November 8, 2005

"The tip of a cosmic iceberg."

Physics and astronomy professor Lawrence M. Krauss writes about science and religion:
Certainly science has, in the past century, validated the notion that what we see is far from all there is. We cannot directly see electrons but we now know that material objects we can hold in our hand are actually, at an atomic level, largely empty space, and that it is the electric fields associated with the electrons that keep them from falling through our hands....

Thus, it is perhaps not too surprising that when one approaches the limits of our knowledge, theologians and scientists alike tend to appeal to new hidden universes for, respectively, either redemption or understanding.

The apparent complexity of our universe has compelled some evangelists, and some school boards, to argue that the natural laws we have unraveled over the past four centuries cannot be enough on their own to explain the diversity of the phenomena we observe around us, including the remarkable diversity of life on earth.

For very different reasons, but still without a shred of empirical evidence, a generation of theoretical physicists has speculated that the four dimensions of our experience may themselves be just a grand illusion - the tip of a cosmic iceberg....

Religious belief ... may itself have an evolutionary basis. There has been talk of a "god gene": the idea of an early advantage in the struggle for survival for those endowed with a belief in a hidden patrimony that gives order, purpose and meaning to the universe we experience.

Does the same evolutionary predilection lead physicists and mathematicians to see beauty in the unobserved, or unobservable? Does the longstanding human love affair with extra dimensions reflect something fundamental about the way we think, rather than about the world in which we live?

14 comments:

ATMX said...

It is my theory that a perfectly rational human would come to the conclusion that life is completely futile and pointless and would put little value on his own life as well as on the lives of those around him. A species composed of such beings would be suicidal in nature, both at the societal level and the individual level. Since atheists and extreme secularists who put down religion are not suicidal, I seriously doubt their claims of rationality and ability to reason.

mcg said...

What a wonderful article! I have often thought that theologians and atheistic cosmologists really aren't that far part, because in the end they both struggle with notions of infinity. For example, Big Bang theory has forced many cosmologists to posit unprovable theories such as multiverses, quantum soup, etc., because the finite size and extent of the universe simply isn't consistent with their... hope that it is... uncaused.

me said...

The article is interesting...but I want to hear comments about the new trend to put intelligent design in schools. I find it incomprehensible. Natural selection is accepted scientific theory that explains a lot of the natural world and learning it is a bedrock necessity for an understanding of biology. If this debate would go away I might be ok with getting rid of human evolution from HS textbooks. High school students might not need to learn about australopithecus (sp?) but they do need to learn about the basics of evolution. Making science teachers read a notice that says evolution is a disputed scientific theory (PA) is nauseating. Logic and reason are supposed to be conservative values -- why are so many keeping quiet about this "debate"?

chuck b. said...

I consider myself an athiest or an agnostic depending on my mood, and I oppose putting intelligent design in a public school curriculum. But I confess that I never felt closer to believing in god than I did when I studied biochemistry and molecular biology my senior year in college.

It's hard to recreate the feeling now (even tho' I work in a closely related field as a professional scientist), but I do remember being really blown away by it all at the time.

Science can lead some people to believing in god, no doubt. The gov't, through schools, has no business holding anyone's hand on the way there, or placing its imprimatur on any spiritual notions that suggest a higher intelligence might guide complex processes.

chuck b. said...

Studying science, I hasten to add. Not the practice of science.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

I kept looking for the joke. I mistook the title to be "The tip of the *comic* iceberg".

Of course, I'm female.

Why I oughta'...
Oh! A wiseguy, eh?
Nyuck. Nyuck.

AlaskaJack said...

"Me" makes an interesting point about logic, reason and the theory of intelligent design. I think the reason why there have been very few reasonable discussions on this subject is that it is difficult to get a handle on what the argument is all about.
Contempory evolution theory holds that the origin of biological life can be explained by a series of wholly undirected and random events that, over time, result in a living, self replicating cell. This cell and its progeny then undergo another series of random changes to their genetic codes. Natural selection operates to "select" certain organisms for their survival advantage. Over time, we end up with the wide variety of biological species we have today.
The theory of intelligent design asserts that the complexity of a living organism cannot be rationally explained by random genetic change. Much less, they say, can the complexity of the initial living cell be reasonably explained by random chance. Proponents of intelligent design argue that the complexity of the information embeded in a cell can only have been produced by an intelligent agent. Evidence of design produced by an intelligent agent,they say, is something that can be discovered empirically.
Intelligent design theory is a new paradigm; it stands in much the same position as did the Big Bang theory back when it was first proposed in oppostion to the steady state theory of the universe. Consequently, there are psychological reasons that operate against an intelligent discussion of the controversy. Secondly, intelligent design theory is complicated; it relys on sophisticated mathematical models and information theory to support its conclusions. This seems to be a factor that causes many to misunderstand and misrepresent ID theory.
One thing is clear; if the discussion is to be conducted in a rational and responsible way, the proponents of neo-Darwinism will have to come up with better arguments than those that characterize intelligent design as nothing by simple-minded biblical fundamentalism held by uneducated rubes.
It will be interesting to read the decision of the federal judge who has just completed a trial on this controversy.

Bruce Hayden said...

I guess my understanding of ID is not quite that of some others. I see it as more a push in the direction of evolution, instead of as an alternative.

One apparent problem with evolution, as we know it right now, is that statistically, it is questionable. Clayton Cramer in volokh.com the other day utilized the evolution of flagella, which apparently required over 20 genetic mutations. The problem is that most genetic mutations are fatal, but even the ones that aren't, often die out over time if they don't provide some marginal benefit (esp. if because of that, they somehow disadvantage the organism). Maybe this adaption was the result of those 20+ random mutations. But then, maybe some divine being pushed them along. At this point, we don't know, and really can't know. We don't have the hundreds of millions of years to experiment to see if we can reproduce them.

Part of the point is that it is easy to see how one, two, or even a small number of random mutations, if beneficial, can end up flourishing. But when you start talking dozens that interact and don't appear to have any real effect until all combined together, millions of years down the road, it gets murky.

As you have mentioned physicists, etc., I have also tended to include physics in ID. Why is our universe the way it is? There are certain interactions between certain physical constants that make it possible. Again, the numbers almost seem to suggest some sort of ID. The alternative would seem to be an almost infinite number of universes created that are incapable of forming the types of planets that are needed for the development of life as we know it.

Again though, this may be because we don't know enough yet. There may be some underlying reality that forces the relationship between all these physical constants.

John Thacker said...

Several surveys I've seen state that religious belief is considerably more common among physicists than biologists. You could speculate on the reasons why, I guess.

me said...

Alaskajack: Can you point me to any empirical evidence of the "sophisticated mathematical models and information theory" that support intelligent design?
Personally I think this report from Natural History magazine is a good introduction to the "debate."
http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html

me said...

PS: See Ann's Kansas post to continue this discussion.

AlaskaJack said...

To "Me": Here's some books on intelligent design theory that support my claim: Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe; The Design Inference and The Design Revolution by William Dembski. Michael Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University; William Dembski holds a Ph.D im mathmatics from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Illinois.
If probablitly theory shows that the origin of the first cell by random chance (as well as the DNA molecule)to be highly improbable, then, it seems to me, that one would have to conclude intellligent design simply the most rational explanation out there today. Intellectual honesty, however we may want to resist it, compels this conclusion.

Barry Kearns said...

As I've written elsewhere, the fundamental argument as offered by the so-called "intelligent design" crowd reduces to a failure of imagination.

Behe in particular is an egregious example of this. The lynchpin of his arguments is the notion of "irreducible complexity", and he attempts to trot out a variety of examples of processes that "look complex" to him, and he's unable to imagine a method by which the process could have evolved.

And if he can't imagine how it could have evolved, he declares that it couldn't have been... and must therefore require a designer. It seems to matter little to him that he simply has his facts wrong with respect to the literature that's been published showing the answers that he claims could not possibly exist.

Instead, he shifts his focus to different processes, and we end up with a perpetual game of "move the goalposts".

It's not a question of whether Behe is wrong in identifying whether individual processes are, in fact, irreducibly complex. To accept that is to cede 90% of the argument to begin with.

The flaw is Behe (or anyone else) setting themselves up as the arbiter of whether it is POSSIBLE that something might have evolved, and using their own personal confusion or lack of imagination as the yardstick for measuring the "probability" that it had actually happened.

One of the best clearinghouse pages for curing yourself of Behe's style of muddled thinking is called Behe's Empty Box.

It contains a great many links where you can learn about a variety of mechanisms that make seemingly-amazing evolutionary accomplishments understandable... techniques like "scaffolding", "duplication and divergence", and the rise of improvements transitioning into necessities.

Taken together, it's pretty easy to see that it's logically flawed to approach the problem from a question of whether any individual is clever enough to find the "silver bullet" example of something that is irreducibly complex.

There's even a "rule invocation" for addressing this logical fallacy:

Orgel's second rule: "Evolution is cleverer than you are."

In the end, it reduces down to a question of arrogance. Behe and his ilk are too arrogant to accept that it's possible for a process to arise for which they can't imagine the steps... as if their imagination is the metric for determining what is (and is not) possible.

Paul said...

So the defense of evolution boils down to an accusation that critics simply lack imagination? This speaks volumes regarding the available evidence to which evolutionists are able to appeal.