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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Francis Collins Hosts S&R DVD Series

Check out "Religion and Science: Pathways to Truth," a DVD series featuring lessons by well-known scientists and theologians and hosted by Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Watch the introduction online (in which Collins talks about his personal faith), as well as short clips of the rest of the program. You can also order an audio version of the lectures and bonus material on CD.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Texas Follow-Up (Final Vote)

Texas has new science standards, approved on Friday by a vote of 13 to 2. Students will no longer discuss both the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories—including evolution—in science class, making the standards "better than the old ones, but those old standards really did suck," says Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education. However, the new standards aren't that much better—they allow "all sides" of scientific theories to be taught—and "are deeply compromised at every level from the decent standards offered by the writing committees," he says.
The old standard for high school biology read:

"The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information."

A committee of scientific and education experts changed the requirement to read:

"The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing."

And the final version approved by the board reads:

"in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments so as to encourage critical thinking by students."

The board then added a number of confusing amendments that "crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks," says Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. "We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don't agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy."
One amendment, for example, requires students to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record," while another requires students to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanation concerning the complexity of the cell." ("Sudden appearance" and "irreducible complexity" are favorite creationist and "intelligent-design" concepts.)
Keep in mind, as well, that an "academic freedom" bill introduced into the Texas House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago could require the Texas Board of Education to put the "strengths and weaknesses" phrase back into the science standards. If the bill passes, students would be "expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information," and no student or school could "be penalized in any way because he or she subscribes to a particular position on scientific theories or hypotheses." —Heather Wax

Friday, March 27, 2009

Where Are They, All Those Aliens?

FROM SCIENCE FICTION WRITER AND SPACE PHYSICIST DAVID BRIN: Way back, two-thirds of a century ago, shortly after the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb, physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues took a break, over lunch, to discuss the notion of other life in the cosmos.
Many of Fermi’s colleagues enjoyed science fiction stories. They held that a richly endowed cosmos, replete with trillions of stars, should contain a vast plurality of living worlds, and—on some of them—minds like ours, capable of insight, curiosity, intellectual advancement. Within a galaxy as old as this one, there must have been many, many races that preceded us, some of them now millions of years older, and commensurately more advanced. Indeed, some of these alien intelligences would surely have set forth, expanding and exploring across space. How interesting a future we would have, with such fascinating others to talk to, when our descendants finally made contact!
Fermi listened patiently to these expressions of confidence in a fecund universe, teeming with conversation, as vivid and enthusiastic as the discussion they were having at that moment, in a Chicago cafeteria. Only then, the great physicist shook his head and asked:
“So? Shouldn’t they already have been here by now? Should we not have heard their messages? Or seen their great works? Or stumbled upon residue of past visits to our planet? These wondrous ancients of yours, where are they?”
Across all the years since Fermi posed that challenge, it has been called many names. The Great Silence, the Seti Dilemma, and so on. But most often the “Fermi Paradox.” And every passing year, while enthusiasts still scan for signals, the sky’s eerie hush steadily gets more and more bothersome.
How many life-bearing worlds are out there? So curious are we—members of an expansive, eager, enlightenment civilization—that we are willing, even in rough economic times, to fund ambitious efforts like NASA’s new Kepler Orbiting Observatory, with the mission of putting solid numbers behind some of our best estimates. So far, it seems that planets are common in the cosmos. Now we hope to get a handle on what fraction may be a bit like Earth. But even if we find that figure to be high, it will take later, more advanced instruments, to detect glimmering spectroscopic indications that life appeared on those distant worlds.
And from there the conundrums will continue! What portion of these Life Worlds will develop intelligent, technological beings? (It only happened once on Earth, across 4 billion years.) And what further sub-fraction might eventually overcome all obstacles and hazards to start spreading across the stars?
These estimates have been crunched and probed and argued-over for more than two generations. Earnest calculations claim there ought to be neighbors out there. We shouldn’t be alone.
And yet, somehow, we appear to be! At least, as far as we can tell, so far.
Then it began to sink in. This wasn’t just a theoretical matter, anymore. The appearance of scarcity has implications, disturbing ones.
Something must be suppressing the outcome. A “filter” of some sort may winnow down the number of sapient races. To a number that is low enough to explain our apparent isolation. Our loneliness. Perhaps even reducing the total down to just one.
This is no place to get into the full-pitch debate. But over 10 dozen pat “explanations for the Fermi Paradox” have been offered. More than a hundred! Each of them pushed with great fervor by this or that person or group, each of them fervently convinced that the (skimpy) evidence supports just one possible conclusion.
Some claim that our fertile and lush planet must be unique. (And, so far, nothing like Earth has been seen, though life certainly exists out there.) Or, it is suggested that most life worlds suffer lethal accidents—like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs—far more often than our planet has. In other words, Earth has been luckier than most.
Other theories suppose that intelligence must be a rare fluke, and that fact alone would bring the numbers down to a level compatible with observation.
Note that these are actually the optimistic explanations! Because they suggest that the “great Fermi filter”—the thing that’s been keeping the numbers down—lies behind us. Not ahead.
But what if life-bearing planets turn out to be common? And suppose intelligence arises frequently? Then the filter—whatever process it is, that winnows down the numbers—may lie ahead of us. Perhaps some terrible mistake that all sapient races make. An error so alluring that all of them stumble into it. Some catastrophe that now awaits us, around the next bend.
Or perhaps several. A veritable minefield of possible ways to fail.
Want to hear something strange? The so-called "optimists" in the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community are more likely to believe something like this. Carl Sagan thought that most alien civilizations destroyed themselves through nuclear winter, unless they managed first to cure themselves of all aggressiveness ... which might then explain why such species did not travel far or make colonies or fill the cosmos with their progeny. A pretty dour version of "optimism"!
That is the dour context of our story. And the implications go far, far beyond mere sci-fi musings about contact with aliens. In the end, all of this carries huge and important implications about us! Because now we have to wonder, each time we face some worrisome step along our road toward maturity ... from avoiding war to becoming planetary eco-managers, to genetic engineering and so on. ... All the time, we have to ask ourselves "Could this be it? The mistake? The big one that all (or almost all) alien sapient races make? The error, the trap, that keeps the numbers down and that keeps us asking Fermi's question?"
It is the specter lurking at our banquet. The shadow that slinks around the edges of both reflection and foresight, as we turn to examine all the conceivable threats to our existence.
At least, all of those we can now see.

Excerpted from David Brin's next novel, Existence, which he hopes readers will see completed in 2010. His previous novels include Earth, The Postman (the basis for the Kevin Costner film of the same name), Foundation's Triumph, and The Life Eaters (a graphic novel that became an international sensation).

David Brin appears with Jill Tarter, Doug Vakoch, Frank Drake, Ray Kurzweil, Francisco Ayala, and Steven Dick in "Where Are They, All Those Aliens?" the 29th 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.

Texas Follow-Up (Track the Final Vote)

The Texas State Board of Education will make its final decision on new science curriculum standards today. You can listen live to the audio of the board's meeting, follow the live blogging of Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (who's at the meeting), or keep track through the Texas Education Agency's Twitter. Stay tuned as the board works through different amendments to the proposed changes regarding the teaching of evolution.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Texas Debates New Science Standards

The Texas State Board of Education heard testimony from the public yesterday regarding proposed curriculum changes related to the teaching of evolution. The proposed changes would drop language requiring students to analyze "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories like evolution and instead require them to "analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing."
More than 50 scientific groups—representing hundreds of thousands of American scientists—have publicly called for Texas to adopt the changes without any of a number of proposed amendments, such as board chair (and young earth creationist) Don McLeroy's 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." In other words, they're calling on the board to promote "accurate science education."
The state board of education is set to hold initial votes today and final votes on Friday. And the results could have ramifications beyond the state: Texas is one of the largest textbook markets, so publishers often design textbooks to Texas' standards, then market the textbooks across the country.
Dan Messier

Francisco Ayala's Busy Week

As the 2009 J. K. Russell Research Fellow in Religion and Science, evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala will present the keynote address at a research conference on April 4 in Berkeley, California. (The annual fellowship is awarded by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) board of directors and was created in memory of John Russell, an industrial engineer, humanitarian, and father of CTNS Founder and Director Robert John Russell.)
The theme of the daylong conference is “Darwin’s Gift to Science,” and Ayala's address will be followed by responses from five science and religion scholars—moderated by systematic theologian Ted Peters. As part of his fellowship, Ayala will also give a free public lecture, “Whence Morality: Biology or Religion?” at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology on April 7. —Dan Messier

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Can a Thin Brain Cut You Off From the World?

Does the structure of your brain reveal whether you're at high risk for depression? It might, according to an upcoming PNAS study conducted by Columbia University's Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Using MRI imaging, the researchers found that people with at high risk of developing depression (based on their family history) had a 28 percent thinning of the right cortex, the outermost surface of the brain. According to the scientists, this loss of brain matter is on par with the loss that's seen in patients with Alzheimer's disease or schizophernia.
The scientists believe this thinning might be a cause rather than a consequence of the development of depression—affecting a person's ability to interpret and pay attention to social and emotional cues from others; the less matter a person has in the right cortex, the worse this person performs on attention and memory tests. “Our findings suggest rather strongly that if you have thinning in the right hemisphere of the brain, you may be predisposed to depression and may also have some cognitive and inattention issues," says Dr. Bradley Peterson, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and the study's lead author. "The more thinning you have, the greater the cognitive problems. If you have additional thinning in the same region of the left hemisphere, that seems to tip you over from having a vulnerability to developing symptoms of an overt illness.” Dan Messier

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hastings & Yale Form Bioethics Program

The Hastings Center and Yale University recently formed a joint ethics-and-health-policy program. The Yale-Hastings Program in Ethics and Health Policy will allow Yale faculty and Hastings scholars to share resources, host visiting scholars, and jointly sponsor student programs that deepen the understanding of bioethical issues.
The Hastings Center bills itself as the world’s first bioethics research institute. Its research program looks at the effects of advances in medicine and the life sciences. Yale’s Interdisciplinary Bioethics Center explores the ethical and social implications of biomedical and technological research, with a focus on religion and the environment.
The new program will hold its first public event this spring. — Kimberly Roots

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Shelf

God—however you define the concept—has a definite impact on your mental, physical, and spiritual health. That’s Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman’s thesis in their new book, How God Changes Your Brain.
Newberg, a neuroscientist, and Waldman, a therapist, use brain scans, survey, and analysis to come to the conclusion that spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better. They argue that belief in God improves cognitive function, directly challenging the work of thinkers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Even those who don’t have a spiritual belief can benefit from positive meditation, they say; the authors write that just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
The book will be on shelves tomorrow. —Kimberly Roots

Friday, March 20, 2009

How Can Emergence Explain Reality?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: Down deep, how does the world really work? Science has made spectacular progress assuming that particles and forces describe all that exists. This principle is called “reductionism,” which means that every physical thing can be explained, deep down, in terms of physics. But take ordinary stuff. Study all its parts separately. What do you get? Not what you expect when you see the whole.
What’s going on? Simple ignorance? Or something more? It seems a mystery and it’s called “emergence.” Somehow, the underlying laws of nature— as we know them—cannot account for the world. So can “emergence” explain reality?
Robert Laughlin, a Nobel laureate in physics, rejects the traditional approach that the way to understand the world is to break it down into little pieces. “Let’s imagine you are on an airplane at 40,000 feet, eating peanuts,” Laughlin begins. “You know that the plane won’t disintegrate; that’s why you’re willing to stake your life on it. It’s a law. Now, where did this law come from? Well, you might say, it comes from atoms, but it doesn’t. The reason we know this is because when you want to find out where the rigidity comes from and you take the metal apart in order to do so, the rigidity vanishes away—the same way the meaning of a pointillist painting vanishes away when you get very, very close to it. In other words, rigidity is something that atoms do together. It’s the ‘togetherness’ of atoms that makes the collection rigid. Laws are relationships among measured things that are always true, and they come about because of organization.”
Laughlin stresses that “lots of things in the natural world have this property that you learn less about them by taking them apart. If you want to know whether your airplane is going to come apart, then you look at these big-scale things, these emergent things. Because that is what matters.”
So it depends on what you want to know. This much seems clear. About some things, one learns less about them by taking them apart. The whole is more than the sum of all the parts. But not all scientists think this way.
Peter Atkins, a world-renown chemist and gifted writer at Oxford University, is a tough-minded reductionist who calls claims of emergence “defeatism.” Emergence, he says, can be an excuse for lack of knowledge. He says that “although we scientists might be reductionists who strip matter down to its fundamentals, we’re actually assemblists.” In his view, scientists “try to understand how properties can be explained from simpler components. … When you understand the pieces really well, you understand the whole. … We wouldn’t dream of bringing sociology to bear on understanding the structure of the atom. But in the opposite direction, we could bring the structure of the atom to bear on understanding sociology. … The whole point about science is the driving optimism that it has. You don’t go into science if you don’t think you can find the answers. And as soon as you start saying we’ll never explain that, you’re no longer a scientist in my view. You become a philosopher.”
Either emergence is key. Or emergence is excuse.
Renowned evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala says that “while living organisms obey the laws of physics and chemistry, the laws of biology are completely different. They transcend, they emerge. … We have to study life processes on their own level.” He draws an analogy to bricks and houses. “You can’t tell an architect that by studying more and more of the laws of bricks that he will understand more and more how to design a house,” Ayala says. “Sometimes people who claim that physics can explain biology, that atoms and molecules can explain organisms, are confused about ontology and epistemology. You have the bricks and you have the house. You remove the bricks, there is no house. In a human being or in any other organism, you remove the atoms and the molecules, nothing’s left. That’s the ontological question.
“Now, if I want to know about houses, I study the work of architects, not of brick-layers,” Ayala continues. “Studying everything about bricks will never explain very much about houses. Each level of organization has its own laws, and meaningful understanding comes only by studying each and every level on its own terms. Similarly, it’s nice to know about the properties of the atoms, the laws of physics and chemistry, but the things I want to know about organisms are completely different things. That’s the epistemological question.”
Going further, can emergence give us clues as to the basic structure, and perhaps deep meaning, of the universe?
Many scientists, understandably, dismiss such a notion. But to Philip Clayton, a philosopher and theologian specializing in science and religion, emergence is a new way of interpreting the world. He somehow sees emergence as a third way between pure science and fundamentalist religion.
According to Clayton, “emergence is the realization that the natural world is composed of multiple levels, and that as systems get more complex, they don’t just continuously evolve into something new, but at some point in complexity a new type of phenomenon appears which needs to be explained in a different way than that of the lower levels.” This is particularly true of organisms, he states.
I pushed Clayton by asking him the following thought question: “Suppose you were God, so to speak, and you knew every possible detail about every possible particle and force, would you still not be able to predict the properties of higher-level phenomena, particularly of organisms?”
“Even God would have to do some looking at the interactions between organism and environment,” Clayton responded. “Organisms are really responsive to their environment, and so even the omniscient scientist, God-qua-scientist, is going to have to look at interactions.”
According to its proponents, emergence may take two forms. Weak emergence is when clumps of material particles attain a certain degree of complexity so that novel properties “appear”—properties unexpected, at least at our state of understanding, which we could not obtain by simply combining the properties of the individual particles. Weak emergence is the kind of emergence we generally find in physics, where the broader system constrains the behavior of the parts (as in the rigidity of metal).
Strong emergence is when whole entities have causal powers that affect all their parts, causal powers that exceed the sum of the powers of all the parts. Strong emergence adds another dimension and is more controversial. In the case of an organism, Clayton says, “it would be silly to say that its behaviors are just a passive constraint and all of the work is done at the chemical level. An organism is an entity that interacts with its environment in the struggle for survival, and that makes it an active agent. Strong emergence then says that this active agent is a causal force which is causing its parts to behave in a particular way.”
Emergence adherents say that what’s operating here is “downward causation”; the organism exercises causal influence on its constituent parts.
The idea of “downward causation” may sound troubling. Can the actions of the sum of the parts, and nothing but these parts, influence in some nontrivial way the parts themselves in some recursive manner? Clayton claims that at each level of organization, we have new information from the empirical world, but he does not “begin with the dogmatic assertion that we’ll be able to tell the whole story top to bottom or bottom to top in one unbroken narrative.”
As I see it, there is something about whole entities that is indeed more than the sum of all their parts, but one must exercise care in describing just exactly what this means. There is no implicit mysticism lurking here. Emergence is a partial description of how the world works, with unique laws operating at each level of reality that are not “reducible” to the laws of the lower levels. Emergence’s claim, disputed by some, is that reductionism does not always work, and even in principle, there will always be cases in which the laws of lower levels cannot explain the properties (or behaviors) of higher levels. Adherents believe that biology, in particular, cannot be explained entirely by physics.
But as for downward causation, I’m still troubled by that.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Robert Laughlin, Francis Collins, Francisco Ayala, Charles Harper Jr., Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Atkins, Philip Clayton, and Stephen Wolfram in "How Can Emergence Explain Reality?" the 28th 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.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Meet the 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Fellows

Ten journalists have been selected for this year’s Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion. The diverse group—members of which hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada—will examine key concepts in the field of science and religion. The 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows are: Edwin Cartlidge, freelance journalist; Rod Dreher, editorial columnist, The Dallas Morning News; Joel Garreau, reporter and editor, The Washington Post; Lauren Green, chief religion correspondent, Fox News Channel; Michael Hanlon, science editor, Daily Mail; Martin Levin, books editor, The Globe and Mail; Jori Lewis, freelance writer and radio journalist; Tara McKelvey, senior editor, The American Prospect; Elaine Storkey, presenter, BBC Radio 4 and freelance writer; and Amy Sullivan, senior editor, Time.
“With the deeper understanding they gain through the fellowship program, these journalists will be better able to promote a more informed public discussion of science and religion,” said Fraser Watts, a reader in theology and science at the University of Cambridge and co-director of the fellowships.
Fellows are provided a 15,000 dollar stipend, a book allowance, and travel expenses. The two-month program, running in June and July, begins with a week of preparatory study, followed by two weeks of intensive science-and-religion seminars at Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge. Five weeks of independent study follow, culminating in an oral presentation in July. — Kimberly Roots

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Consistent Contributors" Help Their Groups

Those who set an example of cooperative, collective behavior make groups they’re in more successful, according to a recent study. “Groups and organizations face a fundamental problem: They need cooperation but their members have incentives to free ride,” J. Mark Weber, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, and J. Keith Murnighan, a professor of management and organization at Northwestern University, write in the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Weber and Murnighan looked at data from experiments in which participants could either keep small amounts of money or contribute them to the group. The “consistent contributors”—those who offered up their money regardless of what others did—set a tone of cooperation that made their groups more efficient and productive. In the end, everyone in the consistent contributors’ groups came out ahead, challenging the common wisdom that consistent contributors were suckers who always finished last. — Kimberly Roots

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Origins '09" Celebrates Evolution of Ideas

Some of the biggest names in science and the humanities have gathered at Florida State University for "Origins '09: Celebrating the Birth & Life of Beginnings." The two-week program will look at how advances in science, religion, philosophy, and art have shaped modern society and our understanding of life.
Regular readers of this blog will recognize many of the speakers scheduled to be there, including biologist E.O. Wilson, molecular biologist and geneticist Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist Lisa Randall, historian Ron Numbers (widely considered the world's leading expert on the origins and beliefs of creationism), and anthropologist Don Johanson (co-discoverer of the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton "Lucy"). Today, Peter Harrison, a professor of science and religion at the University of Oxford, will discuss "The Origins of the Conflict Between Science and Religion."
If you're in the area, check it out: All of the events (other than the tribute to the origins of jazz on March 28) are free and open to the public. Otherwise, tune in to "Science Friday" on March 20, which will broadcast live from the event. —Heather Wax

Does This Explain the Culture War's Heat?

Trinity College's 2008 American Religious Identification Survey was released last week, and among its major findings is that America is less religious today than it was 20 years ago. Christianity, specifically, is losing ground. According to the survey, 86 percent of Americans identified as Christians back in 1990. In 2008, the number was down to 76 percent.
But here's what's interesting: Within Christianity, the number of evangelicals is growing—while nationwide, the number of people with no religion is also on the rise (from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent last year). In other words, it looks like there's an expanding gulf between two extremes—likely contributing, in some part, to the kind of polarization in public discourse that sociologist James Hunter calls an "eclipse of the middle."
Here's a nifty, interactive graphic that really shows the widening gap (first click on "Catholics" and "Other Christians" and then click on "No Religion.) —Heather Wax

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bernard d'Espagnat Wins Templeton Prize

Bernard d'Espagnat, a French physicist and philosopher of science whose work has focused on the philosophical implications of quantum theory, is the 2009 Templeton Prize winner. He is accepting the award this morning at a press conference (and live Web cast) at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization headquarters in Paris.
D'Espagnat, 87, was a senior physicist at CERN (where he helped form its theoretical physics group) and a longtime professor at the University of Paris-Orsay (now the University of Paris-Sud), where he was director of the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics and Elementary Particles from 1970 until his retirement in 1987. He is an emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Paris-Sud.
From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, he worked on foundational problems in physics and played a key role during the development of quantum mechanics, the theory that explains the rules that govern the behavior of atoms and molecules and predicts their interactions. (Specifically, he tested the "Bell's inequalities" theorem.) The impact of quantum theory was enormous: Pre-quantum physics—what we call "classical" physics—describes "reality as it really is," d'Espagnat explains, while quantum physics predicts what will be observed under certain circumstances.
Quantum physics reshaped our basic ideas about the nature of reality and challenged the way we thought about the world. Namely, d'Espagnat said in prepared remarks, "it is now clear that to strictly keep to the, apparently obvious, notion that all individual things really exist at some separate places in space whether we know about them or not is not fully compatible with our knowledge: It appears that a certain type of holism, not straightforwardly perceptible but hidden in the equations, must be taken into account."
D'Espagnat's idea is that a unifying, ultimate reality is "veiled" behind the things we perceive—"a ground of things" he calls it, that "lies so much beyond our concepts, be they familiar or mathematical, that the phenomena—those we directly perceive as well as those science describe—do not enable us to decipher it. On it they provide us with merely glimpses, and very vague ones at that."
Classical physicists, he said, seemed to think their job was to "explain everything by starting 'from the bottom up,' that is from elementary material components taken to be the fundamental entities and by showing that little by little they combine in such a way that finally the complex colorful world we see emerges." In their eyes, he explained, it was possible to reach "a knowledge of the ultimate nature of things, so that anything having to do with mystery was doomed to final elimination."
D'Espagnat sees things differently: What he calls the "ground of things" is "beyond conceptual knowledge, and mystery is not therefore something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of its constitutive elements," he said.
"My own conception of present-day physics rather favors, as religions do, an explanation 'from the top,' that is ... grounded on a Being endowed with some mysterious unity and whose essence is not fully describable by means of conceptualized talk alone." And he's "convinced that those among our contemporaries who believe in a spiritual dimension of existence and live up to it are, when all is said, fully right."
The Templeton Prize, valued at about 1.42 million dollars, the largest annual monetary award given to an individual, celebrates someone who has made "an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension." It will be officially awarded to d'Espagnat by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London on May 5. —Heather Wax

Friday, March 13, 2009

How Could God Know the Future?

FROM THOMAS FLINT, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME: Perhaps the first thing to note about the question “How could God know the future?” is that it could be taken in two very different ways. First, by emphasizing the "How,” one might think the question is asking for an explanation of something that we know occurs—i.e., as asking, “Given that God knows the future, what accounts for or explains God's knowledge?” So understood, the question is akin to asking of a magician, “I know you made her disappear, but how did you do it?” Alternatively, by emphasizing the “could,” we might take the question as implicitly challenging the claim that God does know the future—as asking, rhetorically, “Why on earth think that God knows what’s going to happen?” Understood in this second way, the question is similar to reacting to a friend’s suspicions by asking plaintively, “How could I betray you?” On the contemporary philosophical scene, the question, taken either way, has been much discussed.
Those who call themselves "open theists" deny that God has comprehensive knowledge of the future. In particular, they deny that God can know what people will freely do. Some open theists think that there simply are no facts about future free actions; others say that, though there are such facts, there’s no way anyone can know them, or at least no way God can know them, since God's knowing now that I will do such-and-such tomorrow would entail that I’d have no alternative but to do such-and-such tomorrow, and thus wouldn’t do it freely. All open theists, though, agree that God’s knowledge of the future is quite limited, and hence that God needs to take risks in interacting with creation.
Open theism, though, is very much a minority view among those engaged in philosophical theology. The far more traditional view—that God, being omniscient, has perfect and complete knowledge of the future—is still dominant. But traditionalists are hardly united in their explanations of how God knows the future.
One traditional explanation holds that God knows what will happen in time because God isn’t in time. The doctrine of divine eternity holds that God is not limited, as we are, by temporal or spatial boundaries. God's is a perfect life, not one balanced on the knife’s edge of the present, the barely existing dividing line between the no-longer-existent past and the not-yet-existent future. God’s being outside of time, these "eternalists" say, affords God perfect access to every moment in time, much as (to use a favorite eternalist metaphor) an observer on a mountaintop can see in one glance every member of a single-file troop marching below him, while those involved in the march have a much more limited perspective. According to eternalists, speaking of divine foreknowledge is at best misleading. God knows what, from our perspective in the march of time, is in the future—but it’s not future to God.
Many traditionalists, though, find the eternalist explanation of how God knows the future unsatisfying. The observational metaphor it employs, they argue, points to a God whose knowledge of the future is purely passive. But the God of traditional monotheism, they insist, isn’t one who just likes to watch: God’s an active creator, the providential sovereign whose world develops as it does because God planned that it so develop. So even if God is outside of time, we can’t use that to explain God's knowledge of the future.
Traditionalists who adopt this line have developed it in two very different directions. Some suggest that God knows the future because God determines everything that takes place. As the “first cause,” God has complete understanding of the causal ramifications, both short run and long term, of all that God does. Everything that occurs, then, can be traced back to God's own creative intentions; in knowing God's intentions, God knows our future. The metaphor of the author is sometimes used to explain how this divine determination is compatible with our freedom. An author decides how a character in her novel behaves, but in the world of the novel, the character can still be acting freely.
Other traditionalists find this account bizarre. If God is determining how we act, then we’re just fooling ourselves if we pretend that we have genuine freedom. God exists and acts in our world, not in a separate authorial plane. So if God’s causing us to act as we do, then we’re simply not free. The only way to reconcile God’s active foreknowledge with our genuine freedom, they say, is to see God's providence as acting through the knowledge of how we would freely respond if God were to put us in various situations. Knowledge of this sort is often called "middle knowledge," since, as knowledge of what would happen, it can be thought of as located between knowledge of what could happen (knowledge of what’s possible) and knowledge of what will happen (knowledge of what’s actual). A God who has middle knowledge and decides which situations we will be in, the advocates of this position contend, would know all that we will freely do—and know it without causing it, thereby safeguarding our freedom.
This “middle knowledge” answer to the question of how God knows the future has many advocates (including me), but also many critics, who charge (among other things) that there’s simply nothing in the world that could ground the sort of what-would-happen-if truths that middle knowledge requires.
So the issue of divine foreknowledge is one that is currently quite unsettled among philosophers and theologians. Where will this discussion head in the future? Only God knows. Perhaps.

Thomas Flint appears with Russell Stannard, John Polkinghorne, Ernan McMullin, Greg Boyd, and William Lane Craig in How Could God Know the Future? the 27th 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, March 12, 2009

Are Other Planets Like Earth Out There?

Last week, NASA launched the Kepler spacecraft, which is designed to look for other habitable planets in our galaxy. Since water, it's believed, is necessary to support primitive life, the mission will look for Earth-size planets in the "habitable zones"—regions at distances from stars (like our sun) where temperatures allow water to stay liquid.
Are there lots of Earthlike planets in the galaxy or is ours unique? It's too early to speculate, and it will take the mission at least three years to find and confirm the existence of planets like our own. "Even if we find no planets like Earth, that by itself would be profound," says William Borucki, the mission's science principal investigator. "It would indicate that we are probably alone in the galaxy."
You can follow Kepler's progress with its updates on Twitter. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Is Neuroscience the Next Culture War Front?

"Most religions endorse the idea of a soul (or spirit) that is distinct from the physical body. ... However, as neuroscience begins to reveal the mechanisms underlying personality, love, morality, and spirituality, the idea of a ghost in the machine becomes strained. Brain imaging indicates that all of these traits have physical correlates in brain function. Furthermore, pharmacologic influences on these traits, as well as the effects of localized stimulation or damage, demonstrate that the brain processes in question are not mere correlates but are the physical bases of these central aspects of our personhood. If these aspects of the person are all features of the machine, why have a ghost at all?" Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nancey Murphy of the Fuller Theological Seminary write in a recent issue of the journal Science.
"By raising questions like this, it seems likely that neuroscience will pose a far more fundamental challenge than evolutionary biology to many religions. Predictably, then, some theologians and even neuroscientists are resisting the implications of modern cognitive and affective neuroscience. 'Nonmaterialist neuroscience' has joined 'intelligent design' as an alternative interpretation of scientific data.'"
Yet they point out that dualism is a relatively modern concept; the biblical view of human nature was definitely physicalist. Finally, they remind us that "just as Galileo's view of Earth in the heavens did not render our world any less precious or beautiful, neither does the physicalism of neuroscience detract from the value of meaning of human life."

Win Money for a Philosophical Essay

Ebru.tv and Fountain Magazine are holding the Matter and Beyond Essay Contest for undergraduate and graduate students, which will award a total of six cash prizes totaling 5,500 dollars (including a top prize of 2,000 dollars). The contest is inspired by Ebru.tv's new program Matter and Beyond, a short documentary-style show that examines subjects at the intersection of science and spirituality.
The essays (which must be between 1,500 and 2,500 words) should explore topics related to the social sciences, religion and philosophy, or arts and culture—questions like: What do we value most in this life? What constitutes genuine wealth? What is the relationship between our spiritual beliefs and our treatment of the environment? What are the limits of our knowledge?
Essays will be judged on their analysis and accuracy of data, innovation and creativity, relevance to the contest theme, and writing style and structure. The deadline for submission is June 15, and the winner will be announced on the Fountain Magazine Web site on July 15.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Happiness Affects Health of World's Poorest

In recent years, there have been a whole lot of studies that show the connection between emotions and health. Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society, researchers at the University of Kansas released the findings from their investigation with Gallup, which they say prove positive emotions play an important role in maintaining physical well-being.
Until now, most of the research on the link between emotions and health have been conducted in industrialized countries. So researchers began to wonder how important happiness is to health in places where basic needs like shelter and food are lacking. They used data from the Gallup World Poll, which gathered reports from 150,000 adults in more than 140 countries.
Interestingly, they found that the link between emotions and physical health is more powerful than the link between health and basic human needs (like getting enough nourishment). In fact, the connection between positive emotions and better health is strongest in the most impoverished countries. —Heather Wax

On the Shelf

Florida State University biologist Joseph Travis and historian and philosopher Michael Ruse worked together for more than six years to produce their new book, Evolution: The First Four Billion Years. It's huge, more than 1,000 pages long.
Travis and Ruse edited the work, which they hope will be a definitive statement on what we know—and don't know—about evolution. In the first half, top scholars from a variety of fields (disciplines as wide-ranging as genetics, epidemiology, and theology) write essays that chew over the relationship between their area of expertise and evolution. The second half of the book contains an evolution encyclopedia (including challenging modern topics, such as the evolution of altruism) as well as summaries of major historical works.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Obama's Embryonic Stem Cell Policy

In a move that was promised and expected—and is being heavily covered by the press—President Barack Obama has signed an executive order that lifts restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. "We will vigorously support scientists who pursue this research," he said at the signing (pictured here). "And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield."
This means scientists can now receive government grants to further their research on embryonic stem cells, no matter when the cells were—or are—created. (The stem cell lines are typically derived from the thousands of leftover embryos that are stored in fertility clinics and would otherwise be discarded. Keep in mind that there is still a law that bans federal funds for experiments that create embryos specifically for research in which they'll be destroyed). Former President George W. Bush's policy, on the other hand, had banned federal funding of research on any embryonic stem cell line created after August 9, 2001.
The decision to reverse that policy, Obama said, wasn't based solely on science. "When it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," he said. "In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research—and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly. It is a difficult and delicate balance. Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate, and reflection, the proper course has become clear."
Obama also signed a memorandum aimed at restoring and protecting the integrity of science under his administration, ensuring that "we base our public policies on the soundest science; that we appoint scientific advisers based on their credentials and experience, not their politics or ideology; and that we are open and honest with the American people about the science behind our decisions," he said.
As we reported back in December, 53 percent of the public believes scientific decisions should be based primarily on risks and benefits rather than moral and ethical issues, while 56 percent feels that "scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society." More specifically, the survey found that 57 percent of Americans are in favor of embryonic stem cell research, while 36 percent oppose it.
Obama has given the National Institutes of Health four months to come us with new rules and regulations regarding human stem cell research. —Heather Wax

Do Kids Have Different Virtual Morals?

Do our morals from the real world carry over into the virtual world? Apparently so, according to researchers at Michigan State University. Psychologist Linda Jackson and her colleagues interviewed a group of 12-years-olds and found that moral attitudes in the real world predicted morality in the virtual world: The more important moral character was in real life, the less acceptable they found morally questionable behaviors in virtual environments.
The researchers then decided to take the investigation a step further to see how gender and race affect kids' beliefs about moral behavior. It turns out there are some interesting differences. Black boys and girls and white girls focus on individual well-being when they make decisions about morality in the real world. White boys, on the other hand, tend to judge behaviors according to moral rules.
The researchers also decided to see how kids judge virtual behavior that have "harmful" real-world effects (like emailing friends answers to a test and pornography). They found that black children were more likely than white kids to find this kind of behavior acceptable, and they were also more likely to approve of morally questionable virtual behavior that advanced their goals in the real world.
The logical question is whether the amount of time kids spend using information technology makes a difference. According to the researchers, it does. The more children use the Internet, they say, the more comfortable they are with invasion of privacy, violence in video games, and online pornography. —Heather Wax

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe

FROM PAUL DAVIES, THEORETICAL PHYSICIST, COSMOLOGIST, ASTROBIOLOGIST, AND DIRECTOR OF BEYOND: CENTER FOR FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS IN SCIENCE AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: Humankind has walked this planet for what, in cosmological terms, is but the twinkling of an eye. Our planet Earth should remain habitable for at least another billion years, which gives plenty of time for our descendants, natural or artificial, flesh-and-blood or machine (or a blend of both), to decamp to another locale. It will be hundreds of billions of years before brightly-burning stars become a rarity. Even then, there will still be black holes—the dead remnants of stars—which store a colossal amount of potentially usable energy. There is no fundamental reason why life and mind could not endure for trillions of years into the future. We can certainly imagine, as have many science fiction writers, that life and mind will slowly spread out into the cosmos, perhaps from Earth alone, perhaps from many planets that have spawned life. A progressively larger fraction of the galaxy will be brought under some form of intelligent control, that is, “technologized.” If that is the case, then in the far, far future, the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” will evaporate. More and more matter will be used to serve the purposes of sentient beings, to process information and create a rich mental world, perhaps without limit.
Some scientists have speculated that, as the timeline stretches toward infinity, an emerging distributed super-intelligence will become more and more godlike, so that in the final stage the super-mind will merge with the universe: mind and cosmos will be one. However, the final state of the universe simply cannot be predicted because it could be determined by physical effects at present too subtle to discern. The dark energy that seems to dominate the expansion of the universe today may cause all the galaxies in the neighbourhood of the Milky Way to retreat across an event horizon, leaving a sort of island universe of dying stars surrounded by chasms of dark emptiness. But if the dark energy slowly grows or decays, other grisly fates may lie in store for the cosmos, such as a big rip or big crunch. The only solace is that there is plenty of time left to figure out what, if anything, it all means.

Paul Davies appears with Freeman Dyson, Saul Perlmutter, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Frank Tipler, and Robin Collins in What’s the Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe? the 26th 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, March 5, 2009

Is Belief in God a "Buffer" Against Anxiety?

Believers are better able to deal with stress and their own errors than nonbelievers are, according to a new study in Psychological Science. Researchers, led by University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht, compared the stress of those who are religious and believe in God and those who don't by measuring their brain activity while they performed a "Stroop task." In this cognitive test, words written in different colors flash in front of the participants, who are asked to say the color of the word rather than read the word itself. For instance, the word on the screen might be "green," but it will be printed in blue—making "blue" the right answer.
While performing the test, religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that's involved in controlling attention and self-regulation (Inzlicht describes it as an "alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty"). The finding suggests that people who are religious or believe in God feel less stressed and anxious when they make mistakes—and in the experiment, they made significantly fewer of them; those with the deepest and strongest religious zeal were the least likely to show activity in the anterior cingulate cortex when they made errors. Religious conviction, the researchers write, "provides a framework for understanding and acting within one's environment" and acts as a "buffer" against anxiety about mistakes or the unknown. Other factors—like personality type, IQ level, and self-esteem—didn't seem to affect the stress test results.
While high levels of anxiety are negative, a certain amount of anxiety is useful for development and self-preservation, says Inzlicht, because it "alerts us when we're making mistakes. If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behavior so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?" —Heather Wax

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mark Your Calendar

The winner of the 2009 Templeton Prize will be announced at a news conference (and live Web cast) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on March 16 at 6 a.m. The prize, valued at more than 1.4 million dollars (the largest annual monetary award given to an individual), honors someone who has made "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vatican Sponsors Darwin Conference

A group of scientists, philosophers, and theologians have gathered at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University for a five-day, Vatican-sponsored conference during which they'll discuss the compatibility of evolution and creation. Later in the week, the conference will also examine "intelligent design" as a cultural phenomenon (not as science). Stay tuned.

Florida Follow-Up ("Critical Analysis" Bill)

A new bill in Florida would amend the law to require that teachers provide a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."
Regular readers of this blog might remember this language from an earlier bill in Florida that died during the last legislative session. The Senate passed a bill that would have protected science teachers who "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution," but the House added language that required teachers to present a "thorough presentation and scientific critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution"—language that was strongly and repeatedly rejected by the Senate. No compromise between the two versions of the bill could be reached before the spring session closed in May.
To many, the new bill—like the others—is a stealth attempt to sneak religious ideas like "intelligent design" into the science classroom and weaken the state's science standards, which were changed last March to include the word "evolution" for the first time. —Heather Wax

Monday, March 2, 2009

Another Stem Cell Breakthrough

Doctors in Canada and Scotland report that they've found a new way to use skin cells to create stem cells that seem to have the same potential as embryonic stem cells—namely, the ability to become nearly any tissue in the body. It's a promising breakthrough both scientifically and ethically: Using skin cells as the starting point bypasses the moral debate surrounding the creation and destruction of embryos.
The research, led by Dr. Andras Nagy of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, builds on earlier studies by Japanese and U.S. scientists. They showed it was possible to create stem cells from skin cells (pictured here), but to get the reprogramming genes into the skin cells, they had to inject viruses that would deliver the genes. Using viruses led to problems like an increased risk of cancer and damaged DNA. The new method eliminates the use of viruses (using a "jumping gene" instead), making it safer and causing no damage to healthy cells. —Heather Wax

Did Morality Evolve From Innate Aversions?

Scientists from the University of Toronto have found a link between moral disgust and the natural disgust we feel when we see something gross or taste something bad. The researchers discovered that we make the same facial movements in response to all three types of disgust—namely, moving the levator labii muscle, which raises the upper lip and wrinkles the nose in what is called an "oralnasal rejection response." In their study participants showed activity in this muscle region when they tasted unpleasant liquids, looked at disgusting photographs, or were treated unfairly during a game.
Our disgust response evolved to help us avoid things that make us sick, like poisonous plants and disease. The new research suggests that our reaction to immoral behaviors—which we sometimes say are "sick" or "leave a bad taste" in our mouths—evolved from these earlier forms of disgust.
According to cognitive psychologist Adam Anderson who worked on the project, the “results shed new light on the origins of morality, suggesting that not only do complex thoughts guide our moral compass, but also more primitive instincts related to avoiding potential toxins. Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn’s innate preference for what tastes good and bad, what is potentially nutritious versus poisonous.” —Heather Wax

The Role of Religious Beliefs in Health Care

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: Some of us may remember the Time magazine cover from the mid-1960s that announced, in rather bold terms, that God was dead. That came as a rude shock to many of my friends and myself, as some of us had planned to enter the clergy and were left to wonder if there was going to be a need for our services. Thankfully, we decided to press on and things never got as dire as the magazine had predicted.
Time does change things, as does Time, for last week's cover package went into great depth on “How Faith Can Heal.” The articles report on several scientific studies on the power of prayer and the spiritual component in healing. One of the more interesting aspects of the articles is a section that highlights the work of Jean Kristeller, a psychologist at Indiana State University who developed a guide for doctors that helps them speak with patients (specifically cancer patients) about spiritual concerns. Her findings seemed to indicate that having a discussion about religious or spiritual beliefs with their physicians actually reduced stress and feelings of depression in patients and brought forth “an improved quality of life and a greater sense that their doctors cared for them.”
Is this for everyone? Maybe not. However, I think it does open up the possibility of developing opportunities for physicians and patients to engage in some powerful discussions about patients’ hopes and dreams and fears. Many religious traditions understand that the link between the mind and the body and the spirit is profound and that treating one without understanding the role of the others can limit success. My own movement has created a sample "spiritual history" form (included in the book To Honor and Respect) as part of our Sacred Aging project. It is a simple guide for people to follow in order to list some of their spiritual and religious beliefs that could impact their own healing process.
The science of healing, as we know, is not exact and is impacted by many nonmedical variables. Perhaps it is time to explore, in a more organized fashion, the role of faith in that healing process.

India Celebrates National Science Day

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: While a handful of thinkers in the Hindu world debate the right planetary and zodiacal configurations on which to celebrate the birthdays of divinities and other festivals, India also observes National Science Day on February 28 (Gregorian calendar). Started a little more than two decades ago (1986), it is a day that inaugurates a whole month of science-related and science-inspiring activities, and also awards prizes for the best science-popularization efforts in magazines, newspapers, lectures, and books.
Most importantly, the goal of Science Day is to raise science-consciousness among the masses, gradually weaning them away from outworn beliefs, silly superstitions, and a general fear of what science is all about. People are encouraged to watch the skies, locate stars and planets, do experiments, and read science books.
We live at a time when, contrary to earlier hopes and expectations, science has come to be marginalized in the minds of many. The general public has been led to believe that science is just another way of describing the moon or appreciating the rainbow, and has no greater claims to knowledge than mythology, religious revelations, grand poetry, or speculative philosophy. Science is often seen by the public as no more than a tool for games and gadgetry, medical technology, washing machines, and creature comforts. Then again, some zealous scientists, by degrading the religious dimension of the human condition, have created the impression that science is derisively religion-unfriendly and therefore more dangerous than desirable for human culture.
What needs to be emphasized is that the deeper essence of science expands our minds, enhances our appreciation of the world, and uplifts our spirit. These aspects must be reinforced periodically in science courses and through public proclamations like Science Day.
Perhaps the United Nations should follow India’s lead in this regard and declare a whole Science Month in all countries.