Thursday, August 3, 2006

Atheistic Science

P.Z. Myers, the militant atheistic Darwinist who holds forth at Pharyngula writes about how much he likes this quote from J.B.S. Haldane:

My practise as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world. And I should be a coward if I did not state my theoretical views in public.

It's interesting that an atheist can feel free to base his views on the world's issues on his atheism and feel free to proclaim his atheism in public places, but if a politician, like, say, Senator Santorum or President Bush were to publically acknowledge that his opinions and policies are informed by his Christian worldview he would be accused by people like Myers of doing something terribly stupid or insidious.

Haldane thinks he would be a coward were he to refrain from stating his atheistic views in public and presumably Myers agrees. We should remember this the next time a politician gets heat from the secularists among us for being too explicit about his faith.

It's also interesting that it's a point of pride for Haldane/Myers that their science is consciously "atheistic", but let a scientist embrace theistic assumptions such as that the cosmos and/or living things show evidence of intention and intelligence in their design, and people like Myers consider him a crackpot. Yet why should an assumption of atheism on the part of a scientist be any more intellectually estimable than the assumption that one is "thinking God's thoughts after Him" when one is doing science?

To suggest, finally, that a scientific practice which assumes that God is not going to interfere with one's experiments is atheistic is ridiculous. Just because one assumes that God doesn't interfere in the day to day operation of the universe it does not follow that therefore one is an atheist or doing "atheistic science". All scientists, including theists, make the assumption that the regularities of nature will hold at least the vast majority of the time. This certainly does not mean that theists are metaphysical atheists.

Is Growth Good?

It's part of the received economic wisdom that growth is good and, since development is a means of growth, turning rural spaces into suburban housing, malls, and industrial parks is desirable. Nevertheless, despite the near universal acceptance of this assumption, at least by conservatives, I've never read a convincing argument in support of the proposition that development and the population growth it brings are actually good for a community and, in fact, I've never been able to see how they are.

The arguments I've heard all point to the jobs that are created when a new shopping center or industry moves into an area, but who fills these jobs? When jobs are created they attract people into the community who would not otherwise move there. This generates a demand for housing, the construction of which employs still more new arrivals who require yet more housing. Farmland and natural spaces get gobbled up and turned into lawns and parking lots. Traffic increases, roads must be built to relieve the congestion, and schools and hospitals must be erected to accomodate the new residents.

Moreover, sewers, water and other utilities must be provided. Police and other public employees must be hired. All of this costs money, so taxes go up, crowding goes up, and the native residents of the community wind up with a lower quality of life than they had before all the development occurred except now they have a new shopping mall.

Speaking of growth, our population - expected to cross the 300 million mark this summer - is burgeoning and lots of people say this is a good thing, but it's hard for me to see why it's a good thing. It seems that there really are only two advantages to a growing population: The first is that since Congress has squandered our social security we need more workers to support the elderly "boomers" as they (we) shuffle into our dotage. The second is that it allows us to avoid implementing a military draft by providing a reservoir of young volunteer soldiers to fight our enemies.

Neither of these seem to be worth the cost of an ever-expanding population making ever-increasing demands on an ever-diminshing amount of open space and water. The first reason is a short-term fix that'll eventually wind up in disaster since it requires that every generation be larger than the previous. At some point, however, the whole system will become unsustainable and collapse. The second justification for population growth could be made moot, of course, by a military draft.

In other words, the more people we have the more the quality of American life diminishes and the more stresses we place on resources and the natural environment. We don't need so many people. The advantages of a larger population could be met with far less harm by reforming social security, encouraging families to assume more responsibility for their elderly, and by initiating a mandatory period of public service which would include a military option.

We vote to save what's left of our open spaces and the natural beauty of rural America.


Skye Puppy has a series of photos that are breathtaking in what they illustrate about the size of the planet upon which we live relative to the cosmos. Look at the photos and then remember that there are billions of stars like those shown in the bottom photo just in our galaxy alone and there are billions of galaxies in the universe (To enlarge go to the link).

Some twentieth century thinkers have cited the immensity of both space and time as an argument for the insignificance of the earth and therefore of man. They gazed at the vastness of the heavens and scoffed at the medieval idea that man is at the center of the cosmos, that somehow it's all here just for us. That idea, though, no longer elicits derision. It's become clear to even the most adamantine skeptic that there's something eerily special about the construction of our universe. It is as if, cosmologist Freeman Dyson once said, the universe knew we were coming.

As for its great size and age, cosmologists note today that, given the fact that the elements necessary for life are forged in the centers of stars by nuclear fusion and distributed throughout space when those stars die in catastrophic explosions, the elements of which life is comprised would not have been available until at least one generation of stars had been born and died. This is a process judged to take billions of years. All through that enormous stretch of time the universe would have been expanding. Thus, by the time it was chemically ready to support living things it had to be very old and consequently very large.

In other words, the cosmos has to be as old as it is and as big as it is in order for us to be here. It's vastness is not a sign of some divine (or natural) profligacy, but, assuming that God chose to use stellar evolution as His means of producing carbon, oxygen and the rest, it is a divine necessity. We may not reside at the geometric center of the universe, indeed there probably isn't such a thing, but we very well may reside at its ontological center. It very well may be that we are the reason that the incomprehensibly huge universe exists at all.