Friday, February 19, 2010

The Really Real

One of the possible ways of thinking of the universe is to imagine it as a vast expression of a Divine thought - an idea, as it were, in the mind of God. A world that exists in the mind of God may make questions like why it exists, where do quantum particles go when they pop out of existence, how can a particle exist in two locations simultaneously, how can two photons traveling apart at the speed of light interact with each other, etc. somewhat easier to answer.

Now, however, comes another view the ontology of the universe. This idea, which has been around for a while but just recently received some experimental support, portrays the cosmos as a vast hologram. Just as light reflected off the surface of a credit card can produce an image of a three dimensional object, so too, according to this theory, could energy reflected off the surface of the universe's boundary produce the appearance of a three-dimensional world. This world doesn't really exist, or, more precisely, doesn't exist in the solid, material way we think it does, rather it's a pattern consisting of extremely tiny pixels.

It's a very strange theory and, truth to tell, I prefer the mind of God theory, but who knows? I'm quite sure that reality, the really real, is not at all the way we imagine it to be. I have little doubt that the world of our everyday experience is a consequence of our being the size we are, having the particular senses we have - with the particular constraints they impose - and having a mind which, in addition to other limitations, is only able to conceptualize in three dimensions. Were we the size of atoms or galaxies, were we to have six or more senses or were the senses we have able to perceive stimuli over a wider range, or were our minds more expansive than they are, our experience and understanding of the world might be entirely different than what it is.

Just as a man born blind and deaf has a very attenuated concept of what the world is like, unable as he is to imagine blue or music, for instance, so we have a very limited concept of reality because the structure of our senses and minds prohibits us from experiencing its full richness and reality.

We are like an unborn child trying to imagine the world outside its mother's womb. It's not long before we run smack up against the limits imposed by the structure of our minds and bodies.


Weakness Is Relative

"America appears weak, compared to what it has been and should be; not, thankfully, compared to its rivals," writes Conrad Black at NRO. His article summarizes the weaknesses of our competitors and some of our strengths. About President Obama, for example, he writes this:

Despite this appalling year of miscues and vaudeville amateurism, hope persists. The president did the right thing in Afghanistan, and will almost certainly, of all ironies, be a successful war president. He is sending military assistance to Taiwan, and finally meeting the Dalai Lama and ignoring Chinese protests. Obama is no Clinton at opportunistic zigzag course-changing. But if he becomes serious about offshore drilling and nuclear power, taxes financial transactions and elective energy use and doesn't strangle incomes, shows some fiscal restraint, accepts a sane compromise on health care, banishes cap-and-trade to Halloween trick-or-treating (where I assume it came from), revives the alliance with Europe, and applies his outstretched palm to Iran's bewhiskered face at great velocity, he could still be a successful president. Europe, Japan, and (thanks to George W. Bush's diplomacy) India are natural allies, and Russia will go to the highest bidder as long as it is treated politely. And if their interests are defined clearly, there need not be antagonism between the U.S. and China.

Indeed. Let's underscore the fiscal restraint part. Our current leadership's fiscal gluttony almost guarantees an inflated currency and/or higher taxes in the near future, and these could have devastating consequences for the economic health of millions of Americans.


Maintaining Orthodoxy

Jerry Fodor, a philosopher, and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, have written a book titled What Darwin Got Wrong. The authors are atheists and evolutionists, but their book is an assault on the mechanism of natural selection which they, like many other evolutionists, think to be an inadequate mechanism with which to account for the enormous amount of evolution it's called upon to explain.

Their heresy has drawn the attention of a Darwinian philosopher, Michael Ruse, who writes a rebuke in the Boston Globe taking the two deviants to task for having wandered off the Darwinian reservation. Ruse states that:

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini fault Darwinians for using the language of design and purpose which is necessitated by their adherence to the doctrine of natural selection and that such teleological terms have no place in science. Thus natural selection, for this reason among others, must be cast aside as a major mechanism of evolutionary change.

This irritates Ruse who concludes his indictment with these interesting words:

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini will not allow this [i.e. goal-directed natural selection], because apparently we are now ascribing conscious intentionality to the nonconscious world. We are saying the eyes were designed for seeing in a way that the tufts [of hair] were not. And they stress that the whole point of a naturalistic explanation, to which the Darwinian is supposedly committed, is that the world was not designed.

In response, one can only say that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of science. The Darwinian does not want to say that the world is designed. That is what the Intelligent Design crew argues. The Darwinian is using a metaphor [of design] to understand the material non-thinking world. We treat that world as if it were an object of design, because doing so is tremendously valuable heuristically. And the use of metaphor is a commonplace in science.

In other words, as Francis Crick once wrote, biologists must constantly remind themselves that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the miniscule biomachines they're looking at under their microscopes are not really designed but are rather the products of sheer serendipity. Nevertheless, biologists have to talk as if these structures and processes were designed because it's the language of design and purpose that best captures the complexity, beauty, and purposefulness of what they see.

Why then do we have these arguments? The clue is given at the end, when the authors start to quote - as examples of dreadful Darwinism - claims that human nature might have been fashioned by natural selection. At the beginning of their book, they proudly claim to be atheists. Perhaps so. But my suspicion is that, like those scorned Christians, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just cannot stomach the idea that humans might just be organisms, no better than the rest of the living world. We have to be special, superior to other denizens of Planet Earth. Christians are open in their beliefs that humans are special and explaining them lies beyond the scope of science. I just wish that our authors were a little more open that this is their view too.

Here Ruse reveals the great secret of modern naturalism and scientism. If there's nothing special about man, as Ruse avers, then there's no reason to confer upon him dignity, worth, or rights. He's just a brute like any other, suitable to be manipulated by those who are enlightened, much like a dairy farmer manipulates his herd, and if that means that there must be a culling of the herd, a slaughter, well, then, so be it. There's nothing special or superior about humans that they should be treated any differently than cows.

The naturalist often talks about the quest to liberate man from superstition, to raise him to the level of a deity, but the logic of naturalism leads invariably and repeatedly to man's dehumanization. What a comfort it must be to be an atheist.