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Turtles, or terrapins, on a log in a pondToday we visited the beautiful Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, NC, USA, and came across a contented herd of turtles sunning themselves on a log.

The scene brought to mind the amusing “turtles all the way down” anecdote. On the surface, it makes fun of credulity. But I think it also has something to say about the nature of infinity and eternity.

The anecdote, which might be apocryphal, sometimes names Bertrand Russell as the scientist confronted by a determined old lady. But I like John Robert Ross‘s version, which names William James as the scientist:

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: the first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly, “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down!”

(Source: J0hn Robert Ross, Constraints on variables in syntax. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Modern Languages and Linguistics. Thesis. 1967.)

Drawing of a hemispherical earth on the backs of four elephants, in turn standing on a turtle's back

This story references a supposed Hindu cosmology that imagined the earth resting on the backs of a group of elephants standing on a tortoise’s back.

“Turtles all the way down” makes me reflect on the idea of infinity. Where does the universe end? It’s turtles all the way out there.

And, while I can imagine living on forever into the future, I have a hard time conceiving of an eternal being that has always existed. When did God begin? It’s turtles all the way back.

ARK — 19 February 2017

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The short answer is no, but he has said some interesting things about who God might be.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku. Credit: Cristiano Sant´Anna/indicefoto.com. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This question came to my attention this past week, when someone pointed me to articles on this topic, including “Top scientist claims proof that God exists, says humans live in a ‘world made by rules created by an intelligence’,” at the website Christian Today.  That article makes the claim:

A respected figure in the scientific community recently said he found evidence proving that there is a Higher Being, which he described as the action of a force “that governs everything.”

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who is known as one of the developers of the revolutionary String Theory, said theoretical particles known as “primitive semi-radius tachyons” may be used to prove the existence of God.

However, nothing on this topic appears on Kaku’s official website, and a search of academic sources reveals nothing written by Kaku referring to “semi-radius tachyons.” According to Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist and textbook author,

Tachyons are theoretical particles. We have no idea whether or not they exist. If they exist, they travel faster than the speed of light, so it’s hard to know how in the world we could ever detect them, much less conduct tests on them. I have no idea how such particles can tell us something about the nature of the universe. I looked in vain for an article on the subject authored by Dr. Kaku himself. I then went to his Facebook page, which made no mention of this “monumental discovery.”

Since I couldn’t find anything written by Dr. Kaku, I decided to investigate these “primitive semi-radius tachyons” myself. I had never heard that term before, but then again, I am not a particle physicist. So today, I tried to find the term in my reference books. I could not. When I did an internet search on the term, the only hits I got were to articles about this supposed discovery. As a result, I seriously doubt that primitive semi-radius tachyons exist, even in the minds of theoretical physicists.

Wile, in fact, discovered that this assertion about Kaku’s “discovery” goes back to at least 2013, when it was apparently circulating on Spanish- and Portuguese-language websites.

So the claims that Michio Kaku has found God seem fabricated, or at least exaggerated. However, I do find that Kaku has made some interesting statements about the possibility of design in the universe. Wile characterizes Kaku as “a theoretical physicist who had done some cutting edge research a couple of decades ago, but is more of a ‘scilebrity’ today, promoting science and his ideas about the future on television shows, etc.” For that reason, it’s possible to find a number of video presentations by him. In some ways, Kaku seems to espouse a belief in the god of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who believed not in a personal God, but in a god “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists,” as Albert Einstein put it.

In a 2013 video program, Kaku said:

The goal of physics, we believe, is to find an equation perhaps no more than one inch long, which will allow us to unify all the forces of nature and allow us to read the mind of God.

And what is the key to that one-inch equation? Super-symmetry. A symmetry that comes out of physics, not mathematics, and has shocked the world of mathematics.

But you see, all this is pure mathematics, and so the final resolution could be that God is a mathematician. And when you read the mind of God, we actually have a candidate for the mind of God. The mind of God, we believe, is cosmic music, the music of strings resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein in 1947. Photo by Orren Jack Turner.

And in a 2011 interview, he more specifically referenced Einstein and Spinoza:

Einstein was asked the big question, Is there a God? Is there a meaning to everything, right? And here’s how Einstein answered the question. He said there really are two kinds of gods. We have to be very scientific. We have to define what we mean by God. If God is the God of intervention, a personal God, a god of prayer, the God who parts the waters, then he had a hard time believing in that. Would God listen to all our prayers, for a bicycle for Christmas? Smite the Philistines for me, please.

He didn’t think so. However, he believed in the God of order, harmony, beauty, simplicity, and elegance, the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that he believed in, because he thought the universe was so gorgeous. It didn’t have to be that way. It could have been chaotic. It could have been ugly, messy. But here we have the fact that all the equations of physics can be placed on a simple sheet of paper. Einstein’s equation is only one inch long. And the quantum theory is about a yard long, but you can squeeze it onto a sheet of paper…

… And with string theory, you can even put those two equations together, and string theory can be squeezed into an equation one inch long. And that equation, but the way, is my equation. That’s String Field Theory. That’s my contribution.

But we want to know, where did that equation come from, you know. This is what Einstein asked. Did God have a choice? Was there any choice in building a universe? When he woke up in the morning, he would say, “I want to create a universe. I want to be God today. What kind of universe would I create?” This is how he created much of his theory.

So, Kaku doesn’t really claim to have proven the existence of God through physics. However, he does acknowledge that the physical universe implies that there is something more going on than just a big random mess.

ARK — 19 June 2016

 

 

 

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In a way, it doesn’t much matter to me whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. I guess the question interests me intellectually, but I don’t think I have an ideological investment in it.

Museum display of human with dinosaur

An exhibit at the Creation Museum shows a human happily coexisting with a hungry-looking theropod. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how it does interest me: I’m writing fiction that is set in the remote past, during a period when the written history is sketchy. The first novel for my Edhai series is called The Cursed Ground, and the first episode is due for release on Jan. 20, 2015. The concept calls for a lot of world-building, and it could be interesting to portray some interaction between the human characters and some large reptile-like or large bird-like animals.

(Just a note that this blog entry highlights the value and relevance of the field of anomalistics to modern research. For a discussion of anomalistics, that is, the study of stuff that doesn’t fit the predominant paradigm in one way or another, see my previous article, “Anomalistics, Pseudo-Skepticism, and the Discovery of a 300-Million-Year-Old Aluminum Machinery Part.”)

But does it make any sense to build a fictional world in which humans are contemporary with dinosaurs, especially for a fiction series that is purportedly “historical”?

How you respond to that question could depend on your ideological stance.

A creationist (by which I essentially mean a young-earth creationist) would say, ‘Of course humans and dinosaurs lived together.’ That view holds that the earth and all life on it are only about 6,000 (or sometimes 10,000) years old. Artwork and even museum exhibits from that camp sometimes show humans and dinosaurs in the same scene.

A materialist would say it’s nonsense to place humans and dinosaurs into the same time frame (materialists love the word “nonsense”). Dinosaurs, at least what most people think of as dinosaurs, lived in the Mesozoic geologic period, according to the timeline most-commonly accepted in mainstream academia. That period is said to have ended 66 million years before the present (b.p.), whereas anatomically-modern humans are only supposed to have appeared within the last half-million years — too late to have ridden a triceratops or to have had to run away screaming to avoid getting stomped-on by a T-Rex.

That said, some intriguing scientific findings in recent years have called into question some long-held assumptions about when the non-avian dinosaurs actually lived. Could the consensus time frame be off — even way off? And could that triceratops horsey-ride have been feasible after all?

geologic time scale

Conventional geologic time scale. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

Organic material found in a T-Rex fossil: Paleontologist Mary H. Schweitzer Of North Carolina State University stunned the fossil-hunting profession with her 2005 article in Science, “Soft tissue vessels and cellular preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex.” In her article, Schweitzer reported finding organic tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil. The problem is that, according to the current model of how fossils form, there’s no way any organic material should have remained in a fossil 68 million years old. Any such material should have long ago decomposed and been replaced by minerals, or have been destroyed by radiation.

Many critics claim that her sample must have been contaminated somehow. Schweitzer seems to think that the material really is 68 million years old and that this suggests that current theory about how fossils form might be wrong. That’s a useful idea, but another possibility is that the conventional means of dating fossils is way off, and that the T-Rex in question lived much more recently than is called for in the prevailing view of the geologic past.

Radiocarbon dating finds dinosaur fossils only 22,000-39,000 years old. Traditional paleontologists would never think of applying radiocarbon (RC or C-14) dating to Mesozoic fossils. After all, C-14 dating is only useful going back 50,000-80,000 years b.p., three orders of magnitude too soon. Yet an open-minded group of researchers (calling themselves the Paleochronology Group) decided, Why not? The tests have yielded ages between 22,000 and 39,000 years b.p. for fossils of Allosaurus, Triceratops, Hadrosaur, and Apatosaur.

Critics argue that these RC dates can’t be correct, because the non-avian dinosaurs studied all died out 66 million years ago. In other words, these findings are not in line with the consensus view, so they must be wrong. The Paleochronology Group argues that the conventional potassium-argon method used to obtain the very-old dating of Mesozoic fossils tests the supposed age of the surrounding deposits, not the fossils themselves.

Anyway, these are intriguing findings, and the controversy over them reveals a tendency to deny anomalistic evidence, findings that don’t fit the prevailing paradigm. Such denialism can particularly manifest if critics have an ideological bias that requires a very, very long time frame for life on earth, a long enough time frame for chance and necessity to supposedly produce a vast diversity of life. As atheist champion Richard Dawkins once said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” (The Blind Watchmaker, 1986) Intellectual fulfillment does not die easily.

Anyway, those two sets of findings by paleontologists are suggestive of the possibilities for a novelist writing historical fiction based on Biblical settings. With some speculative elements thrown into the scenario, it might be possible to let some of the human characters encounter some strange and dangerous beasts. In fiction, the anomalous can make for good storytelling.

By the way, if you enjoy reading articles like this — and if you want to keep up with news about my historical-fiction series, The Edhai — please sign up today to receive my free email newsletter.

ARK — 15 January 2015

 

 

 

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I know it’s a bit after Columbus Day, but this question came up recently when I heard yet another speaker say that Columbus proved the earth is round when he sailed across the Atlantic and didn’t fall off the edge of the world. The story goes that in the Middle Ages everyone believed the earth was flat, and that the courageous Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo in Italian) went to Queen Isabella of Spain and got her to finance his voyage across the ocean to prove everybody was wrong.

15th century global

A 15th-century Columbus-era globe. Credit: Alexander Franke, via Wikimedia.

This question about the shape of the earth and Columbus’s voyage sometimes comes up in discussions of the authenticity of the Bible, which is why I bring it up here. Critics of the Bible often claim that the Bible is unscientific. They might point to statements in the Bible that supposedly prove that its writers believed in a flat earth, as if using figurative language such as “the four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or ‘the rising and setting of the sun’ (Ps 113:3) were somehow verboten.

Many of us who are students of the Bible accept it as an inspired expression of a divine Author. At the same time, it is literature and its individual writers were human, so there is nothing wrong with their use of literary devices. The Bible is not a science textbook, but we like to point out that when it touches on matters of proven science, it is accurate. There’s a lot to say about that topic, but one point we sometimes bring up is that the Bible as early as the 8th century BCE described the shape of the earth as round. Isaiah 40:22 describes that shape as a “circle” or “sphere” — chug in Hebrew.

While it’s beneficial to point this out, sometimes I hear folks add that the shape of the earth was not known until Columbus proved it in 1492. This is not accurate. In fact, the spherical shape of the earth was known by Greek scientists as early as the 5th century BCE. Here are a couple of articles that discuss this question briefly:

The best article I’ve seen on this topic, though, is “Inventing the Flat Earth,” by historian Jeffrey Russell, in History Today. Unfortunately, that article is not available online outside of a paywall. However, following are a few points of interest from Russell’s piece.

Russell writes that “after the fifth century BC very few Greek writers thought of the earth as anything but round.” In the Greek and Roman worlds in the last few centuries BCE, maps showing a round earth as well as “three dimensional globes … were used publicly as educational tools.” After that and all through the Middle Ages, the roundness of the earth was generally known among educated people, with flat-earthers few and far between and little-respected.

Russell says that the “Flat Error” or “Myth of the Flat Earth,” that is, the misconception that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, was not widely disseminated until the early 19th century, when the American writer Washington Irving popularized the idea in his partly fictional writings about Columbus. After that time, it became common to portray the Middle Ages as a time of scientific ignorance, with belief in a flat earth as an important trope.

Interestingly, Russell writes, the Flat Error became a rhetorical tool in perhaps the most important ideological battle of the 19th century:

The Flat Error became an article of almost unquestioned faith for historians from the 1860s onward, and for a very deliberate reason. The Darwinist controversy was underway, and Positivists wanted to discredit the anti-Darwinists as foolish bumpkins. To do this they wanted both to compare resistance against evolution with resistance against sphericity and to incorporate it as part of a historical pattern of religious resistance to science. They created the historical myth of the warfare of theology and science.

Russell makes the interesting assertion that the persistence of the Flat Error really comes down to prejudice: “medieval people were so superstitious they must have believed in something as foolish as the flat earth.” Underlying this, he believes is “the Protestant prejudice against the Middle Ages for being Catholic, the Rationalist prejudice against Judeo-Christianity as a whole, and the Anglo-American prejudice against the Spanish…”

He believes that it comes down to fear as well, the fear of giving up cherished ideas, in way,  the fear “of falling off the edge of knowledge.” Easier “to believe a familiar error than to search, unceasingly, the darkness.”

ARK — 21 October 2014

 

 

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Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett recently published “Seven Tools for Thinking” in The Guardian. An excerpt from his new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Dennett’s seven tools make up a useful set of guidelines for some aspects of rhetorical arguments.

However, I was particularly struck by a seeming irony that shows up between tool number 4 (“Answer Rhetorical Questions”) and tool number 5 (“Employ Occam’s Razor”). In his section on rhetorical questions, he has just encouraged the reader to check his baloney meter any time he hears the word “surely,” saying that “often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.” Then he makes a similar point about rhetorical questions:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut…

This seems like a useful piece of advice for evaluating arguments. But what struck me was what he writes in the very next section on Occam’s Razor (“don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well”):

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam’s razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?

Did you notice his rhetorical question? Dang, I almost wonder whether this is calculated to somehow entrap the unwary theist into a debate, because I would say Dennett’s use of a rhetorical question at that point represents the “author’s eagerness to take a short cut” and spotlights “a weak point in the argument.” Having in the previous section been sensitized to rhetorical questions, I find myself reflecting on Dennett’s linking of the four key words: postulate, supernatural, incomprehensible, parsimonious. What does his selection of these words indicate about his thinking, his biases, his rhetorical purpose, and the weakness of the argument implied in his question?

In his section on rhetorical questions, Dennett makes a useful suggestion:

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question.

I like that idea. If I were to answer the rhetorical question, “How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious?,” how would I do so? An interesting exercise.

One answer might be to focus on the weakness inherent in that question, the assumption that a supernatural being is incomprehensible.

Another answer might be that evoking God as as creator of the universe is parsimonious if it happens to be true.

In any case, hats off to Dr. Dennett for putting together a thought-provoking set of rhetorical guidelines.

ARK — 24 May 2014

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I recently learned about the field of anomalistics, that is, the study of scientific anomalies. This is a little-known area of investigation that attempts to take an even-handed approach to extraordinary claims. I found a good explanation of the field at the web site Skeptical Investigations. In an article, “The Perspective of Anomalistics,” by the now-deceased Marcello Truzzi (sociologist at Eastern Michigan University), Truzzi explains that anomalistics has “two central features”:

  1. Anomalistics’ “concerns are purely scientific,” so “it deals only with empirical claims of the extraordinary,” rather than metaphysical or religious ideas. Thus “it insists on the testability of claims (including both verifiability and falsifiability), seeks parsimonious explanations, places the burden of proof on the claimant, and expects evidence of a claim to be commensurate with its degree of extraordinariness (anomalousness).”
  2. Anomalistics is interdisciplinary in that an anomaly “is not presumed to have its ultimate explanation in a particular branch of science” and that it “seeks an understanding of scientific adjudication across disciplines.”

Truzzi popularized and possibly coined the term “pseudo-skeptic,” which he described in an article, “On Pseudo-Skepticism” as:

Since “skepticism” properly refers to doubt rather than denial — nonbelief rather than belief — critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves “skeptics” are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label.

I encountered the field of anomalistics reading an article claiming that an aluminum gear was found in a 300-million-year-old coal deposit in Russia. The article referred to “anomaly researcher and biologist Valery Brier, who took microscopic samples of the aluminum for testing.” I hadn’t heard previously of the term “anomaly researcher,” so I looked into it and encountered the anomalistics field, which seems useful and interesting. The discovery was also discussed in an article on The Voice of Russia web site.

ARK — 24 January 2013

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Sometimes you hear people say that God created other beings because he was lonely, but that makes little sense. Today I ran across a comment about 1 John 4:8, which says that “God is love.” In other words, that is his main quality, the essence of his being. The comment I read was, “Jehovah became the Creator as an expression of his endearing quality of love.” That makes more sense. The thought that comes to me, then, is that God created the universe and other intelligent creatures out of his love for everything and everyone that could come to exist.

ARK — 20 Nov. 2012

 

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