Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cellular Choreography

In my classes we've been looking at the design argument for the existence of God. One aspect of the argument is based on the amazing fact that each cell in living organisms is a factory consisting of thousands of biological machines directed and choreographed by information-rich instructions. Since we have a uniform experience of information (specified complexity) being produced only by intelligent agents, and no experience of information being generated by blind, impersonal forces, it's not unreasonable to conclude that the information in the biosphere is also the product of an intelligent agent.

The following excerpt from a longer video provides an example of the astonishing goings-on in the interiors of every cell in your body. The quality of the you tube version of the video is not good, but it's good enough.
Some questions we might ask about this include these: How do these molecular structures "know" what operation to perform and where to go to perform it? Where do the instructions (information) come from that direct these operations, and how does such a system arise from a blind, mindless process like evolution? Indeed, how did these processes ever arise in the first cells before cells "learned" to reproduce? After all, natural selection, and thus evolution, doesn't kick in until cells can make copies of themselves. Yet many of these basic processes must already have been in place in the earliest cells or they wouldn't have survived to develop the ability to reproduce.

It's all very mysterious, but it certainly seems plausible to believe that this whole system was somehow designed. In fact, the only way to avoid that conclusion is to rule out design a priori, but why do that unless one's metaphysical commitment to naturalism is so strong that no rival hypothesis can be allowed to creep into one's thinking? If that's the case, though, one should give up any pretense of being open-minded.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Fine-Tuned Universes and the Multiverse

Physicist Leonard Susskind once claimed that there are only two live options for explaining the amazing precision in the structure of the universe's parameters and constants - either the universe was intentionally designed by a mind or there's a multiverse. Of course, a multiverse could also be the product of intentional design, but Susskind, like many of his naturalistic colleagues, sees an undesigned multiverse as the only real alternative to some kind of intelligent agency.

Why, though, limit the possible explanations to an intelligent agent or an unintelligent multiverse? Jonathan Witt at Evolution News explains:
On one side of the controversy are scientists who see powerful evidence for purpose in the way the laws and constants of physics and chemistry are finely tuned to allow for life -- finely tuned to a mindboggling degree of precision.

Change gravity or the strong nuclear force or any of dozens of other constants even the tiniest bit, and no stars, no planets, no life. Why are the constants just so? Here's what Nobel Laureate Arno Penzias concluded: "Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say 'supernatural') plan."

Nobel Laureate George Smoot is another, commenting that "the big bang, the most cataclysmic event we can imagine, on closer inspection appears finely orchestrated." Elsewhere Smoot describes the ripples in the cosmic background radiation as the "fingerprints from the Maker."

On the other side of the divide are those who insist with Harvard's Richard Lewontin that they simply cannot "let a divine foot in the door." In the case of the fine-tuning problem, they keep "the divine foot" out with a pair of curious arguments. Each involves a fallacy, and one of them the idea of a multiverse.
Here's what Witt says about the multiverse hypothesis:
A second tactic for countering the fine-tuning argument to design runs like this: Our universe is just one of untold trillions of universes. Ours is just one of the lucky ones with the right parameters for life. True, we can't see or otherwise detect these other universes, but they must be out there because that solves the fine-tuning problem.

Consider an analogy. A naïve gambler is at a casino and, seeing a crowd forming around a poker table across the room, he goes over to investigate. He squeezes through the crowd and, whispering to another onlooker, learns that the mob boss there at the table lost a couple of poker hands and then gave the dealer a look that could kill, then on the next two hands the mobster laid down royal flushes, each time without exchanging any cards. Keep in mind that the odds of drawing even one royal flush in this way is about one chance in 650,000. The odds of it happening twice in a row are 1 chance in about 650,000 x 650,000.

At this point, a few of the other poker players at the table prudently compliment the mobster on his good fortune, cash in their chips and leave. The naïve gambler misses all of these clues, and a look of wonder blossoms across his face. On the next hand the mob boss lays down a third royal flush. The naïve gambler pulls up a calculator on his phone and punches in some numbers. "Wow!" he cries. "The odds of that happening three times in a row are worse than 1 chance in 274 thousand trillion! Imagine how much poker playing there must have been going on -- maybe is going on right now all over the world -- to make that run of luck possible!" The naïve gambler hasn't explained the mobster's "run of luck." All he's done is overlook one reasonable explanation: intelligent design.

The naïve gambler's error is the same error committed by those who appeal to multiple, undetectable universes to explain the "luck" that gave us a universe fine-tuned to allow for intelligent observers.
Witt gives a couple more illustrations of what he sees as the fallacy in invoking the multiverse to explain the unimaginably high improbability of an undesigned universe being as fine-tuned as is ours, and you might want to check out his column if this topic interests you.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Return to Cosmic Specialness

Howard A. Smith is a lecturer in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy and a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He wrote a column for the Washington Post in which he argued that, contrary to much conventional wisdom, both the earth and life are exceedingly special and probably extraordinarily rare, if not unique. Here are some excerpts:
There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere.

Astronomer Carl Sagan put it this way: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking was even blunter: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”
Smith, however, takes exception to this "principle of mediocrity":
The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life. The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) — for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here.

The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life.
This expansion value, in fact, is fine-tuned to a precision of one part in 10^10^123. It's a number impossible to comprehend.
The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.
Smith goes on to explain why intelligent life is not likely to exist on other planets, no matter how many of them there are. He gives several reasons for this, but there are reasons he doesn't mention as well. Here are a few: A planet suitable for life has to have the right mass, period of rotation, be the right distance from its star, and have on it the right elements in ample supply. A life-sustaining planet must also have a moon of the proper size, it has to orbit a star of the right size and age, and be located in the right kind of galaxy and in the right place in the galaxy. In addition to all this it has to have been extremely lucky to have avoided life-destroying meteor impacts and other cosmic disasters.

Smith continues:
Some of my colleagues strongly reject this notion. They would echo Hawking: “I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.” Yes, we all have beliefs — but beliefs are not proof. Hawking’s belief presumes that we are nothing but ordinary, a “chemical scum.” All the observations so far, however, are consistent with the idea that humanity is not mediocre at all and that we won’t know otherwise for a long time. let us be grateful for the amazing gifts of life and awareness, and acknowledge the compelling evidence to date that humanity and our home planet, Earth, are rare and cosmically precious.
It seems that in light of the overwhelming evidence of fine-tuning more and more philosophers and scientists are abandoning the Sagan/Hawking position and coming around to Smith's point of view that life on earth is extraordinary, and that as huge as the universe is we are quite possibly the only intelligent beings in the whole of its vastness. It's a breath-taking thought.

Monday, December 5, 2016

More on the Death of Fidel

When Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died last week I did a post (11/28/16) titled A Tyrant Has Passed in which was mentioned some of the many crimes this man committed against the Cuban people. In reply, a student whose great-grandfather was one of those who suffered and was lucky enough to escape wrote to relate his fascinating story:
Castro’s death is great news for everyone around the world, especially my family. My great grandfather on my father’s side of the family is actually 100% Cuban, and so is my grandfather. When Castro was first gaining power, my great grandfather Juan Silva realized that Fidel was a vile man. Juan, a prestigious lawyer, began using whatever money he had to help people leave Cuba and escape the coming storm. Fidel discovered Juan’s actions and torched my great grandfather’s library. This was a heavy blow to Juan because from a lawyer’s standpoint, his library was paramount to his career.

Around the same time, Fidel vowed that he would execute the entirety of the Silva family. This was more than enough for Juan, so he gathered his family and his remaining finances and left Cuba for America. My grandfather, Alfredo Silva, was born in Cuba, but has lived in the United States for most of his life. He vowed never to return to Cuba unless Fidel Castro was deceased.

My grandfather grew up in a house in Punta Gorda, Cuba that Castro used as a summer home after Juan and his family fled the country. My grandfather’s health has been diminishing severely over the years, resulting in dementia. He’s now in his 80s and remembers more about his short time in Cuba than his whole life in America.

For old time’s sake, my father, two of my uncles, and my cousin have accompanied my grandfather back to his home in Punta Gorda. They had scheduled the trip months in advance, regardless of Fidel’s well-being. My father and grandfather left for Cuba on Wednesday, November 30th: only a few days after Castro’s death. I hope my grandfather can visit his old home in peace and that the members of my family who are in Cuba will have a wonderful and safe time.
There are perhaps millions of Cubans with stories like this about Castro which is why so many of them were celebrating in the streets of Miami and, more circumspectly, throughout Cuba, when news of Castro's death was announced.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Fine-Tuning Made Simple

Philosopher of science Robin Collins is one of the world's foremost authorities on cosmic fine-tuning, a topic that has popped up on Viewpoint pretty often. Back in 1998, an essay by Collins titled The Fine-Tuning Design Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God, appeared in a collection of essays edited by philosopher Michael Murray titled Reason for the Hope Within. His essay begins with this:
Suppose we went on a mission to Mars, and found a domed structure in which everything was set up just right for life to exist. The temperature, for example, was set around 70 °F and the humidity was at 50%; moreover, there was an oxygen recycling system, an energy gathering system, and a whole system for the production of food. Put simply, the domed structure appeared to be a fully functioning biosphere. What conclusion would we draw from finding this structure? Would we draw the conclusion that it just happened to form by chance? Certainly not.

Instead, we would unanimously conclude that it was designed by some intelligent being. Why would we draw this conclusion? Because an intelligent designer appears to be the only plausible explanation for the existence of the structure. That is, the only alternative explanation we can think of–that the structure was formed by some natural process–seems extremely unlikely. Of course, it is possible that, for example, through some volcanic eruption various metals and other compounds could have formed, and then separated out in just the right way to produce the “biosphere,” but such a scenario strikes us as extraordinarily unlikely, thus making this alternative explanation unbelievable.

The universe is analogous to such a “biosphere,” according to recent findings in physics . . . . Scientists call this extraordinary balancing of the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe the “fine-tuning of the cosmos” . . . For example, theoretical physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies–whose early writings were not particularly sympathetic to theism–claims that with regard to basic structure of the universe, “the impression of design is overwhelming” (Davies, 1988, p. 203) . . . .

As the eminent Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson notes, "There are many . . . lucky accidents in physics. Without such accidents, water could not exist as liquid, chains of carbon atoms could not form complex organic molecules, and hydrogen atoms could not form breakable bridges between molecules" (p. 251)--in short, life as we know it would be impossible.

Scientists call this extraordinary balancing of the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe the "fine-tuning of the cosmos." It has been extensively discussed by philosophers, theologians, and scientists, especially since the early 1970s, with hundreds of articles and dozens of books written on the topic. Today, it is widely regarded as offering by far the most persuasive current argument for the existence of God. For example, theoretical physicist and popular science writer Paul Davies--whose early writings were not particularly sympathetic to theism--claims that with regard to basic structure of the universe, "the impression of design is overwhelming" (Davies, 1988, p. 203).

Similarly, in response to the life-permitting fine-tuning of the nuclear resonances responsible for the oxygen and carbon synthesis in stars, the famous astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle declares that:
I do not believe that any scientists who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside stars. If this is so, then my apparently random quirks have become part of a deep-laid scheme. If not then we are back again at a monstrous sequence of accidents. [Fred Hoyle, in Religion and the Scientists, 1959; quoted in Barrow and Tipler, p. 22]
Collins then goes on in his essay to give five examples of cosmic fine-tuning. In each case had a particular parameter, such as the initial expansion rate of the universe or the strength of gravity, varied by incomprehensibly minute amounts the universe would never have formed.

It's all absolutely breath-taking if the universe is designed by an intelligent agent, but it's literally incredible, at least for me, to think that it's all just a "lucky accident."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Soul Survival

Usually when people talk about the soul and life beyond the death of the physical body they draw looks of incredulity and even scorn from fashionably skeptical materialists, but when a scientist as prominent as physicist Roger Penrose talks about it, well, then the skeptics should at least listen.

Penrose's theory is that the soul consists of information stored at the sub-atomic level in microtubules in the body's cells. At death this information somehow escapes the confines of the microtubules and drifts off into the universe. He claims to have evidence to support this hypothesis, and perhaps he does. I haven't seen the evidence, but I'd like to know how the information "knows" that the body has died and what mechanism controls it. I'd also like to know what the information is about, how it functions without a physical body, and what disembodied information leaking out into the universe "looks" like.

Anyway, I'm not altogether skeptical of Penrose's theory. I've long advocated the view that, if we do have a soul (as a substance that's neither physical nor mental - neither body nor mind), that it consists of information. In this I'm in agreement with Penrose.

Where I differ from him is that in my view the soul is the totality of true propositions about a person - an exhaustive description of the person at every moment of his or her existence. It's the essence of the person. But whereas Penrose locates the information in cellular microtubules I posit that the information is located in a vast database, i.e. the mind of God. In God's mind there is, so to speak, a "file" containing a complete description of every person who has ever lived. Since the information is located in the mind of God it's indestructible - immortal - unless God chooses to destroy it. Each of us is therefore potentially eternal.

To take this line of thinking one more step, perhaps when our physical bodies die our "file" is "downloaded," in whole or in part, into another body situated in a different world, or at least in a different set of dimensions than what we experience in this world. It would be a different kind of body, perhaps, but a body all the same.

On this view, the soul is not something wraith-like that's contained in us, but rather it's "in" God. As with a computer file, he could choose to delete it altogether or to express it in any "format" he sees fit.

In any case, if this hypothesis is at all close to describing the way things are, the death of our bodies is not the death of us, and if physical death is not the end of our existence, that changes everything.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

No Follow-Up Attack

Why was there no significant follow-up attack by Islamists after their devastating attack on 9/11? The man who interrogated the terrorist who planned and organized 9/11, James B. Mitchell, gives an answer that may surprise. The strategist who planned the 9/11 attack, Kalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM), was captured by American forces and subsequently interrogated. According to an article in The Federalist Mitchell described the response he got when he put the question to Mohammed this way:
Far from trying to draw us in, KSM said that al-Qaeda expected the United States to respond to 9/11 as we had the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — when, KSM told Mitchell, the United States ‘turned tail and ran.’

‘Then he looked at me and said, ‘How was I supposed to know that cowboy George Bush would announce he wanted us ‘dead or alive’ and then invade Afghanistan to hunt us down?’’ Mitchell writes. ‘KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.’ He was not able to do so because al-Qaeda was stunned ‘by the ferocity and swiftness of George W. Bush’s response.’
It was Bush's application of enormous military might in Afghanistan that aborted any attempt to hit the U.S. again, but that doesn't mean that the Islamists have given up. Mohammed forecast exactly what we're seeing happen in the U.S. and Europe today:
KSM explained that large-scale attacks such as 9/11 were ‘nice, but not necessary’ and that a series of ‘low-tech attacks could bring down America the same way ‘enough disease-infected fleas can fell an elephant.’ ’ KSM ‘said jihadi-minded brothers would immigrate into the United States’ and ‘wrap themselves in America’s rights and laws’ until they were strong enough to rise up and attack us. ‘He said the brothers would relentlessly continue their attacks and the American people would eventually become so tired, so frightened, and so weary of war that they would just want it to end.’ ‘Eventually,’ KSM said, ‘America will expose her neck for us to slaughter.’
The article closes with this thought:
“America may not be in a religious war with him, but he and other True Muslims are in a religious war with America,” KSM said. “He and his brothers will not stop until the entire world lives under Sharia law.”
Never mind that, we're told, compassion requires of us that we bring into the country as many "True Muslims" as we can. If they eventually rise up, like the fellow at Ohio State, or the couple in San Bernadino, or the guy at Fort Hood, or the shooter in Orlando, or any number of other examples here and in Europe, and slaughter our children, well, then, maybe we deserve it for being infidels. Or for being foolish.