The Oriental Institute. Later this week, Schloen and Pardee will present their findings in Boston at meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature. —Heather Wax

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Nostalgia Protects Us From Loneliness

A new study by a group of psychologists from Sun Yat-Sen University in China and the University of Southampton in England has identified an interesting connection between loneliness and nostalgia. People who report feeling the loneliest also report receiving the least amount of social support, but they also tend to be the most nostalgic, the study found. And this nostalgia, in turn, increases perceptions of social support—likely helping to counteract the feelings of loneliness. So while the direct effect of loneliness is to reduce perceptions of social support, the indirect effect is to increase the perception of support via nostalgia.
According to the researchers, who published their study in the journal Psychological Science, this "restorative" function of nostalgia is especially apparent among people who are resilient (those who are best able to recover from traumatic events and adversity); in other words, they're more likely to use nostalgia to overcome feelings of loneliness. Yet, they say, potentially anyone "could be trained to benefit from the restorative function of nostalgia when actual social support is lacking or is perceived as lacking." —Heather Wax

E.O Wilson Says He's a "Provisional Deist"

"I tend I to believe that religious dogma is a consequence of evolution. Religious belief and the firm adherence to it—and the intense dislike of apostates, people who abandon it—has a very important biologic origin, probably through natural selection, namely the cohesion of the group and the persuasion of people to be more altruistic. So in my view, most dogmas concerning the creation are myths of creation and are not believable. They're just different from one religion to another," biologist E.O. Wilson, co-author of the new book The Superorganism, says in a Q&A with the St. Petersburg Times. "When the question comes up, 'If it's not true, why does practically everybody believe in God?' the answer is that it's true in a Darwinian sense. That is, it provides cohesion, it provides personal peace and rites of passage, and it promotes altruism, which are all invaluable and necessary for the survival of human societies." When it comes to whether he personally believes in God, Wilson says he's "willing to consider the possibility of an ultimate cause. But we haven't really come close to grasping what that might be."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Artist Creates Universe From Uranium & Gum

We just got a note from conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (creator of the "Atheon"), who told us about a new project he has in the works: Keats is using quantum mechanics to replicate the ultimate cosmological act of creation, building a machine that mass-produces new universes.
Using little more than a piece of chewing gum, a plastic drinking straw, and a bit of uranium, Keats says he's constructed the first machine for fabricating all-inclusive universes. The machine is based on an aspect of quantum mechanics proposed by Princeton University physicist Hugh Everett III, who, in the 1950s, developed a quantum theory of multiple universes. This theory addressed the question of how elementary particles can exist in a quantum superposition—for example, being in two different locations—until someone observes it, at which point the observer finds it to be in only one place at a time. Everett's explanation was that the particle remains in both places when it's observed, but the observer's entire universe splits as the measurement is made, so that from that moment on, there are two separate observers living in separate universes, both identical except for the observed location of that single subatomic particle.
Keats decided to put the theory to practical use by building what he calls a "quantum universe generator." He'd need a steady supply of subatomic particles and a way to observe them, and "figured the easiest approach would be to measure radioactive decay," he says. "So I assembled a prototype out of uranium-doped glass and a sliver of scintillating crystal." A straw and chewing gum from his kitchen cupboard held the pieces together.
But as he worked to make the prototype more efficient, "creating all those universes seemed a little selfish," he says. "And the last thing I wanted was a god complex."
To that end, Keats designed a make-your-own universe kit costing 20 dollars, so that anyone can create a cosmos at home. "What could be a more fulfilling hobby, especially in this bleak economy?" he asks.
The kits will be available when the new project, "Universes Unlimited," launches on November 20 at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco, where Keats says he'll reveal plans to fabricate universes on an industrial scale. His first automated universe factory has been designed for the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository for nuclear waste in the Nevada desert (yet the Department of Energy has yet to officially review his plans). "The radioactivity of the dump makes it ideal for making new worlds," Keats says. "Now that we've pretty well destroyed this world, generating a googolplex of alternate universes with a googolplex of possible outcomes may be our only chance at redemption." —Heather Wax

Could Our Universe Be a Fake?

FROM SCIENCE FICTION WRITER AND SPACE PHYSICIST DAVID BRIN: Does the emperor exist, when he dreams that he is a butterfly? Does the butterfly dream of being an emperor? Since long before Chuang Tzu posed this ancient Chinese conundrum, some version of it has bedeviled bright youths in every generation—especially college sophomores. It seems the same specialized organs in our brains that allow us to make pragmatic plans and perform thought experiments, or gedankenexperiments, also unleash a human imagination so eager and creative that we can—briefly or permanently—lose track of what is real.
For example, although it might be called a form of lying, most societies have highly valued storytelling. In my role as a novelist, I join this tradition by stringing together lengthy chains of coded squiggles—in the Roman alphabet—that highly skilled readers later deconvolute and transform into stirring mental images, rollicking action, empathy with imagined characters, and even (possibly) an insight or two. Motion pictures shortcut and amplify this process with a firehose stream of visual images, cues and crutches that cater to the same human genius—a knack for picturing things, people and events that never (objectively) existed.
If "magic" is the creation of subjective realities in the minds of other peoples, then we moderns have learned how to perform magical incantations on a vast, industrial scale.
And now comes an era when we live immersed in computer-generated "virtual" realities, rendered through lavish games where ersatz selves get to do countless things that our mundane, fleshy selves cannot. Is it any wonder that some people have been talking about a near future when this process may reach its ultimate conclusion? When the denizens of Reality will not be able to verify, by any clear-cut means, that they aren't living in—or even existing because of—a simulation?
Picture some future time when thinking beings may occupy simulated software realms within some vast cybernetic space—either in "holodeck" style physical manifestations or in purely cybernetic downloads. Realms that emulate the palpable "pinch-me test" of reality, with fine attention to every detail. We don’t yet know how far simulation can be extended, or whether there are inherent limits. Some very smart people believe there aren’t any, in which case there’s no guarantee that you, reading this paragraph right now, aren’t already living in such a simulation.
In such a software-emulated world, Rene Descartes' brain-body dualism might easily be true! And if it ain’t true now, it could plausibly become true, tomorrow. And if it could come true tomorrow, again how do you know that you aren't right now living as a character of a simulation of the early 21st century that is being implemented in some machine or demigod imagination, hundreds or thousands of years farther ahead along the river of time? In much the same way that you might implement a version of Captain Ahab, by thinking for a while about Moby Dick?
To illustrate, let me offer a scene from one of my own short stories, a somewhat intense and difficult tale, because it is set in a future far in advance of ours. A tomorrow wherein the main character—a designer of simulated worlds—has been asked about his relationship with the artificial beings that live in them:

In every grand simulation there is a gradient of detail. Despite having access to vast computing power, it is mathematically impossible to re-create the entire world, in all its texture, within the confines of any calculating engine. That will not happen until we all reach the Omega Point.
Fortunately, there are shortcuts. Even today, most true humans go through life as if they were background characters in some film, with predictable ambitions and reaction sets. The vast majority of my characters can therefore be simplified, while a few are modelled in great detail.
Most complex of all is the point-of-view character—or “pov”—the individual simulacrum through whose eyes and thoughts the feigned world will be subjectively observed. This persona must be rich in fine-grained memory and high fidelity sensation. It must perceive and feel itself to be a real player in the labyrinthine tides of causality, as if part of a very real world. Even as simple an act as reading or writing a sentence must be surrounded by perceptory nap and weave ... an itch, a stray memory from childhood, the distant sound of a barking dog, or something leftover from lunch that is found caught between the teeth. One must include all the little things, even a touch of normal human paranoia—such as the feeling we all sometimes get (even in this post-singularity age) that “someone is watching.”
I’m proud of my povs, especially the historical recreations that have proved so popular—Joan on her pyre, Akiba in his last torment, Galileo contemplating the pendulum. I won awards for Ghenghiz and Napoleon, leading armies, and for Haldeman savagely indicting the habit of war. Millions in Heaven have paid well to lurk as silent observers, experiencing the passion of little Ananda Gupta as she crawled, half-blind and with agonized lungs, out of the maelstrom of poisoned Bhopal.
Is it any wonder why I oppose reification? Their very richness makes my povs prime candidates for “liberation.”
Once they are free, what could I possibly say to them?
This notion of simulated realities is getting a lot of attention lately, both in philosophical scientific literature and in serious science fiction. There are endless ramifications, more than we could go into here. But to me, one implied conundrum stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Here is the prime theological question. The one whose answer affects all others. And yet, one that is almost never asked:

Is there moral or logical justification for a creator to wield capricious power of life and death over his creations ... and is there any fundamental moral reason why those creations should have to obey?

Humanity long ago replied with a resounding “no!”... at least when talking about parents and their offspring. (There have been a few exceptions, such as the principle of pater familias in Roman law, which permitted a father to kill even adult offspring, if they offended him.) In most cultures, the created—our kids—eventually get full authority and a right to make their own way. In some societies, they are even welcome to argue with their creators along the way.
And yet, without noticing any irony, we have implicitly answered the same question “yes” when it came to God! The Creator, it seemed, was owed unquestioning servitude, just because this creator made us.
It is the ghost at the banquet, the underlying assumption of all religions, taken for granted for far too long. Is it puzzling that—after more than four millennia of theological wrangling, and the investment of millions of hours of thought to religious matters—this question only comes up now? Now that we are picking up creation's tools, like bright apprentices? Tools of physics and biology, and also tools that let us simulate the creation of whole worlds.
It provokes some odd thoughts. For example, heaven and hell may not be such bizarre notions, after all! Consider our demigodlike descendants, with power at their fingertips to compute and emulate any reality. They will be able to “call up“ simulated versions of people from times past, especially 20th century folk, what with all the data available about us, including skin cells in all our old letters and scrap books. What will they do with that power? Perhaps, those who helped build the utopia of tomorrow will be remembered, immortalized, in software simulations by our descendants. Those who hindered progress, who obstructed or simply did nothing, will at best not be invited back. At worst, they might be assigned unpleasant roles in software scenarios. Might the old notion of "purgatory" have some resurrected relevance, after all? I leave possible extrapolations of this idea to the reader.
As I said, this topic has a million permutations. Here's another:
Can we see any evidence that we live in a simulation already? I see a few clues. For example, quantum mechanics. Specifically, the division of reality into "quanta" that are fundamentally indivisible, like the submicroscopic Planck length, below which no questions may be asked. Isn't this exactly the sort of truncation that a computer model would use, in order to prevent being taxed with infinite demands on processing power—which would happen if the model could look into ever-smaller domains like the fractal Mandelbrot set? Likewise, at the high end, both the speed-of-light speed limit and the intrinsically contained dimensions of a big-bang universe may be artifacts introduced in order not to have to deal with the software loads of modeling a cosmos that is infinitely observable.
Still, some of the "clues" are far more visceral and impulsive. Take the coincidence of names that keeps cropping up, almost as if the "author" of our cosmic simulation were having a little joke. Like the almost unlimited amount of fun you can have with Barack Obama's name. Or the fact that World War II featured a battle in which Adolf the Wolf attacked the Church on the Hill, who begged help from the Field of Roses, which asked its Marshall to send an Iron-hewer to fight in the Old World and a Man of Arthur to fight across the greatest lake (the Pacific) ... does the Designer really think we don't notice stuff like this? Or maybe this designer just doesn't care.

David Brin appears with Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, and Sir Martin Rees, in "Could Our Universe Be a Fake?" the 10th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Will Scientists Get to Study the "Buddha" Boy?

Thousands are heading to Ratanpur, Nepal, to see 18-year-old Ram Bahadur Bamjan, who they believe is the reincarnation of Buddha. Earlier this week, Bamjan came out of the jungle where his followers say he has been meditating without food or water since 2005. After he spent six months in the jungle, scientists who heard about the boy hoped to study the teenager—without disturbing his meditation—to find out whether he had really survived that long without eating or drinking. While most people can live without eating for several weeks because the body has fat and protein stored up, the average person can go only a few days without water. There's no word on what, if anything, the scientists were able to discover about Bamjan's supposedly special powers.
Many Buddhist priests and scholars, however, have doubts over whether Bamjan is truly the Buddha reincarnated, even though Buddhism teaches that every soul is reincarnated after death in another body. "Being Buddha means the last birth and the highest level that can be achieved. There can be no reincarnation of Buddha, even though Buddhists believe in life after death," Rakesh, a Buddhist scholar in Katmandu, told the Associated Press.
"Meditating without food does not prove that he is the reincarnation of Buddha," added Min Bahadur Shakya of a Buddhist research center in Katmandu. "There is much study needed to be done."
As of now, Bamjan hasn't spoken on this topic in any of his speeches (it's reported that he has talked about peace and ending discrimination), but he's expected to address his followers again on Tuesday. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Episode 7: Foul Play & DNA

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: When a raid on a Weymouth, Massachusetts, warehouse turns up a truckload of innocuous stuffed pandas instead of a bad guy named Joseph Smith, the FBI realizes that someone on the inside must’ve tipped Smith off. But before Mitchell Loeb, an experienced agent and friend of Phillip Broyles, can figure out who’s the mole, he begins convulsing in Broyles' office. At the hospital, doctors crack his chest open and can’t believe what’s inside: A venus-fly-trap-looking living organism—complete with teeth—is putting the squeeze on Loeb’s heart.
When Olivia and the Bishops arrive at the hospital a few hours later, Broyles informs them that Loeb was on a mission in Frankfurt a few weeks before. (This proves important later.) Peter, Walter, and Olivia don gowns and take a gander at Loeb for all of 10 seconds before Walter decides that he can help the patient, but only if he’s moved to the Harvard lab. The heart monster, Walter adds, is likely an organic, hybridized result of genetic manipulation—in other words, a giant, man-made parasite. While the Bishops get to work at the lab, Loeb’s wife, Samantha, tearfully begs Olivia for information. Olivia imparts absolutely no comfort whatsoever when she monotones that they’re doing their best.
After Walter analyzes a piece of the parasite’s tissue, he notices that a certain code is repeated throughout its DNA sequence and theorizes that it’s the creator’s calling card. Using a cipher, Astrid, the FBI agent assigned to assist him, works up a few possible translations of the code. Olivia recognizes one of them, ZFT, as a series of letters present in John’s secret files about "the pattern." When she shares this with Broyles, he drops yet another bomb: "The pattern" is made up of privately funded cells, and ZFT is the name of one of them. They traffic in scientific progress, and he’s beginning to think that incidents like the plane of goo and the weaponization of Emily Kramer are the cells’ way of testing this bad, bad stuff.
Eventually, Olivia realizes that Robert Jones—someone connected to ZFT who’s being held in a Frankfurt jail—is also connected to the Joseph Smith that Loeb was investigating. She travels to Germany, connects with a former flame, Lucas, and interrogates Jones with the promise that he can ask Smith one question via phone in exchange for giving them the antidote to Loeb’s parasite. Problem is, the FBI has found Smith and shot him in the head … so Walter and Peter hook him up to some electrodes and shock his brain so it momentarily thinks it’s alive. Jones cryptically asks, “Where does the gentleman live?” Smith—via Peter, wearing a metal helmet—coughs up the answer: “Little Hill.” Jones provides the antidote recipe, Walter mixes it, and Loeb is saved.
Broyles later tells Olivia that the FBI mole who tipped off Smith had higher security clearance than John did … leaving the possibility for more turncoat reveals in the future. Olivia and Peter watch from a distance as Loeb and Samantha have a tearful reunion by his hospital bed. But as they walk away, Samantha leans in and says, “They’re gone.” “So, did it work, what we did?” he asks. “Yes, it lead them back to Mr. Jones.” Loeb looks intrigued at his “wife’s” answer. “Did he ask the question? Did we get the answer?” he asks. She merely leans close and whispers what he wants to hear: “Little Hill.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: With the organism inside Loeb, the episode touches on life "created by man not god!" as Walter writes in his lab notes. He calls this organism the "offspring of unconscious evolution and conscious design, marvelous yet dreadful—the very model of a Hegelian synthesis." Also, Fringe once more reduces consciousness and the brain’s relay of information to a series of electrical impulses. It would be interesting to see the show, through Walter’s work, try to recreate emotion and belief with similar methods.

Christian Physicist Continues to "Save Darwin"

Karl Giberson (editor-at-large for Science & Religion Today) will talk about his book Saving Darwin with Michael Shermer at The Harvard Club in New York on Monday. Raised as a fundamentalist, Giberson firmly believed in creationism through his college years, but working on his doctorate in physics, he began to doubt that science had gotten everything as thoroughly wrong as the creationists suggest. At the event, which is part of the Templeton Book Forum, Giberson will share his views on the evolution-creation controversy and why—and how—it's possible to believe in both God and modern evolutionary science at the same time. Stay tuned for his recap of the discussion next week.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spiritual Snapshot of Today's Youth

The majority of young people—93 percent—believe there is a spiritual dimension to life, according to a recently released report from the Search Institute's Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. They're most likely to understand this spiritual dimension as believing there is a purpose to life, believing in God, or being true to one's inner self. The report, "With Their Own Voices," is the result of a major international study that surveyed 7,000 youth ages 12 to 25 to get an in-depth look at how they think about and experience spirituality. (Click on image for larger view.)

About one-third of youth see themselves as "very" or "pretty" spiritual, the study found, though it varies widely from country to country (a high of 52 percent in the United States to a low of 23 percent in Australia), and many see spirituality as different from religion—though the majority view both positively. About 23 percent say they are spiritual but not religious, while 34 percent say they are both.

More than half—55 percent—said their spirituality had increased during the past two to three years, while 46 percent said so did their doubts and questions about spiritual and religious matters. Three-quarters of young people said being in nature, listening to music, and helping others in the community made it easier to find meaning, peace, and joy, while 44 percent said experiencing challenges in life made it hard to be spiritual. To nourish their spiritual development, young people say they commonly read books; pray or meditate alone; help others; or show love, compassion, and humility. —Heather Wax

Why "Intelligent Design" Doesn't Make Sense

"It would have to be imperfect design or incompetent design or inept design, but not intelligent design," Francisco Ayala, a biologist at the University of California, Irvine and an ordained Dominican priest, said last night during his Distinguished Lecture Series talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The human jaw, the human birth canal and the forelimbs are not perfect. The jaw has to have teeth pulled, the molars and the rest of the teeth straightened to fit. The birth canal doesn’t fit the head of the baby. And what engineer would design limbs for running, swimming, swinging with the same materials performed in the same way? He would be fired.”
ID doesn't jibe with the idea of a benevolent creator God, he said, and it's not science because we can't test the theory and there isn't any evidence.
Natural selection, on the other hand, is "Darwin’s gift to science, his gift to religion,” he said. “It made it possible to explain the dysfunction, the cruelty, the sadism of the way of life rather than the idea of a creator. It’s more the result of natural processes.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

New Ideas on the Origin of Altruism

The Superorganism, the new book by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, is out today. In the sequel to their Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 book The Ants, the biologists take another look at social insects—ants, bees, wasps, termites—and argue that evolution works on groups, not just the genes of individuals.
The "superorganism" is a colony of individuals that is formed and held together by the division of labor, complex communication, and altruistic cooperation—and, according to The Boston Globe, Wilson believes that this altruism occurs not because the animals share genes (and they want to improve the odds that these shared genes will be passed on to the next generation), but because of ecological circumstances that make altruism a useful social behavior for the group's survival. In other words, Wilson no longer believes that the widely accepted theory of "kin selection" explains the roots of altruism in nature.
"It's comforting to believe our deep concern for kin must be fundamental to our existence," Wilson tells the newspaper. "And it might turn out to be the case. But maybe we should look at non-kin bonding more closely, such as a brave soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save a squad." —Heather Wax

Friday, November 7, 2008

Arguing God From Design

FROM RICHARD SWINBURNE, EMERITUS NOLLOTH PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: For at least 3,000 years, thinkers have argued that the orderliness of the universe shows that it was made and sustained by a creator God—in other words, it was designed. Here is my modern version of this argument.
Our world is a very orderly place. It is governed almost entirely by “laws of nature.” But “laws of nature” are simply statements about the powers and liabilities of things. Newton’s law of gravity, for example, states that every material body has the power to attract each and every other material body with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart—and the liability always to exercise that power on every other material body in the universe. There is enormous uniformity in the behavior of material objects. In certain respects (such as those described by Newton’s law), they all behave in the same way, and then they fall into a few distinct kinds (electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.), all the members of which behave in the same way as each other in further respects.
Yet our universe is not just any simple orderly universe. Its laws and initial conditions (the distribution of matter-energy at the time of the big bang and the velocity of the bang) led to the evolution of humans. In almost any possible universe, each material object would behave in a very complicated way different from that of every other material object—and almost any other universe in which material objects behaved in simple ways would not have been able to lead to the evolution of humans. How can we explain the enormous human-producing coincidence?
An explanatory hypothesis is probably true insofar as it is simple and leads us to expect otherwise unexpected data. The hypothesis of theism is that there is a God that is an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free being. An omniscient being will know what things are good, and if this being is also perfectly free, will not be deterred by irrational desires from pursuing the good. Humans have a kind of goodness that even God does not possess: the power to choose between good and evil. So it is to be expected that a God will bring about humans, and so the necessary conditions for their existence. But we’ll only be able to choose to bring about good or evil if there are simple laws of nature that cause our actions to have predictable effects, and only if those laws are human-producing will we exist at all.
Therefore, the otherwise unexpected orderliness of the universe is to be expected if there is a God. Of course, we could not observe anything except an orderly universe (for if the universe were not orderly, we would not exist). But that doesn’t mean the order does not need explaining—just as the mere fact that fetuses develop into humans still needs explaining, even though if they did not develop into humans, humans would not be around to observe and explain things. It may be, as some physicists believe, that our universe is only one of many universes, which together form a “multiverse.” But the only reason they can have for believing in other universes is that the most general laws of our universe are such as to produce other universes, and that means that the multiverse itself—our multiverse (unlike most possible multiverses)—is governed by laws such as to produce, at some time, a human-evolving universe. So the argument takes off from the orderliness of our multiverse rather than just the orderliness of our universe. And my “argument from design” remains an enormously powerful argument for the existence of God.

Richard Swinburne appears with Bede Rundle, Steven Weinberg, William Dembski, Francisco Ayala, Michael Shermer, and Freeman Dyson in "Arguing God From Design" the ninth episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pope Believes Science Explains God's Creation

"There is no opposition between faith's understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences," Pope Benedict told a group of scientists who visited the Vatican this week for a meeting on "Scientific Insights Into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life." The gathering was hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, told Vatican Radio that it was "a very interesting meeting, bringing together scientists and theologians to talk about truth—the truth that you can learn from science and the truth that you can learn from faith. In many people's minds, there's a potential conflict there. I think that's what we're explaining in this meeting: Are there conflicts, and if so, how can they be resolved?"
For Collins, "a scientist who's also a believer, I don't see these conflicts," he said, "but I can certainly understand how many people do." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Listen to This

Mike McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the author of Beyond Revenge, will be hitting the airwaves on "Speaking of Faith" with Krista Tippett to talk about "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness." During the radio program, McCullough will describe the science that explains the purpose that revenge came to have in human life and how taking that seriously could help us react more effectively to crises like school shootings, terrorism, and partisan divides. But he'll also stress that science is revealing humans to be more instinctively equipped for forgiveness than we tend to believe. The show will explore how we can calm the revenge instinct in ourselves and others, and embolden this forgiveness intuition.
The program airs tomorrow through next Wednesday on public radio stations nationwide.