Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Neuroscience of Science

This article is important.
According to Dunbar, even after scientists had generated their “error” multiple times — it was a consistent inconsistency — they might fail to follow it up. “Given the amount of unexpected data in science, it’s just not feasible to pursue everything,” Dunbar says. “People have to pick and choose what’s interesting and what’s not, but they often choose badly.” And so the result was tossed aside, filed in a quickly forgotten notebook. The scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure.

Among other keepers in this article: have Jewish thinkers been so successful be so cuccessful because they have been on the outside?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reviewing the Bidding on Climate Change

After a few weeks to look over the current state of the science, let's take a look at what's clear and what's confusing:

Science and Politics
  1. Politics and passion are a big part of the story. It's hard to find anybody who will talk about the science of global warming without taking sides or going on the attack. Ask an honest question and you're labeled a "denier" by people who really ought to know better!
  2. There seems to be clear evidence of pressuring editors and manipulating the peer review process.
  3. A recurring complaint is that climatology research depends very heavily on statistics, but the authors of papers lack real expertise in that field.
The Greenhouse Effect
  1. What I thought I knew for sure has been shaken. I believed that everybody agreed that CO2 contributes to some degree of global warming--but that people disagreed on how MUCH it contributed. Now I realize that my basic assumptions about the "greenhouse effect" mechanism were flawed, at best. I can't explain exactly why more CO2 means more heat.
  2. Some people claim that ALL the temperature readings can be explained by a combination of natural solar cycles. Others argue that the solar cycles do a better job of predicting temperatures than the "radiative forcing model" of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
Surface Temperature Measurements
  1. I also thought I knew that global temperatures had gone up quite significantly in the decades leading up to 2000. Now I'm questioning some of that rise--I'm not confident that the surface measurements haven't been "cherry-picked." I'm not saying there hasn't been some rise--but I'd like to double-check how they selected the data they use to compute it.
  2. I'm increasingly aware of "divergences" between the land-based surface measurements and other sources of data. Tree rings haven't been matching up to northern hemisphere temperature readings since the 1960s, for some reason. Satellite readings show a divergence from surface measurements--with a larger difference from land-based readings.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thinking About Greenhouse Gases

Why, exactly, does more CO2 in the atmosphere result in more trapped heat?

If CO2 were essentially transparent to infrared waves, I can see why more CO2 would trap more infrared--doubling any transparent gas would double the "dimming" effect of that gas.

But I thought the heat-trapping effect of CO2 came from its absorption spectrum. CO2 is NOT transparent to all wavelengths of infrared radiation. In those wavelengths, CO2 acts like paint, not air. Putting two coats of paint on a window doesn't block twice as much light as one coat of paint.

It's like water--light can't travel very far through water. There's NO visible light a half mile down. Going twice as deep doesn't make it any darker.

So my new question is: which wavelengths of CO2 are only PARTIALLY absorbed by atmospheric CO2?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Statistics 101

Well, maybe a little more advanced that 101. I could follow the recipe but can't do the math on my own. However, it's nice to see someone who can.

Iowahawk reconstructs proxies.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Looking at NIWA

I have been repeatedly asked to weigh in on back-and-forth claims regarding NIWA, New Zealand's National Insitute of Water and Atmospheric Research. This is flattering--I've always wanted SOMEBODY to ask my opinion on something I know nothing about. But it does mean I now need to do some research. I may as well do it here where I can invite comments from people who may actually know stuff.


First of all, NIWA is into aquaculture--a subject that I'm dreaming about in my spare time. Anything I may have to say that is critical about specific programs and people should NOT be construed to think I oppose NIWA as a whole, any more than critical statements I might make about NASA should suggest that I've ever been anything but a radical NASA fan. But this post is about a current controversy, not decades of fine service to humanity.

NIWA operates the National Climate Database, which I will refer to as CliFlo, which does the following:
The climate database holds data from about 6500 climate stations which have been operating for various periods since the earliest observations were made in the year 1850. The database continues to receive data from over 600 stations that are currently operating.

CliFlo returns raw data and statistical summaries. Raw data include ten minute, hourly and daily frequencies. Statistical data include about eighty different types of monthly and annual statistics and six types of thirty−year normals.
Clearly, this is the kind of raw data that makes a big difference in determining whether our global temperature measurements are valid. I can understand why people would want to make sure that thermometers are properly placed. The questions are (a) who decides what constitutes "proper placement" and (b) how much access do skeptics have to the raw data?

Before I say ANYTHING one way or the other on this issue--I'd prefer a world in which all raw data is always available. That would allow "deniers" to manipulate the data if they want to, but it would make it easy for mainstream scientists to present their arguments rebutting such claims. It makes for a messy and noisy process, but it's consistent with our deep commitments to the scientific method.

The CliFLo data has an end user license agreement which I have read and agree with. Looks pretty straightforward. The user control panel allows for curl requests, which I've used in various PHP routines. I'll have to think about whether I really want to sign up, log in, and start playing with datasets... but it's probably a good way to come up to speed on all this.


It seems that the controversy is the result of NIWA's attempt to "stitch together" surface measurements over time. The ideal results would come from a thermometer that stays in the same location under unchanged circumstances forever, but humans keep spreading out and changing things. That means that building a long-term database of surface measurements is going to require some judgment calls.

If you're confident of your climatology, you can make those adjustments pretty confidently. That enables you to create much longer-term databases, which give you more reason to trust your climatology. Which is great--as long as you're right.

One of the problems I'm most concerned about is the "Urban Heat Island" (UHI) problem, which IPCC has dismissed as a problem on the basis of a paper by Wang, who was subsequently investigated for fraud and cleared in a very questionable, private, non-standard academic proceeding. If UHI is a real problem, our surface temperature measurements could be way off. If NIWA relies on Wang's research to ignore much of the effect of urban heat, there's bound to be a clash over their probe placements.

How does NIWA address this placement question? According to this press release:
NIWA’s analysis of measured temperatures uses internationally accepted techniques, including making adjustments for changes such as movement of measurement sites. For example, in Wellington, early temperature measurements were made near sea level, but in 1928 the measurement site was moved from Thorndon (3 metres above sea level) to Kelburn (125 m above sea level). The Kelburn site is on average 0.8°C cooler than Thorndon, because of the extra height above sea level.
My guess is that these "internationally accepted techniques" for probe placement are exactly where the controversy lies. NIWA feels completely justified in doing what everybody else agrees is proper. NIWA's critics are skeptical about the underlying science of AGW, and are really challenging the "internationally accepted techniques" themselves.


NIWA has raw data (presumably available on the CliFlo site) that apparently yields this chart:

NIWA's "processed" data produces a different picture from the same data:

Obviously, skeptics are going to need more than a "trust me on this" when the raw data shows a flat line and the "processed" data shows global warming.


I don't think I can persuade true AGW believers that the internationally accepted adjustment standards are flawed, and I'm not even going to try to persuade "deniers" to trust NIWA. How about if we look around for some other evidence to resolve this impasse?

One historical measurement that gets around the UHI problem is to use proxy measurements that let us look at pristine areas over long time periods. Sediment cores, stalagmites, and tree-rings allow us to compare apples to apples over long periods. Tree rings are NOT more accurate than direct surface measurements, but they aren't subject to the problems that concern me.

I'm looking for New Zealand paleoclimatology papers. It's going to be hard to find what I need from the free stuff online. I'm not able to get the full papers, just the abstracts--and a lot of what really matters is in the paper, not the abstract. Here's what I've found so far:

Just when I thought the CRU folks might actually stuff the genie back in the bottle, we get this spectacularly stupid claim:

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the vice-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said he believed the theft of the emails was not the work of amateur climate sceptics.

“It’s very common for hackers in Russia to be paid for their services,” he told The Times.

“If you look at that mass of emails a lot of work was done, not only to download the data but it’s a carefully made selection of emails and documents that’s not random at all.

“This is 13 years of data and it’s not a job of amateurs.”

No--it wasn't the job of amateurs. There's every reason to believe the files and emails were assembled by trained professionals--on staff at the CRU, in response to a legitimate freedom of information act request.

The STUPID part of this claim is that it's so sensational that everybody who has been trying to ignore it now has to find a whole new reason to stifle the story. We're down to two irresistable memes--it's either "Deep Throat" or "Boris and Natasha." And when you make rash accusations about nuclear-armed oil-producing states who have a serious dog in the Copenhagen fight, you're making a serious PR error.

Digging into "Freedom of Information"

I'm trying to figure out from internal clues whether the FOIA.zip file at the heart of "Climategate" was hacked or leaked. A close analysis of the directory structure and vestigial email headers supports the theory that the .zip file was assembled in response to a freedom of information act request.

Here's the letter rejecting Steve McIntyre's FOI request:

Pursuant to Mr. Palmer’s letter of 21 September 2009 to you regarding the handling of your appeal of 24 July to our response of the same date in regards your FOI request of 26 June 2009, I have undertaken a review of the contents of our file and have spoken with Mr. Palmer and other relevant staff involved in this matter.
According to McIntyre's blog post on this topic, the files in the FOIA.zip file go up to the day before the FOI request was refused. This comprehensive network analysis of the emails and other documents supports the hypothesis that the files were gathered pursuant to a FOI request.

Tracking back through the Internet, I find plenty of correspondence about Steve McIntyre's FOI requests. Here's one from July 24, 2009, documenting his request and CRU's rejection. The internal naming conventions revealed in this correspondence with CRU is "FOI_09-44," which certainly fits with somebody at CRU assembling a file named "FOI-something."

An Internet search for all documents containing "FOI_99" turns up lots of correspondence with CRU, and includes direct references to the relevant law--the British "Freedom of Information Act." That suggests that the original directory structure might easily have been FOIA, meaning there is no internal evidence to suggest the FOIA.zip file came from anywhere but CRU's own official files.

The timing of the dates of emails in the directory helps track down where the file came from. Files were being added to the directory up until 2:17 pm on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009, the day before the rejection decision was made on Friday, Nov. 13, 2009. The FOIA.zip file first appeared on the Internet on Nov. 17, 2009. Given the size and nature of the FOIA.zip file, it seems likely that CRU staff were compiling the directory in response to one or more requests for information.

Somewhere during the five days between Nov. 12 and Nov. 17, somebody grabbed the file. If the contents of the directory seemed directly relevant to Steve McIntyre's FOI_99-44 request, it would seem like the file could have been grabbed at any time during those five or six days. If, on the other hand, the directory covers a lot more than just the files that would be assembled in response to FOI_99-44, then is makes more sense to assume the file was copied off on Nov. 12 or Nov. 13 by someone who was involved in either compiling the directory or in rejecting the request.

BUT--just to make things MUCH more interesting, the BBC got a copy of SOMETHING a full six weeks before the FOIA.zip file went rogue on November 17. That makes it very hard for me to think we're dealing with a hacker rather than a leaker.

Measuring the Measurements

This graph is one of the reasons I'm getting more skeptical about the Global Warming claims. Look at the lines in the graph. The bottom lines clearly show what used to be known as the "Medieval Warm Period" and the "Little Ice Age." The top lines show what people call the "Hockey Stick." In the run-up to the present, all the lines converge on a sharp up-slope.

If all the data is equally good, it makes sense to average things out and get a mild roller-coaster effect. If some of the data is unreliable, it makes sense to throw it out. I'm troubled by the possibility that researchers are motivated to find new lines of evidence that "eliminate" the Medieval Warm Period, but are not equally motivated to find evidence that confirms it. I'm suspicious that journals and grant agencies may call evidence of the MWP "old news," unworthy of grants or print, while evidence against it is "hot" and deserves fast-track treatment.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Urban Heat Islands

The more I look into the questionable foundations of climatology, the more nervous I get. One BIG assumption in the data for the last 60 years or so has been that "urban heat islands" are not artificially raising the measured temperatures. The urban heat island problem is pretty easy to understand: if you take the temperature of downtown Boston, you'll get a warming reading than if you take the same reading at Walden Pond (same latitude but a lot less people).

When you aggregate temperature readings from thousands of stations scattered all over the globe, you want to make sure that you are measuring the heat of the planet, not just the increased heat from islands of furnaces and air conditioners (both of which make things hotter, due to the miracle of the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

This article goes into a long email correspondence with one scientist inside the Climate Research Unit (CRU) who was clearly uncomfortable with the evidence other scientists relied on to discount the Urban Heat Island problem. You have to read all the way to the bottom to see his point, but its a good one.

Subverting Science

When a big televangelist gets caught with a hooker, priests and pastors are dismayed and immediately repudiate that sin. What happens when a scientist sins against the scientific method and peer review process?

Here's a specific claim by someone who is carefully following one thread of Climategate:
the Wahl and Ammann paper as finally published online on 31 August 2007...was in fact published in 2007, is nothing like the draft seen by the Expert Reviewers, and accordingly should not be referred to in the IPCC 2007 report released in May 2007? Instead the IPCC should have reflected the published peer-reviewed literature and concluded that the 2001 IPCC hockey stick was statistically invalid.

David Holland, the author of this quote filed a freedom of information request,asking (as far as I can tell) for information relating to the publication of this paper. Two days later, UEA Director Prof Phil Jones asked Professor Michael Mann (lead author of the "hockey stick") to tell his ex student Ammann to delete these emails. According to Holland, this is what leaked email 1212063122 is about.

There's something VERY suspicious about asking anyone to ask anyone else to delete emails that have been requested under a Freedom of Information Act request. Watergate was just a "third rate burglary" that toppled a president. Climategate could turn out to be even bigger.

Is Global Warming Man-made or Mann-made?

In my opinion, the "hockey stick chart" is the dominant icon of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) debate. It was produced by Michael Mann of Penn State in 2001 and relied on by a number of prominent scientists and government agencies, but was challenged and eventually abandoned.

What intrigues me about the hockey stick chart is its reliance on temperatures since 1960 and on other measurements (such as ice cores and tree rings) prior to that. The correlation between tree ring data and measured temperatures is fundamental to this model, which makes the following graph of tree rings and temperatures somewhat sensational:

Insofar as the "hockey stick" represents what people are debating when they talk about "Global Warming," I'd say it's definitely "Mann-made."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hide the Decline

I've been hearing this phrase a lot (it now comes with its own music video), but a picture is worth a thousand words:

This particular picture comes from a discussion of the whole "decline" issue at ClimateAudit.com. The black line is the measured width of tree rings. The red line is the reported global temperature. The "decline" begins around 1960. As you can see, it shows a big difference between what the tree rings say and the weather experts report.

I can't explain WHY there is such a difference... but it sure reduces my confidence in ancient temperature reconstructions. If we can't match global temperatures to tree rings in the last fifty years (when we were actually able to check the correlations), why should we believe anything anybody says about temperatures hundreds of years ago?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Climategate's Commenters

Scanning the mainstream media articles on the East Anglia emails, I've been surprised at the makeup of the comments. They are OVERWHELMINGLY skeptical (of anthropogenic global warming), no matter how left-leaning the publication may be. Why should this be so?

My guess is that those who believe in man-made global warming have precious little to say about the Climate Research Unit (CRU) files, so they aren't even trying to defend them. The skeptics have been scorned and shunned for a LONG time, so they've got a LOT to say. The comments section of major papers has no way to "balance" a situation like this, so you wind up with a journalist reporting on a story, followed by a ton of people piling on.

It adds up to an interesting corrective to the way media works. It looks like a dissenting minority no longer needs to think in terms of "taking back" the media to get their voice heard, even when the sociological structures are overwhelmingly in favor of one position.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Humans and Science

The Volokh Conspiracy is one of the best law blogs around, and this post does a beautiful job of bringing what we know about changing human behavior to bear on the global warming problem. You can talk all day long about the science of global warming, but unless you know something about the science of human action, you're never going to get result. Here's the gist:
I’m not asking about climate science here, I’m asking about collective action problems in international law and policy. How is this exercise different from previous failures? Even if new states are persuaded to say yes on paper, on what grounds does anyone think that these commitments will be fulfilled this time, particularly given the record of Kyoto? The article linked here from the AP talks about “momentum building” and “legally binding agreements.” What does that mean and how? Legally binding to prevent defection down the road, how? This is not an attempt to get snarky, but complete puzzlement on my part. How is this different from earlier attempts?
I've been vocal about pursuing supply-side fixes to the global warming question. I don't think humans have the political tools we would need to keep developing nations from using fossil fuels if that is the cheapest available source of energy. That leaves us with the option of building better mousetraps with a lower carbon footprint.

Nothing beats nuclear power for a free-market means of cutting the carbon footprint. I'm all for nukes, whether global warming is a man-made crisis, a politically-driven fraud, a statistical blip, or a solar cycle. We've got the technology to provide cheap, clean, safe electricity anywhere on earth. Let's do it!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Intelligence of the Blogosphere

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit linked to this Harvard blogger who included Instapundit in his research on the interconnectedness of blogs, as shown in this chart:

The new science of artificial "neural networks" suggests that one can model the blogosphere (or any human community) as a neural network. Each blogger has a set of regular inputs (like the dendrites on a neuron) and a single output (like the axon). "Learning" occurs as synapses form and/or break between dendrites and neurons (and/or strengthen and weaken), with the "intelligence" of the system emerging as a result of interconnected nodes.

There's no real question whether the blogosphere (and other networks of communicators, such as the traditional media) is a neural network--the more interesting question is "how intelligent is it?"

That turns out to be a remarkably easy question to explore. Politics divides the blogosphere neatly into left and right sides, and both sides of the blogosphere are constantly making predictions. Those predictions get tested every election cycle. That means researchers should be able to:

  1. map out the general structure of the neural network on both sides,

  2. collect pre-election predictions,

  3. compare those to public opinion polls (as a "baseline"), and

  4. compare the "spread" between predictions and polls to the actual results.

A neural network built around the axis of the DailyKos/DemocraticUnderground/FireDogLake blogs might prove to be more "intelligent" than the competing net that includes Drudge/Instapundit/RedState, or it might not. As a matter of pure science, I'd love to know which is better.

And, as a political junkie, I'd love to add all the "intelligence" I can find to my own side!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Single Human Ancestor

Every blue-eyed human is descended from a single ancestor who lived 6,000-10,000 years ago, says the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Copenhagen. (Nobody knows blue eyes like those Scandinavians!)

This finding might be consistent with the Ryan-Pitman Black Sea Flood theory. The time frame is about the same (Ryan and Pitman claim that Mediterranean waters broke through the Bosporus and flooded the Black Sea around 5500 BC.) That's 7,500 years ago--easily within the blue-eyed time frame. A sudden diaspora of blue-eyed Black Sea farmers would explain why blue eyes are so prevalent in Europe without resorting to a "survival of the fittest" model that says that a blue-eyed babe is really that much more attractive than a brown-eyed girl.

If there were blue-eyed farmers around the Black Sea in 5500 BC, one should be able to track where they went from there, using a combination of mitochondrial DNA and the unique gene for blue eyes. Ryan and Pitman use clues like agriculture and Indo-European vocabulary to support their thesis, but these genetic markers might help to confirm or disprove their theory.

It's about time!

Which environmental agency handles this one?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Anselm's Method of Metaphysics

Metaphysics deals with "the questions science must ask but cannot answer." Philosophy gave up the quest for metaphysics around 1799, but modern physics took up the slack around 1905 and has only dived deeper into the unanswerables since. Those titans of science, Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr, wrestled with the fundamental nature of the universe in the 1930s by means of "thought experiments" that explored the implications of quantum physics. Einstein's motive and his method both fit with something Anselm of Canterbury laid out nine centuries earlier.

Anselm of Canterbury made two great contributions to Christian thought. In Cur Deus Homo, he explicated the "substitutionary theory of the Atonement" which is foundational to all Catholic and most Protestant teaching on the reason for Christ's death. He is more famous for his "ontological proof of the existence of God," which begins with a definition of God as "that being greater than which nothing can be imagined." It is that definition of God that makes it possible to harness the human imagination in pursuit of truths that lie beyond the bounds of science.

Note that Anselm does not define God to be "the greatest being that can be imagined." That would be blasphemy--an infinite God can never fit within a finite mind! Anselm's definition does not enable us to prove that any particular idea about God is true--but it does provide evidence that some idea about God is false. When one compares two speculative ideas about God, the less glorious one is not "that being greater than which nothing can be imagined." Using Anselm's method, that being is therefore not God.

Thus, for example, one could posit that the universe spontaneously emerged out of nothing by a fluke of physics or that it was all arbitrarily created by a flying spaghetti monster. Anselm's method would rule out the Pastafarian doctrine in favor of the more secular answer. While there may be no scientific way to prove that the universe was not created by a touch of His Noodly Appendage, this metaphysical method provides a definite (albeit non-scientific) answer.

Albert Einstein is the clearest example of a modern scientist who relied on this approach on a regular basis. Einstein's "religion" did not include a traditional belief in a conscious, personal God, but his reverence for Nature itself is well known. Every collection of Einstein quotes shows his "spiritual" emphasis. Here are just a few examples:
  • "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details."
  • "God is subtle but he is not malicious."
  • "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."
Einstein routinely dismissed those interpretations of the universe that seemed less "beautiful" than others. He famously rejected the (subsequently proven) claim that quantum effects were truly random by insisting, "God does not play dice with the universe." His "biggest blunder" was when he inserted a "fudge factor" into his equations which otherwise showed that the entire universe was expanding. Einstein's aesthetic preference for a "steady-state universe" kept him from predicting the expansion of the universe before the astronomer, Edwin Hubble, reported that all other galaxies seemed to be moving away from ours.

Einstein's "blunders" highlight the weakness of this metaphysical method. "Greater" and "lesser" are subjective terms that import human value judgments into a discussion of the universe. Einstein preferred "defined" over "undefined" and "static" over "expanding," and these preferences directed his science.

Whether or not it tells us anything about the universe, this method of metaphysics should help thinkers clarify their own values. Einstein rejected the faith of his Hebrew fathers. The Torah said that God created the universe out of nothing and judged humans for their choices; Einstein believed the universe was eternal and that moral judgments were meaningless in a fully-determined universe. Einstein's metaphysics led him to make what proved to be mistakes about science, but those mistakes enable us reevaluate Einstein's values. In hindsight, Einstein got his science wrong because he had his values wrong.

In light of Anselm's definition and Einstein's example, I propose the following method of metaphysics:
  1. Pick some fact that is more-or-less explained by the "standard model" of current science.
  2. Generate a "speculative model" which explains this fact in some alternative manner at least as well as the standard model.
  3. Define at least one "human value" which makes the speculative model "greater."
  4. Make a "metaphysical claim" that the speculative model is "greater" than the standard model in terms of at least one human value.
  5. Permit others to critique this metaphysical claim by falsifying the science or by articulating countervailing values in which the standard model is "greater."
  6. If the speculative model can be falsified, return to step 2.
  7. If the standard model is "greater" in some ways and the speculative model is "greater" in others, focus on what these value differences reveal about human beings.
  8. If the speculative model is in all ways "greater" than the standard model and accounts for all the facts, focus on what this reveals about reality. Metaphysics would say, at this point, that the standard model is wrong, and would encourage science to develop new ways to falsify it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Future Bits

If you could get information from the future for $1000 per bit per day:
  • which bits would you buy?
  • how would it change society?
  • would the human race remain the same?
Not that I have such information for sale. (Yet.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I finally managed to be persuaded that I so completely misunderstood quantum physics that I should just drop the whole topic when this came out:

Now what? Am I required to read it before I'm allowed to drop this topic forever, or can I just assume that they are wrong, too?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Difference Would Life in Space Make?

They've now officially identified an amino acid, glycine, in the tail of Comet Wild-2. That's one small step for man, one giant leap towards figuring out where humans fall on the cosmic game of Life. It will be a while, I suppose, before we find more conclusive proof of life--or the absence of it--beyond Earth, but I'd like to ask what difference such a finding would make while there's still time to do it blind.

A lot of Christians have trouble reconciling a "jot and tittle literal" understanding of Genesis with the latest scientific evidence. One way to resolve the problem is to raise doubts about Darwin. Until we develop a time machine that can run the tape backwards, there's no way to prove God didn't create the heavens and the earth with an "apparent age" of "billions of years" even though they all came into being exactly 6,000 years (or so) ago.

Would single-celled life in outer space would shake Young Earth Creationism? I can't see why it should. The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth--it doesn't say anything about what He chose to do on other planets. Intelligent life on other planets would raise more interesting issues--but I'm persuaded by the Fermi Paradox that we won't discover intelligent life on other planets for a LONG time.

So I don't think finding single-celled life in outer space would shake a Young Earth Creationist one way or the other.

How about an ardent Darwinist? If we found life with a completely different chemical structure, the Darwinist could and should say that this disproves the Intelligent Design hypothesis. After all, if life can arise independently and repeatedly by chance, how hard can it be? The ID argument is that the statistical odds make it impossible to take "mere time and chance" seriously as an explanation for the appearance of biology.

If we found life in space with the same essential chemical structure that we find here on Earth, the Darwinist would have to do a little adjusting. Finding DNA-based life with left-handed amino acids in space would well-nigh prove that life as we know it didn't originate on Earth. I wouldn't expect that to fundamentally change the Darwinist paradigm, but I would hope some people would take back a few of the nasty things they've said about panspermia over the years. (I'm not holding my breath.)

What would really throw everybody for a loop would be finding pollen grains from flowering plants. There's a "jot and tittle literal" reading of Genesis 1 that predicts that, but it's so fantastically unlikely to be the case that I'm not even going to explain what it is. I'll just say that if we find pollen grains out past Pluto--past the heliopause, rather--then it will be time to read Genesis 1 in a whole new way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Embarrassing Allies and Worthy Opponents

Michael Ruse provides some excellent examples for Sean Carroll's "Grid of Disputation." In "Why I Think the New Atheists Are a Bloody Disaster," Ruse explains why he thinks arch-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins are doing more harm than good to the skeptic's cause.

One quote to note:
Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to keep Creationism out of the schools. The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion. That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If teaching "God exists" is teaching religion - and it is - then why is teaching "God does not exist" not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment. Perhaps indeed teaching Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism. This is the claim of the new atheists. If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our strategy about Creationism and the schools. [Emphasis supplied.]
Ruse makes good points. I'm happy to call him a "worthy adversary."

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Grid of Disputation

Sean Carroll, at Cosmic Variance, has produced a lovely graphic he calls the "Grid of Disputation." (HT to Ken at Open Parachute for spotting this one.)

This box-of-four makes it easy to sort out who says what on a blog. If they agree with you AND are rational, they are "friends." If they agree with you but commit some crime against reason, they are "embarrassing allies." If they disagree with you and don't make sense, they're "crackpots." And if they disagree with you yet are sensible, they are "worthy opponents."

I love this little grid, although I don't view the "worthy opponents" category quite the way Sean does. It's the people who don't agree with me who do make sense who are most likely to teach me something I don't know.

That reminds me of one of the standard refrains from our homeschool years. When a child would make a mistake on math or some other subject, they tended to be discouraged by their error. I would always say, "This is an exciting moment! LEARNING is about to occur!" You can't learn what you already know, and you can't learn until you realize there's something you don't know already. It takes a mistake (or a disagreement) to get to the place where more knowledge can appear.

So--I think I might change Sean's grid to read "Potential teachers" where it now says "Worthy opponents."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Delighting in Disagreement

If you think in terms of a hyperdimensional phase space defined by every human neuron (which I call "human cognitive space"), there's something marvelous about a disagreement.

It's like parallax, in astronomy. Most stars are so far away that we can't directly measure their distance. Some stars are close enough, though, that we can detect a tiny shift across the background sky as the Earth orbits around the sun. If we measure the exact position of a star in January and find it has slightly in July, we can triangulate and calculate how far away it is.

I visualize a disagreement as a rectangle defined by two corners. The further apart the upper left corner is from the bottom right of such a rectangle, the bigger the area. That's a good thing, in cognitive space. The area inside the rectangle is one might discover something new!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vocabulary and Vantage Point in Genesis

This blog is devoted to questions science must ask but cannot answer, but I have one little question about the Bible which is more grammatical than theological. It has to do with the perspective of the narrator in two passages in Genesis.

Genesis 1 tells about six days of creation. Genesis 7:19 tells how the waters of Noah's flood covered all the high hills and mountains under the sky. The original observer of the events in Genesis 1 could not have been a human being, since humans weren't created until day 6. The original observer in Genesis 7 could easily have been a human; either Noah or a member of his family.

By contrast, the passage from Genesis 6:9-9:29 is a story that is all about human beings. Although God speaks in this story, it is only and always to Noah. There's nothing in this text that needed to come from any other source than Noah himself except the very last sentence, which says that Noah died. For purposes of this argument, I'm going to assume that Genesis 7 is not fiction, but is instead an oral tradition passed down from Noah himself to some scribe at a much later date.

Here's the question: should we interpret these two passages as stories told by a human observer from a particular frame of reference, or as the report of an "omniscient observer" who sees all and knows all? To be specific, are the "days" in Genesis defined by the sunrise and sunset on planet Earth? And are "all the high hills and mountains under the sky" the mountains that Noah could see out to his horizon, or everything an angel could observe, including Mount Everest?

If we assume both passages were narrated by an angel, we should treat them both the same way. An angel who can see every mountain under the Earth's atmosphere may or may not use the term "day" to mean 24 hours. The "angel only" model of Genesis would lead one to predict a world-wide Flood but does not necessitate a young earth.

If we assume both passages were narrated by a human, the Genesis 1 account must be "poetic," to put it nicely. By its terms, there weren't any humans around for the first five days. That means we should look for a regional flood and take the "six days of Creation" as poetry, symbolism, or just plain fraud.

If we assume Genesis 1 originally came from a non-human source, we should look for a word-for-word correlation with what human science can detect about the origins of the universe, Earth, and life... but not within a human frame of reference.

If Genesis 7 began as an oral report by a faithful human witness, we shouldn't require Mt. Everest to be covered with water. If it was Noah telling the story, then "All the mountains under the sky" literally meant "every mountain Noah could see." It takes at least an angelic narrator to provide a reliable first-hand report of a global flood.

I don't have any problem with the text of Genesis. I do believe that people who take strong positions about the meaning of that text should be willing to explicitly state their assumptions. In this case, it seems like Young Earth Creationists who believe in a world-wide flood assume that the super-human narrator of Genesis 1 spoke from a human frame of reference, while the arguably human narrator of Genesis 7 reported things that only an angel (or better) could know.

Blogs and Brains

If the notion of a "human cognitive space" (the phase space formed by every human neuron) makes any sense at all, then it should be obvious that new technologies affect it. Writing, printing, the telegraph, and the Internet have all changed history. I suspect it's because they each reshaped human cognitive space.

We're now in a phase where technological changes are reshaping that space almost daily. Facebook is so out of date. Twitter is in. Or is it? Did I miss the latest big new thing? Cognitive space used to change about the speed of continental drift. Now we're on a roller coaster.

This article calls for changes to the way blogs work to keep up with the new shared stream of consciousness. Om Malik wants to combine the speed of Twitter with the depth of blogs. I don't know whether we'll go that direction, but the fact that one can suggest such a thing reveals how much more change is possible.

What would a fully-wired human race look like?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Multiversal Utilitarianism

Open Parachute skips lightly from epistemology to ethics. What fun they're having in New Zealand! There's no way I'm going to float the following on that forum... they're moving too fast to annoy them with new ideas. But the discussion reminds me of the unresolved riddle of ethics in a multiverse.

In The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch argues that life as we know it is best explained by Hugh Everett's "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Deutsch says that every possible world is real; by which he means that every real choice you face leads you down two different timelines. You hear the Gospel at a revival meeting and you feel a strange stirring. In Deutsch's model, one "you" goes up front to the altar and ends up gloriously saved, while the other rejects the invitation and goes out to a life of crime.

Deutsch's theory gets a little exotic--he not only argues that every common-sense timeline is real, but every physically-possible timeline is real. Given the weirdness of quantum mechanics, that's a LOT of timelines, including ones (according to Deutsch) where people fly around on brooms playing Quidditch. It's not the laws of physics change in such Harry Potter universes--it's just that there's a statistical possibility that every atom in the broom will go up at the same moment. Over and over. All the way through a Quidditch tournament!

That's an extreme position, but it opens up another possibility that Deutsch seems not to have thought about. Frank Tippler has a different take on quantum mechanics. In The Omega Point, Tippler argues that there is only one timeline but that it must maintain an "observer" forever, and will therefore at some point produce a super-scientific race that is able to reconstruct human minds through technology. I'm not persuaded by Tippler's reasoning, but I'm impressed by his imagination--and the super-scientific resurrection technology he describes would appear to be a whole lot easier to produce than a well-played Quidditch match. So it only seems fair to add Tippler's resurrection technology to Deutsch's multiverse.

Which brings us to the ethical issue. It would seem to me that any rational "Fabric of Reality" fan should make a utilitarian calculation designed to maximiz his personal happiness over all possible worlds. He needs to balance his short-term pleasures in this life against the knowledge that he must certainly endure an eternal conscious existence in a future resurrection. To make things more complex, it won't be just one resurrection. He must assume that Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all have their own super-technological worlds where he will be raised to face their form of judgment.

If you only have one life to live here and now, how do you prepare yourself for a hundred different hells? Deutch doesn't. (My attempt to raise this question on the Fabric of Reality yahoo group met with the thundering silence it deserved.) But the beauty of a thought experiment is that it generates interesting new insights without ever having to shop for lab equipment.

If you knew you had to face the judgment of every possible creed and cult and endure eternal conscious torment if they didn't like the choices you make today, how would you live?

My own answer is sincere, but probably won't satisfy any readers. I'd rather follow Jesus, even if I knew that I would be tormented for it forever, than any other option. This is not just because most of the other major religions give Jesus a pass (although they do), but because I think I might be able to face an endless eternity of agony if I did it for Him.

What is Knowledge?

I've been delighting in meeting new people on the other side of the world. Open Parachute and MandM are a couple of New Zealand blogs that seem to maintain a surprisingly intelligent level of discourse. Open Parachute is an atheist/non-theist site and MandM is run by a Christian couple.

There's a hot thread happening on Open Parachute right now. It started with a book review but it has turned into a discussion of the nature of knowledge. I'm not expecting that many pearls of wisdom to start flying (if they do, watch out for pigs!), but it's a pleasure to hang out with people who debate the nature of knowledge for the fun of it.

I have nothing to contribute to the debate right now, so I'm retreating to a neutral corner to think about the physical basis of human knowledge. I'm more-or-less committed to the concept that human knowledge has a physical basis. All my ideas have a physical component to them--there's a certain number of neurons in some particular state. I'm not saying that's what knowledge "is," but every idea in every human brain has a physical aspect.

I'm interested in abstracting this physical aspect of human knowledge out of its biological, neurological context. It would seem that a fully-developed-technology could replicate the entire neural network of a living human brain in a medium besides protoplasm. I've long thought that one could represent electronic neural nets as a multi-dimensional phase space. (I use the term "hyperdimensional" to refer to any phase space big enough to include a separate dimension for each of about 100,000,000,000 neurons.) Just to make things interesting, I see no reason to limit my hyperdimensional space to any single human brain. Two heads are better than one--and a phase space of 200,000,000,000 neurons makes just as much sense as a phase space for one hundred billion.

But why stop there? My real interest is in the phase space composed of every human neuron out there. The topology of that space should be filled with fascinating features. What does the word "banana" look like, when you say it to the whole human race? There are so many neurons firing all at once--neurons associated with "sweet," "yellow," "shopping cart," "colonial exploiters," "fruit flies," and a million other connotations. The whole human experience of a "banana," put all together, is different from any actual banana, just as it is different from any individual's understanding of the word--yet each individual has a real understanding of a real fruit.

I can't visualize a phase space with 600,000,000,000,000,000,000 (six hundred quintillion) dimensions, of course, so I just imagine little dots in outer space. Each time somebody interacts with a banana, I light up a little spot in space. As more and more people interact with more and more bananas (banana splits, banana peels, banana boats, etc., etc.) more dots light up. I picture these dots beginning to cluster. Eventually, there should be enough data points that one could say, "This cluster is 'banana' in human conceptual space."

"Banana" is a trivial example, of course. Nobody needs to go through this much work to talk about bananas. The concept of conceptual space gets more interesting when we move on to words like "beauty," "justice," "truth," "love," or "God." Would a hyperdimensional map of these terms produce a meaningful pattern, the way "banana" does--or would it be a chaotic smear with no distinct features?

Wood, Hay, and Stubble

What if...
  • Jesus really rose from the dead and is really coming back to judge the Earth
  • And some scientific genius could prove that everything the Bible says and promises is true?
Should that person:
  1. Use every effort to spread the good news (like the Apostle Paul) or
  2. Seal up the vision (like the prophet Daniel)?
The parable of Lazarus suggests that scientific proof won't convert people. The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers of the coming judgment, but Abraham said, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to one risen from the dead."

That throws a bucket of cold water on a Christian's urge to find the scientific answers to the riddles of Creation. Even if you could answer every question the skeptics raise, you wouldn't change their minds. In the meantime, you're bound to hunt down a lot of dead ends and bark up a lot of wrong trees. Why go to all that effort if it doesn't save souls and can't add to what the Bible already says? It's like teaching a pig to whistle--it doesn't work, and it annoys the pig.

My personal reasons for digging into science are not to convince others. I ask questions because I can't not. I am curiously made--and I was made curious! But being curious and imaginative doesn't make me right. My brain tells me that every new idea I come up with is 99.99% likely to be wrong (at least!). My Bible tells me all my own ideas will be burned up on the Day of Judgment, along with all the other wood, hay, and stubble.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Kindred Spirit

Frank Wilczek won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum chromodynamics. I love his take on life and science.

Monday, June 29, 2009

One Step Closer to Multiple Futures

My best example of a truly metaphysical question is, "How many futures are there?" The logical possibilities are "0," "1," "several," or "all." I'm undecided between "1" and "several." Some very smart people have just built a gadget that may help me decide between those two answers:
Researchers at Yale have succeeded in producing the first working solid-state quantum processor.
Quantum computers have the potential to do things conventional computers just can't do. The best current application for quantum computing would be cryptography--a lot of modern codes and ciphers rely on "keys" that can't be cracked without computers bigger than the solar system that would require more power than the sun puts out in a year. (We're talking about some serious computational requirements!) A working quantum computer could crack those codes in an instant. That's because they use an infinite number of timelines to produce measurable results in the here and now.

Each "qbit" in a quantum computer supposedly exists in all possible quantum states at the same time, as if all that little box contains "all the possible worlds" for the qbits inside it. That makes a quantum computer the ultimate "parallel processor."

If humans can ever get quantum computers to work, it may lead to a new view of our entire universe. The new physics of the 17th century paved the way for the Deistic concept of a "clockwork universe" where God created the world, wound it up, and walked off. The new biology of the 19th century enabled people to believe in an evolutionary universe where enough time and chance "just happened" to produce intelligent life.

If quantum computing works, the new information science of the 21st century could lead to a view of the whole universe as a quantum computer programmed to produce its own "observer." Some people will see that as a vindication of the "intelligent design" hypothesis. Others will say it proves "intelligent design" false. (The fact that people will predictably argue both sides makes me question whether the universe has produced any actual "intelligence" yet!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Imagination Stretcher

I hate to think of myself as narrow-minded and parochial, but every so often I run across something that makes me realize I don't get out enough. Here's an example...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

21% of Atheists Believe in God

Or so they tell pollsters. Tip of the hat to HotAir.com.

And I thought Christians were mixed up!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newton's Metaphysics

Many students of science know that Isaac Newton wrote more about the interpretation of biblical prophecy than he did about physics. This quote comes from the third chapter of the second part of his "Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John":

'Tis therefore a part of this Prophecy, that it should not be understood before the last age of the world; and therefore it makes for the credit of the Prophecy, that it is not yet understood. But if the last age, the age of opening these things, be now approaching, as by the great successes of late Interpreters it seems to be, we have more encouragement than ever to look into these things. If the general preaching of the Gospel be approaching, it is to us and our posterity that those words mainly belong:
    • In the time of the end the wise shall understand, but none of the wicked shall understand. (Dan. 12:4, 10)

    • Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this Prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein. (Rev. 1:3)
The folly of Interpreters has been, to foretel times and things by this Prophecy, as if God designed to make them Prophets. By this rashness they have not only exposed themselves, but brought the Prophecy also into contempt.

The design of God was much otherwise. He gave this and the Prophecies of the Old Testament, not to gratify men's curiosities by enabling them to foreknow things, but that after they were fulfilled they might be interpreted by the event, and his own Providence, not the Interpreters, be then manifested thereby to the world. For the event of things predicted many ages before, will then be a convincing argument that the world is governed by providence....

There is already so much of the Prophecy fulfilled, that as many as will take pains in this study, may see sufficient instances of God's providence: but then the signal revolutions predicted by all the holy Prophets, will at once both turn mens eyes upon considering the predictions, and plainly interpret them. Till then we must content ourselves with interpreting what hath been already fulfilled.

Newton had a clear concept of the purpose of prophecy. He had what Thomas Kuhn would call a "paradigm" that motivated and directed his efforts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prediction, Power, and Proof

Isaiah 48:3-5 says:
The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.
Because I know that you are obstinate,
and your neck is an iron sinew
and your forehead brass,
I declared them to you from of old,
before they came to pass I announced them to you,
lest you should say, "My idol did them,
my carved image and my metal image commanded them."
The heart of the scientific method consists of forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, doing an experiment, and seeing whether the prediction is fulfilled--or not. Without fulfilled prediction, science has no proofs.

As Isaiah shows, this doesn't just apply to science. He insists that God's power is revealed through predictive prophecy. This isn't just an Old Testament thing. The Apostle Paul relied upon the power of God to prove his message. In I Cor. 2:3-5 he said:

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul and Isaiah (and the rest of the prophets and apostles) commanded their hearers to respond with faith, but not with blind faith. Time after time, the Bible stories show an individual who (1) believes in a God of power and then (2) takes a risk based on that faith. When that risk is visibly rewarded, others see and (often) believe. Ideally, their belief results in them stepping out in faith, too, leading to more result--and more believers.

One particularly dramatic example of this cycle was when Peter got out of the boat and walked across the water towards Jesus. Matthew 14:27-33 tells the story, beginning with a boat full of weary disciples in the middle of a stormy lake late at night. Something unusual approached them across the surface of the water, and they panicked.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I.

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, “Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

There's a lot to be said for this cycle of "risky faith rewarded." Although it has a tendency to make the believer look and feel like an idiot, it's safer, in its way, than playing it safe. If there really is a God who answers prayers and fulfills prophecies, why not act like it? And if there isn't such a God, why say there is? Wouldn't it be better to get out of your boat, sink, flounder back to safety, and then go back to fishing? Peter spent the rest of his life talking about his crucified Lord and died, crucified himself, for all his pains. That makes perfect sense for a man who walked on water--but it's not a wise career path unless you've met the Living God.

On a broader scale, this cycle has the potential to slowly fill the earth up with believers if there really is a God of power. And if there isn't such a God, the Darwinian consequences of taking major risks should soon wipe out these faith-filled fools.

If you love Truth and believe in God, get out of your boat and try walking on water!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Faith and Dogma

Faith in the most generic sense means "trusting in something outside yourself." That kind of faith is part of what makes humans different from animals--we can learn from others' mistakes instead of repeating them for ourselves. When we trust what others say, we can stand on the shoulders of their experience--dwarves on the shoulders of giants.

That's one kind of faith, but the New Testament uses the word in a more specific sense. The "faith" that Jesus talks about involves much more than merely trusting other people. Consider Mark 11:

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

This kind of faith is hard to argue with. The Protestants who say they're saved by faith would impress their Catholic brethren more if they tossed a few mountains into the sea while they were at it. The secular materialist who scoffs at "faith" would scoff a little less if fig trees shriveled up around him.

The problem is, this kind of faith is rare, even though Jesus commands and demands it. The various branches of Christianity think they're going to Heaven because they believe the right doctrines, and the other branches are going to Hell because they believe the wrong ones. New Testament "faith" means more than merely mental assent to human propositions.

I'm not Catholic, but I'm not so sure that all the Protestants who confidently claim to be "saved by faith" are standing on solid ground. According to Christian theology, the redemption of a sinful soul is the greatest miracle imaginable. It only took God's word to make the heavens and the earth. It took the death of His own Son to save a sinner.

If your faith doesn't shrivel fig trees, what makes you think you're going to Heaven?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What Is Faith?

Fred at La Nouvelle Theologie asks, "What is faith?"

That's one of the really big questions--much bigger than any answer I can give. But it's one of the questions that needs to be asked, and ought to be answered, so here are some pieces of the puzzle.

  1. Faith consists of belief without proof. Hebrews 11:1-2 calls faith "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That doesn't mean that the content of faith must be absurd, paradoxical, or unreasonable. It doesn't even mean that it can't be proved. Most of your neighbors believe the earth is round and circles the sun, not because they have worked out the proof for themselves, but because they have been told this by every credible source. It is faith, not reason, that makes them believe.
  2. Faith is essential to scientific progress. Learning by trial and error or direct experimentation is possible and valuable, but it's very slow. Western civilization has advanced as far as it has, not by the radical skepticism of Descartes or the nihilism of Nietzsche, but by "dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton put it. Life is too short and the universe is too big for any one person to work out any scientific discipline from first principles and then move on to make new contributions.
  3. Faith is essential to biblical Christianity. Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek Him." Mysticism and some variations of liberal theology may be able to cultivate a religion based on immediate intuition and/or emotion without any faith in any propositional statements about God, but the religion taught and practiced in the Bible demands belief in what God and His messengers have said.
Faith is not opposed to reason, but it is the opposite the kind of skepticism that has to figure out everything for itself.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Myth, Magic, or Medicine?

Methodological naturalists don't wonder about miracles. They write off anything that looks like fulfilled prophecy or answered prayer as "coincidence." They dismiss anything that seems to be a miracle as fraud or myth. That's makes it easy to maintain their precommitments to a merely material world, but it's their metaphysics, not good science, that explains such behavior.

What happens when a methodological naturalist encounters some data point that doesn't fit his preconceptions? The objective scientist of our cultural ideal would stop, look, and listen. He (or she) would furrow his (or her) studious brow, roll up the immaculate sleeves of his (or her) venerable lab coat, and subject his (or her) previously held theories to revision in light of new evidence. But, as Thomas Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that's hardly ever what happens.

Consider how "science" deals with just one uncooperative example. Isaiah 38:1-6 says:

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.
The methodological naturalist deftly deals with this report by just saying, "It never happened." Denial tends to be our first line of defense. This doesn't prove methodological naturalism to be wrong, but it ought to raise an eyebrow.

Methodological naturalists generally dismiss the Bible stories as naive credulity. The problem with that approach is that these tales weren't told by idiots. The prophet Isaiah was a Hebrew noble who wrote one of antiquity's loftiest works. The story is rich in specific details that make it sound more like history and less like myth. Isaiah took a cake of figs and applied it to the boil that was killing the king, which seems to have made a difference. Hezekiah did get well, and he lived for fifteen years.

The next defense is "mere coincidence." So what if Hezekiah lived, the naturalist asks. For every good guess there are a million failures that fall on their face. In this model, Isaiah just got lucky.

That's hard to square with the rest of the story. Hezekiah was no fool. He wanted proof of Isaiah's prophecy, and he got it. Hezekiah asked for a sign that he would get well, and the sun's shadow went backwards ten steps.

That leaves two more avenues of escape for the pre-committed naturalist. Either the whole story was a myth, or Isaiah was a fraud. There are problems with both answers. A moving shadow is not what you'd expect from a myth--in a made-up story, a great dragon would appear in the sky, or God might speak out loud. A shadow seems too mundane for any myth.

The moving shadow would make sense if Isaiah was a fraud--it's the kind of hoax an illusionist might contrive with mirrors. But nothing in the rest of Isaiah's record suggests he was anything like that kind of "court magician." Nothing in the story itself demands such proof--when Hezekiah asked for proof that he would get well, Isaiah could have just as easily told him to "wait and see."

Is this the best that naturalism can do? Not even remotely! It is possible to take Isaiah seriously without giving up on science. A "naturalistic" explanation fits the facts as well as any other. An experienced doctor might argue that the poultice of figs and the moving shadow were both essential means to the same cure. Hezekiah had a "boil" which wasn't getting better. The Hebrew term isn't specific enough to know what that meant, but any infection was a serious problem before the discovery of antibiotics. To make things worse, he had turned his face to the wall and wept bitterly--that's a biblical term for what we might call "terminal depression."

Isaiah directly addressed the physical and the psychological aspects of Hezekiah's condition. The fig plaster had some effect on the infection in the boil--perhaps enough to give Hezekiah a fighting chance at life. But that doesn't do much good unless the patient is willing to fight. Isaiah's promise (plus the shadow on the steps) could have helped Hezekiah find the faith he needed to struggle back from the brink.

What does this tell us about the shadow on the steps? Nothing--except that we don't have to dismiss it as myth, discount it as a hoax, or reverse the rotation of the planet. The Bible says the shadow went backwards on the steps and Hezekiah got better. This passage in Isaiah would be good history and sound theology with or without a "scientific explanation." Maybe both things happened by the unmediated intervention of God. Maybe both had natural explanations--the osmotic pressure of a sugary paste, an unusual formation of the clouds. The story shows God's glory either way.

Which brings me to my point: the believing Christian can accomodate science more easily than the methodological naturalist can accommodate history. Twenty-first century Christians can't evade the laws of physics, so they must adjust their paradigm or isolate themselves from the broader culture. Modern materialists, by contrast, ignore any evidence they don't like. In the short run, that gives materialism an edge--but truth outperforms popularity in the long run. Any future metaphysics that deserves the name of science will take all the available evidence seriously, not just the part that fits our preconceptions.

Methodological Naturalism

Alvin Platinga is both a respected living philosopher and a committed Christian. I'll use his definition of methodological naturalism:

The philosophical doctrine of methodological naturalism holds that, for any study of the world to qualify as "scientific," it cannot refer to God's creative activity (or any sort of divine activity). The methods of science, it is claimed, "give us no purchase" on theological propositions--even if the latter are true--and theology therefore cannot influence scientific explanation or theory justification. Thus, science is said to be religiously neutral, if only because science and religion are, by their very natures, epistemically distinct.

Methodological naturalism is the most consistent example of a modern metaphysics. Immanuel Kant ended pre-modern metaphysics with his Critique of Pure Reason. (In case you missed the joke, the title of this blog comes from his work, A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science.) Kant essentially divided reality into two parts--the "phenomenal" aspect of things, which can be seen and touched and measured, and the "noumenal" aspect, involving the "thing in itself" rather than its observable categories. Since Kant, modernism has ignored the noumenal and devoted itself exclusively to the phenomenal world.

The methodological naturalists treat "God" as a non-concept, an "ERROR" that corrupts every function that references that cell in their secular spreadsheet. Any future metaphysics will have to do better that if it claims the legacy of Kant. Kant treated "God" and "free will" as fundamental albeit unproveable principles that were essential to his version of "practical reason."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Physics of Choice

As quantum mechanics has become more refined, the physicists are increasingly clear--and increasingly divided--about the ultimate physics behind human choice. There are three dramatically different ways of understanding what happens when we "choose." It all depends whether we live in a:

  • "block universe,"
  • "random universe," or
  • "multiverse."

In a "block universe," a single timeline proceeds inexorably into the future, predetermined by precise laws. In such a universe, "choice" is a psychological state, not a physical event. We feel like we are "choosing" when we set a date or pick a mate, but all our acts are predetermined by matter in motion. Einstein was the last great champion of this view, which came under fire as quantum physics revealed the limits of classical mechanics. Heisenberg and others showed that there was a degree of uncertainty in all our measurements. Einstein did not argue with the limits of our ability to measure, but hoped that the seemingly random events of quantum physics were really determined at some deeper level by "hidden variables" that we cannot measure. Subsequent experiments tend to show Einstein wrong. Bell's Theorem holds that quantum events really aren't determined by any constraints we can identify or imagine, and that theorem has been supported by sophisticated tests. So the block universe as Einstein imagined it is largely out of favor.

In a "random universe," quantum events "determine" what happens at each "observation." There is only one timeline, but it twists and turns its way through the fourth dimension for no identifiable reason. Humans are not bound by the iron laws of physics to do whatever their molecules make them do. In this model, a human brain might be such a sensitive device that events on the quantum scale make the difference between decisions. When Julius Caesar decided to cross the Rubicon to attack Rome, he cried, "The die is cast!" Perhaps he should have said, "The quantum has fluctuated!"

In a multiverse, there isn't just one timeline. Every possible "branch" in time actually happens. David Deutsch articulated this position in The Fabric of Reality. If an event falls within the range of quantum possibilities, Deutsch argues, then it really happens--and he has a broad view of the range of quantum possibilities. It is possible for every atom in your body to move up at the same time--so you could levititate, despite the laws of gravity. In Deutsch's model, that means there are timelines where you do levitate. In fact, there are timelines where you levitate for hours on end--or levitate in groups--or levitate in groups on brooms chasing the snitch in a quiddich match.

Choice in a multiverse is real--every branch of the timeline is a true choice. But a multiverse disturbs our sense of self--if every choice I make results in two timelines, which is the "real me"? Is it the one typing this article, or the one who is playing quiddich?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Metaphysics of Prophecy

"Prophecy" is a metaphysically rich concept. Predictive prophecy flies in the face of classical physics, with majojr implications for the fundamental philosophical categories of freedom, causation, and the nature of knowledge.

There's a vast range of New Age and other postmodern discussion of prophecy, but I'm not aware of any objective discussion of the metaphysics that would make prophecy meaningful. It seems more like a visceral rejection of modern materialism in favor of a world more rich in meaning. You can just about sum up the intellectual underpinnings of all this in a bumper sticker: "Magic Happens."

The postmodernists are reacting to old-fashioned modernism, best represented by the methodological naturalists who believe that prophecy is a hoax. Fulfilled prophecies rarely persuade a true materialist--no matter how precise the prediction, they are precommitted to rule it a coincidence or "con." To the modern mind, "prophecy" is either intentionally false or worse than false--mere nonsense. For the truly secular thinker, prophecy is Macbeth's "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Theological liberals are "modernists" who aren't as committed to pure materialism as the methodolical naturalists, but liberal metaphysics also rules out any predictive power to prophecy. They view biblical prophecy exclusively as "forthtelling," not "foretelling"--revealing the character of God, not the future. Prophecy is God talking about Himself, not about the world.

Christians who still believe the Bible have more material to work with in thinking about prophecy. I haven't researched the theology of prophecy from an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic perspective, so I will limit my comments to Protestantism.

There isn't a single Arminian view of prophecy. Wayne Grudem, a respected Reformed theologian, notes three different Arminian positions on prophecy:

  1. God does not know the future
  2. God knows the future but does not cause it
  3. God knows all possible futures and knows people so well he knows what they will choose

The first of these three positions has now become the starting point of "Open Theism," which holds that God knows all things, but does not know the future because the "future" does not exist. This is a refreshingly clear metaphysical position, which flies in the face of most of the old theology and most of the new physics.

The second Arminian position makes prophecy nothing more than a preview of coming attractions. I call it the "periscope model" of prophecy. The eternal God looks ahead at what is coming and reports back to an earlier time about events in their future. In this model, prophecy reveals God's omniscience but not His omnipotence--He sees the future but does not cause it. That means that prophecy should be "graded" on its truth value--the more precise the report, the greater the glory to the One who reported it. Unsurprisingly, most dispensationalists operate within this model, devoting their energies to explaining how the Old Testament prophecies to Israel will be literally fulfilled after the end of the Church Age.

The third Arminian position brings an entire set of possible futures into focus, enriching our discussion of fate and freedom. In this model, prophecy reveals God's wisdom as well as His knowledge--the One who counted every hair upon our heads knows our hearts so well that He knows our free choices before we make them. This understanding of prophecy enables us to make sense of prophetic warnings that never come true, like Jonah's message to Ninevah. God isn't just a journalist reporting what is coming in the future; He is an actor in the drama Who shapes what is to come.

Calvinists don't tend to worry about the metaphysics of prophecy. God is absolutely sovereign over past, present, and future. He is neither a reporter nor an actor--He is the author of the story we are in. Prophecy has an esthetic dimension--it "foreshadows" what is coming, adding interest to the plot.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Dreams and Time

The Bible tells of Joseph the dreamer, whose brothers envied him and kidnapped him and sold him into slavery. The story goes on to tell of Pharaoh the dreamer, who saw seven fat cows and seven skinny cows and put all Egypt under Joseph's rule. Joseph reveals the metaphysics behind it all in Genesis 45:5-8.

I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.... God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

This tale doesn't fit the modern worldview. The "experts" agree that we live in a universe of time and space and matter and energy, governed by natural laws that leave no place for dreams or deities. The consensus is that God is dead and chance is king and dreams are just coincidence.

This means that science doesn't just conflict with the first few chapter of Genesis--modern materialism contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture from start to finish. It may be easier to pick a fight over whether the world was made in "six twenty-four hour days" or not, but the real question to be resolved is whether God acts within time and space. If He does, then something in our physics is either false or incomplete. If He doesn't, then the whole Bible is in error, not just a few verses here and there.

The biggest hole in modern physics has to do with time. Mainstream physics says there is just one timeline, and it is guided just by chance. Picture a single, kinky thread writhing through fifteen billion light-years of empty immensity--then have it accidentally wind up on the one small bit of all this void that isn't empty, and you've got the best that modern science has to offer to explain how we got here.

David Deutsch is a secular physicist, but not in the mainstream. His picture of the universe makes more sense to me--he fills the void with timelines until there isn't any emptiness left. If there is some small statistical chance that particles could come together into self-replicating structures, Deutsch's multiverse will find it. If every possible world exists, then this one does--and so does Harry Potter's. But that goes way too far for mainstream physics.

John Wheeler offered a different option. The man who coined the term "black hole" believed the future could cause the past. (That sounds bizarre to the ordinary layman, but so does the rest of quantum physics.) Wheeler's participatory anthropic principle sketched out a way for future minds to create their own past. In Wheeler's model, there is only one thread through fifteen billion light years of time and space, but it isn't "kinky." It marks the shortest possible path from pure possibility to actual intelligence.

The story of Joseph doesn't make sense in two of these three models (one "kinky" timeline, all possible timelines, or one "guided" timeline). In the mainstream model, dreams don't come true. The stories in Genesis are just that--stories, myths made up by later generations around some campfire. In Deutsch's multiverse, the story may be true but it doesn't mean anything. Sure, Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows--in this timeline. But he dreamed of six fat cows and thirteen tadpoles in another. If everything happens, nothing matters.

In a world where the future causes the past, however, dreams fit nicely into physics. The dreams are essential to the outcome. If the outcome comes first, the dreams help make it happen. The most astonishing coincidences aren't coincidences at all in a "participatory" universe.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

All the Myriad Ways

David Deutsch has written a book called The Fabric of Reality which constructs a unified theory of reality out of quantum physics, evolution, epistemology, and information theory. He picks up Hugh Everett's theory of a multiverse and runs with it. I'm impressed by his breadth of vision and the scope of his imagination, even though I disagree with his final outcome.

Metaphysics asks, "how many futures are there?" Deutsch offers a daring answer--all possible futures exist.

Deutsch's multiverse model has some attractive features. It provides a satisfying solution to the questions raised by the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design argues that biological systems contain features that cannot be explained on the basis of mere time and chance. Deutsch provides infinitely more time and chance for evolution to play with--in his theory, the world we live in one of an uncountable infinity of parallel worlds. Not only does our improbable world exist, there are even greater improbabilities--worlds where monkeys type the text of Shakespeare. If it is physically possible, Deutsch says it exists.

Deutsch defines "physically possible" as "permitted by quantum physics," which means that all possible worlds exist. He envisions people playing quidditch in Harry Potter universes, where all the laws of physics still apply, but an endless string of improbabilities permits people to fly on brooms.

Deutsch is consistent about the implications of his theory--which tends to defeat his purpose. A Harry Potter universe just seems unthinkable. I'm not dismayed by the counter-intuitive nature of the concept, but there's more about Deutsch's model that makes it incompatible with humanity, whether or not it is scientifically sound.

The most profound counter to Deutsch is Larry Niven's classic short story, "All the Myriad Ways." As BookThink explains:
Larry Niven's story "All the Myriad Ways" features police detective Gene Trimble sitting at his desk and considering the implications of an escalating wave of senseless crimes and suicides that started soon after the Crosstime ships started traveling to alternate parallel worlds. The story ends with Trimble sitting at his desk and considering the business end of his service revolver. As written, the story has ten different, parallel endings, representative of the essentially infinite number of endings possible under the Everett Interpretation.
One of those endings, of course, is that Trimble pulls the trigger and kills himself--becoming just one more of the senseless suicides that started his investigation.

As physics goes, Deutsch's theory is mostly unobjectionable. Yet I don't see it catching on with the general public. It answers the question of "how we got here" but it tells us nothing (or way too much!) about where we are going.

If the general public believed what Deutsch says, I would predict a wave of senseless crimes and suicides--except among the "old-fashioned" religious believers who still clung to some outdated sense that there is a Higher Power who will hold them to account for their actions.

Deutsch's theory of multiversal quantum Darwinism, if it ever became widely accepted, could tempt so many people to kill themselves that the only people left to continue civilization would be fundamentalists who still believe in a God who punishes suicide.