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Friday, May 29, 2009

Eternal Life Is Like What?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Eternal life, as a mere persistence of life here on Earth, could be very boring. But then, considering that old age doesn’t have to be boring, if there are things to do and experiences that one enjoys, whether it's listening to music, eating chocolates, reading romance novels, or tending to gardens, never-ending life could be a welcome permanence.
We may trivialize the concept by saying that it all depends on the phase and health of life at which this imagined eternal existence is going to be. If it is going to be in the sort of physical body we are accustomed to in the prime of salubrious life, with refreshing showers, decent wardrobes, and variation in breakfast cereal and dinner menu, with near and dear ones within reach, it would be ideal.
We may say that our images can be eternal (whether as fading photographs or on YouTube), by which we mean existence of form and sound for others to see and hear as long as technology and terrestrial civilization last. Likewise, there is immortality in the ideas and discoveries left behind. In recent decades, some physicists have argued that eternal life is a distinct possibility for us all in cyberspace. Like alchemists of ancient times, one might concoct any theory to make ourselves live in saecula saeculorum: forever and ever, to use a biblical phrase from Galatians.
The temporal view of eternity was expressed by the poet Bayard Taylor:

Till the sun grows old,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of Judgment Book unfold.
Eternal life is a sophisticated theological concept, which has little to do with physical time. It is related to the doctrine that we are all endowed with a soul. The soul may be envisioned as an intangible supernatural entity that can exist beyond space-time, with an innate connection to an Eternal Being. The general religious belief is that in the postmortem phase, eternal life would be ecstatic for the soul that attains the celestial realm.
The eternity of which religions speak is holistic existence that transcends ticking time. As Robert Neville put it in his book Eternity and Time’s Flow, “eternity is the togetherness of past, present, and future in which they are all equally real and in which each allows the others to be what they are precisely in their temporal difference, … eternity is an eternal togetherness.” In the imagery of poet John Donne, who described time as a short parenthesis in eternity, we may say that our physical life is an even shorter parenthesis within that parenthesis. Thus, eternal life would involve jumping out of two parentheses into an ocean without bounds. Another poet noted that in mystic moments, we are watching the shadows of eternity. In this metaphor, we may say that eternal life would be moving from sheltered shade to dazzling sunshine.
From a mathematical perspective, the only things of whose eternal life we can be rationally certain (not in the temporal sense but in their continued actualization ad infinitum) are the values of pi and other transcendental numbers that go on and on and on without end in their decimal mode, and the integers more generally (1, 2, 3, …). But their eternal life, impressive as it may be, gets to be pretty drab after a while.

V.V. Raman appears with Richard Swinburne, J.P. Moreland, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Neil Gillman, Michael Tooley, and Huston Smith in "Eternal Life Is Like What?" the 38th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Bye Bye, Don McLeroy

Encouraging news out of Texas this morning: The state Senate has voted Don McLeroy out as chair of the State Board of Education. Gov. Rick Perry had reappointed McLeroy for another two-year term, and while the vote to confirm him was 19–11 (all Republicans v. Democrats), a two-thirds majority is needed.
McLeroy, a dentist who has been chairman of the board for almost two years, is well-known as a young earth creationist, and it seems a number of board members were deeply concerned with his divisiveness and continuous attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state's science standards. During the most recent debate in March—while pushing an amendment that would require students to "describe the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record"—he famously (and shockingly!) told board members, "Somebody's got to stand up to experts!" and "Science doesn't operate on consensus."

McLeroy will remain a board member, and the governor will now have to pick a new nominee. —Heather Wax

Thursday, May 28, 2009

NASA Nominee Says S&R Are Compatible

"Religion and science don’t conflict with each other—they are mutually supportive,” former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. told Baylor College of Medicine graduates earlier this week, speaking publicly for the first time since being nominated to lead NASA.

Religion "Neutrality" Bill in South Carolina

Republican Senator Michael Fair has introduced a new bill into the South Carolina Senate that would require the State Board of Education to look at the curriculum that "purports to teach students about the origins of mankind to determine whether the curriculum maintains neutrality toward religion, favoring neither one religion over other religions, nor religion over non-religion, including atheism. Related to non-religion, the examination must include a review as to whether the curriculum contains a sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus preferring those who believe in no religion over those who hold religious beliefs." Any "offending" curriculum, the bill says, will then be revised or replaced as soon as is feasible.
Keep in mind two things: There are many scientists who assert that evolution is not an atheistic principle; you can both accept evolution and believe in God. And Fair has previously pushed for teaching alternatives to evolution (like the religious ides of "intelligent design") in the state's public school science classrooms.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education, likely for review next year. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Is Caring About Climate Change in Our Genes?

A few years ago, Bill McKibben wrote a piece for Science & Spirit magazine in which he explained that "we've spent 99 percent of our life as a species living in a world where you had to react instantly to procure dinner (or to avoid becoming dinner). It is, therefore, extremely difficult for us to take action against, say, global warming because the dangers are a few years away, and the costs are immediate, and we're just not built that way."
He's right. For the most part, we're designed to live in the present, and we attach greater value to immediate rewards than future rewards. But in a new paper, researcher Peter Sozou reports that in some cases, our biology seems designed for the long term. Sozou used a mathematical model to look at how we value future benefits and found that we discount future personal benefits more than we discount future benefits for our community.
As Sozou notes:

This analysis shows that the social discount rate is generally lower than the private discount rate. An individual’s valuation of a future benefit to herself is governed by the probability that she will still be alive in [the] future. But she may value future benefits to her community over a timescale considerably longer than her own lifespan.
Evolution is driven by competition. Caring about the future of your community makes evolutionary sense to the extent that future members of your community are likely to be your relatives.
In today's world, Sozou believes, this preference for social benefits and our innate tendency to care about the long-term future of our communities translates into caring about the future of the planet as a whole and taking actions against global problems like climate change. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Don't Worry, We're Optimistic By Nature

Humans are universally optimistic, according to a new study from the University of Kansas and the Gallup World Poll. More than 150,000 people in more than 140 countries were polled, and 89 percent say they expect the next five years to be as good or better than their life now. An even higher number—95 percent—expect their life five years from now to be as good or better than their life was five years ago.
Still, some countries are more optimistic than others. Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, and New Zealand are at the top, while Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti, and Bulgaria are at the bottom. The United States ranks 10th.

Francis Collins Is Top Candidate to Lead NIH

It looks like Dr. Francis Collins—a familiar name to regular readers of this blog—will be running the National Institutes of Health. According to someone familiar with the selection process, Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and most recently the founder of The BioLogos Foundation, is the leading candidate, and screening is in the final stages.
Collins became a Christian in his 20s "after realizing that his atheist perspective was unable to provide answers to profound questions about the meaning of life, and was inconsistent with observation about the nature of the universe and of humankind," according to the BioLogos Web site. In his 2006 best-selling book The Language of God, he shared how he found harmony between his scientific and religious worldviews, and he launched BioLogos last month to address the country's culture war between science and faith.
Stay tuned: The announcement from President Barack Obama could come this week. —Heather Wax

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Dispatch From Venice

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Greetings from Venice, Italy, where the second installment of the Venice Summer School on Science and Religion is about to get started. This year’s program features presentations by evolutionary palaeobiologist Simon Conway Morris, philosopher of science Michael Ruse, zoologist Frans de Waal, Archbishop Józef Życiński, and me. The topic is “Evolution and Human Uniqueness.”
About 30 academics from around the world have gathered to spend the rest of this week interacting with each other and the program leaders. The key question on the table will be whether science offers any indication that human beings are more than quantitatively different from other species. We know that our chemical composition is identical, our physical construction almost identical, and our nervous system very similar to other species. Are we then best understood, in the words of Desmond Morris, as “naked apes”? Or is there something unique about us? Does theology, with its mysterious affirmation that we are made “in the image of God,” provide the only arguments that we are truly unique? Or are there hints from science that something truly unique “emerged” in natural history, providing us with our distinctive human natures?
Support for participants at the weeklong seminar is provided by the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, a venerable academic center that has hosted various academic, political, and intellectual gatherings since the time of Napoleon; support for the speakers and creation of the program is provided by the Templeton Foundation.

Hear More About "Ida"

Listen to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, on the Culture Shocks radio show today at 4 p.m. She'll talk about the significance of Darwinius masillae (aka "Ida"), the 47 million-year-old primate fossil unveiled last week with much hype, and explain why the fossil is "spectacular but not a missing link."
The program is hosted by the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Paul Davies Tells Graduates to Value the Mind

“As you embark on the next stage of life’s great challenge, remember that, unique on this planet, human beings carry the spark of rationality,” theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies told the undergraduates at Chapman University during his commencement address. “Somehow the universe has engineereed, not just its own awareness, but its own comprehension. Not only is your body literally made of stardust cooked in the nuclear furnaces of a bygone stellar generation; your brains are wired to make sense of it. … Your great asset, then, is your mind, and its extraordinary ability to comprehend the world and to be creative. Please don’t take it for granted!”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Outgoing Men Have Different Brains

Are you sociable and affectionate? Are you always trying to please people? It might be because you have more brain tissue in certain parts of your brain, according to a team of researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Oulu in Finland.
The scientists studied the link between brain structure and personality in a group of males by scanning their brains and having them answer questions that rated their "social reward dependence," a measure of their emotional warmth and sociability. Turns out, the more gray matter a man has in the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum regions of his brain, the higher his social reward dependence tends to be. And here's what's neat: Those same brain regions have previously been linked to the processing of simple rewards.
"It's interesting that the degree to which we find social interaction rewarding relates to the structure of our brains in regions that are important for very simple biological drives such as food, sweet liquids, and sex. Perhaps this gives us a clue to how complex features like sentimentality and affection evolved from structures that in lower animals originally were only important for basic biological survival processes," says Dr. Graham Murray, a psychiatrist who worked on the study.
But keep in mind, he says, that trying to understand why some people are warmer or more social than others is complex, and this study is only correlational—meaning that we know brain structure and personality are related, but "it cannot prove that brain structure determines personality. It could even be that your personality, through experience, helps in part to determine your brain structure."
The research appears in the European Journal of Neuroscience. —Heather Wax

Is Consciousness Fundamental?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: The question by itself is incomplete, for it is important to specify: fundamental to what, and in what sense.
The word "fundamental" pertains to that which is at the basis of something and is essential for its existence. Thus, carbon is fundamental to life, love and relationships are fundamental to sanity, and nuclear fusion is fundamental to stars. So it is important to state for what something is fundamental.
From all that we know about our universe in the framework of current physics, consciousness is not fundamental to the existence of the physical universe. That is to say, the physical universe was there, is there, and will be there whether or not it incorporates consciousness in it. There can be rocks and pure water, sand and nitrogen, and cosmic dust: The universe at large will exist without any consciousness.
On the other hand, in the framework of religion, consciousness (humankind) is what the universe was created for. God made man in his image in the Judeo-Christian framework, and Purusha (consciousness) was primary in Hindu cosmogony. Many venerate and worship a Cosmic Consciousness, variously named and described.
This is an important difference between science and religion: For science, consciousness is an epiphenomenon associated with some brains that happen to have evolved in an insignificant niche in the universe during the past couple of million years—in an indifferent universe whose history stretches back to well over 10 billion years. For most religions, consciousness is supremely central to the universe, the heart of the universe, as it were.
It is important in this context to recognize that, as conscious beings, our experiences are rich and unique: We taste and smell, feel softness, enjoy music, and perceive color. These, as far as we know, are not explicit in the physical universe, but emerge from the interaction of physical processes and entities with the extraordinarily complex human brain (itself, as far as we can tell, a purely physical entity). Furthermore, we also love and hate, engage in ideas and values, speak of truth and commitment, are involved with mathematics and science, and enthralled by beauty. None of this would be possible without consciousness. It is therefore fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the experience of a good many intangible aspects of the universe.
One may ask: Can there be an inverse square law in mathematical terms without consciousness? Are the numbers e and pi in the universe, or are they merely in the human mind? Can the elliptic orbits of planets ever be recognized as such without consciousness? Whether these are mere creations of the human mind or are aspects of the universe that become manifest only through consciousness is a valid question.
If the latter is the case, then it is fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the full expression of the physical universe, just as an audience is fundamental to an enacted play. If the world is a sonnet that happened by chance, consciousness is the reader without whom that sonnet would forever remain in a dark abysmal depth. In this sense, the emergence of consciousness was as important an event in cosmic history as its natal big bang.

V.V. Raman appears with David Chalmers, John Searle, Marilyn Schlitz, Paul Davies, and Andrei Linde in "Is Consciousness Fundamental?" the 37th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Science & Religion of "Angels & Demons"

Check out the new Angels & Demons section of the Counterbalance Web site, which explores the science and religion behind the movie. The articles and videos (on subjects like antimatter, the "God particle," and the Galileo affair) might help you separate the facts from the film's fiction. "If you ignore the technical and historical inaccuracies, it's a pretty good story," says Adrian Wyard, Counterbalance's executive director, "but there are some real clangers in there." —Heather Wax

On the Shelf

V.V. Raman, an emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a regular contributor to this blog, has written a new book, Truth and Tension in Science and Religion. It's a large work—more than 400 pages—but according to early reviews, it's worth the read for anyone seeking a multicultural overview of the science and religion dialogue.
As Michael Cavanaugh, past president of The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, notes:

With a sure hand he carries us to heights lofty enough to survey the entire field, both in its historical and current scope, not just from a Western viewpoint, but also with many trans-traditional notes. He also compensates for the unbalanced and all-too-frequent shrillness in the dialogue by gently pointing out both the foibles and strengths of both parties to the dialogue and he is a great one to do it, with his formidable scientific background and his long appreciation of and participation in the religious impulse. And finally, the charming humor that pervades the book keeps the reader almost as well-grounded as Dr. Raman is. It is altogether a delightful and accurate and balanced overview of the field.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Do Dogs Have Morals?

Check out Deb Blum's review of Wild Justice, the new book from University of Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce. The book argues that dogs, dolphins, elephants, wolves, whales, and other nonhuman social animals have emotions and morals too, as evidenced by their empathy, compassion, and cooperation.
As Blum notes:

Their definition of morality is a strongly Darwinian one. They see moral actions as dictated by the behavioral code of social species, the communal operating instructions that bond a group safely together, the "social glue" of survival. They believe such codes are necessarily species-specific and warn against, for instance, judging wolf morals by the standards of monkeys, dolphins or humans.
Still, a "moral" decision can seem remarkably similar across many species. Bekoff and Pierce make their case by calling on a wide range of animal studies, from field biology to the laboratory and from the anecdotal to the statistical. In one lab study of Diana monkeys, for instance, the animals had to put tokens into a slot to receive their food. When an elderly female couldn't manage hers, a neighboring male inserted the tokens for her. In a different kind of experiment, rats refused to push a lever for food when they realised their action meant another animal got an electric shock. ...
These moral behaviors, they argue, are evidence of a kind of evolutionary continuity between humans and other species.
If you have a dog, Bekoff tells The Denver Post, you can easily spot these kinds of emotional and moral behaviors:
• Dogs have a sense of fair play. They dislike cheaters. They experience joy in play. They delight in friends. The big guys handicap themselves in games with little guys.

• Dogs get jealous when a rival gets more or better treats or treatment. They are resentful, unnerved or saddened by unfair behavior.

• They are made anxious by suspense. They get afraid.

• They are embarrassed when they mess up or do something clumsy.

• They feel remorse or regret when they do something wrong. They seek justice. They remember the bad things done to them but sometimes choose to forgive.

• Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend loved ones. They grieve their losses.

• They have hope.

Heather Wax

Very Old Primate Fossil Is Very Big Deal

Say hello to "Ida," the small, 47 million-year-old fossil unearthed in Germany and unveiled yesterday at a news conference in New York. She's a fascinating and important find—and she's now a media darling (thanks to a huge publicity campaign), with her own Web site, book, and History Channel documentary.
Why is she so fascinating, besides the fact that she's so old? Her anatomy puts her at a bridge point between two groups of primates: the haplorhines, which include monkeys, apes, and humans, and the strepsirrhines, which include lemurs. Ida, formally known as Darwinius masillae, has features from the strepsirrhine line (like lemurs) but is more related to the human evolutionary line, the research team argues. They say she appears to be a very early haplorhine, with forward-facing eyes, opposable thumbs, fingertips with nails, and an ankle bone like ours, only smaller. While her skeleton is like a lemur's, she doesn't have the characteristic "grooming claw" on her second toe or a fused row of teeth called a "toothcomb."
She's also remarkably well preserved. Ida is about 95 percent complete, which means scientists have been able to get lots of information from her. They're able to see almost all her bones, remnants of tissue and hair, and what she had for her last meal (fruit and leaves).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Seeing in Your Brain the Emotions You Hear

Scientists can use brain scans to tell whether you've just heard words spoken in anger, joy, relief, or sadness, according to a new study led by Thomas Ethofer at the University of Geneva. The researchers discovered that different emotions in speech lead to distinct patterns of activity in a listener's auditory cortex, the area of the brain that processes sound and human voices. By looking at the overall pattern of activity in this brain region, they could identify which emotion had just been heard.
"Comprehension of emotional prosody is crucial for social functioning and compromised in various psychiatric disorders, including deficits for anger and sadness in schizophrenia, fear and surprise in bipolar affective disorder, and surprise in depression," the researchers write in the journal Current Biology. "Future research might apply a similar approach as ours to clarify whether these deficits are paralleled by activity changes blurring emotions at the level of auditory cortex, or are due to disrupted patterns within frontal regions reflecting biased interpretation of emotional signals."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Congratulations, Eugenie Scott & Andras Nagy

Regular readers of this blog will recognize more than few names on the Scientific American 10, an honor roll that recognizes 10 people who "have recently demonstrated outstanding commitment to assuring that the benefits of new technologies and knowledge will accrue to humanity."
On the list, along with celebrities like President Barack Obama, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates, are Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and Dr. Andras Nagy, a researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Scott was recognized for her "tireless advocacy to ensure that evolution, the cornerstone of all modern biology, is taught correctly in the nation's public schools," says John Rennie, Scientific American's editor in chief.
As the magazine notes:

"Thomas Henry Huxley was the 19th-century biologist known as 'Darwin's bulldog' for his defense of the great scientist's ideas. The 21st century has a counterpart in the woman who describes herself as 'Darwin's golden retriever.' Eugenie Scott has emerged as one of the most prominent advocates for keeping evolution an integral part of the curriculum in public schools. ... With the ever changing semantics of antievolutionists, Darwin's golden retriever will have plenty more chances to act as a loyal defender of teaching evolution in the schools."
Nagy, for his part, made headlines earlier this year when he and his team of researchers found a new way to use skin cells to create stem cells that are pluripotent (can become nearly any tissue in the body). These cells appear to provide the same potential as embryonic stem cells—without the moral debate surrounding the creation and destruction of embryos.
As the magazine sums it up:
"In effect, Nagy and his colleagues had, for the first time, created the equivalent of embryonic stem cells that were uncontroversially ethical, safe and efficient—a significant advance toward being able to use them in patients in a clinic."
Kudos to Scott, Nagy, and the rest of the Scientific American 10. —Heather Wax

Why You Think You'll Act Morally in 10 Years

For his dissertation at Lund University in Sweden, Jens Agerstrom decided to test whether our moral judgments change depending on how far away an event is in time. He wondered, for instance, if we'd be more or less likely to agree to do altruistic things like donate blood or help a friend move if we had to do them this week rather than 10 or 30 years from now.
Turns out, we attach more importance to moral values when we think about the future—which means we're less likely to act morally or altruistically the closer a dilemma gets. We think it's more acceptable to act selfishly next week than 10 years from now, and we're more likely to say we'll perform altruistic acts like donating blood or money if we don't have to do them right away. When we do imagine acting selfishly in the far future, we feel worse about it then if we imagine doing something selfish fairly soon.
The reason for the difference, Agerstrom explains, is that we think more abstractly when we consider far-future events and more concretely when we think about more immediate events. When we're asked to donate blood in the distant future,
the moral value of helping others dominates our thinking. But when the event gets closer, our concrete selfish motives kick in and our thoughts shift to things like the pain of getting pricked with a needle. —Heather Wax

Will We Find Other Planets Like Earth?

The "fun" has begun for NASA's Kepler spacecraft, says William Borucki, the mission's science principal investigator. In other words, the spacecraft has started its search for other Earth-like planets. It will look in what are called the "habitable zones" of our galaxy—regions at distances from stars (like our sun) where the temperature allows possible lakes and oceans to exist. Water, it's believed, is necessary to support primitive life.
For the next three and a half years, Kepler will look for signs of these other habitable planets by staring at more than 100,000 stars. If planets are orbiting a star, its brightness will dull when the planet crosses in front of it and partially blocks the light.
"If Kepler got into a staring contest, it would win," says James Fanson, the mission's project manager. "The spacecraft is ready to stare intently at the same stars for several years so that it can precisely measure the slightest changes in their brightness caused by planets."
You can follow Kepler's progress with its updates on Twitter. —Heather Wax

Friday, May 15, 2009

Do Kids Inherit Our Feelings?

Dr. Alberto Halabe Bucay from Mexico has put forth a startling new idea: He says that the feelings we experience during our lifetimes can affect the way our children develop. His theory is that the hormones and chemicals generated by our brains when we're in different moods can influence the way genes are expressed in the "germ cells" that become eggs and sperm. These cells are responsible for getting genes into the next generation.
“It is well known, of course, that parental behavior affects children, and that the genes that a child gets from its parents help shape that child’s character," Halabe Bucay explains. “My paper suggests a way that the parent’s psychology before conception can actually affect the child’s genes.”
Keep in mind, however, that the paper appears in the journal Bioscience Hypotheses, which publishes groundbreaking ideas that haven't yet been peer-reviewed or tested by other scientists. —Heather Wax

Fan Reaction Surprises Medical Show Creator

"We all thought it was really surprising that anybody thought there was a ghost on our show," Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes told Entertainment Weekly after last night's season finale. (For much of the season, the character of Dr. Izzie Stevens saw and spoke with her dead boyfriend Denny, later revealed to be a hallucination caused by a brain tumor.) "We're a medical show. We thought it was surprising that anybody would look at it and go, 'Gee, that's a ghost.' So that was surprising to us."

Is This the End Time?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: In every generation, in virtually every religion on earth, some believers have imagined their time to be the “End Time,” a pivotal epoch of disruptive change, usually generated supernaturally, that brings about perpetual transformation. These End-Time seekers have expected, or hoped for, the obliteration of society and often the intervention of their God, the return or advent of a messiah or the equivalent. And there were always some who saw signs of apocalypse just over the horizon.
Each generation has thought itself unique—our generation, it seems, particularly so.
In our time, “End Times” abound. What drives such zealotry?
James Tabor is a leading scholar of early Christianity and a careful observer of apocalyptic and messianic thinking. He is the chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and the author of The Jesus Dynasty. There is no one with whom I would rather start. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Jim is a lifelong friend.)
The contemporary End-Time emphasis, Tabor says, “is mainly coming right out of the Bible. Particularly in the Hebrew prophets, the Bible focuses on this ideal time of the future, this ‘eschatology,’ this story of ultimate things.” Then, he adds, “as time goes on, particularly into the time of Jesus when Christianity and other apocalyptic movements (such as the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls) arise, we find them saying not only is the End Time coming, but we will likely live to see it.”
Although “apocalypticism, this idea that the End Time is in our day, is a very interesting idea,” Tabor says, he reminds his students that it has “a 100 percent failure rate.” So, he tells them, “you’re buying into an idea that may be fascinating, but so far it’s always been wrong.”
Tabor believes that “what fueled the kind of apocalyptic fervor that we find among fundamentalist Christians is the establishment of the State of Israel, and then the Six-Day War [1967], where Jews occupied Jerusalem—or re-gained it, depending on your point of view—for the first time in 2,000 years. So now, supposedly, one can open the Book of Revelation or the Book of Daniel, which are two of the Bible’s primary prophetic books, and you can think that you are reading events in a very literal way.”
Granted, the “End Times” is a compelling, even intoxicating idea. It reaches deep into human longing by extending the abstract meaning and often distant impact of religion into, allegedly, real-world relevance. It also has a way of generating group cohesion among believers and bringing, so the believers believe, just desserts to nonbelievers. But with its history of “100 percent failure,” why do some scholarly believers still take it seriously?
Robert Saucy is a professor of theology at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in Los Angeles. He takes the “End Time” seriously—not as sociological substrate, but as prophetic reality.
Key to Saucy’s understanding, which is widespread among many Christian groups, Is the notion of “dispensationalism”—different periods in biblical history, and the anticipation of the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the “End Time” period.
“Dispensationalism is prominent in today’s theological discussions,” Saucy says, “largely because of Israel.” Dispensationalism, as an understanding of the Bible “by those who take the Bible fairly at face value,” Saucy says, “puts more emphasis on prophecy, and that includes restoration of the State of Israel.” He differentiates dispensationalism , which he says “takes biblical prophecies fairly straightforward,” from non-dispensationalism, “which tends to believe that the church has replaced Israel.” This means that non-dispensational interpretations of Old Testament prophecies are made with references to the spiritual church, and not to the nation of Israel. Israel is left out of the non-dispensational picture, Saucy says, and “the re-establishment of the State of Israel would not have biblical significance for the non-dispensationalist.”
I ask Saucy whether he, in a serious cerebral way, looks forward to a literal millennium.
“I do,” he says without equivocation, again stressing the restoration of the State of Israel after 2,000 years as the critical phenomenon.
Saucy is not alone. Many evangelical Christians believe that the existence of Israel heralds the beginning of the End Time, and that its culmination may be imminent.
Bizarre as this may sound, to be fair, if one’s beliefs are based on a word-by-word reading of the Bible, it’s a view that seems consistent with the literal texts. End-Time prophecy is intoxicating because, If true, it would prove the veracity of the Bible and the existence of its God.
But there are other understandings of Christian prophecy.
Nancey Murphy is professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A committed and devoted Christian, she is not at all concerned with prophecy.
“There's no way to know when the End Times will happen,” Murphy says. “I grew up in the Catholic tradition and the emphasis there was Jesus saying that even he didn't know when the end of the world was coming.”
Although a “remarkable number of Christians” seem to adhere to a “millennialist theology,” Murphy explains that “the more sophisticated biblical scholars would deny almost all, and perhaps literally all, of the predictions purportedly drawn from Scripture about when the end of the world is going to come.”
Yet Murphy does believe, in a more fundamental way, that there will be an end to this physical world in some God-directed way. I push to get her to give me some kind of time frame.
“OK,” she says reluctantly, “here's a not terribly serious order of magnitude. The Earth is about four and a half billion years old. The sun is going to expand and burn us all up in about four and a half billion years from now. So Jesus came right smack dab in the middle of that, give or take 2,000 years.” She then concludes, with a laugh, “So, I think we're right in the middle.”
But, she continues more seriously, “I think it depends on whether there's extraterrestrial life. For all we know, there are other planets with life spans that will last far beyond that of the Earth.”
Murphy is clear. She believes in God, the Bible, Jesus, and the ultimate transformation of the heavens and earth. But not in the near-term prophecies that many of her co-religionists propound and preach.
Although prophecy today is largely the province of Christians, there is also a long Jewish prophetic tradition. Arthur Hyman, a professor at Yeshiva University, is a leading authority on Jewish eschatology—what is prophesied to happen in the End Time. In explaining the Jewish view, Hyman calls attention to the biblical requirement that “there are conditions that have to be fulfilled.” He then reiterates “the Jewish claim against Christianity—which is part of many medieval discussions—that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because the conditions of the coming of the Messiah had not been fulfilled.” Primary among these, he says, is “a kind of a big cataclysmic war between Gog and Magog, who were biblical characters sort of projected into the future.” And then after this war, Hyman continues, “the Messiah will come and the dead will be resurrected, which is then followed by ‘the world to come,’ which brings peace on earth, no sickness, no death, and so on.”
Hyman notes that in Jewish history, there have been “Messianic pretenders in almost every generation,” but “the counterclaim always is that the conditions of the Messiah have not been fulfilled.”
The specific events that some Jews claim will lead to the Messiah’s first coming are similar to those that many Christians claim will lead to the Messiah’s second coming. Though they disagree on what “number coming” it will be—the first or the second—fundamental Jews and Christians agree that these kinds of events will signal the advent of the End Times.
But End-Time thinking has minimal importance in mainstream Judaism. What about in mainstream Christianity?
I ask Greg Boyd, founding pastor of the Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, who has a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Boyd recognizes that “the present state of the world, this present era, isn’t eternal—it comes to an end.” It’s like a chapter of a book that’s going to conclude, he says: “We don’t know when. We don’t know the details of how.” He then adds, “But there are plenty of people out there who say they know when, and say they know how, but they don’t know what they’re talking about—and they do damage by ranting like that—though they usually make a lot of money.”
Boyd is adamant: “But we don’t know when, and we don’t know how,” he asserts. “However, our present Earth will come to an end—the Bible describes it as the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God’s going to make right all that is wrong.”
Boyd sees the Kingdom of God as a literal kingdom, not just something “spiritual in your heart” as some believe. “As depicted in the New Testament, God brings the Kingdom to earth,” he states.
It will happen, he reiterates, but he is loathe to even hazard a guess as to when. “If there is anything we should know from history,” he says, “it is that we shouldn’t try to guess when. Such speculation only sets up people for disappointment. It sometimes gets them to do crazy things.
“We should leave the things of God to God,” Boyd stresses. “God will know when to wrap it all up. Our job is to live every day like it’s our last. Speculating about the details of these sorts of things is the equivalent of going to a tarot card reader and trying to find out exactly how you’re going to die—it’s morbid.”
In contrast, Boyd asserts, “the thrust of the teaching in the New Testament is that we’re to live with the anticipation that the Lord is going to return and set up his Kingdom. And that could happen at any time. So live every day like it’s your last and don’t sweat the details.”
Does that mean Boyd doesn’t pay attention to world news in the sense that perhaps current events may have something to do with Bible prophecy?
“No, I really don’t,” he says. “It’s so speculative that I don’t see any good fruit coming of that at all. I really don’t think that God so loved the world he gave us a jigsaw puzzle so that we could figure out what’s going to happen in the last seven years of world history.” He adds: “When God wants to be clear, God is clear.”
Still, throughout its history, Christianity has had groups and sects preaching “End Time,” imagining all varieties of prophecies about to be fulfilled. This was true in the early church, and it is true today. And not only in Christianity. The vision of a culmination of human events cuts across cultures—which anthropologists take as shared transmissions or common thinking, but which believers take as common truth.
The eschatological hope is a natural one. If one is a believer, one would certainly wish the advent of a new age and the unambiguous presence of God. Glorious rewards. All wrongs made right. All doubters convicted.
So here’s how the opposing views line up. On one side is psychology and sociology, personal hopes and social movements, all energized by anthropological trophisms that explain why such false beliefs take root and propagate. On the other side is the claim that our generation, as opposed to all other generations, really is special—with nuclear proliferation, global warming, escalating religious conflict, confrontation in the Middle East, “wars and rumors of wars” in the oft-quoted warning.
The former, with 100 percent historical success, must be the default position. The latter, with 100 percent historical failure, must bear the full burden of proof.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with James Tabor, Robert Saucy, Nancey Murphy, William Grassie, Arthur Hyman, and Greg Boyd in "Is This the End Time?" the 36th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Meditation Linked to Bigger Brains

A group of researchers at UCLA decided to take high-res brain scans of people who have meditated regularly for more than five years, and they found that certain parts of meditators' brains are larger than average. Their brains have a bigger hippocampus and more gray matter in the orbito-frontal cortex, thalamus, and inferior temporal lobe—all areas that are involved in processing and regulating emotions.
This doesn't surprise, given that research has long shown that people who regularly practice meditation can focus better and have greater control over their emotional response to stress. Finding the bigger brain regions might give scientists a clue as to why meditators have these special abilities, says Eileen Luders, a postdoctoral research fellow at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging who led the study. Little is known about the link between meditation and brain structure.
For one thing, scientists still face a chicken-and-egg question:

Because this was not a longitudinal study—which would have tracked meditators from the time they began meditating onward—it's possible that the meditators already had more regional gray matter and volume in specific areas; that may have attracted them to meditation in the first place, Luders said.
However, she also noted that numerous previous studies have pointed to the brain's remarkable plasticity and how environmental enrichment has been shown to change brain structure.
The study appears in the journal NeuroImage. —Heather Wax

Religious Views on the Use of Torture

Is the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information ever justified? That's the question a recent survey by the Pew Research Center asked people from different religious traditions.
More than 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants say the use of torture against suspected terrorists can be often or sometimes justified, while 46 percent of white mainline Protestants and 40 percent of those who are religiously unaffiliated say the same.
Obvious differences. But as the analysts note in their write-up, the reason for the discrepancy is less clear:

In the case of an issue such as evolution, one can point to clear doctrinal reasons for some religious groups to reject the idea of evolution by natural selection. But there may be no such theological differences when it comes to torture or other political issues, such as environmentalism or views of government's role in the economy. Instead, differences among religious groups may reflect other social and political differences among the members of those groups.
It turns out "party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture than are religion and most other demographic factors," they say. "Of course, religion itself is known to be a strong factor shaping individuals' partisanship and political ideology. Attitudes about torture are likely to reflect both moral judgments and political considerations—both of which may be formed in part by religious convictions—about circumstances under which torture may be justified." —Heather Wax

Find Your GlowMate!

Check out the GlowMeter. It's a quick quiz that lets you find your philanthropic "color"—the area where your primary philanthropic interests lie. Then, it matches you with your GlowMates, other people in your community who are participating in philanthropic efforts similar to your own.
The quiz is part of a new philanthropy portal, created by AOL News in partnership with the Philanthropy Project. The site also includes news and updates on philanthropists across the country and the latest scientific information on the effects of living a philanthropic lifestyle.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Reviewing Robert Wright's "Evolution of God"

Andrew Sullivan has reviewed Robert Wright's newest book, The Evolution of God. Essentially, Wright argues that religion has evolved in ways that mostly improve its doctrines and practices, make them less rigid and more reasoned, and bringing us closer to truth.
As Sullivan notes:

"Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms. It’s not a linear process—misunderstanding, violence, stupidity, pride and anger will always propel human beings backwards just when they seem on the verge of progress. Greater proximity has often meant greater hatred—as one god has marshaled earthly forces against another. But in the very, very long run, as human beings have realized that religion is nothing if not true and that truth can be grasped or sought in many different ways, doctrines have evolved. Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism—our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.
Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth—even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over."
For more, check out an excerpt from the book, which hits bookshelves next month.

Studying at Liberty Shifted Student's Beliefs

"Growing up, I never prayed except during airplane takeoffs and landings. Now I try to pray every morning, because even if God is not in heaven checking his cosmic in-box for my prayers, the process of praying helps make me more compassionate and treat people better. Prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes me, and then I change things," Kevin Roose, a Brown University student who studied at Liberty University for a semester, tells the Religion News Service. Roose, raised secular and liberal, wrote the new book The Unlikely Disciple about his experience at the largest evangelical Christian college, his "shifting beliefs," and his re-examined stereotypes.
"I still pray," he says. "I still read the Bible from time to time, and more importantly, I have a new attitude about how to approach people who are different from me. I used to be scared of Christian culture, the other side of this “God divide,” and now I actively embrace those differences."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Get Your World Science Festival Tickets Now

Tickets are now on sale for the 2009 World Science Festival, organized by physicist Brian Greene and his wife, journalist Tracy Day.
The festival will be held in New York from June 10 to 14, and opens with a big 80th birthday party for E.O. Wilson. It will bring together a number of high-profile scientists, artists, philosophers, and writers, and regular readers of this blog with recognize a number of the names, including Dr. Harold Varmus, Dr. Francis Collins, Michael Heller, Paul Davies, George Ellis, Andrei Linde, Lawrence Krauss, Frank Wilczek, Oliver Sacks, and Ken Miller. (Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, and Alan Alda will also be there, among others.) The idea is to celebrate science in a way that makes it more accessible, compelling, and inspiring.
The program covers a bunch of interesting topics, such as multiverse theory, environmental sustainability, human cooperation and altruism, fate and free will, our response to music, and the idea of nothingness.
We had heard the program would include a panel discussion on the science-religion relationship (like last year), but we don't see it listed. Stay tuned; we'll work on getting more information. —Heather Wax

The Music of "Angels & Demons"

Check out the original soundtrack to Angels & Demons, released today. Hans Zimmer, who composed the score, says he used a combination of orchestra and chorus to represent religion and electronics to represent science.
Zimmer has scored more than 100 films, including The Dark Knight, Frost / Nixon, Driving Miss Daisy, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and The Da Vinci Code. Angels & Demons hits theaters on Friday.

What Would Darwin Tweet?

Can you summarize the theory of evolution by natural selection in 140 characters or less? Give it a shot.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Would You Wear a Killer's Sweater?

That's the question Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist at Bristol University, likes to ask the audience when he gives public lectures. And for the majority of people, the answer is no.
It turns out more people would wear a sweater that was dropped in dog feces and cleaned than one that was worn by a murderer and then washed.
But why? How come we're disgusted by the idea of touching a killer's personal possession—especially when it's a sweater, something we normally associate with feelings of warmth and comfort? It's not like we can catch evil the way we can catch, say, the flu.
As Hood explains in his new book SuperSense (excerpted today in The Guardian):

"It is as if we treat evil as a physical contaminant that could be transmitted by touch. You can't wash away such contamination as though it were dirt. Most of us would treat the cardigan as if it were imbued with evil.
In the same way that some of us revere holy sites, priests, and sacred relics, we also shun places, people, and objects that are taboo. To do that, however, we have to attribute something more to them than just their physical properties. We may like to think of ourselves as rational people without superstitions, but this is just one area where we stray into the supernatural."
The point of the sweater demonstration, he says, is to "illustrate to an educated, rational audience that sometimes our beliefs can be truly supernatural but have nothing to do with religious indoctrination. Atheists, too, tend to show revulsion at the idea of touching [the sweater]. If it's true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones."

Check out some of the other supernatural beliefs many people hold:

Heather Wax

How Early Did Humans Think Symbolically?

A few years ago, I wrote a story about shell beads found in South Africa's Blombos Cave. Before they were found, the accepted wisdom was that humans in Europe began making symbolic art and decoration 40,000 years ago, but these beads dated back about 75,000 years. With the discovery, scientists began to reconsider when symbolic thinking began and the "timing of the appearance of one of the behaviors that seems more distinctive of the human species, that of artificially changing the appearance of our body using techniques such as personal ornamentation, tattooing, scarification, body painting," said Francesco d’Errico, a member of the team and a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.
Now, a group of archaeologists has found a bunch of older shell beads in a limestone cave in eastern Morocco. Shell ornaments were found in 82,000-year-old deposits in the cave a couple years back, and other perforated shells, some also covered with red ochre, have been discovered in even earlier layers. What's striking, the researchers say, is that the same species of shell was used both there and in South Africa, two regions that are far from each other.
Finding the older Moroccan beads is "exciting," says University of Oxford archaeologist Nick Barton, who led the research team, "because they show bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behavior were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’’
The findings will appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. —Heather Wax

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dispatch from London

FROM KARL GIBERSON: I have been hanging out with philosophers this week at the Thomas More Institute in London. The occasion is a conference in honor of Mariano Artigas (pictured here), my co-author for the book Oracles of Science. Artigas was a much-loved scholar and priest, mentor to many students, and the author of many other books, including the acclaimed Galileo in Rome. He was 68 when he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006, and he received his first copy of Oracles of Science from Oxford University Press as he lay dying in the hospital.
The conference, titled "Metaphysics, Ontology and the Science-Religion Debate" is, as the name suggests, a ponderous examination of some of the deeper philosophical questions about how to relate science and religion. The topics, coupled with my jet lag, have made it challenging in various ways.
What is very clear from the emphasis at this conference is the growing sense that science is facing something of a crisis. The journalist and author Dr. James Le Fanu gave a great talk about the large number of scientific accomplishments of the last 50 years that simply cannot be repeated (essentially making the same case that John Horgan makes in The End of Science). Fanu contrasted that with the present work on genomes and how little we really understand about what we are discovering there. Science, in his view, has over-promised and under-delivered and now is having to hide its failures. Thus, we see the aggressive tone of polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as they try to defend science as an all-powerful enterprise.
Steve Fuller, a sociologist who testified at Dover on behalf of the "intelligent design" movement, took me to task for equating ID and creationism in my remarks. He thinks the ID folk are in a long-standing philosophical tradition challenging the naturalism of science. I tend to see ID, however, as a secularized and repackaged set of anti-evolutionary arguments that the creationists were using decades ago and that William Paley was using before Darwin ever set foot on the Beagle.

Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life?

FROM RUSSELL STANNARD, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AT OPEN UNIVERSITY: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Those are the words of Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg in his book The First Three Minutes. He goes on to dismiss human life as "a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents."
It is not difficult to appreciate how one might arrive at such a gloomy assessment. Take, for example, the size of the universe. It takes 13.7 billion years for light to reach us from the farthest depths of space, even though it travels at 300,000 kilometers per second. Are we really expected to believe that God designed it as a home for humans? A case of over-design perhaps?
Most places in the universe are hostile to life. The depths of space are incredibly cold. The most prominent objects in the sky, the sun and the other stars, are balls of fire and thus not suitable places to find life. For the great majority of the history of the universe, there was no intelligent life. After the stars have exhausted their fuel, there comes the Heat Death of the universe—an infinity of time when there will again be no life. Hence the view that life is but a fleeting, accidental byproduct of no significance. Or is it?
Suppose you were put in charge of making a universe. You have freedom to choose the laws of nature and the conditions under which your imaginary universe operates. The aim is to produce a universe that is tailor-made for the development of life—the kind of universe a sensible God would have created if it were really intended primarily as a home for life.
Let us assume you start off your universe with a big bang. All the galaxies of stars are to be receding from each other in the aftermath of that great explosion. The first decision is how violent to make your big bang. You might feel, for example, that the actual big bang was somewhat excessive if the aim was simply to produce some life forms. How about something more discreet? It turns out that if you make the violence of your big bang somewhat less—only a little less—then the mutual gravity operating between the galaxies will get such a secure grip that the galaxies will slow down to a halt, and will thereafter be brought together in a big crunch. Moreover, this will happen in less time than the 13.7 billion years it took for us humans to appear on the scene in the actual universe. So, turn the wick down, and you will get no intelligent life.
All right, you might say, I'll turn the wick up a little. I'll make my big bang more violent than the actual one. What happens now is that the gases come out of the big bang so fast that they do not have time to collect together to form embryo stars before they are dispersed into the depths of space. Since there are no stars, you get no life. In fact, it turns out that as far as the big bang's violence is concerned, the window of opportunity is exceedingly narrow. If you are to get life in your universe, the thrust must be just right—and that is what our actual universe has managed to do.
The next point to consider is the force of gravity. How strong will it be in your imaginary universe? If you make it a little weaker than it actually is, you will collect gas together after the big bang. It will squash down, but there will not be enough of it to produce a temperature rise sufficient to light the nuclear fires. No stars, no life.
On the other hand, you must be careful not to have your gravity too strong. If it is, you will get only very massive types of stars. These burn exceedingly fast and last for only 1 million years. For evolution to produce intelligent life on a nearby planet, you must have a steady source of energy for 5,000 million years; you need a medium-sized star like the sun. Indeed, when you come to think of it, the sun is a remarkable phenomenon. After all, what is a star? It is a nuclear bomb going off slowly. Have you any idea how difficult that is to achieve? The amazing thing is that the sun manages this. The secret is the way the force of gravity in the sun conspires to feed the new fuel into the nuclear furnace at the center of the star. It does so at just the right rate for the nuclear fires (governed by the nuclear force, an entirely different force from that of gravity) to consume it at a steady rate extending over a period of 10 billion years.
So, in order for there to be life, the force of gravity—like the thrust of the big bang—must lie within a very narrow range of possible values. And the gravity of the actual universe does just that.
Next, you must turn your attention to the materials from which you wish to build the bodies of living creatures. This is no small matter. After all, what have you got coming from your big bang? The two lightest gases—hydrogen and helium—and precious little besides. And it has to be that way. Remember, we need a violent big bang to stop the universe from collapsing back in on itself prematurely. And because of that violence, only the lightest nuclei could survive the collisions occurring at that time, anything bigger getting smashed up again soon after its formation.
But you cannot make interesting objects like human bodies out of just hydrogen and helium. So the extra nuclei—those that go to making up the 92 different elements found on Earth—must be manufactured somehow after the big bang. That's where the stars have another important role to play. Not only do they provide a steady source of warmth to energize the processes of evolution, but they also first serve as furnaces for fusing light nuclei into the heavy ones that will later be needed for producing the bodies of the evolving creatures.
But this process is far from straightforward. Perhaps the most important atom in the making of life is carbon. In a sense, it is an especially "sticky" kind of atom, very good at cementing together the large molecules of biological interest. But forming a nucleus of carbon is by no means easy. Essentially, it consists of fusing three helium nuclei together—which is as unlikely as having three moving snooker balls collide simultaneously. It involves something called a "nuclear resonance," and the occurrence of this resonance is so highly fortuitous that its discoverer, one-time atheist Fred Hoyle, was moved to declare that "a commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics."
So, we have our precious carbon. A collision between some of these carbon nuclei and further helium nuclei yields oxygen—another vital ingredient for life—and so on. Thus, you must be sure to incorporate a fortuitous nuclear resonance in your imaginary universe.
Does this mean that the stage is now set for evolution to take over and convert these raw materials into human beings?
Not so. You have your materials, but where are they? They are in the center of a star at a temperature of about 10 million degrees. Hardly an environment conducive to life. The materials have to be got out. But how?
What happens in the actual universe is that a proportion of the newly synthesized material is ejected by supernova explosions. These occur when massive stars—several times the mass of our sun—run out of fuel. They suddenly collapse in on themselves. But that raises a problem. How can an implosion produce and explosion? This was a conundrum that exercised the minds of astrophysicists for many years.
The mechanism turned out to be the strangest imaginable. The material is blasted out by neutrinos. Neutrinos are famous for hardly ever interacting with anything. One could pass a neutrino through the center of the Earth to Australia 100 billion times before it had a 50:50 chance of hitting anything. Neutrinos are incredibly slippery. How fortunate they were not any more slippery than they are.
There are many other conditions that had to be satisfied in order for there to be intelligent life anywhere within the universe. The sum total of these "coincidences" goes under the name "the anthropic principle."
We are faced with the simple fact that the universe, far from being hostile to life as Weinberg would have us believe, has seemingly bent over backward to accommodate life. As the physicist Freeman Dyson has put it, "The universe knew we were coming."
The mysterious appropriateness of the universe for the evolution of life is something that calls for explanation. There are two main possibilities.
The first is to assert that our universe is not alone. There are a great many universes—perhaps an infinite number of them—and they are all run on different lines with their own laws of nature. The vast majority of them have no life in them because one or other of the conditions were not met. In a few, perhaps in only the one, all the conditions happen by chance to be satisfied and life was able to get a hold. The probability of a universe being of this type is small, but because there are so many attempts, it is no longer surprising that it should have happened. We, being a form of life ourselves, must of course find ourselves in one of these freak universes.
This is a suggestion that has been put forward by some scientists, but that does not make it a scientific explanation. For one thing, the other universes are not part of our universe and so, by definition, cannot be contacted. There is no way to prove or disprove their existence.
The second alternative is simply to accept that the universe is a put-up job; it was designed for life, and the designer is God. Now, one always gets a little bit worried over arguments in favor of the existence of God based on "design." The original argument from design held that everything about our bodies, and those of other animals, is so beautifully fitted to fulfill its function that it must have been designed that way—the designer being God—and therefore you must believe in God. The rug was pulled from under that argument by Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection— at least in terms of it being a knockdown proof of God's existence, one aimed at convincing the skeptic.
So it is that I would urge caution on those religious believers tempted to make too much of this new argument from design, this time based on physics and cosmology. One can neither prove nor disprove God on the basis of such reasoning. All one can say is that if one already believes in God on other grounds—say, on the basis of religious experience—then the simplest explanation might be in terms of a Designer God. For religious believers, such an explanation introduces no fresh assumptions over and above what one already accepts as the explanation of other features of one's life.
Not that the alternative suggestion, the many-universes argument, is necessarily to be regarded as an atheistic theory. Certainly, it will be the theory favored by atheists. But it could well be that the God who used evolution by natural selection as the means for making intelligent creatures like ourselves (and a whole host of other interesting animals along the way) might well have used the same scatter-gun approach to make not only our life-friendly universe, but a whole host of other interesting universes—universes that carry no life, but could nevertheless be appreciated by God.

Russell Stannard appears with Sir Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind, Alexander Vilenkin, Lee Smolin, and Roger Penrose in "Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life and Mind?" the 35th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.