Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 10:13 AM
Scientists are beginning to get very worried—that an idea proposed by me and three collaborators in 1997 may turn out to be right. If it is right, then (a) we live in a “multiverse” (an idea that most physicists hate) and (b) there is a good chance that certain discoveries people were hoping would be made by the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) won’t be made.
An article, posted on the Scientific American website last Saturday (and first published by Simons Science News) explains some of this. The article refers to and links to the paper of Agrawal, Barr, Donoghue, and Seckel on the last page, where it says “other physicists showed in 1997.”
It all has to do with one of the main theoretical puzzles in fundamental physics: why is the mass of the Higgs particle 17 orders of magnitude smaller than its “natural” value? (“Natural” here is a technical term in particle physics. It has nothing to do with natural vs. supernatural.) There are several explanations of the Higgs mass that preserve the principle of “naturalness”. All of these ideas predict that new kinds of particles should be seen by the LHC. But so far, none of them has turned up. Physicists are beginning to think that maybe they won’t.
Then how would one explain the puzzle of the Higgs mass being so light? The only physics idea left is the one proposed in 1997 in that paper by me and my friends—namely that we live in a multiverse. I hasten to add that we didn’t invent the multiverse idea; we only made the connection between the multiverse idea and the Higgs mass puzzle.
This is kind of a huge deal, as the article on the Scientific American website explains. The article gets one important thing wrong, however. If the Higgs mass is not explained in a (technically) “natural” way, but by the multiverse idea, it in no way implies that the laws of physics aren’t beautiful or harmonious.
Those who want to understand these matters better can read my September 11, 2008 article, “On the Edge of Discovery.”
I explain there why the mass of the Higgs particle is puzzling and what the multiverse idea is.
Thursday, November 8, 2012, 10:30 AM
What does it mean? Not a whole lot.
There is now a lot of soul-searching about the direction of the Republican Party and much doubting of its future viability if does not adapt itself in some way to an electorate that has (it is said) fundamentally shifted over the last few decades. I am a scientist and not a political expert, but science has something to teach us that may be of relevance here: don’t over-interpret the data.
The tendency of “pundits” to over-interpret shows itself with almost every election. Each time a party is ejected from the White House or isn’t, it is supposedly because some new and enduring coalition has been formed and some old coalition has finally disintegrated, or because the nation has turned against (or toward) social conservatism, or an era of Big Government has ended or just started. All nonsense.
The obvious fact is that the national electorate is an extremely heterogeneous lot and votes on the basis of innumerable disparate considerations. This candidate is “presidential,” or sympathizes with people like me, or is hostile to Israel, or is going to cut taxes, or is pro-life, or is going to create green jobs (whatever the heck those are), or has a mellifluous voice¸ or is charismatic, or is weak on defense, or has an annoying voice, and so on. Most voters do not have fully thought-out or consistent positions on most issues, which is why pollsters get different results depending on how they phrase questions or on the order in which they ask them. They want more spending, lower taxes, and less debt all at the same time. Reading into a 52 percent or even a 60 percent victory some kind of Rousseauean “General Will” is absurd.
Why did President Obama win re-election? There are some very obvious reasons that have nothing to do with ideology and in light of which the outcome is not particularly surprising. First, there is the fact that since the days of Grover Cleveland, about 30 elections ago, there has been only one case where a party held the White House for just four years: Jimmy Carter, and he had the Iran hostage fiasco, high inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment. It takes a LOT to make it happen. Now you might say that 8 percent unemployment should have been enough to do it. But this brings us to the second reason. People feel that President Obama was dealt a bad economic hand and so are less inclined to want to punish him for the state of the economy than they were in the case of Carter. Third, people have grown weary of war, and they hear less about war now (partly thanks to the media reporting on it less). And then there is the fact that most people seem to find Obama’s personality appealing.
Is this election somehow a repudiation of conservatism or the ideas of the Republican Party? If so, it is hard to understand why the GOP managed to win a sizable majority of House races. Moreover, it is generally the case that when a party has held the White House for four years they not only retain it, but get a larger margin of victory than the first time, as in 2004, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1964, 1956, 1936, and 1924. You have to go all the way back to Woodrow Wilson’s re-election to find a counterexample. (And even that is not much of one, because his first victory was in a three-way race in which his opponents, Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, split the Republican vote.) The fact that Pres. Obama’s margin this time is much smaller (almost unprecedented) tells us that he survived, not that he or his ideology has enjoyed some kind of rousing vindication.
This is not to say that conservatives shouldn’t do some hard thinking. But it is to say that we should not read too much into the result.
Monday, September 12, 2011, 10:59 AM
Fr. Leonard Klein, who is well known to the readers of First Things, is pastor of a parish in my own state of Delaware. Yesterday he gave a homily in which he did an wonderful job of sorting out how Christians should think about forgiveness, justice, terrorism, and war. It can be found here.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010, 11:15 AM
Anyone interested in the latest pronouncements of Stephen Hawking on God should heed the observations of Martin Rees (now Lord Rees), one of the world’s leading astrophysicists, the Astronomer Royal, and the outgoing head of the Royal Society (one of the world’s oldest scientific societies). It includes this severe but accurate judgment:
Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.
Friday, June 18, 2010, 4:01 PM
It is not clear to me how much of Jody Bottum’s moral analysis in “Blood for Blood” and “They Did It” is meant to apply only to sad case of the person just executed and how much is meant to apply to all uses of the death penalty by modern states.
I will only address the question of whether modern governments (such as our own Federal government and State governments) have the right in some cases to execute criminals. Catholic teaching recognizes four purposes of punishment: deterrence, retributive justice, reform of the criminal, and rendering the criminal harmless.
It can be debated whether and under what circumstances the death penalty deters. It seems to me pretty obvious that there are certain crimes that can only be deterred by the death penalty. What could deter a man already serving a life sentence who has an opportunity to escape prison, but can only do so by killing someone, say a prison guard? Not the prospect of imprisonment, since he is already serving a life sentence. Would torture deter him? Maybe, but that would be much harder to justify than the death penalty. So it would seem that only the death penalty might stop him from killing a prison guard—who might have a spouse, children, parents, and friends.
What could deter someone who has already committed a crime that would draw a life sentence and can only avoid capture by killing the police officer? The threat of the death penalty seems the only way. (There is also the practical use of the threat of the death penalty as leverage to get criminals to provide evidence on confederates who might otherwise escape punishment.)
Then there is retributive justice. I don’t know what Bottum’s “high justice” is. As far as I am aware, it is not a term of either in the law or in moral philosophy. Forget “high justice,” whatever it is, and let’s just talk about plain old justice. The threat of a $5 fine would not deter a murderer, but is that the only reason we would find such a light punishment morally repugnant? Would we not also think it failed to satisfy the minimal requirements of retributive justice?
Tuesday, June 1, 2010, 3:04 PM
The Los Angeles Times reports that an experiment in Europe has confirmed that neutrinos have mass. The article suggests that this shows that massive neutrinos may account for a “large proportions” of mass in the universe. As with most science related articles in the mass media, this one involves a bit of hype. First, this experiment is simply a confirmation—albeit an important and very dramatic one—of a conclusion that was already practically certain from other indirect pieces of evidence. Second, the neutrino mass that has been confirmed is too small for neutrinos to be a particularly significant fraction of the mass in the universe. (This was also already known, since the neutrino mass in question was already known by the indirect methods.)
What are neutrinos and why does anyone care about their mass? Three kinds of particles have been observed so far and are the building blocks of the Standard Model of particle physics:
Tuesday, May 25, 2010, 1:54 PM
Catholic World News reports that Fr. Michael Kelly, S.J. the CEO of the Asian Catholic News agency, finds the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation” meaningless in this “post-Newtonian world of quantum physics”. Since I use quantum mechanics every day in my work, I think I can match my understanding of this post-Newtonian world of quantum physics against Fr. Kelly’s, and I do not find the doctrine “meaningless”.
Here is what CWN reports:
Stating that “Catholics can become fanatical about one form of the Body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist as the REAL presence of Christ,” Father Michael Kelly, the Jesuit CEO of the Asian Catholic news agency UCA News, criticized the doctrine of transubstantiation in a May 24 column.
In his column– a critique of the new, more accurate liturgical translations that reflect the content and dignity of the original Latin– Father Kelly writes:
“Regrettably, all too frequently, the only Presence focused on is Christ’s presence in the elements of bread and wine. Inadequately described as the change of the ‘substance’ (not the ‘accidents’) of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist carries the intellectual baggage of a physics no one accepts. Aristotelian physics makes such nice, however implausible and now unintelligible, distinctions. They are meaningless in the post-Newtonian world of quantum physics, which is the scientific context we live in today.”
It was a standard maneuver of dissident theologians in the 1960s to affect incomprehension of binding doctrine rather than honestly and forthrightly saying that they rejected it. No one is fooled by that transparent ploy anymore, and one assumes that Fr. Kelly realizes that. It must be, therefore, that he is genuinely confused. I will try to unconfuse him.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010, 5:18 PM
The mass media are reporting today that an experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL or “Fermilab” for short) has just announced some results that could be of great significance, and may be of relevance to how matter—and therefore how we ourselves—came to be. This is exciting stuff, especially for physicists, and most especially for particle physicists. Over the years I have done a considerable amount of research in the areas of particle physics most relevant to this experiment, namely “CP violation” and “baryogenesis”, and therefore am extremely interested in this result.
I am going to explain in non-technical language what this is all about, and why it is interesting to physicists. Before I do so, however, I should note that the result is not yet a discovery. Some of the results announced are still only at the “2 sigma” or “3 sigma” level, which means that they could be statistical aberrations. It will take further experiments to nail down what is going on.
Friday, April 23, 2010, 3:35 PM
It is twenty years since the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched. Though plagued by cost overruns, and a ghastly blunder in manufacturing the main mirror that had to be corrected by a Space Shuttle mission in December 1993 (which, essentially, put corrective eyeglasses on the telescope), the HST went on to do tremendously important and exciting work.
Hubble Space Telescope
The great advantage of putting a telescope in space is that it doesn’t have to look through the turbulent and distorting atmosphere (think of what things look like seen through the hot air rising from a barbecue grill) and through haze and light pollution. This allows the HST to make extremely sharp images and make out very faint and distant objects. And when you see an object far away, you are also seeing it as it was a long time ago (since it takes light time to travel across the intervening space). Thus a look at the “deep field” is a direct look at the universe as it was in its early days.
Below, I give links to some of the most fantastic awe-inspiring images taken by Hubble. (These are found at the marvelous site “Astronomy Picture of the Day”). Maybe I am just a simpleton, but I don’t see how anyone can look at pictures like this and not believe in God. Hubble isn’t just about beautiful pictures, though. It has enormously increased our understanding of the universe. This site lists the “top ten” discoveries of HST. The most fundamental, I think most scientists would agree, was the discovery announced in 1998 that the universe’s expansion is accelerating rather than slowing down. This discovery wasn’t made with HST alone, ground based telescopes were also involved. (A nice explanation of how one tells that the universe’s expansion is accelerating is here.) This discovery tells us something about the fate of the universe; it suggests that the universe will not eventually reverse its expansion and end in a Big Crunch, but will expand forever, getting ever colder and emptier in an sempiternal black oblivion. (Suggests, but does not prove—it could be that the expansion will stop Kick Ass (2010) accelerating and start decelerating and even reverse at some point.)
So, all hail the Hubble space telescope! Enjoy the view:
Monday, April 12, 2010, 10:17 AM
Joe: I think that a manned mission to Mars would be a colossal waste of the taxpayers’ money for very little scientific benefit. Anything that could be learned from a manned mission could be learned at far less cost by unmanned missions. The billions that it would cost to send men their would yield vastly greater scientific returns if spent on ground-based or satellite-based telescopes, unmanned missions, or on research projects in other fields.
We have learned or will learn far more about the universe from the Hubble Space telescope, from satellites like PLANCK and WMAP, and from many other experiments and observatories than we would learn from landing people Mars.
Yes, astronauts jumping around on Mars would be sensational and excite people’s imaginations. That could stimulate interest in science and support for funding. In other words, its value is almost entirely as a publicity stunt. But it is an incredibly expensive publicity stunt. Most astrophysicists I have talked to think that a manned mission to Mars is a horribly inefficient use of research dollars. It will suck resources out of projects that are scientifically vastly more important.
If you love science, and care anything about the taxpayer, please don’t plan a manned mission to Mars!
Thursday, January 7, 2010, 10:25 AM
I can’t speak for David Hart, Joe, but I don’t think he was expressing (to use your words) “opposition to considering [the] possibility” of “Intelligent Design.” I think he was saying that the ID arguments lack the kind of rigor that some ID people seem to imagine they have.
I agree with you that there is nothing wrong with making “arguments from personal incredulity.” All of us necessarily make judgments based on what we find reasonable or plausible or antecedently probable. And you are right in observing that both ID and anti-ID people make such judgments. Some ID people think natural explanations of certain complex biological structures are as unlikely as walking to the moon. And some anti-ID people think miraculous explanations of these same structures are as unlikely as walking to the moon.
Still, I think Hart is basically right.
One can interpret “irreducible complexity” arguments in two ways. (a) They could be seen as attempts at rigorous proofs that certain structures, such as the blood clotting system or the bacterial flagellum, could not have arisen by small successive steps. In your words, they could be seen as attempts to “rule out” that possibility. Or (b), they could be regarded merely as statements that it is difficult to see how certain things could have arisen by small steps and that it is therefore, as you put it, “warranted [to search] for an alternate explanation.” As (a), irreducible complexity arguments fail. If one is to take them at all seriously, therefore, one must regard them as (b). But to regard them as (b) is to say, in effect, that they are arguments from personal incredulity. That is not to damn them. (And I don’t think Hart intended to damn them.) It is only to say that they fall very far short of being proofs of anything.
Thursday, December 3, 2009, 12:24 PM
In the current wars over global warming we are seeing an example of scientists behaving badly. I am not referring just to the hacked e-mails that everyone is talking about. Far more disturbing to me is the recent tactic of labeling any scientist who expresses skepticism about the extent of anthropogenic global warming a “global warming denier,” as though they were somehow comparable to holocaust deniers and thus both willfully ignorant and morally repulsive.
Don’t get me wrong: There is a great deal of kooky pseudoscience in the world, and it should be branded as such. Not all ideas deserve to be taken seriously, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the scientific community trying to marginalize ideas that really are kooky. But skepticism about the extent of anthropogenic global warming is not in that category. How do I know that? More importantly, how is the average non-scientist to tell? Are there indicia of pseudoscience by which the man on the street can recognize it? Not infallible ones, but there are some rules of thumb.
Friday, November 6, 2009, 2:04 PM
Tom Bethel has been riding an anti-relativity-theory hobby horse for years. He has recently published an article questioning the theory of relativity in the American Spectator. I have never met Mr. Bethel. I am sure he is a fine fellow; but he should stick to subjects he knows something about. Bethel apparently learned what he knows about physics (obviously very little) from a now-deceased friend of his named Petr Beckmann. Bethel tells us that Beckmann was an engineer. I have enormous respect for engineers—as engineers. But knowledge of engineering in itself no more qualifies a person to talk about fundamental physics than does knowing about baseball or butterfly collecting.
To a non-scientist, maybe there is not much difference between electrical engineering and fundamental physics—they both deal with equations and with electromagnetic phenomena, after all. But that is like saying that because a civil engineer who designs bridges is dealing with gravitational forces and doing calculations involving them he is therefore also competent to discuss the ins and outs of Einstein’s theory of gravity.
Bethel refers to a $2,000 prize that awaits anyone who can disprove a certain one of Beckmann’s crackpot ideas about relativity theory. I will offer a prize of my own. I will pay Tom Bethel $2,000 out of my own pocket if he takes the following courses at a first rate research university and passes them with a grade of A- or better: Classical Electrodynamics I and II (at the level of either Griffith’s book or Jackson’s book), General Relativity, and any course that covers the Dirac equation and relativistic field theory. If he succeeds in doing that, he will at least know what he is talking about when it comes to relativity. Why is it that so many people think they can talk intelligently about extremely technical subjects without knowing anything about them?
Thursday, August 6, 2009, 12:11 PM
Have you heard the “Breakfast Song”? It is a big hit on Youtube, with about a million hits. It is both very funny and very serious.
About six months after this performance, Minister Cleo Clariet was indeed “called home” by his Lord. In the introduction to his song, Minister Clariet notes that “There’s a kingdom coming, that’s part of God’s plan, when God’s Word is all we need to feed man.” This put me in mind of the passage in St. Augustine’s Confessions where he speaks of the mystical experience he and his mother Monica shared at Ostia:
And when our discourse was brought to that point, that the very highest delight of the earthly senses . . . was, in respect of the sweetness of that life, not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention; we raising up ourselves with a more glowing affection towards the “Self-same,” did by degrees pass through all things bodily, even the very heaven whence sun and moon and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we were soaring higher yet, by inward musing, and discourse, and admiring of Thy works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might arrive at that region of never-failing plenty, where Thou feedest Israel for ever with the food of truth.
For Minister Clariet, “the highest delight of the earthly senses” was, it seems, breakfast. But he understood that “God’s Word is all we will need” in that home to which we are called, where God will feed his people “forever with the food of truth.”
So laugh and enjoy. I think St. Augustine is smiling too.
Thursday, July 16, 2009, 12:22 PM
In some commentary on Caritas in Veritate, the point has been made that there are tensions among different statements of Catholic social teaching. Most notably, Populorum Progressio is often mentioned as an outlier in leftward direction.
Fr. Robert A. Gahl, Jr., an associate professor of ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in Rome, made an interesting comment to me the other day. He suggested that one of the purposes of Caritas in Veritate is to apply to Populorum Progressio what has come to be called a hermeneutics of continuity rather than a hermeneutics of rupture, as many on both left and right have done. In other words, the pope is trying to give Populorum Progressio an interpretation that shows it to be consistent with the rest of Catholic social teaching. This would be part of the larger project of John Paul II and Benedict XVI of applying a hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican II teaching. Fr. Gahl noted this passage from the new encyclical:
The link between Populorum Progressio and the Second Vatican Council does not mean that Paul VI’s social magisterium marked a break with that of previous Popes, because the Council constitutes a deeper exploration of this magisterium within the continuity of the Church’s life. In this sense, clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church’s social doctrine, which apply categories to Papal social teaching that are extraneous to it. It is not a case of two typologies of social doctrine, one pre-conciliar and one post-conciliar, differing from one another: on the contrary, there is a single teaching, consistent and at the same time ever new.
Fr. Gahl has some interesting reflections on the content of the encyclical at Mercatornet.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009, 1:51 PM
Are social encyclicals binding? Not everything in an encyclical—social or otherwise—is equally binding. Catholic teaching itself distinguishes different levels of authoritativeness for different kinds of teaching and different kinds of Church pronouncements. Some teaching is de fide (of faith) and must be accepted with “the assent of faith.” Such teaching is binding in an absolute and irrevocable way. Below that is teaching which, while not de fide, is nevertheless authoritative. Such teaching must be accepted with an obsequium religiosum, usually explained to mean “a religious assent of intellect and will.” Authoritative teaching is also binding, but not in an absolute and irrevocable way. One can entertain as a real though remote possibility that the teaching is false, but the benefit of the doubt goes to the Church, and there is a strong presumption that the teaching is correct. Such authoritative-but-not-de-fide teaching is like that of good parents: it may not be infallible (as de fide teaching is), but it is highly reliable and one is subject to it.
Below that is teaching which, while not authoritative in the above senses, is nevertheless owed great respect. In an encyclical—any encyclical—one finds statements of various levels of authority. It is not a simple question of whether “an encyclical is binding”.
It is vaguely analogous to a decision of the Supreme Court. The holding of the Court is binding, but not everything written in the majority opinion(s) is equally authoritative.
In a social encyclical, one finds statements of general principles. These are the most authoritative. One also finds various analyses of particular political, economic, and social situations. These usually involve judgments of a prudential sort that are not binding in either the de fide or authoritative sense. They still merit respectful attention, as coming from the supreme earthly shepherd of the Church.
For example, the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, the existence of and limits to the right to own private property, the principles regulating just warfare, and the like are highly authoritative. But the more one descends to particulars, the less one is dealing with “binding doctrine” and the more one is dealing with pastoral guidance.
I do think that it would be better if Catholics were not so disposed to pick these documents apart like an English teacher grading a student paper. A little more obsequium would be nice, even as we recognize that not everything in these documents is of equal weight.
If you want to read more about the different levels of authority, one can begin with Lumen Gentium (a document of Vatican II). There was also a document of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith a few years ago called Ad Tuendam Fidem, which is very helpful. A good discussion of the traditional categories of teaching is given in the beginning of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. While written in the 1950s, his discussion is not essentially different from that of Vatican II and post-conciliar statements.
Thursday, July 2, 2009, 1:55 PM
I recently came across the odd fact that one of the leading researchers on the brain in the twentieth century was—wait for it: Lord Brain. For real. His full name and title were Walter Russell Brain, 1st Baron Brain. What is even better, he was the longtime editor of the research journal Brain. There are actually important papers about the brain, written by Lord Brain, in the journal Brain.
This got me thinking: are there other people whose names are peculiarly appropriate to what they are or are famous for having done? I can only think of two other examples:
Bernie Madoff, who “made off” with billions.
Thomas Crapper, about which Wikipedia says: “Thomas Crapper (baptized 28 September 1836 – 27 January 1910) was a plumber who founded Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. in London. Contrary to widespread misconceptions, Crapper did not invent the toilet, nor is the word crap derived from his name. He did, however, do much to increase the popularity of the toilet, and did develop some important related inventions, such as the ballcock. He was noted for the quality of his products and received several Royal warrants.”
Are there others? The rules are (a) the name must be real, not a nickname, (b) the person must have had the name before he or she did whatever makes the name fit, and (c) the famous thing must not be named after the person.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009, 1:12 PM
In an earlier blog post on global warming, I mentioned Prof. Will Happer of Princeton. I just read the testimony that Will Happer gave to the Senate back in February of this year on global warming. It is a very clear and reasonable statement of the case for skepticism on global warming. I recommend it highly. Courage and clear thinking, a rare combination.
Monday, June 29, 2009, 12:42 PM
Is the planet warming significantly due to human activities, and if so how much can it be expected to warm in the coming century? Frankly, I have no idea. Understanding the climate is a fantastically complicated problem, about which I know only as much as the average scientist, which is to say: not very much. To have a really educated opinion on the subject one must either be a climatologist or have studied climatology in some depth. Therefore, I have to rely to a large extent on people more knowledgeable than myself whose judgment I trust. And here lies the problem. I am not sure who can be trusted on this subject.
I began to have serious concerns about the consensus view of global warming some years ago, after attending a scientific lecture on the subject by Prof. Richard Lindzen of MIT, one of the leading climatologists in the world. He did not claim that there isn’t anthropogenic global warming going on; he merely said that there was insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions on the subject. He began his lecture by assuring the audience of scientists that nothing of a scientific nature that he would assert in his talk was controversial among the small community of real experts who are involved in global climate research. I asked him in private why, if this was so, one got the impression of a rather solid consensus in the scientific community that we were facing a crisis; and he explained to me some of the sociology involved. I was left with a very favorable impression of the man. He knew his stuff, and it was obvious to me that he had no axes to grind, but was driven a simple passion for scientific truth.
Since then my doubts on the subject have been increased by statements I have heard from some scientists that “the debate is over.” How can it be over in a field that is so complex and still in its infancy, comparatively speaking. Don’t the people who say this realize that scientific conclusions are trustworthy precisely because they are based on vigorous debate? (more…)
Friday, June 26, 2009, 6:28 PM
To quote the Gipper, “There he goes again.” Every time John G. West attempts to argue against my views, he misrepresents them. I have already pointed out several examples of this. But now West furnishes several more.
Here is what West writes about me:
Near the end of his recent blog post, Barr tries to diminish the role of design in the Christian theological tradition by offering an unduly constricted reading of the Apostle Paul’s statement that God can be known “by the things that are made.” (Romans 1:20) Barr suggests that Paul is echoing a passage from the book of Wisdom, which explicitly references God’s design in the heavens. However, Paul (unlike the author of Wisdom) does not reference the stars or planets, and it is a questionable interpretive strategy to base one’s reading of a passage on something the author did not say. Taken on its own terms, Paul is clearly offering a general statement of principle that applies to all sorts of created things, not just those in the heavens. Interestingly, even the passage from the book of Wisdom doesn’t really sustain Barr’s point. The author of that book goes on to make a general statement that “from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.” Here the author offers a general point that presumably applies not only to the heavens but to created things as a class. Unless Barr is somehow trying to argue that living things are not “created things” in the same way as planets and stars (an untenable proposition from the standpoint of traditional Christian theology), Barr’s effort to restrict the design argument to areas outside biology fails.
Even if Barr’s constricted readings of Paul and the book of Wisdom were to be accepted, they would not cancel out Jesus’ citation of the lilies of the field as evidence of God’s care and provision for the world, nor would they cancel out the consistent writings of the early church fathers, which repeatedly reference evidence for design in biology. Frankly, Barr’s effort to keep the design argument outside of biology seems to be dictated more by a desire to achieve peace at all costs with Darwinism than a fair rendering of historic Christian teaching.
It is hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the statement referring to “Barr’s effort to keep the design argument outside of biology.” Compare this with the following statement that I made in the very post that West is attacking:
Saturday, June 20, 2009, 2:05 PM
On the Discovery Institute website, John G. West gives a three-part response to some things I said on this blog. In the first part he says:
“Barr claims that ‘[w]hen scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.’ I don’t know which ‘scientists’ Barr thinks he is speaking for, but they surely aren’t most evolutionary biologists. When Darwinian biologists say that natural selection is a blind process fueled by random biological changes, they most assuredly think that this claim contradicts the belief that evolution is guided—by God or any other intelligent cause.”
In the sentence that West quotes, I am speaking very generally about what scientists mean by the word random in the context of their research. As I have noted on many occasions, there are over 50,000 papers in the technical scientific journals that use the word random in the title. It is used to discuss not just genetic mutations, but a vast range of natural phenomena, including the motions of molecules in a gas, quantum fluctuations, noise in electronic circuits, distributions of galaxies, weather patterns, and a thousand other things. Random is a ubiquitous term in science. Not being a scientist, West is perhaps unaware of how widely and frequently the word is used in research. When I spoke about what scientists mean “when they say that certain things in nature are random”, I was “speaking for” (in the sense of explaining the usage of) essentially all scientists when they are speaking as scientists, as they do in their published research.
As far as the philosophical implications of the scientific concept of randomness go, I was not speaking for anyone but myself. I was not making a point about what many or most scientists may think those philosophical implications are, but about what those implications actually are. Whether A implies B cannot be determined by opinion surveys, but only by logical analysis. A thousand scientists swearing up and down that natural selection has atheist implications means absolutely nothing if they cannot support their claim with a cogent argument.
If I am right in saying that evolutionary biology itself is not atheistic in its implications, then how do I explain the fact so many evolutionary biologists are atheists? In my view, there is not a single, simple explanation for this, but a complicated set of historical and sociological factors. Since its inception, evolutionary biology has been the center of a constant battle between fanatical enemies of religion on one hand and biblical literalists on the other, who have fed off each other and in many ways reinforced each other.
That has become part of the narrative surrounding the field of biology, so that many people who go into that area are socialized into anti-religious attitudes. Moreover, certain kinds of people tend to be drawn to certain professions. At least one study concludes that the over-representation of atheists in science is due to atheists being drawn to science as a profession rather than scientific training or information making people lose their faith. This is a complicated subject, and I don’t propose to attempt a complete theory of the origins and causes of scientific atheism. It is, however, very simple-minded (and also not very helpful to the cause of religion) to suppose that scientific atheism is just a consequence of the fact that scientific theories logically entail atheism.
Friday, June 12, 2009, 3:19 PM
I am sorry that I misinterpreted Joe’s position, and am happy to see that it is not the brand of theistic evolutionism represented by Francis S. Collins (and myself) that he really was criticizing. As I noted in my previous post, it is the insights of St. Augustine that are most needed here, and therefore I think there is sufficient common ground between Catholics like me and Calvinists like Joe.
Friday, June 12, 2009, 11:18 AM
I think both John West and Joe Carter are trapped in a false dilemma, namely the choice between believing that certain processes are random or believing that they are directed by God. The dilemma is created by a failure to take adequately into account the complete sovereignty of God and the fact that God is outside of time. This is ironic, because Joe says he is a Calvinist, and Calvinists of all people, should have no problem with these issues.
Let’s back off from the emotionally heated subject of evolution for a moment and look at an issue that is much simpler. We have all played games of chance, I suppose. When you roll a pair of dice, is there not an obvious sense in which the outcome is “random”? Is there not an obvious sense in which the rolling of dice is a matter of “chance” so that one can use the concepts of “probability”? On the other hand, isn’t it also true that God knows and wills from all eternity what numbers come up when dice are rolled? If anyone thinks there is a contradiction between these statements, then I suggest that he hasn’t really grasped the traditional teaching about God’s atemporality. And I would further suggest that he lacks certain basic theological insights that would allow him to think clearly about evolution.
What makes a series of dice rolls a “random sequence,” in the terminology of mathematics, is that there is no systematic correlation between the different rolls. That means that one cannot predict the outcome of a roll from knowing the outcomes of previous rolls or subsequent rolls of the dice. The rolls are “statistically independent” of each other. Moreover, if we are using dice in a game, like Risk or Monopoly, then the dice rolls are also independent of the situation in the game. In other words, one cannot predict the outcome of a roll of the dice from knowing what numbers would be helpful to one of the players. In that sense, the outcomes of the dice are not oriented toward certain game outcomes. Incidentally, this is exactly the sense in which biology calls mutations random. One cannot predict what mutations will occur (it is claimed) either from what mutations previously occurred or from which mutations would be helpful to a species.
To quote Ayala and Kiger’s textbook, Modern Genetics: “There is no way of knowing whether a given gene will mutate in a particular cell or in a particular generation,” because the mutations “are unoriented with respect to adaptation.”
To return to games of chance: We would not consider such a game fair and we would not sit down to play it if we thought the dice had a predictable pattern or systematically favored certain outcomes or certain players in the game, i.e. were not “random.” Nevertheless, even in a game of “chance,” God certainly knows and wills the outcome from all eternity. He knows and wills every roll of the dice. God knows the outcomes from all eternity not because there is some secret pattern in the sequence of outcomes that allows him to compute the outcome of one roll from the outcomes of prior rolls. God knows the outcome of every roll “in advance” because he knows all things from all eternity in a single atemporal act of knowing.
To say, as Joe says, that “God making evolution appear undirected is similar to the idea that he planted dinosaur fossils and created geological strata to fool us into thinking the earth has been around more than 6,000 years,” is in my view completely to misunderstand what scientists and ordinary people mean when they speak about random processes. When one shuffles a deck of cards, one is really randomizing it—the whole point of shuffling. The randomness is not some sort of ploy or ruse on God’s part. But when we shuffle a deck, we are not escaping in any way from God’s absolute control over events: God knows and wills in exact detail from all eternity that I will shuffle the deck, precisely how I will shuffle the deck, and what the order of the cards will be after I shuffle the deck. On this point Calvinism and Catholicism agree.
Francis Collins understands the issues very well. His theological mentors are St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. His understanding of divine providence, omnipotence, and omniscience are thoroughly in accord with the insights and explanations to be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the mainstream of Christian tradition. John West quotes Francis Collins as saying that God “could” have known the specific outcomes of evolution beforehand. West picks up on the word “could” as though it indicated that Collins is not sure whether God did in fact know beforehand. Anyone who has read Collins’s book, however, should realize that Collins absolutely and unequivocally holds the belief that God knows all events from all eternity. To suggest otherwise is quite unfair. The context in the book makes quite clear that Collins was not using the word “could” in the way West seems to interpret him.
Every person of common sense realizes that there is some sense in which one can truly speak of randomness and chance in the world. Actuaries, weather forecasters, poker players, physicists, investors, pollsters, people who engage in statistical analyses of data, and all sorts of other people understand this. It in no way implies a denial of divine foreknowledge or absolute divine sovereignty over the world. St. Thomas Aquinas devoted an entire chapter (Book 3, chapter 74) of his Summa Contra Gentiles to arguing this. The title of that chapter is “Divine providence does not exclude fortune and chance.” I think Calvin would have agreed with Aquinas on this point.
One problem, I believe, is that some people think that saying “Nature is blind” is equivalent to saying “God is blind.” The two statements, however, are poles apart. God is not Nature and Nature is not God. When scientists say that certain things in nature are random, this does mean that Nature is in a certain sense blind; it does not imply anything about God’s knowledge or purposes.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 4:27 PM
Joe brings up an argument against Darwinism made by David Stove. I don’t really understand the argument as presented. In the first place, no one denies, as far as I know, that genetic mutations and natural selection still take place in human beings. That is one way that human beings develop immunity to diseases. Many Africans have certain genes that protect them against malaria, for example, presumably because that conferred a selective advantage in a region where malaria is common. I don’t think that most anti-Darwinists deny that natural selection goes on in humans.
Second, I don’t think the basic idea of Darwinism requires that every animal breed at every opportunity or absolutely maximize the number of offspring it generates. From a purely game-theoretic point of view, that may not be the best strategy for securing the presence of one’s genes in future generations. For example, a female animal might forego mating with a weak male so as to keep open the possibility of mating with a stronger male later. (I think that may even happen with people sometimes.) Third, I don’t think that Darwinism claims that selective pressures are always equally strong or that “there is always pressure on the supply of food.” There may be times when the food is plentiful. Most importantly, I don’t see why humans being exceptional in some respects falsifies the basic idea of Darwinian evolution.
I certainly agree that human beings are exceptional. As a Catholic, I believe we have spiritual souls that are conferred upon us by God and are not the product of any physical or biological process. As a consequence, we have reason and free will. This means that we can and do behave in ways that are not completely accounted for by Darwinism. Does that mean that Darwinism is wrong? No. It just means that it is not the whole story, at least when it comes to human beings. If Darwinism is defined to include the statement that Darwinian mechanisms explain everything about human nature, then of course an orthodox Christian cannot accept it.
It becomes a question of how one defines the word “Darwinism.” That is a very important question. Some people would like to define it to include very sweeping metaphysical claims and very reductive views of human nature. Atheists would like to define it that way. For reasons that I cannot fathom, and that are never explained, some Christians would also like to define it that way. I think there are many reasons not to do so. For one thing, it makes discussion very difficult. For if the word “Darwinism” is to be used for the atheistic brand of it championed by the likes of Dawkins, then what word should we use to describe the purely scientific and metaphysically quite harmless idea that plants and animals and (physically speaking) human beings developed through an evolutionary process driven by natural selection?
Wednesday, June 3, 2009, 12:15 PM
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Stephen Webb’s summary of my argument doesn’t come close to anything I said. It is an absurd caricature. In citing the fact that many religious scientists believe in evolution, I was not saying “gee, they must all be right” because “all those good people seem to agree about something, so they can’t all be wrong.” That, of course, would be completely idiotic. Webb professes “respect” for my “writings on science and religion.” I wonder how he can have such respect and yet think me capable of such inanities as the arguments he attributes to me.
The main point of my post was that generally speaking one cannot talk about “the” philosophical implications of a scientific theory. The same set of scientific facts can be looked at in very different ways. I gave many examples. Some people saw materialist and atheist implications in Newtonian physics, whereas others did not. Some see quantum mechanics as pointing towards idealism or even subjectivism, others do not. I cited the example of my Catholic scientist colleagues primarily to illustrate the same point: Among believers in the theory of evolution one can find a wide spectrum of philosophical views, from atheism to orthodox Catholicism, and just about everything in between.
In his first answer to my “specific complaints,” Webb says, “I don’t agree that the idea that Darwinism has philosophical, moral, and theological implications is obvious and trivial.” I didn’t say that that idea was trivial or obvious. What I did say is trivial and obvious is that “an idea cannot be separated from its implications.” (I refer people to the actual text of what I wrote.) Again, I only ask that people who disagree with me disagree with what I actually say.
Webb quotes a statement from my post and then explains my meaning as follows, “In other words, there are no philosophical implications of any scientific theory except the philosophy that is imported into the scientific theory.” However, I did not make such a sweeping assertion, but indeed qualified what I said rather carefully. I said, “But rarely is it the case that one can talk about “the” philosophical implications of any scientific theory.” I said “rarely”, Webb interprets this as never. I also said, “The philosophical conclusions people reach from a scientific theory depend to a large extent on the philosophical assumptions they begin with.” Note that I said “to a large extent”; Webb interprets this to mean entirely.
Despite what Webb says, the example of Laplace has everything to do with the topic at hand. One of the pillars of modern atheism is the belief that we can explain the world adequately with scientific theories and therefore don’t need to invoke God as an explanatory hypothesis. The remarkable explanatory power of Newtonian physics (which was greater than even Newton realized, as Laplace, among others, showed) gave powerful impetus to such atheist ideas. One can make just as good a case that Newtonian physics contributed to the spread of atheism, agnosticism, and deism in the centuries that followed as that Darwinism has contributed to atheism.
I have heard anti-Darwinists argue that natural selection is not a “cause”. I guess it depends on how one is using the word “cause”. That word is not a term of art in modern science in the same way that it was in Aristotelian science. If the word “cause” is used by scientists nowadays, they are using it as in ordinary speech, where it has a broader range of meaning than some philosophers give it. It is probably better to use the word “explanation” than “cause” when discussing the theories of modern science.
Finally, I don’t see what is gained by ridiculing people as “Emmas.” That is an argumentum ad hominem. And this brings me to a second reason that I mentioned my Catholic scientist friends and other scientists who are devout religious believers. It is my impression that many Christian anti-Darwinists give almost no respect or attention to their co-religionists who are scientists. The disrespect is palpable in many things that I have read. Religious scientists who believe in the main outlines of Darwinian evolution are spoken of as the intellectual equivalent of Uncle Toms.
They are regarded as either cowardly sell-outs or people who have been hoodwinked. I think I catch a whiff of the latter view in Webb’s posts, as in this remark: “I find that scientists often just do not see some of the fundamental problems with Darwinism.” I don’t argue that when lots of people believe something, they “can’t all be wrong”, which would be just plain dumb. But I do say that when there is a strong consensus among experts, it means something; it cannot simply be brushed aside. In some instances, what it means is that ideological passion or prejudice is at work. (The often touted consensus on global warming might be an example of this. I have my suspicions in that regard.)
The trouble with attributing the overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of Darwinian evolution to ideology is that it doesn’t account easily for the fact that scientists of all stripes join in that consensus including evangelicals like Francis S. Collins and Catholics like Kenneth R. Miller. Many of them are quite brave in declaring their religious beliefs in the sight of their scientific colleagues. They are not the kind of people who are afraid to buck a trend. It is far too easy to say that most of these people are philosophically and theologically naive, as many do say. The reason religious scientists should be paid at least a little more attention to than they are at present is not that they “are very nice people . . . and nice people don’t believe in bad things,” as Webb sarcastically puts it. Many of them are also very thoughtful and reflective people who are far from naive philosophically and theologically. They don’t deserve to be called Emmas, any more than all those skeptical of Darwinian evolution deserve to be called yahoos.