Thursday, March 30, 2006

ID debates

I have been reading some excellent arguments from a biologist who believes in God and has been engaged for many years in debates against prominent creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design. His name is Kenneth R. Miller. His essay, "The Flagellum Unspun", is the best single rebuttal of ID that I have come across, by which I mean that it is accessible to the layperson but still technical enough to demonstrate specifically where ID is wrong, from the point of view of science. A more philosophical overview and rebuttal is offered in this excerpt from his book, Finding Darwin's God. But also see his home page, and particularly his page for Evolution Resources. All the links on the latter page will be useful to someone interested in this subject, but I can particularly recommend his PBS debate, for anyone seeking a place where the strongest arguments on both sides are laid out against each other succinctly.

I particularly appreciate him because he sees no necessary conflict between science and religion. This is a badly needed voice in our cultural wars.

As for my own recent debates on the subject, I can say that my position remains the same, if not stronger: ID does not offer a scientific theory, but it can be appreciated in some ways (but not others) as a social movement.

I have found this position to be easily misunderstood, so let me try to put in on record briefly.

Intelligent Design tells us that the known mechanism of genetic mutation and natural selection cannot fully account for either the complexity or the diversity of living organisms. There is nothing wrong with this claim in itself. But a scientific theory must propose another mechanism. A mere criticism of the theory of evolution as insufficient does not amount to a rival theory, unless a rival mechanism can be proposed. When it is merely proposed, as in ID, that an Intelligent Designer must be responsible for the natural features of life that we cannot account for, this does not tell us at all how the Designer worked. It only tells us that a Designer is responsible. And that would be no different from non-ID, non-creationist theism, which tells us that a Designer is responsible. All theism which is reconciled to the theory of evolution tells us that the Designer worked via the mechanisms identified by Darwin and later generations of scientists. ID and creationism tell us that the Designer did not work through these mechanisms at all, but that the Designer's work can be detected wherever these mechanism fail to explain what we see. In what way the Designer worked is left undescribed. If it was described scientifically, we would have a scientific theory. Therefore, ID is not a scientific theory. It is not a scientific, mechanical description. It is an inference from scientific work, and this is commendable in that good inferences may be made from good science -- but it is a philosophical inference. It is not a theory about the mechanical, material workings of the world. It is a theory about something un-material and, presumably, unexplainable.

If such a philosophical inference were to become widely regarded as a scientific theory, it would stop scientific research wherever current explanations are deemed unsatisfactory. Some of Kenneth Miller's essays above demonstrate the answers that genetic scientists were eventually able to give to ID's questions about evolution, precisely because they kept at it. Had they merely invoked an indescribable process, they would surely have stopped looking for the scientific description that they were eventually able to obtain.

That is the danger, as I see it, of having science schoolclasses pronouncing ID to be a rival scientific theory. ID does not propose a rival mechanism/description. It proposes instead that when students have questions, they think only the thought that an Intelligent Designer is responsible for the mystery.

Now, I do appreciate some aspects of ID as a social movement. It is a movement of dissent, and as I grow older, and more aware of my own dissent from orthodoxy, I've grown to appreciate dissent. Part of the reason is that debate often moves me to understand problems more deeply. ID, strange as it may seem, moves me to understand the theory of evolution better than if there had been no challenges at all. And surely any truth that never experiences challenge will stagnate; so challenge almost always has some good benefits.

On a slightly different but related note, I can appreciate ID for challenging scientists and telling us, for instance, that scientists are not a uniquely self-critical species, and that science itself is not a uniquely self-critical enterprise. Religious faith can be extremely self-critical; and scientists can be dogmatic. Certainly, like all of us, they're inherently resistant to being challenged on basic points.

And that is where I seem to get in trouble with some opponents of ID, probably because it seems I am merely repeating the implication made by ID, and by conspiracy theories, that the establishment is resistant only, or especially, to good ideas. I actually cannot say that this is true. Human beings are often resistant to bad ideas. I've seen that in both religion and science.

My only claim is that ID and, yes, even creationism, can be viewed as complex things. As science they do not pass muster, but they also represent the public faces of millions of ordinary people who are not loonies and who have philosophical opinions on reality worth listening to, and even valid political views. (The latter is much harder for me to affirm, but I still affirm it). When such theists tell us, for instance, that they see evolution being used to push atheism, it is time to enter the conversation constructively, not time to dismiss them. That is a must in a society that values religious freedom; and it is the best basis upon which to ask for the same freedom of thought in return.

For this reason and others, I think it's wrong to refute ID by telling others that it is already rejected and not worth looking at. One of the ways that this gets done is by saying that ID is merely creationism, as if to say, that was already rejected, and this is no different. I don't object to the claim, in itself, that ID is creationism; that is a claim that can be discussed, and tested against observation. I find it to be a questionable claim, given the formal acceptance by ID of the earth's old age and the lack of any focus by ID on Genesis. But it's okay to debate ID's relationship to creationism. What is not okay is to make the claim as a way to make the refutation of ID easier or automatic.

My recent debates have been a profound learning experience for me, because I have been known to dismiss dissident theories in politics and religion by saying essentially, "This has already been discredited." As I note above, such a claim may or may not be true, and it's worth debating. But what I've learned is the degree to which such a claim is unconvincing in itself. It certainly braces you when you hear that something was discredited long ago. It is, in that sense, a very powerful way to induce good debate and deep learning. But that just makes it the start of the conversation, not the end. As an answer, "This has already been discredited, and all its questions have been answered," is astoundingly unsatisfying. You long to find out for yourself what actually happened; and you long for the actual answers to the questions raised by the dissenting theories. Hearing merely that the answers were given long ago does not cut it. Hearing it too often positively induces suspicion, even hostility.

In my debates I ran into an opposition to ID that was so automatic that I was assumed to be making conspiracy theories in support of ID. Even though the misunderstanding occurred with only one person and was cleared up, it was not easy to clear up, and it has left me somewhat unnerved -- all the more because, as one isolated event, it is merely anecdotal and not something that I can draw general conclusions from. What I mean is that I remain uncertain as to what happened, and to what degree I am myself to blame. What I do know is that because I was misheard in such a basic manner -- more basic than in any misunderstanding that I can recall being a part of -- I felt for the first time in my life the barest twinge of discouragement with regard to studying the theory of evolution. It was an emotional reaction, and a logical fallacy: you cannot associate a theory with the personal interactions that you have in debating it. Maybe you can judge people as people, but that is not the factor upon which the theory that they hold should succeed or fail in your judgment -- not if you mean to study it intellectually. And all of us should study the theory of evolution. I remain committed, as a Christian, to truth, which would make it impossible for me to stop listening to true science; and I remain blessed with a happy enjoyment of scientific discovery and literature. Yet I'm troubled by an experience where I sought to learn about ID, making it plain repeatedly that I did not buy ID as a scientific theory, but was told just as often that I had no cause to regard ID as science, and no cause to regard its questions as having foundation anymore.

I've learned that a sure way to drive people away from solid mainstream knowledge is to tell them that their questions are already answered, instead of simply giving the answers, and to imply in any way that their questions are merely hostile challenges akin to conspiracy theories. This is a failure to acknowledge that people have good questions. A teacher who actually knows the detailed answers is certainly free to tell his or her students that their questions are no good, or to suggest that their questions arise from something other than curiosity and a love of learning, discussion, and debate; but such a teacher would be profoundly wrong to do so. I say that if you have questions about gaps in the fossil record, then you have a good question. If you wonder why there are no stars in the photographs of the Apollo astronauts standing on the moon, you have a good question. If you want to know more about Marx's critiques of his society, you're asking good questions. And I have said this before in personal debates, but it should be worth repeating here: if you want to know why Jesus Christ had no biographies written in his own lifetime, I say you have a good question. My having good answers to these questions does nothing to make your question bad. If I take my own knowledge as evidence of your own ignorance, bad faith, or stupidity, I guarantee that I will have contributed to the perception among conspiracy theorists that elite purveyors of knowledge are controlling access to the truth.

The only bad questions are those that occur when the answer is sitting right in front of the questioner; or when the answer is sitting in a place that is easily identified and accessible. And I mean very easy, for even the slightest inaccessibility, however temporary, can warrant a friendly question or request. What is truly objectionable is when good answers are given, and people persist, usually in some open or unidentified bias, in the kind of conspiracy thinking that allows them to conclude that answers are impossible, withheld, or irredeemably tainted. That, frankly, is an attitude in whose shoes I have not been able to walk. Creationism seems to have walked there in many of its claims, and I suspect the same of ID.

For now it is simply enough for me to know that in some very important debates in my life, I now understand how unconvincing I must have been at those moments when I merely and heatedly insisted that the challenge had already been answered, as if to say, we need not look at it anymore. Anything that stops inquiry rather than encouraging it may be called a mistake.

The Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum (BAUT), where I had my recent debate, has Forum Rules that link to a certain thread as recommended reading for anyone arguing alternative theories (they're called ATM theories, or Against The Mainstream). The whole thread is useful and interesting, but this short post especially.

Monday, March 20, 2006

intelligence in the universe

Some recent reflections.

We know with certainty that the universe has come to reflect upon itself in some sense because we, who are a part of the universe, reflect upon it. When we reflect upon its ultimate origins, we are left contemplating a mystery. But it hardly seems uncertain that consciousness has arisen where once there was only unconscious matter.

For the moment, let's think of unconscious matter as unintelligent and merely obeying the laws of nature. We look out on the universe and we see conditions that are, in the immediate sense, hostile to any life or consciousness that might come into contact with it. Nothing, for instance, lived in the early seconds after the Big Bang, when temperatures prevailed which were so high that atoms did not yet exist; nor do we detect the possibility of life in the much reduced infernos at the centers of present-day stars. The heat is too hostile, and so is the crushing gravity.

When we look out in the universe and back into time, or we look directly at the craters of the moon, we see a history of violent attraction between objects. The earth is a rock in a stable orbit around a star. This orbit is a remnant of a violent history; it is an orbit that allows life to grow and finally to look out upon its universe in contemplation of repeated patterns and consistent laws of nature. What we have here is matter that has moved sufficiently away from violence to achieve consciousness. What once dumbly obeyed the laws of nature and was therefore caught up in violence, now finds itself not merely aware of those laws, but also contemplating free will.

Let's acknowledge, however, that moving away from violence into quiet stability is not sufficient by itself to produce consciousness. Many objects in the universe, while no longer colliding with other objects, have ceased also to produce very much activity of their own. These cold bodies we might contrast with the intense violent activity inside stars. Neither extreme can produce or sustain life and consciousness.

Hinduism has certain Sanskrit terms describing these extremes and a middle ground: tamas, rajas, and sattwa. Tamas can be translated as inertia, though the term is not restricted to what a physicist would call inertia. Certainly, gravitational inertia would be called tamas, but the idea can also be applied to a rotten apple, decay, illness, sleep, laziness, stupidity, and death. The moon is, relatively speaking, tamasic. It is inert, or mostly so.

Rajas is all anger, power, and violent movement. The sun's nuclear fire is rajasic. So is war and aggressiveness.

Sattwa is often translated as light. What physics terms as light would be called sattwic, though the term is also used to denote lightness of foot, lightness of being; nonviolent but productive activity; and cleanliness. It denotes fullness of life, not in the broad scientific sense of everything that reproduces, but in the narrower poetic sense of that which lives beautifully. It is not the same as enlightenment, but enlightenment would be called sattwic. To say it another way, sattwa is a prerequisite for enlightenment.

Earth is not merely a rock that ultimately escaped violence; it is full of all the ingredients of life. Most of the elements of the universe are found and gathered here in sufficient abundance and stability, in an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold to produce complex activity. Here the elements interact in such a way as to produce, well, all life that we know, and all life that we are moved to call living or conscious.

Our human history is a story of coming to learn how rajas and tamas lead to death -- or to put it in the language of spirituality, how rajas by itself destroys life, and how tamas merely obeys death. Our greatest teachings remind us not to murder, steal, or give in to any vice; they teach us not to fear or obey death, and to work.

When I step back and try to meditate on God's plan for creation, I do so as a Christian; and Christ's turning the other check to evil is in my eyes the farthest along on the path to consciousness I have described. But all the great teachings, like Hinduism's ahimsa (nonviolence), seem to me to come as God's grace: ways by which God has helped us to understand the laws of nature and our relationship to them. We are no longer material merely obeying the physical laws; we are conscious of our will, and of what circumscribes it; and in being aware of these things, we become the conscious matter of the universe.

From this it follows that the violence that we perceive as natural evil, in what we call natural disasters, does not represent God's intelligence or God's intentional will, anymore than what we call man-made evil represents those things. What seems certain is that God has willed conscious and unconscious matter to co-exist, which means that the latter, being unintelligent, will drown or destroy anything weaker than itself.

The tsunami, we can say, is a part of God's intelligent creation with its natural laws, and is in that sense willed by God; but it is not the direct representative of God's will for the universe, which seems to be that consciousness arise from unconsciousness and live in its midst. Consciousness does not arise separately in a painless universe of its own, because God wills that all matter co-exist. All matter seems related, in deeper ways than the mere fact that we are made of the same stuff. The violence of nuclear fusion may be immediately destructive to life as we know it, but it is tremendously creative; it produces the elements from which all life springs; and then it directly sustains the life that comes into being.

That aspect of the relationship is clear. The obligation on the part of conscious matter toward that which is unconscious is less clear, though much has already been affirmed within the human realm: those who have seen the Light are to love the unconscious doers of evil no less than their own friends. That is clear, if controversial.

Does that extend to the natural world? Certainly, the part of the natural world that we call living calls for our respect. Perhaps that which is destructive and cancerous calls for our respect less than what is living and plainly intelligent, like humpback whales; but there is no question anymore that it all deserves to be honored as life.

And what of the nonliving material world? Is there some sense in which that matter which became human and intelligent can find an active positive meaning in co-existing with earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, floods and other material events that have no consciousness of the death that they cause? Of that I'm not sure -- not because I bear any ill feeling to this part of the natural world, but because I can't really conceive of a relationship with nonliving things.

Environmentalism has sought to invest not just animals and plants, but the material Earth itself, with a consciousness and consequent value. That consciousness does not seem to me to exist, because that which comes into contact with life and destroys it -- even while sustaining life at other times -- cannot be conscious in the sense of enlightenment. That which is destructive in the human world, such as Hitler, can be intelligent, but it is not enlightened, since it destroys when it comes into contact with life and even with knowledge; that which is destructive to consciousness in the material world can be no more enlightened. And unless we invest it with a conscious hostile intent, we cannot even call it intelligent (hence another reason that we cannot find it to represent God's intelligence).

But I do have some positive thoughts about this, which follow from realizing that there is no hard distinction between what we call natural evil and man-made evil. A plague exists right at the border of these two things. Its chief agents are not human; but they are not like the nonliving magma of a volcanic eruption, either; they are living things. And people can bring about a plague, for instance by warring with one another; or they can do very little to stop it. So if there is an unclear border between "living" and "unliving" evil, and we know already that we are called to arise from, live among, and minister to living evil, then something similar must follow with regard to what I call unliving evil.

That plainly cannot mean subjecting the earth to whatever we think is best. Such unreflective confidence would be merely falling back into the imitation of the nonliving violent history from which we arose. Any return to such history, by this paradigm, takes us away from enlightenment. To the extent that we have behaved aggressively with natural resources in the past, we have been merely acting out of our own immaturity.

What I can say tentatively is that we are called in some way to cultivate a material environment conducive to life and consciousness.

God's mind is surely a great mystery. What I observe from looking around is that God has willed us not merely to co-exist with unconsciousness, but to arise from it. In short, it is not merely a tragedy that we take injury and suffer death at times from unconsciousness; we arise from it, and for that reason live with it. Love co-exists with lovelessness, and that seems to be how God wills it.

Evolution is plainly ugly. In the early universe, we see unimaginable radiation, vacuum, supreme cold, collision; on earth we see predator and prey, and truly ugly things like cancer. It is even possible, as recently proposed, that life began in viruses.

And then we see all these things in early human history, and too many of them in the present.

We cannot look into the past and expect to find only the wonders of God’s benevolence. What we can expect to find instead is unconsciousness, and God raising consciousness from it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Asking for ID

At Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, I've been posting several comments in an ongoing discussion/debate about the nature and origins of the Intelligent Design movement. This is not a question I'm currently working on, and I doubt I can give it much time, but I would like to get a better grip on this question since it's so much in the news. And it's an important issue in itself.

The focus of my postings so far at Bad Astronomy has been whether and how ID can be classified as a form of creationism.

I've started a thread at the BAUT Forum seeking opinions on this, and would welcome any thoughts on it -- here or there, in writing or in person, or by phone, email, chat, singing telegram, carrier pigeon, whatever.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Mini conjunction

This is the mini-conjunction I've been seeing around Jupiter. I took this photo through the telescope, and adjusted the orientation to match what would be seen through binoculars. In my binoculars (9x63) I saw a triangle made by Jupiter, the star, and the right-most moon.

It should go without saying that the whole scene looks quite crisper than this photo, which is a blurry shot taken with the camera held up quickly to the eyepiece. Well worth checking out; the moons are constantly shifting, so no two conjunctions will be alike.

From left to right, the moons are Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. The star to the lower left is Nu Librae, or SAO 159028. Photo taken March 2 at 3:21 a.m., New York time.