Friday, March 5, 2010

Strings, Extra Dimensions, and Other Worlds

This is the follow-up to the Leonard Susskind video on string theory. In this segment Susskind explains how it is that string theory allows for a near infinite number of possible universes, a fact that some advocates of the multiverse idea have latched on to to justify their belief that these other universes actually do exist. In fact, Susskind himself seems in the video to embrace both the weak anthropic principle and the multiverse hypothesis:

Susskind once admitted that the only alternatives are a multiverse or God. Nothing else can explain the breath-taking precision of the cosmic fine-tuning. I wonder what he'll do if string theory is ever shown to be unworkable.


Are There Secular Reasons?

Last November I mentioned a fine book by Hunter Baker titled The End of Secularism which explained how the project to secularize the public arena is dying a death of intellectual inanition.

A reader named Bill passes along an article on the same theme written for the New York Times' Opinionator blog by Stanley Fish which he titles Are There Secular Reasons?

Fish draws on a book by professor of law Steven Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, in which Smith argues that the secularist ideal of a public discourse sterilized of any religious premises is doomed to vacuity. It can only accomplish anything by smuggling in metaphysical, or religious, presuppositions "incognito."

Here's Fish writing about Smith's argument:

...the "truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of 'public reason' are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue - abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . ." If public reason has "deprived" the natural world of "its normative dimension" by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, "could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?" No way that is not a sleight of hand. This is the cul de sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the "pure" investigation of "observable facts." It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would enable it do so.

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By "smuggling," Smith answers.

. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway - but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian 'final causes' or a providential design," all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction - to even get started - "we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations - to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise."

There's much more of value in Fish's essay, and I thank Bill for recommending it.

One way this "smuggling" occurs, we might note, is that the secularist will make a moral claim to appeal for support among people who agree with the claim on religious grounds, even though the secularist does not himself share those grounds. For example, he might argue that we should not selfishly exploit the planet's resources and Christians will nod their heads in agreement because they believe for religious reasons that selfishness is wrong. It never occurs to many of them, though, to ask the secularist why he thinks it's wrong. Thus, the secularist is able to exclude religious reasons from the public square even though he piggy backs into the square on the shoulders of those reasons.


Another Non-Missing Link

Eventually the media will get burned by over-enthusiastic scientists enough times to make them chary about hyping every new fossil primate as a portentous discovery for the evolution of human beings. These stories, it seems, follow a predictable pattern: A fossil is found that generates exuberant media coverage and intemperate claims from the discoverers only to have further study of the find reveal that it's nothing at all special. The original discovery is trumpeted on the front pages and on all the news networks. The more sober assessments are buried somewhere around page ten.

Such is the case, evidently, with "Ida" (Darwinius masillae):

A fossil that was celebrated last year as a possible "missing link" between humans and early primates is actually a forebearer of modern-day lemurs and lorises, according to two papers by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin, Duke University and the University of Chicago.

In an article now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution, four scientists present evidence that the 47-million-year-old Darwinius masillae is not a haplorhine primate like humans, apes and monkeys, as the 2009 research claimed.

They also note that the article on Darwinius published last year in the journal PLoS ONE ignores two decades of published research showing that similar fossils are actually strepsirrhines, the primate group that includes lemurs and lorises.

"Many lines of evidence indicate that Darwinius has nothing at all to do with human evolution," says Chris Kirk, associate professor of anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. "Every year, scientists describe new fossils that contribute to our understanding of primate evolution. What's amazing about Darwinius is, despite the fact that it's nearly complete, it tells us very little that we didn't already know from fossils of closely related species."

When you just know that Homo sapiens has evolved from more primitive primates then your faith and your zeal will cause you to see confirmation of your belief in the most ambiguous evidence, or even where there's no confirmation at all.