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Friday, February 27, 2009

How Does Beauty Color the Cosmos?

FROM FRANK WILCZEK, NOBEL LAUREATE AND A PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AT THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY’S CENTER FOR THEORETICAL PHYSICS: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a commonplace. “Beauty is in the mind of the beholder” cuts deep.
In the microcosmos, where unaided eyes see Nothing—empty space—active minds discover the primary stuff of reality. Everywhere and everywhen, our equations tell us, the world is full of spontaneous activity: the play of quantum fields, dancing to the music of symmetry. Our eyes are attuned only to deviations from the norm. Evolved for survival in a changing environment, they filter out as background what our minds reveal as fundament.
In the macrocosmos, where unaided eyes see points of light against a blank black emptiness, active minds discover mighty globes of nuclear fire, each far larger than all Earth, and in numbers vastly more than our eyes make apparent. They learn, too, that the apparent stability of the world is illusory. The universe as we see it today arose from a fierce and nearly featureless Chaos, out of which gravity, following its inexorable logic over incomprehensible times, slowly distilled structure.
And in life on the scale humans live it—the mesocosmos—active minds find new perspectives, which expand experience. A rainbow is a magnificent spectacle and a marvelous exercise in refraction and caustics; love is a grand experience and a fascinating study in the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin.
In this mind-constructed mix of symmetry, grandeur, and enlightenment, beauty abounds. But Nature’s beauty is Her own. To reach it, we must work honestly and hard, and we must be ready to accept what we find. Her beauty is, it appears, free of emotion and deeply amoral. A quirky quantum fluctuation might initiate a cancer; a supernova that delights astronomers might mark the sudden end of a brilliant civilization.
Does beauty color the cosmos? Yes, absolutely—if you seek it, construct it, and accept it!

Frank Wilczek appears with Peter Atkins, Roger Penrose, Fotini Markopoulou, Stephon Alexander, and Freeman Dyson in "How Does Beauty Color the Cosmos?" the 25th 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, February 26, 2009

Meet Astrid From the Lab

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: For months, the TV show Fringe (now on hiatus) has been touching on subjects and ideas related to science and religion. While Olivia and Peter are off taking down “bad guys” and Walter is trying to remember what he did 20 years ago, one woman keeps the Harvard University lab running: Astrid. Though the junior FBI agent remains a mystery to fans of the sci-fi drama, her portrayer, Jasika Nicole, was happy to chat with Science & Religion Today about belief, bovines, and brain goo (hint: It is just as icky as it seems!).

SRT: When you first heard about the concept for Fringe, what were your initial thoughts? Were you on board? Wary?
JN: Well, let’s see. The first time that I heard about the show, we were not allowed to have a script. So all I knew was that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to it. They kept saying it’s a new sci-fi show by J.J. Abrams, and that’s it. So all I had really to base everything on was his past work. So I’d seen Lost, and of course I loved it like everybody else, and I really loved Cloverfield, so I was thinking something about monsters. I was like, okay. I’m auditioning for a show about monsters that will probably have its own fan base already because it’s J.J. Abrams.
So it took a really long time to get a script. Before I did, I was totally on board because I love science fiction and I love horror films. I was hoping that there would be some kind of cross-way between those two different genres. And that’s actually what happened in the end, that it is kind of about monsters and it is really grotesque like horror films, but it’s also really rooted in science, which I think is kind of different that a lot of sci-fi shows. A lot of sci-fi shows are about aliens or something like that, and this one really bases itself in science. So I was 100 percent gung-ho before I knew what it was about. [laughs]

SRT: Let’s talk a bit about Astrid. She seems a little less messed-up than the people she works with, but that may just be because we don’t know a lot about her yet.
JN: You don’t know enough about her, I know! [laughs] People keep saying, ‘It’s so nice to have Astrid in the show because she’s kind of like the grounding between Peter and Dr. Bishop since she’s in the lab all the time.’ And that’s what people say now, but you know, I’m still finding things out about her. Every single episode when we get a script, I go, ‘Oh. So Astrid minored in computer science.’ Or ‘Astrid speaks Latin fluently. That is an excellent thing for her to do.’ Because they are really, really slow to give up information about these people. And I can’t tell if it’s because they don’t want stuff to get out or because they’re kind of building it up as they go along themselves. So it’s been a really interesting process to play a character you basically don’t know anything about.

SRT: Astrid has schooling in a lot of areas, it seems.
JN: She was a linguistics major. Well, apparently, she double-majored and minored in pretty much everything in the world. [laughs] We have this joke on set: If there’s ever a question and none of the three main characters have any idea, they look at Astrid. Like, ‘Astrid, do you know anything about this?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, you know, back in ’87, I was touring Europe and I did this and this and this. Perhaps that will help us solve this crime,’ you know? [laughs] Which is really cool because she’s a Renaissance woman. I think that’s why the team was brought together. I think that’s why they trust Astrid with all of this information. She has different things to bring to the table than everybody else does. And I like that she’s not as silent as she was in the beginning, because she’s vocalizing — each episode that happens, she’s vocalizing. She gets a little bit more involved in it.
It’s also a really nice play about where she is in relation to everybody else. She’s a junior agent, she just started doing this, she’s probably scared out of her mind. And on top of that, you have her dealing with really obscure, weird things that she never probably learned about when she was down in Quantico. So that probably has taken her a while to get used to it.

SRT: Has religion come up in any conversations with J.J. or anyone, especially regarding Astrid’s background?
JN: No, there hasn’t. And that was brought up just in my own dealings with the character and the script. I’m trying to remember exactly which episode… I think it’s the one where Olivia goes back in the tank or something like that, and Walter asks to have a Bible. So Astrid goes and she gets him this Bible, and he starts quoting all these things from the Bible. And I thought that was a really nice part of the show that had never been dealt with before. Because they don’t really talk about religion. And you have to wonder where Dr. Bishop is in that whole world.
He’s kind of become a god-like figure, just on the basis that he’s able to create these things and he has a lot of power with the knowledge that he has. But then you have to wonder, well, where did he get his power? Where did he get his knowledge? So you don’t get a clear answer from him whether or not he has any religious-based faith. So when I’m reading, we have a scene where he’s calling out, I think I start a quote and he finishes it because he knows the Bible like the back of his hand. And so I was kind of grappling with whether or not Astrid thinks that that’s weird or if she’s kind of on board with him or where she’s coming from with that, you know? Because I think that if this were a real-case scenario, if you were to be working in this kind field, something would have to give. You would have to make a compromise somewhere.
I don’t think I have enough information about Astrid actually to fully answer your question, but hopefully maybe one day I will. I don’t know yet. She’s kind of towing the line. But like everything else, I don’t know much about her!

SRT: Okay, be honest. Who’s more of a diva: John Noble [who plays Walter] or the cow?
JN: Um, the cow. [laughs] Hands down, the cow.

SRT: I did see somewhere that she refuses to go up steps.
JN: Yeah, she’s crazy. And she also uses the bathroom wherever she wants to.

SRT: Oh, gross. Speaking of… there are some truly disgusting effects that are used on your show. Are they as bad up close? I’m thinking, in particular, about the melting-brain goo.
JN: [chuckles knowingly] Yeah. That was so disgusting. You know what? They actually are really gross in person, and I was not prepared for that. Because, like I said, I grew up watching horror movies. I love them and I get that there’s a way to make it look real on film. So I was kind of ready to see the behind-the-scenes action and everything. There have been so many occasions when I’ve walked on set and I’ve have my breath taken away from me because I just didn’t think it was going to look that good. And we’re not even filming and this looks horrible! Of course, they add in a lot of stuff after, in post-production, but the people we have who are working on the effects and stuff are just incredible. I just read the script for episode 16 last night. Of course I can’t give too much away; there is some really awesome and gross stuff happening, and I can’t wait to see how they pull it off. It’s supposed to be happening in real time. Usually we have a man under the table with an air pump or something that’s making these things happen above that gets caught on camera, which is awesome. [laughs] But even when you know there’s a guy underneath there, it’s still frightening. It really is.

SRT: You’ll begin shooting season two later in the year. In the back nine of season one and beyond, what would you like to see happen to Astrid?
JN: I just want to see her out of the lab. That’s my biggest want, because she’s always in the lab. There have been, I think, two times when she was out. She was at the hospital once when some guy was getting a CAT scan and then I also think she was in the FBI office once and once she was letting the pigeons fly out in the air. Which is cool, and I get that she’s really important and that’s kind of her environment. She’s the one person out of the trio who can stay stationary and other stuff can still be happening and she can kind of call in from where she is and make sure that everything’s okay. But I think that because she’s an FBI agent, that information gets lost a little bit just because she’s always in the lab. So I think eventually, after she’s kind of paid her dues as a junior FBI agent, they can put her out in the field and she’ll be able to get some hands-on work. Maybe she’ll carry a gun? I don’t know. But that’s what I would really like to see happen.

SRT: Well you know, I don’t know if you watched Alias, but J.J. Abrams had a very unassuming, African-American female character who, in season one, was just support. In season two, she turned into a kickass assassin.
JN: An assassin! Astrid should totally be the Fringe assassin! I didn’t even know that they needed one, but I think they might just now that you’ve told me that!

Beliefs Affect How We Interpret Our Dreams

The majority of people find meaning in their dreams and think they provide hidden truths about themselves and the world around them, according to a new study by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. The study also found that dreams impact our judgment and behavior—and the way we perceive our dreams is affected by our waking beliefs. For example, we treat pleasant dreams as more significant if they're about someone we like rather than someone we don't like. An unpleasant dream about someone we dislike is believed to be more meaningful than if it were about someone we like.
According to Morewedge, "people attribute meaning to dreams when it corresponds with their pre-existing beliefs and desires. This was also the case in another experiment which demonstrated that people who believe in God were likely to consider any dream in which God spoke to them to be meaningful; agnostics, however, considered dreams in which God spoke to be more meaningful when God commanded them to take a pleasant vacation than when God commanded them to engage in self-sacrifice."
The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Angry Heart Can Kill You

A new study shows that electrical changes in the heart caused by anger or other kinds of mental stress can lead to future arrhythmias and sudden cardiac arrest in patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillators. (An ICD is a pacemaker-like device that monitors and maintains heart rhythm and also sends small shocks of electricity to stabilize an abnormal heartbeat; thousands of Americans have one, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.)
About three months after their ICDs were implanted, patients were asked to think about a recent situation in which they were angry or aggravated, and researchers analyzed the patients' T-wave alternans (TWA), a measure of the heart's electrical instability.
Strong emotions like anger increase sympathetic arousal, the authors explain, which influences TWA. In the study, led by Dr. Rachel Lampert, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, patients with higher anger-induced levels of TWA were more likely to later experience arrhythmias and receive shocks from their defibrillators; in fact, the risk of life-threatening arrhythmias was up to 10 times greater. "Emotion can precipitate ventricular arrhythmias," the researchers write, "and these findings suggest that emotion-induced increases in repolarization instability may link psychological stress to sudden death."
Lampert says more research is needed, "but these data suggest that therapies focused on helping patients deal with anger and other negative emotions may help reduce arrhythmias and, therefore, sudden cardiac death in certain patients."
The research will be published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Richard Colling Will Get Biology Class Back

It looks like microbiologist and immunologist Richard Colling will again be teaching the general biology class at Olivet Nazarene University. Back in October, we told you about a rally in support of Colling, who in 2007 was barred from teaching the course after his book Random Designer attracted national media attention. The book tries to reconcile evolution with Christian faith by promoting "theistic evolution" (and challenging the belief in biblical creation). Colling, who has tenure and had been teaching at the school for more than 25 years, was stripped of his regular teaching duties (he could only teach small courses that didn't involve his book), and other professors were barred from using his book in their classes—decisions that raised questions of academic freedom at Christian and other religious institutions of higher learning. (The school's professors, however, were allowed to teach the same views that Colling promoted in his book and teach other books with similar content; implying that the actions against Colling were the result of pressure from financial supporters who had been reading about his views on evolution in newspapers and magazines, and mistakenly believed he was the only one teaching them.)
But last month, the American Association of University Professors found that the school had violated Colling's academic freedom with their actions. "President Bowling made the decision not to allow Professor Colling to teach Biology 201 and to ban Random Designer from the curriculum for the express purpose of appeasing off-campus critics, including key members of the board of trustees, evidently hoping that these critics would believe that he had done something to suppress the teaching of evolution at Olivet Nazarene when in fact he had not," its report reads. "The investigating committee finds, however, that in doing so he disregarded the faculty’s primacy in matters of curriculum, abrogated his responsibility to defend faculty freedoms from 'outside influences,' and, most importantly, weakened academic freedom at Olivet Nazarene University." The report concludes that the "administration of Olivet Nazarene University curtailed the academic freedom of Professor Colling in order to dampen controversy that had arisen among anti-evolutionist elements of the university’s church constituency. In thus acting, the administration placed a higher value on what the president called 'constituent relations' than on the principles of academic freedom to which the university itself claims to subscribe." Now, Colling and the university are meeting to try to resolve their differences, according to Insider Higher Ed. He has been told he can go back to teaching and his book can be used, an outcome that he says is "a successful and positive resolution of the academic freedom concerns originally raised." —Heather Wax

Monday, February 23, 2009

New Initiative Will Investigate Pentecostalism

The University of Southern California announced today that it has established the Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative at the school's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The initiative will conduct its own research in Los Angeles and help fund social science studies on Pentecostalism in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Russia. “Our goal is to inspire research partnerships around the globe and fund projects that will shape the discussion for years to come,” says Donald Miller, executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. “We are interested in understanding why Pentecostalism is growing so rapidly, what impact it is having on society, and how it is different in various cultural settings.”

Friday, February 20, 2009

Did God Create Time?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: There are at least three aspects of time: experiential, conceptual, and physical. Experiential time may drift ever so slowly (often for the young, who are impatient for adulthood) or flee all too fast (especially as one approaches the precipitous terminal cliff at an advanced age). Experiential time is perhaps the most insubstantial element in human consciousness. It is with us all through our waking hours, apparently drifting silently and ceaselessly in the external world as well as within the very core of our being.
Conceptual time is like an imaginary straight line that can extended to infinity in either direction, taking us to realms way beyond the bracket whose bounds cosmologists proclaim as the big bang and heat-death. It has no beginning and no end, just an imaginary stretch the mind constructs.
Then there is the steady flow of physical time in a given frame of reference, the sort that is measured by physicists and chronometers, taking advantage of periodic changes, either at the lunar and stellar levels or at the microcosmic domain of atomic transitions. Physical time, as per current cosmology, had its birth with the big bang and was nonexistent prior to this ignition of the physical world.
Theologians have argued about whether God created time. The simple answer could be, “Of course God did, for did not God create everything?” Or, “Certainly not, since there was no God prior to thinking man.” In other words, the two simple answers depend on whether a person is a theist or an atheist. The Svetasvatara Upanishad describes God as the "architect of time": kâlakâro. For Pythagoras, time was the soul of the world.
What is relevant to recognize is that experiential time plays a role when we are bored or having fun, conceptual time comes into the fore when we are logically analyzing the nature of time, and physical time matters when we are doing serious physics or cosmology.
Shakespeare once described time as both our parent and our grave. Indeed, each one of us tastes a slice of time, and when the lights go off in conscious life, we drop out of the steady stream in which we seem to be drifting. It is conscious life that perceives the presence of the stream. When we are thrown into the invisible stream of physical time, it turns into experiential time, a portion of a stream that continues indefinitely. What we do during that interval is what really matters.

V.V. Raman appears with Brian Leftow, the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, Ernan McMullin, William Lane Craig, and Robert Russell in "Did God Create Time?" the 24th 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, February 19, 2009

Buying "Life Experiences" Makes Us Happier

According to a new study, we're happier when we spend money on experiences rather than possessions. The reason: "Experiential purchases"—like a meal in a restaurant, theater tickets, or a vacation—satisfy our need for social connectedness and make us feel more alive, says San Francisco State University psychologist Ryan Howell, who worked on the study with graduate student Graham Hill. Their results also show that the experiences make us happier regardless of how much we spend on them or how much our income is—and since we're left with long-lasting positive memories that we "don't tend to get bored of," says Howell, they lead to long-term satisfaction.
The findings were presented earlier this month at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Missouri's "Academic Freedom Act"

Out of Missouri comes news of another "academic freedom" bill, and regular readers of this blog will notice something new.
Like others of its kind, the bill, which was introduced into the House of Representatives, requires school officials and administrators to create an environment that encourages students to "respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution." (Keep in mind that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community.) It also requires teachers to be "permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution."
But unlike other "academic freedom" bills, which just generally claim not to be promoting any religious doctrine, this bill claims that it does not "promote philosophical naturalism or biblical theology, promote natural cause or intelligent cause, promote undirected change or purposeful design, promote atheistic or theistic belief, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."
An earlier "academic freedom" act in Missouri died last May. —Heather Wax

Oklahoma Follow-Up

Oklahoma's "Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act" is dead.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Distinguishing S&R

"In the interest of reconciling science and faith, a helpful distinction would be to say that science deals with things and religion deals with words," the Rev. Henry Brinton, pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, writes in yesterday's USA Today. "When scientists perform their experiments, they are making measurements of the physical properties of things, and no words are allowed to change the results of their research. When religious people use words, on the other hand, they are attempting to create new realities by expressing their understandings, experiences and deepest convictions. There is nothing empty or cheap about religious words used well. In fact, they can influence numerous lives and change the course of history."

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Is Free Will?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: If it seems perfectly obvious that your will is free, that “you” are able to decide and choose as “you” quite please, then it seems perfectly clear that you don’t get it. Free will is a huge problem.
I’d never thought “free will” to be a problem. If I want to walk, I walk; sit, I sit.
Here’s the problem. Since every physical event has a prior and sufficient cause, then every current movement of atoms is caused by some prior movement of atoms, including all those atoms that compose all those neurons in my brain that “decide and choose” to walk or sit.
What’s the alternative? That physical events can happen without prior and sufficient cause? That seems immediately wrong because it would limit regularities in the world, make laws capricious, obviate science.
Where then free will? Can nonphysical spirits or souls be saviors? That’s what most theists assume. But spirits and souls have their own problems: How on earth does a nonphysical substance interact with a closed physical world?
What then free will? The question is more fundamental than I’d ever imagined.
To Peter van Inwagen, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, free will can be characterized by an appeal to the simple word “able.” If one is able to do this and able to do that, and assuming it is not possible to do both this and that jointly, then one has free will. He defines “determinism” as the thesis that the past up to a given moment determines the one unique way that the world is going to go on after that moment. If one takes together all the laws of nature or physics, such as the conservation of energy, gravitational laws, electromagnetic laws, and the like—the real, deep, underlying, most fundamental laws—the metaphysical thesis of determinism, given those laws, allows only one possible future that is consistent with the way things are at present. One is not able to do this or that. So it seems that free will isn’t compatible with determinism.
If determinism isn’t compatible with free will, van Inwagen continues, the implication is that we’re able to do only exactly those things we do. Of course, we have the strong conviction that we could have done other things, that we were able to do things other than those that we did, but, if determinism isn’t compatible with free will, that conviction must be misleading, and free will must be an illusion.
Van Inwagen frames the free will problem provocatively: Free will is either incompatible with determinism or it’s compatible with determinism—and you can prove both propositions wrong! Now, suppose that free will is both incompatible with determinism and incompatible with indeterminism. Since determinism and indeterminism are the only two possibilities, free will is now incompatible with every possibility, so it’s impossible. But, van Inwagen concludes, “it would be a greater mystery if there were no free will.”
Since determinism is the case in which every event is caused completely by a previous event, is determinism compatible or incompatible with free will? This is the critical question.
My first feeling was: No, determinism cannot be compatible with free will.
But then what?
No determinism? What then the physical world?
No free will? What then our intuition?
Free will seems simple, but the more one thinks about it, the more complex it becomes.
John Searle, a leading philosopher of mind at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the problem of free will “something of a scandal in philosophy.” As Searle puts it, “The reason that we have a special problem about free will is that we have inconsistent views, each of which is supported by what are apparently overwhelming reasons. The reason for believing that we have free will is we experience it every day. We have the experience of conscious, rational decision-making, and we have the experience that the decisions were not themselves forced by antecedently sufficiently causal conditions. We can’t shake off the conviction of free will.”
But on the other side, Searle continues, “we’ve got an overwhelming amount of evidence that everything that happens has an explanation in terms of causally sufficient conditions.” In the natural world, in principle, we can always tell a story or explain a mechanism for why things happen the way they do, and since “human behavior is part of the natural world, it looks like it ought to be explained in terms of causally sufficient conditions.”
Searle states that not only are the two assertions, free will and determinism, incompatible, but “it’s hard to see how we could give up on either of them.” We can’t kill off either one. We’re stuck with both. And they’re not compatible. That’s the mystery.
Free will is no mystery to Daniel Dennett, the distinguished philosopher at Tufts University. Nor is he disturbed by arguments that free will and determinism are not compatible.
First of all, Dennett asserts that “for 2,000 years or more, people have been looking in the wrong place. They’ve been looking at physics, determinism and indeterminism in physics. They should have been looking at biology because the key to free will is recognizing that free will is a biological-level phenomenon. It’s not a physics-level phenomenon. We are freer than our parts. Our parts don’t have free will. But we do.”
But how could that possibly be, without adding something novel, something mysterious? How can free will be made compatible with determinism?
Dennett’s move is not to show that our actions aren’t determined, but rather to show that our actions are not inevitable.
Say what? It would seem that if the future is determined it is inevitable. So what does Dennett claim the word “inevitable” adds?
Dennett says “inevitable means unavoidable.” So then we have to understand what “avoiding” is, he says, which brings in the biological dimension. “Because what’s happened on this planet over the last 4 billion years has been an explosion of avoiding: avoiding dissolution, avoiding being eaten, avoiding starving to death. What evolution has done is designed organisms that do avoiding. How do you avoid something? By anticipating it and then taking corrective measures. Simplest case: incoming brick. You see it, you duck: You avoid it. But suppose you were determined to duck. Well then the brick was never going to hit you. It just seemed as if it was going to hit you. What we have to understand is that free will is our capacity to see probable futures, futures that seem like they’re going to happen, and see them in time to take steps so that something else happens instead.”
Dennett adds that while “you can’t change the past, you can’t change the future either. But what you can do is change what you thought the future was going to be into something else, even though it’s all determined. Biological creatures are determined by the evolutionary process to become better and better avoiders.”
In trying to understand Dennett’s argument, I suggested that his definition of free will seemed impoverished, at least compared with conventional descriptions. He agreed: “I think we have to recognize that there are varieties of free will.” As for “the traditional varieties,” Dennett says, “who cares whether we’ve got them?” The varieties of free will “worth wanting,” he states, are “perfectly compatible with determinism.”
So Dennett’s determinism erodes some of the comfortable notions of “free will” because everything we do is “determined” by the underlying physics of our brains and its environment. Even so, Dennett says, because biological creatures have learned how to avoid bad things, nothing is “inevitable.”
All is determined? But not inevitable? I’ll have to ponder that.
Maybe we’ve pushed philosophy as far as it can go? I check with some other friends.
Psychologist Susan Blackmore, a former parapsychologist turned active skeptic, argues that “there can’t be free will in the traditional sense. When you see how the brain works, how information flows through the brain, there’s no place for free will. So let’s give up on it!”
California Institute of Technology brain scientist Christof Koch, a pioneer in discovering the neural correlates of behavior, says, “I’m ambivalent about free will. Right now, I don’t see how in a physicalist [purely material] universe, free will can survive. On the other hand, I have this profound feeling of free will.” According to Koch, “Almost by definition, if you’re not a dualist, physicalism is all there is: All that exists are space and time, energy and mass and fields of force, which means, of course, there’s no free will. If you’re not a dualist, I do not see where free will could come from because there’s nothing else except blind chance and necessity.”
What do I think? 1) My will is fully free. 2) Free will is not an illusion. 3) Free will is not compatible with determinism. If I cannot do otherwise, no matter the philosophical maneuverings, I’m sorry, my will is not fully free.
What would it take for my will to be fully free? Nothing less than a causal “gap” across which prior physical forces could not leap, at least not with absolute certainty. Somewhere the chain of deterministic events must be broken. It only takes one place.
But that, too, seems impossible because the entire universe is a closed physical system. What about the appeal to the random uncertainty of quantum mechanics, a popular if superficial free-will escape clause. That doesn’t seem to help—even if meaningful quantum computations could occur macroscopically in the hot, wet brain. After all, how could random uncertainty generate free will?
Is there no solution? After analyzing the arguments, van Inwagen, a savvy and sophisticated and not shy philosopher, concludes, “I regard free will as a complete mystery.”
For just this reason, the problem of free will takes us closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Peter van Inwagen, John Searle, Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Christof Koch, and Alan Leshner in What Is Free Will? the 23rd episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Reflections on Darwin

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Yesterday we celebrated the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth, and this year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of his scientific classic, On the Origin of Species. During these 150 years, more pages have been penned on Darwin and his work than on most other scientists and theirs works: more perhaps than on Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, more certainly than on Leonhard Euler, Michel Faraday, or Heinrich Hertz, whose contributions have touched the core of science and altered the course of history no less.
The reason for this is that Darwin’s discovery touches our self-appraisal as beings in the universe far more profoundly than Jovian satellites, gravitation, or the curvature of cosmic space, and much more directly than differential equations, electromagnetic induction, or the transmission of electromagnetic waves. The only time such a jolt had occurred before was when the Copernican discovery summarily kicked our habitat from the prestigious center of the universe and transformed it into an insignificant speck in a vast and silent expanse. Darwin’s work removed us from the pedestal on which we were seen as the crowning jewel in God’s creation. In the view of some, it not only mercilessly reduced us to just another of the countless life forms that crowd the earth, but also revealed our lineage to be simian rather then saintly or, as one wit quipped, not so much the apex as the ex-ape of creation.
It is both biological and cultural to regard oneself as the center of the universe. The sun seems to rise and set from our perspective; we evaluate the world and react to changes with self-preservation as the bottom line. So it is not surprising that practically every religion gives a special place to humanity among the plethora of life forms. Other creatures, bereft of language and scale of values, have never protested this presumption in any biological court of law. Darwin’s suggestion that we were not molded by clay nor fashioned on the sixth day, nor did we come into being from the mind of God, as reported in religious mythopoeia, but that we just emerged as a result of slow changes over the eons, like so many other sister-species, not only contradicts assertions in sacred texts. It also seems to trivialize Homo sapiens and certainly appears to take away all sanctity from this special-to-God creature.
It is both understandable and legitimate, therefore, for traditionalists to resist the Darwinian view of anthropogenesis not only as an affront to human dignity but also as an assault on the religious framework. There are at least three ways of reacting to this predicament. One is to declare cold-bloodedly that the religions are dead wrong on this matter, as they are on many other issues pertaining to the phenomenal world. The other is to proclaim that the Scriptures are revelations by God and thus cannot, by definition, be wrong; it is Darwin who has been misled by appearances that hide the true essence of things, and his theory must therefore be rejected or, at best, be accepted as just another theory formulated by the finite human mind, which can never fathom the ultimate infinite mystery. The third alternative has been to find a reasonable via media by recognizing the role and relevance of religion as an important and meaningful cultural and spiritual experience, and by interpreting religious texts in symbolic and metaphorical rather than literal modes while maintaining the integrity of science and its methodology. The oft-mentioned warfare between science and religion is between the ardent protagonists of the first two schools, while members of the third group write books like, “How to be a good Christian/Hindu/Jew/Buddhist/Muslim and also believe in evolution.”
I am inclined to think that the first two groups, in their own divergent ways, have different perspectives of the truth because they view the matter through different lenses, but the third course is the best for a peaceful world in which science can flourish and religiously inclined people can also find fulfillment. This approach is difficult for those who see every aspect of the human condition in black-and-white terms. When taken to an extreme, this view inevitably leads to intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry.
But in situations like this, mutual concession may be the only way. The situation may seem quite simple in the framework of
rationaltry (worship of the goddess of reason alone) or unquestioning faith (where logic and facts of observation don’t carry much weight). But it is enormously complex in a context in which human intelligence, emotions, culture, sensibilities, and psychology all come into play.
Even with all the problems that have emerged, it is appropriate for enlightened humanity to pay homage to the name and memory of a scientific searcher who relentlessly pursued his quest and uncovered one of the great mysteries of the phenomenal world—namely, the emergence, continuance, and extinction of countless species with an incredible range of properties and propensities that adorn our planet (and of which we ourselves happen to be among the most remarkable). It is no less enriching to regard ourselves as one culminating endpoint in the complex web of terrestrial life that has been unleashed on the planet by the marvelous laws of nature, with potential for further change, than to imagine ourselves to be the most wonderful creation of the cosmic principle that many choose to worship as God.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th Birthday, Darwin

Our wish for you this year: that people celebrate the occasion by reconciling the theory of evolution with their personal faith—so that next year, more than 58 percent of Americans will believe humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Episode 14: Immerse in the Multiverse

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: Remember when inmate Robert Jones killed his lawyer in a German prison, then stood in the corner and a bright light transported him to Massachusetts? Just in case you don’t, this episode begins with that. Two weeks later, Olivia is discussing the matter with the Bishops at Walter’s lab, and Walter reiterates that the machine he invented—the one that Mitchell Loeb was using to break into a bank in an earlier episode—can transport people through space and time. But he warns that the “disray,” as he calls it, requires time in a compression chamber afterward and leaves the teleportee with some serious, unpleasant side effects. “So you’re saying that Jones, in theory, could’ve zapped himself out of prison?” Olivia asks. Walter says yes.
In a warehouse somewhere, a man helps Jones out of a compression chamber and he asks for a cup of tea. While he sips it with shaking hands, he is assured that the lab has been outfitted to his specifications and that the list he asked for is complete. Elsewhere, the owner of a magazine shop banters with a customer as another customer—wearing latex gloves, it should be noted—picks up a newspaper and leaves a two dollars, walking away quickly. The shop owner, Tom, picks up the money and barely has time to remark on the rare bill before he starts screaming: His eyes seal themselves shut, followed soon after by his mouth. The skin just grows up over everything, creating a rather horrifying mask. General panic ensues.
Charlie and Phillip Broyles learn that Jones had a slush fund. But for what? That’s what Olivia wants to know when Loeb is shipped in on an Army jeep to meet her at a nondescript parking lot. He’s wearing an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, and leg chains, and he looks less than pleased to see her. She says she knows he helped Jones escape and that they kidnapped her that same night, then threatens him with a transfer order to a state prison if he doesn’t cooperate. Jones, he says, is inconsequential, just “part of the army.” Then he warns her that “what is written will come to pass.” Hmm. Olivia’s cell phone rings and Broyles orders her to meet him and the Bishops at Boston General Hospital.
The magazine shop owner is laid out in an exam room, and Walter theorizes that an altered lipid caused a sealing of all orifices. Olivia jumps to the conclusion that Jones is behind the incident, based on what Loeb implied. Broyles isn’t convinced. She takes Peter aside and tells him that ZFT, one of the sects that’s previously been established as making malarkey for the rest of the world, stands for Zerstorung durch Fortschritte der Technologie, or “Destruction by Advancement of Technology.” And it takes its name from an unpublished, anonymous manuscript that was destroyed 10 years before. She asks Peter to work his backroom connections to find a copy.
Meanwhile, at the FBI, Charlie tells Broyles that they’ve traced Jones to a warehouse in Allston, Massachusetts. But it doesn’t matter because the man himself walks into the building’s lobby and turns himself in, saying he’ll only talk to Olivia … who, at the moment, is helping to raid the warehouse. Everyone’s gone, but she notes the compression chamber and Jones’ sketch of her. As they’re about to leave, another agent finds a two dollar bill in a drawer and soon winds up totally sealed up. Olivia performs an emergency tracheotomy, which helps for a moment. But then the skin just crawls up and over the trach, and the agent suffocates to death.
Now that they know he’s not messing around, the FBI grants Jones’ request to speak to Olivia. She also brings a bunch of things he’s asked for: a wristwatch, a ball point pen, a walkie-talkie, etc. He takes them apart to build another contraption, one to disable the recording equipment that’s capturing the interrogation. Now with a bit of privacy, he gets to the point: A key found on him when he was arrested leads to a lock box at a Salem, Massachusetts, amusement park. He needs her to go there and find what he’s left for her. “I need you to pass a test,” he says, while coughing and twitching a bit. If she doesn’t go, he continues, there’s a bomb that will kill everyone in its vicinity.
Olivia drives to Salem and recovers the box. Back at the lab, Walter reads from the manifesto that Peter recovered: “We think we understand reality, but our universe is one of many." Olivia returns to the lab and reveals that the box holds a series of tests. Jones’ instructions are for her to take the first test and report back to him. Walter notes that the instructions for the tests and the manifesto use similar language. Olivia can’t pass the first test—shutting off all of the bulbs on a light board with her mind—and goes to see Jones, calling him on his mind games. He hits her with a big one when he says she was kidnapped to confirm that she had once been treated with cortexiphan, hence the spinal tap. As they’re arguing, he collapses and is soon wheeled into Walter’s lab. Olivia, on the other hand, goes to Massive Dynamic headquarters when she finds out the company makes cortexiphan, and Nina Sharp tells her about William Bell’s trials of the drug, which was tested on young children to limit the shrinking of their minds. The trials were unsuccessful, and they were disbanded in 1983.
Peter rigs the board to make it look like Olivia can shut off the lights, and she does so while Jones watches. He sends her to the address where the bomb is, but when she, Peter, Charlie, and a team of agents arrive, it’s clear that Jones knew she was faking: The bomb is hooked up to a larger light board, and the only way to disarm it is to shut off all the bulbs with her mind. She concentrates very hard and slowly, the lights blink off one by one, with the last shutting down two seconds before detonation. Peter is amazed, and Olivia doesn’t know how she did it.
She goes to see Jones at the hospital some time later, and he’s literally burst through the wall and escaped to the street outside. “You passed” is written on a nearby wall. Later, Sharp calls Olivia and gives her some news: There was a second cortexiphan trial in Jacksonville, Florida, at a military base. Olivia inwardly freaks: She grew up on a navy base in that same city.
At the lab, Walter again reads the manifesto, which makes even more references to the multiverse. He notices that all of the “y”s in the typewritten manuscript are elevated off the main line. He gets a horrible look on his face and unearths a typewriter from somewhere in the lab. He types the word “ability,” and sure enough: The “y” is up higher than the other characters. Walter wrote the manuscript?!?
THE BOTTOM LINE: Discussions of the multiverse, though fleeting, are all over this episode. ZFT seems to think that the pattern of weird occurrences is leading up to an us-versus-them fight, though who will be on each side is unclear. Also of note: When Olivia tells Robert Jones she can’t disarm the bomb, he tells her she can because he has something she doesn’t yet have: faith.
[Editor's note: Fringe is taking a short break and will return in April.]

Theologian Sees Science as Positive Resource

"From the perspective of Christian theology, biological evolution and creation are by no means mutually exclusive .... None of the evolutionary mechanisms opposes the affirmation that God wanted—in other words, created—man. Neither is this opposed by the casual nature of the many events that happened during the slow development of life, as long as the recourse to chance remains a simple scientific reading of phenomena," Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, a professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said during a Vatican press conference yesterday. "I hope that the natural sciences may be used by theology as a positive informational resource, and not just seen as a source of problems."

Teens Willing to Help Parents at Own Expense

Teenagers feel some obligation to put aside their own desires to help their parents (even when their parents' needs are small), according to a new study led by University of Rochester psychologist Judith Smetana. The study found that both parents and teens (in this case, seventh and tenth graders) try to balance and coordinate requests for help with their own desires, taking into account who is asking for the help and how much help is needed. When the needs are low, parents are more likely than teenagers to think it's OK for teens to say no to requests for help and satisfy their own desires instead.
When needs are big, parents of tenth graders are more likely than the parents of seventh graders to think it's selfish to fulfill personal desires rather than help. On the other hand, tenth graders are less likely than seventh graders to think teens are selfish for not helping. "In other words, parents' and teens' ratings of selfishness became increasingly divergent with age," the researchers write. "This difference between parents' and adolescents' ratings may be linked to the increases in the intensity of adolescent-parent conflict found at this age." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Empathy Appears to Have Genetic Component

A new study on mice suggests that the ability to empathize with others—to sense and act on their emotional states—has a genetic basis. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon Health and Science University had a bunch of highly social mice watch while they put another mouse in a cage. The mice then heard a 30-second tone at the same time the mouse in the cage (now out of view) was given a mild foot shock, causing it to squeak in distress.
When the gregarious mice were later put in the cage and the tone was played, they showed clear physiological signs of aversion (like freezing in place), even though they were never shocked. These mice had learned to associate the tone and the cage with something negative; the squeaking mouse taught them that the tone predicted distress. When the researchers tried the experiment again, this time with mice from a genetically different strain that is less social, they found that the mice didn’t show any response to the tone once inside the cage. In other words, they didn’t respond to the other mouse’s distress.
“The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student Jules Panksepp, who worked on the study. “Deficits in empathy are frequently discussed in the context of psychiatric disorders like autism. We think that by coming up with a simplified model of it in a mouse, we’re probably getting closer to modeling symptoms of human disorders.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Iowa's & Alabama's "Academic Freedom" Acts

There's news of two more "academic freedom" bills, this time introduced in the Iowa and Alabama House of Representatives. Iowa's "Evolution Academic Freedom Act" is sponsored by Representative Rod Roberts, an ordained minister in the Church of Christ, and it will allow teachers in the state's public schools, community colleges, and universities to "objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution." (The bill copies Florida's definition of "scientific information," describing it as "germane, current facts, data and peer-reviewed research.") The act also prevents students from being "penalized for subscribing to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution."
Alabama's "Academic Freedom Act," sponsored by Representative David Grimes (a deacon at Trinity Presbyterian Church), would give teachers "the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views in any curricula or course of learning" and also prevents a student from being "penalized in any way because he or she may subscribe to a particular position on any views."
Regular readers of this blog will notice the clear similarities between these bills and those that have been filed in a number of other states (most recently New Mexico and Oklahoma)—and will recognize them as part of the latest strategy to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious ideas like creationism and "intelligent design" into the science classroom (even though the bills themselves claim not to promote any religious beliefs). The Alabama bill, for example, says that "the protection provided by this act shall not be restricted by any metaphysical or religious implications of a view, so long as the views are defensible from and justified by empirical science and observation of the natural world." This would still seem to bar ID from being discussed in the classroom, but it's important to keep in mind that a very small number of peer-reviewed ID papers do exist, and the Web-based Answers Research Journal calls itself a "peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework." —Heather Wax

Mississippi Follow-Up ("Textbook Disclaimer")

Mississippi's "textbook disclaimer" act is dead.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Why Black Holes Are Astonishing

FROM J. RICHARD GOTT, COSMOLOGIST AND PROFESSOR OF ASTROPHYSICAL SCIENCES AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: As I wrote in my book Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, a black hole is a hotel where you check in but you don’t check out. Once you cross the event horizon surrounding the black hole, you have crossed a point of no return, and you cannot get back out. The escape velocity at the event horizon is equal to the speed of light and, since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, nothing that has gone in can get out. If you fall into a non-rotating black hole, tidal forces will tear you apart as you approach the singularity in the center. But your time of torture is brief. The time from when the tidal forces start to hurt you until you are completely shredded is only 0.08 of a second. That’s independent of the mass of the black hole.
The largest black hole we have found so far is one of 3 billion solar masses found in the center of the galaxy M87. From the time you cross its event horizon until you reach the center would be about 5.5 hours. For a rotating black hole—and the black hole in M87 is surely one of these—the situation is more complicated. The exact solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity for a rotating black hole shows a ringlike singularity at the center that can be avoided and a region of time travel trapped inside the event horizon, where you could meet your future self and perhaps then pop out into another universe. But there is no coming back to visit your friends in this universe to brag about your adventures. It seems likely, however, that a singularity will develop, blocking your way to these interesting regions. If this singularity is weak, then you might be able to pass through it—like going over a speed bump—and get into the interesting time-travel region and escape to other universes. If the singularity is strong, you will be torn apart before being able to do any time travel. To understand which will occur, we may need to understand quantum gravity—how gravity behaves on microscopic scales. This is one of the reasons the problem is so interesting.
In 1974, Stephen Hawking showed that particles and anti-particles being created out of the vacuum in the vicinity of the event horizon (one falls in, whereas the other, just outside the event horizon, escapes) cause the black hole to radiate thermal radiation (now called Hawking radiation). This Hawking radiation causes the black hole to slowly lose mass and eventually evaporate completely. This is a very slow process. The black hole in M87 will take more than 1094 years (that’s a 1 with 94 zeros after it) to evaporate.

J. Richard Gott appears with Kip Thorne, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Lee Smolin, and Leonard Susskind in "Why Black Holes Are Astonishing," the 22nd 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, February 5, 2009

Can Positive Relations Have Negative Results?

Emphasizing the commonalities between two religious or ethnic groups will help create harmony between the groups, but it also might lead to greater social inequality, according to new research by a group of psychologists led by Tamar Saguy of Yale University. The researchers found that when two groups—one more advantaged than the other—focus on their similarities, the disadvantaged social group develops better attitudes toward the advantaged group and a greater belief that the advantaged group will act fairly when it comes to things like distributing resources. In other words, the disadvantaged group begins to focus less attention on the differences in power between the two groups. This group becomes overly optimistic, the researchers write—and "such optimism may relax support for social action." Yet, they find, the new expectations "prove unrealistic when compared against the actions of members of the advantaged group."
After testing their theory in the lab, the researchers surveyed Israeli-Arabs (a disadvantaged minority group) and found that those who had more Jewish friends had better attitudes toward Jews (the majority group) and were more likely to think Jews were fair to Arabs. These Israeli-Arabs also showed less attention to social inequality and relaxed support for social change (though their motivation for change remained generally high).
According to the researchers, "positive intergroup contact and intergroup harmony do not necessarily undermine efforts toward inequality," but "encounters that emphasize both common connections and the problem of unjust group inequalities may promote intergroup understanding as well as recognition of the need for change. Such mixed-content encounters, through which common humanity and morality are likely to be emphasized, can both bring members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups together and perhaps motivate them to eliminate social inequalities." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Episode 13: A Viral Way to Alter DNA

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: We open on a plane, where a passenger writes in a journal. We see the phrases “advanced technology,” “avoids capture,” and “seems dangerous” before his nose begins to bleed onto the page. He hightails it to the lavatory, where he swabs his mouth and drops the sample into a vial of clear liquid that instantly turns red. This, apparently, is a bad sign, because he accosts a flight attendant and demands that she restrain him right away. Sedatives, tasers—he wants them all at the ready: Something really horrible is about to go down. The flight crew treats him like he’s insane as he informs them he’s going to lock himself in the bathroom, and they shouldn’t open the door for any reason. Once inside, his teeth fall out and his back breaks into a mat of big purplish spikes. He’s screaming and causing a ruckus as the alarmed passengers wonder what’s going on. It grows quiet, and as the stewards are wondering what to do, a giant spiny creature bursts from the bathroom, creating general terror. The porcupine-plagued plane crashes and burns. Man, what does "the pattern" have against air travel?
At Olivia’s apartment, Ella plays with her aunt’s makeup and jewelry, including the engagement ring found in John’s effects after his death. Rachel pries about “partner John”— apparently Olivia kept her relationship secret even from family — and Olivia testily responds that “Everything between us was a lie.” Soon after, she meets Phillip Broyles and the Bishops at the crash scene. Their task force is taking command because of the presence of the giant porcupine’s charred corpse. Charlie brings over the passenger manifest and as Olivia flips through, she recognizes one of the men on board. She has a flash of memory, but it actually belongs to Jack, courtesy of their mind-meld. The guy’s name is Marshall Bowman, she tells Charlie, who looks perplexed.
At the lab, Walter, Peter, and Astrid slice and dice the airplane monster. Walter notices something hard inside the man’s palm; when it’s cut out, it’s a small plastic disc like the one taken out of dead DEA agent Evalina Mendoza’s hand. Meanwhile, Charlie and Olivia find out more about Marshall. He took care of high-end clients for a credit company, and perusal of his client list prompts Olivia’s Jack-memories again: She recognizes client Daniel Hicks as a man involved in Bowman’s shady business.
Back at the lab, Peter lets her know that the giant prickly beast was, indeed, Marshall Bowman, infected with a designer virus and carrying the disc under his skin. Hicks is brought in for questioning and is pretty standoffish until Olivia shows him pictures of Marshall’s remains. Just then, Hicks’ nose starts to bleed. “We must have been dosed,” he gasps, falling to the ground, but Olivia won’t allow him to be sedated until he coughs up the name of who dosed him. “Conrad!” he cries.
Walter works on an antidote while Hicks is strapped to a table in the lab, dozing in a drug coma. Olivia asks Broyles to dig up John to see if there was a disc in his hand, too, but he admits that John’s body didn’t go to the NSA. “Where did it go?” Olivia demands. Cut to Massive Dynamic. Nina Sharp escorts the pair into the lab where John’s body has been hooked up to electrodes since the pilot episode. She assures Olivia, who looks completely gobsmacked, that John is dead. He’s been kept alive in part because the palm discs go bad after their host bodies die; the little bits of info Massive Dynamic has been able to glean points to John being part of a bioterror cell. Based on information from an FBI snitch, Conrad has set up a meeting to sell his virus. Needing answers, Olivia drives back to the lab and calls Peter to have him prep the tank: She’s going back in.
In her mind, Olivia goes to the motel where she and John had their trysts, just in time to see her and him come through the door and fall on the bed, kissing. When Memory Olivia gets up to use the bathroom, it’s clear that Memory John sees the real Olivia. She grabs his gun and tells him she knows about his bioterror plot, throwing in that Bowman is dead and Hicks is sick. She even shoots him, but then they fade to another memory ...
They’re in an alley and he points to a car that drives by. “That’s Conrad,” he says, then points to a nearby rooftop, where yet another Memory John is decked out in sniper gear. “It was my most important mission, and I failed. I let that monster get away. I didn’t know it was him,” he says sadly, adding that no one knows what Conrad looks like, making him that much harder to catch. Bowman and Hicks, he adds, are NSA agents on a black ops mission to stop Conrad—as was he. She doesn’t believe him, but it doesn’t matter: Her vital signs start going crazy, so Walter and Peter pull her from the tank.
The NSA, of course, has no record of anything John said. After the FBI nabs Conrad’s scheduled buyer, Olivia and Peter go to the meeting in his place. Hicks listens in, but the virus takes hold just as Conrad arrives at the meeting and orders Olivia and Peter killed. Thank goodness Charlie busts in with his entire team to capture Conrad and save the day. Back at headquarters, Broyles tells Olivia that the FBI still considers John a traitor. She looks content, though, now that she knows the truth. Walter administers Conrad’s antidote to Hicks and then acquiesces to Olivia’s request to go in the tank again.
He warns her that it may be the last time she “sees” John; her brain waves show she’s nearly purged herself of his memories. They meet up by a lake. She tells him she trusts him. He puts the ring on her finger. They kiss, then he disappears.
BOTTOM LINE: The show alludes, again, to the idea—and dangers—of "playing God," this time by introducing a man-made "designer virus" that changes its victims' DNA and turns them into monsters.

Calling All Social Innovators (Older Than 60)

Nominations are now open for the 2009 Purpose Prize, a Civic Ventures initiative that awards cash prizes to Americans over 60 who are finding new ways to solve our most significant social problems by combining innovation, creativity, and their experience. Winners will each receive up to 100,000 dollars. The nomination period ends March 5.

New Mexico's "Biological Origins" Act

A new bill introduced in the New Mexico Senate by Republican Senator Kent Cravens would allow teachers in the state to inform students "about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses pertaining to biological evolution or chemical evolution."
Regular readers of this blog will notice that the bill contains language similar to the "academic freedom" bills that have popped up in about half a dozen states (most recently in Oklahoma). Much like these other bills, the New Mexico act states that it "does not protect the promotion of any religion, religious doctrine, or religious belief." It also states that "'scientific information' means information derived from observation, experimentation and analyses regarding various aspects of the natural world conducted to determine the nature of or principles behind the aspects being studied. 'Scientific information' does not include information derived from religious or philosophical writings, beliefs or doctrines; provided, however, that 'scientific information' may have religious or philosophical implications and still be scientific in nature."
The bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Parsing the Meaning of "Belief"

"We can start with the phrase "believe in evolution" .... Using the same word to describe faith in God and support for a scientific theory strikes me as foolish and pernicious. It's bad for both science and faith, creating a false dichotomy between the two positions—one which serves nobody but a small group of culture warriors dedicated to making our public culture as stupid and ugly as possible," Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, writes on his "On Faith" blog.
"How can one use identical language to describe the decision to follow a particular spiritual path which is necessarily beyond scientific testing, and the decision to rely on a theory which is the product of such ongoing testing? We may use the same word, but are they really the same kind of belief?"

Monday, February 2, 2009

An Evolutionary Advantage in Keeping Tempo?

A new study out of Stanford University suggests that when people participate in synchronized activities—like the singing and chanting involved in many religious rituals—they become more likely to cooperate with one another. In one experiment, psychologists Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath had two groups of people walk around campus, one group walking normally and the other in-step. In another experiment, they had two groups listen to music on headphones and move cups back and forth in time to the beat. The members of one group all listened to the same music (so their movements were synchronous), while members of the other group listened to music with different tempos. After both experiments, members of the synchronized groups had a stronger sense that they were part of the same team, and they were more cooperative when they played economic games set up by the researchers—even making personal sacrifices, such as giving up their own money, to benefit the group. According to the researchers, who publish their results in the journal Psychological Science, "synchrony rituals may have therefore endowed some cultural groups with an advantage in societal evolution, leading some groups to survive where others have failed." —Heather Wax

Creatures Seeking Meaning

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: At a recent workshop that I was teaching on “The Art of Caregiving,” a participant and I meandered into a conversation about his recent retirement. He had worked at the same job for decades and was not quite used to his new stage of life. During a break, he asked to follow up on some of the workshop discussion on meaning. The group and I had been talking about the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who described human beings as creatures “in search of meaning” and emphasized the power of being needed in the world. As this 60-ish man stirred his coffee, he turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said: “That is the issue, rabbi, no one needs me now.”
I was struck by his honesty, and also, the comment touched me in a very profound way. What a lonely place it must seem to reach a stage in life and feel that you are no longer needed. What is it like to wake up every morning and look into a day in which you see no reason to get out of bed? Herein lies one of the challenges that will impact increasing numbers of people: With the longevity revolution now upon us, one of our more interesting discussions as a society and as individuals will be how to live our expanded lives with a sense of meaning and purpose. In an age of science and technology, the voice of religion must also be present in this search for meaning. Indeed, the impact and contributions of science and technology can be the means through which people engage in finding a sense of meaning; yet, the search is, by definition, an individual one and subject to increasing variables, such as health, family circumstances, and economic pressures. For many right now, the luxury of one’s search for meaning may be back-burnered by the necessity of having to work an extra job or postpone retirement so as to boost a floundering pension or 401K.
Every one of us wants to live a life that has meaning—I believe that completely—but meaning in one’s life cannot be scientifically measured. It is more a feeling, a sense, an emotion that what I do and who I am counts for something and contributes to a legacy of life. Often, like the gentleman at my workshop, we define that meaning through our work. “I am a dentist”, or “I am a teacher." And what happens when that definition is removed? We are given the challenge of really finding an answer to our own predicate. This can be frightening and empowering, daunting and liberating, all at the same time. For in our society and our schools, we rarely educate for meaning. Rather, we educate for tasks.
Here, then, is a major challenge for religion in the coming years. Really, it is the same challenge that we have faced for centuries. How do we educate people for meaning? How do we teach that this life is a gift and that it is our charge to live it so that it has meaning and provides a legacy that can be lived through future generations? Religion has too often been corrupted by fanatical fundamentalism that uses God as a reason to promote political agendas. In doing so, the search for personal meaning is abandoned and subverted. In this age of growing angst and personal questioning, it is time for the leaders of religious communities to affirm the basic call of their faiths. Heschel is right, we are “creatures in search of meaning,” and too many of us now wander in our own wilderness in search of that “holy grail.”