Thursday, April 03, 2003

I will not be able to post for a while but hope to start back in June. If you are a first time visitor, keep in mind that this is not a curent events blog, so please browse the archives. A little comic relief before I go:

"It's the worst administration I've seen since I went there in 1951. The whole [conservative] trend is a very artificial one made up essentially of three main currents. One is the Christian current, which is isolated from the rest of the country. [But] it's a lot of people, 70-80 million. This is George Bush's main constituency. Second, the neo-conservative movement, which has been developing over the period since the end of the 1960s, as a reaction to the 1960s. But it is now narrower and narrower and more focused. That's why you have people like [Richard] Perle and [Paul] Wolfowitz in positions of power, because they've made an alliance with the isolationist right wing within America... And the third group that feeds into this is the Washington establishment, these think tanks in Washington which have taken the intellectual class and turned them into policy salesmen who have no peer review... The opposition to the war is, I think, an opposition to all of that. It's an opposition to the fundamentalists, who stand, for example, against the theory of evolution. And these are the people pushing for the war. And that's why I think the movement against the war, despite the fact that it is flagging a bit because of loyalty to the boys and girls abroad, as some of the Democrats are saying now, will grow. I think that Bush will not have a second presidency. In fact, I and many others are convinced that Bush will try to negate the 2004 elections: we're dealing with a putschist, conspiratorial, paranoid deviation that's very anti- democratic." - Edward Said, hallucinating with the editors of Arab News.
If I had hitched my wagon to the anti-war movement, I too would be looking for a new definition of what I was trying to accomplish.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

The Henry Project

In the mid 19th century, more than two hundred scientists named “Henry” signed a paper backing the teaching of spontaneous generation, the theory that living organism emerged from non living matter, such as rotting meat. The statement was in response to the latest school science standards that allowed criticism of spontaneous generation (‘spon-gen’). The statement, issued in Paris at the annual meeting of the Académie des Sciences, listed people named Henry to illustrate the large number of spon-gen backers and to honor English bacteriologist Henry Bastion, who had worked tirelessly to fight the small but growing influence of Louis Pasteur.

"Spontaneous generation is a vital, well-supported, principle of the biological sciences.” The statement aimed to discredit the movement founded by Pasteur, which was critical of Spontaneous Generation. "It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for this type of pseudoscience, including but not limited to “germ theory”, to be introduced into the science curricula.” It was organized by the anti-Pasteur National Center for Science Education (NSCE). The debate had been heightened by the recent vote of Ohio's State Board of Education to allow criticism of orthodox spon-gen in its 10th-grade natural-science classes.

Also in the previous year, the Cobb County School Board in George had adopted a resolution saying teachers may criticize spon-gen claims that natural processes generate living organisms from non-living matter with no outside influences. In both Ohio and Georgia, critics of spon-gen circulated statements signed by scientists calling for more critical approaches to be used in biology classes.

The previous fall, 28 members of a group called Georgia Scientists for Academic Freedom joined a list of 132 other scientists who urged "careful examination of the evidence for spon-gen theory." They said, "It is important that students and teachers be permitted, even encouraged, to discuss differing views of origins of living organisms."

The Ohio debate featured a call from state activists to allow teachers to present the alternative called germ theory, the idea that apparent emergence of life is due to outside influences, not spontaneous generation. Though the Ohio school board rejected the strict teaching of Pasteur, it required that 10th graders learn how "scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of scientific theory."

The statement was also aimed to make fun of the anti-spon-gen manifestos that were signed and circulated in the previous few years, its organizers said. "Of course science isn't decided by manifesto; this statement pokes fun at such efforts," said physicist Henry Weinberg. He said the validity of spontaneous generation is seen in scientific papers.

The statement, signed by 220 Henrys, included eight members of the Académie des Sciences. Henrietta Scott, executive director of NCSE, said that signers named Henry represented just 1 percent of scientists, and she challenged the followers of Pasteur to muster such a large sample.

"Germ theorists are fond of amassing lists of Ph.D.s who deny spontaneous generation to try to give the false impression that it is somehow on the verge of being rejected by the scientific community," she said. Biologist Félix “Henry” Pouchet said he and other signers "aren't trying to stifle dissent" but "to demonstrate how misleading it is to claim, on the basis of a handful of dissenters, that spontaneous generation is a 'theory in crisis.' "

Note: the above is based on (or should I say inspired by) a true story. More on that later.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Purpose

Jim Ryan’s Philosoblog is one of my favorite sites. Jim’s focus is on American political philosophy and I usually agree with, and always pay attention to, anything he has to say. This past week he wrote this:
Some bloggers were talking about Hegel today. All his nonsense about living for some vast historical scheme - bah! We're living in nothing more than a sea of rock, space and fire, to which nothing matters. We may have a historical scheme if we want, or we may do otherwise, instead. There is not more rationality in a history than in a person. History is not a mind or person. We alone matter. While there is an exhilaration in living a very good life that is something akin to living for something beyond oneself, it's nothing more than the feeling of being very glad to exist. And maybe also partaking of a great historical culture is very good. But there is no scheme.
First, since I have never formally studied philosophy, I have to admit that I am ignorant of what Hegel had to say. However, I do know a bit about Bertrand Russell and immediately thought of his universe in ruins when reading Jim’s words. I know that Jim is strictly a materialist in that he believes in nothing beyond matter. Mind and meaning all follow from that. It seems to me that to say that there is no historical scheme is to say that there is no ultimate meaning and to say that “history is not a mind or person” is to deny any purpose behind the emergence of man. It just happened that way.

So far, so good, I suppose, but to say that “we alone matter” doesn’t quite seem right. More like “I alone matter.” And only to myself. And of course, the whole idea of a unified "self" is just a handy type of self-delusion. And of course, the whole idea of "self"-delusion is only....well, you get the picture. It's safe to say, though, that others are no more than props in our existence, so of course, without purpose or intent, the whole of history is just a trajectory, not really a journey.

What caught my attention was the underlying discussion of purpose and that got me to thinking about how absolutely critical it is, to a materialist worldview as manifested in darwinism, that it not exist. Bertvan asserts that purpose is possible without a purposeful god, but I can’t pretend I really comprehend that. But here’s something I do know. Introducing purpose, even the type outlined by bertvan below, would be like tossing a dead mouse into the darwinist punch bowl. No one would ever take another drink. Darwinism would not just be modified, updated “neo-fied” again, it would be dead. Undeniably, certifiably dead.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

I was motivated recently to do a little research and write a post on the plight of Galileo some 400 years ago. However, almost immediately I found that the increasingly essential Jonah Goldberg had already done it. What motivated me was a response on Orrin Judd’s excellent weblog from one of the “regulars” there. Whatever it was that was originally posted got turned into a religion/science debate in the Comments section. What the commenter had to say boils down to this: Over the past 25 centuries, “science” has been right about everything. Of course, all this proves is the bias of the modern. Go back in time just a tenth of that span of 25 centuries and see how much “science” had right.

This kind of thinking is usually tied in with a smear of religion (preferably Christianity) as a persecutor of the enlightened scientist. I accept no conventional wisdom without proof (or at least compelling data) and the whole Galileo episode just didn’t ring true for me. In an essay not about Galileo per se, Goldberg uses the story of Galileo’s trouble to make a point:
Some air needs to be cleared here. The myth of Galileo as a "martyr to science" — as countless writers and historians have called him — was born of the French enlightenment. "From Diderot to Brecht, the myth of Galileo the rationalist-scientist-martyr [has] dominated Western thought, and even today it shows few signs of abating," wrote Robert Nisbet in Prejudices. The first choice for hero of reason, Nisbet explains, was actually Isaac Newton. But, unfortunately for the philosophes, Newton was unacceptably pious. So they picked Galileo who, it must be noted, was intensely religious as well.

The story we all learned is that Galileo was condemned for advocating Copernicanism, which held that the Aristotelian view of the sun circling the earth was wrong. And ultimately, this much is true. But, we're also told that the moral of the story is that Christianity is an enemy of science and that science can only thrive when Christianity and other chaotic superstitions are kept safely in a Pandora's box, far from institutions of reason. And this is almost exactly and perfectly wrong.

It is simply a lie to say that Galileo and the Church were enemies. A quick review: Galileo was the pride of the Church in Tuscany and was a friend to numerous influential figures within the Church. His work was sponsored and celebrated by his close friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini. In 1611, when Galileo's The Starry Messenger came out — which reported his discoveries with his new telescope — the Vatican college in Rome celebrated with a day of parties much like the DNC will when Sidney Blumenthal's book is released. His buddy Maffeo Barberini eventually became Pope Urban VIII and, as pontiff, eagerly authorized Galileo to write and publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems — the book which got Galileo into so much hot water.
Goldberg goes some detail about the intrigue of the whole episodes and then arrives here:
…I bring all of this up to make one irrefutable point: Galileo's greatest and most-enduring enemies were not the orthodox clerics of the Church, but his fellow scientists. This was not a case of a superstitious, bureaucratic Church snuffing the light of reason. It was a case of petty and jealous men trying to use the Church to kneecap a whistleblower. If Galileo's way of things won the day, a lot of people would have looked like fools and, possibly, lost their jobs. And, this had less to do with Copernicanism or heliocentricity than with the fact that Galileo represented the introduction of mathematics into the world of physics. Needless, to say, if you were a physicist who didn't know jack about math and, all of a sudden, this guy was going to make math a requirement, you'd be bummed.

This is undoubtedly how Galileo himself saw his plight… the earliest and perhaps most-enduring constraints on Galileo's research was his fear of ridicule and opprobrium from the scientific community. In 1597, Galileo wrote a letter to Kepler admitting that he believed Copernicus had it right, but he was afraid to admit it publicly for fear of being ridiculed by Aristotelian scientists — not persecuted by closed-minded clerics.
When science takes on the role of religion, as it inevitably does – and not just in our age – the scientist can be elevated to something of a diety. They are after all, human beings, with human emotions, ambitions, feelings, and foibles. Nobody wants to look like a fool, lose status and possibly a livelihood because the star to which you have hitched your wagon fizzles.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Something in the Details

The Access Research Network website promotes the ID (Intelligent Design) movement. Their discussion forums, surprisingly, are mostly free of the creation/evolution fights you find on many sites. Although the popular media has stereotyped IDers as creationists clinging desperately to some hope of a role for God, the reality is very different. Some ID proponents don’t even believe in God.

The following is a short interview with an regular ARN poster called “bertvan”, Berthajane Vandegrift, who’s postings come with the following position statement: Teleology is a part of nature. Whether that teleology is internal or external is a philosophical choice, and I defend anyone's right to define the "designer" differently than I do. Teleology, by the way, is the use of ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining phenomena.

I have defined a Darwinist as someone who attributes all life on earth as the result of random mutation and natural selection (RM&NS) – a mindless, purposeless, algorithm of which man is a highly unlikely, meaningless result. Mutations are the agent for change and selection preserves ‘good’ change. Over time, RM&NS can account for the steady increase in information and complexity that takes us from primordial goo to human beings. This view has pretty much swept the field and has been championed by the popularizers of science - Dawkins, Sagan, Pinker, Dennett, Asimov and others. As Dawkins famously observed, Darwin makes it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” As a darwinian doubter who does not hold a belief in a personal god, what has been your experience in discussing and debating evolution with darwinists?

I haven't particularly liked most people who call themselves "Darwinists". On Talk Origins I was once called "an ignorant creationist pig". Most RM&NS defenders seem to have some adolescent obsession with denouncing conventional religions.

Any thoughts as to why that is so?

Materialism is a religion, and I suppose people are therefore aggressive in defense of it. I have resented their tactics -- the constant assertion that any skepticism of RM&NS as an explanation of life is due to ignorance and religiously motivated. (I believe Dawkins also considers it wicked.) I especially resent the fact that the news media has often been taken in by this assertion. I predict that when reporters realize they have “been had” on the subject, their resentment might exceed mine.

What is your view on how species come about?

I don't question evolution. I question that random mutation and natural selection is much of a factor in the process. I have no original thoughts on evolution. We live in exciting times with new ideas on the subject appearing daily.

So you accept the claim that self-replicating organisms arose on Earth from non-living matter and evolved into the complexity of life we see around us today?

I agree that life arose from non-life. Brig Kleiss’s panspermia may be correct that life arose elsewhere. Or perhaps life arises anywhere in the universe where conditions are appropriate. I suspect multi-celled organisms arose by symbiosis during the Cambrian. The number of multi-celled “common ancestors” -- how many evolved from each other and how many were different from the beginning -- is presently unknown. (Senapathy proposes that almost all were different from the beginning.)

If not much of a factor, is RM&NS any factor at all?

Sure, natural selection probably plays a role but I doubt any random mutation was ever “adaptive”. Random mutations in the genome are either age deterioration or environmental damage and never the origin of creative, adaptive change. Natural selection plays no role in creation of adaptive change, although it could help influence which adaptations proliferate. After being beaten over the head with RM&NS as the explanation for everything for half a century, I fear any recognition of a role for natural selection comes reluctantly.

If not RM&NS, how do you account for the development of complex biological systems?

All living complex biological systems have a limited ability to change and adapt to their environment during growth and development -- purposefully and intelligently, not randomly.

Such adaptations are inherited epigenetically [inheritance involves mechanisms other than DNA], and if persistent over generations, may become incorporated into the genone. Adaptation happens in the phenotype, not the genome, and the organism controls its genome as much as the genome controls the organism.

Do you mean that a single individual will change over its lifetime? You seem to be saying that the organism is pre-programmed and environmental pressures activate this programming.

I believe all evolutionary change occurs in individual, living organisms as they adapt intelligently to their environment. I don’t know if organisms are necessarily “pre-programmed”. I suspect developmental adaptation is creative, designed constantly, and on the spot, by the complex biological system. Volition and intelligence are a part of all living matter and perhaps of inanimate matter also, to some undetectable degree.

Volition would seem to mean a conscious choice. Wouldn’t this imply that mind preceded matter?

Absolutely.

But you don’t see this ‘mind’ as God?

Some people's religion is sophisticated and other's are more naive, but all of us wonder about unanswerable questions. At the moment I'm inclined to view the purpose of the complexity universe as the evolution of volition. I call myself an agnostic, and have no desire to change anyone else's religion. I am comfortable viewing the volition/intelligence in living matter as a natural force, but participation by anyone's god cannot be ruled out.

Who are thinkers who have recently influenced or helped buttress your views?

I particularly like Mae Wan Ho’s “The Biology of Free Will.” When I say that I suspect volition, or free will, is a limited, perhaps undetectable, aspect of all matter I am speaking of Quantum effects.

I recently read “The Mindful Universe”, by Henry Stapp. However I didn’t understand what Stapp was up to in much of the book. I suspect the significance of quantum unpredictability is difficult for many scientists, and perhaps they devise all sorts of stuff -- such as multiple universes -- rather than merely accept the obvious. The obvious significance of quantum theory is that mind is a component of reality, especially living matter.

You seem to be open to a variety of options – God, panspermia (life transplanted from other planets), volition and intelligence as some innate property of matter. Would it be fair to say that the only option that you do not entertain is the widely held darwinian RM&NS model?

RM&NS is the Darwinian model. It is the only detailed proposal darwinists offer for the creation of adaptive biological complexity. "Drift" or "other mechanisms" are meaningless without specific details. "Duplicated genes" are merely another version of random mutation so long as the duplication performs some new function accidentally and without purpose. I'd be really interested in hearing how "self-organization", "gene expression" or "gene suppression" might occur randomly -- (accidentally and without purpose).

It may be possible, in broad perception, to separate darwinism from evolution, but not usually in the way discussed above. Darwinism and evolution are wedded for some very specific reasons. More on that later.

In regards to the concept of evolving volition or how mind can be a component of matter, I’ll have to take bertvan’s word for it at this point. Although I don’t pretend to fully grasp these ideas, I admire an intellectual pursuit based on a reasonable evaluation of evidence and circumstance and not on a philosophical preconception.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Entropy and peer review – A cautionary tale

There are many, many bad arguments against Darwinism and one of them is the appeal to the 2nd law of thermodynamics – often made by those with little or no education in the subject. Of course, darwinists repeatedly trot out some groaners of their own – the peppered moth, finch beaks, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria – as proof of darwinian evolution. In any event, it’s always a good idea to research your subject and, if possible, run it by someone more knowledgeable than you in the subjects involved.

David Heddle is a physicist who publishes a Christian-oriented blog. As you might expect, he’s especially interested in topics that involve both his science and his faith. Recently he took on the evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics argument:
Oh Lord, save us from foolish Christians who think that science is your enemy! And save us from the well-meaning but self-deluded who think that they understand enough science to use science against itself.

…the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy are not trivial. In physics they are defined in a precise manner, and if one applies the second law without understanding the details, then the results one obtains and the conclusions reached are meaningless.
David’s argument doesn’t lend itself to selective quoting so I’m not going to post much of it here. It needs to be considered as a whole. If you are not up for studying the whole thing, understand that basically those who use the 2nd law against evolution claim that the natural progression of things is from a state of order to disorder (increasing entropy). This would seem to disallow the Darwinian notion of increasing order and complexity coming about by purely naturalistic mechanical means.
To summarize: the second law, when applied to an open system, does not demand nor preclude the possibility that either the system or the surroundings experiences a decrease in entropy. It might happen, or it might not. Whether it does depends on the details of the overall system.
What would make complex, ordered biological systems come about?
It requires something that the second law doesn’t deal with, something in the details of the processes. The second law speaks in broad terms and provides broad constraints, it says little about what happens under the hood.
Even though the second law argument does not harm darwinism, this statement is interesting. Darwinists cannot supply such details and fall seriously short of plausible descriptions about what happens under the hood.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Circularity

It may be a little odd to link to a site linking back to me, but there's a good thread at arn.org following up on my last post on Michael Shermer at Skeptic magazine:
Not all ID [Intelligent Design] critics are obsessed with a Dawkins-type crusade against religion, but Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine has sometimes rivaled Dawkins as evangelical atheist
It is worth noting that the author of these words is a self-described agnostic. More on that later.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Skeptical

I am reasonably sure that this is not a parody, attached as it is to the Scientific American website. Still, this makes me wonder:
Self-organization and emergence arise out of complex adaptive systems that grow and learn as they change. As a complex adaptive system, the cosmos may be one giant autocatalytic (self-driving) feedback loop that generates such emergent properties as life. We can think of self-organization as an emergent property and emergence as a form of self-organization. Complexity is so simple it can be put on a bumper sticker: life happens.
Michael Shermer, the author of the article and editor of Skeptic magazine, seems a little selective in regards to where he aims his skepticism.

Friday, December 20, 2002

Robert Wright, Call Your Office

An update of sorts on a past blog post. Evidence that the male perception of feminine beauty is changing as reported by the British Medical Journal:
The assertion comes from two psychoanalysts who pored over every Playboy from December 1953 and calculated the body mass index of every centrefold. Over 577 issues, the models became taller and their waist increased, while their hips became narrower and their bust became smaller. If Playboy is any guide, the needle on the male sexual compass has switched from Marilyn Monroe to Eva Herzigova, the scientists say.

The body of evidence is a slap to evolutionary biologists who contend that men have always preferred women with big curves because of the association of breasts and hips with health and fertility.
Not to worry. I'm sure that a theory that so obviously explains everything will have no problem incorporating this.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

What is Evolution? (again)

Doing some research on the conventional thinking on human origins, I happened across the Becoming Human web site. I noticed that this traditional darwinian-oriented site included a glossary of terms. I checked their definition of Evolution:
A change in a population over time. Genetically, this means a change in the frequency of certain alleles over many generations.
An allele is the alternate form of a gene or trait. For example, A, B, and O are the possible alleles of the gene for human bloodtype. If this is evolution, I can't think of anyone who would question it.