Posts tagged: science

The born-again atheists bother me.

In the beginning

They ridicule religion, but it is not the principles of religion they mock, it is the human institution. (Which, er, heaven knows, richly deserves it.)  And you’d think that, from the way they speak, religion is scientifically proven to be a complete waste of time.  Not even close.

Science does not answer “why” questions, it answers “how” questions, but you wouldn’t know it in today’s world because there is a modern, unspoken taboo against asking real “why?” questions of scientists. So much so that they have been able to hijack “why” and use it as if it meant “how”. As scientists – as opposed to armchair philosophers, like me for the moment, but it’s Saturday so I reserve the right – the only permitted “why” questions are actually “how” questions. So much so that I, as a scientist, get nervous about raising the point, but like I said, it’s Saturday, and I’m off the clock, so bear with me.

‘Why is the sky blue?’ is a question with two answers. Almost always, we ignore the “why” and implicitly translate it into the “how”. ‘Rayleigh scattering, my son’, comes the response and we think we’ve answered the question. I just Googled the question and got some 55 million hits. I went some 300 hits in before the silly and the artistic began to become significant and even so, the last few that Google will serve (up to 1000) are dominated by this answer. I’d be willing to bet I’d have to go quite a lot further to find anything else.

But really, all we’ve done is describe the process of how the sun’s light gets scattered by the atmosphere so that preferentially short-wavelength photons interact with our retina and get converted into nerve signals which combine with others until we experience the color “blue”. No-one, at any point, has explained what is “blue” and why it is attached to this particular blend of photons. I expect cognitive science will probably, eventually, be able to explain how we correlate those photons with the sensation of “blue”, but I suspect it will never be able to tell you why you experience blue the way you do. Nor will it ever be able to prove that the guy standing next to you experiences “blue” in the same way you do.

Some philosophers of science call this problem of subjective experience “the hard problem” of consciousness studies. It’s hard because no-one has even begun to make a dent in it, although billions of hours of cogitation have been expended on it.

It’s a pretty strong statement for a scientist today, to claim that there are limits to science’s potential knowledge. I can see my adviser shaking his head in disappointment (or perhaps I am unfair). So strong is the conditioning that I even went back and added the word “suspect” to the sentence claiming science won’t be able to tell you why you experience blue as you do. Just to cover my backside. But it’s a pretty strong suspicion.

The properly indoctrinated scientist doesn’t like what he calls philosophical questions. He considers them irrelevant and evades them. The sleight of hand that converts a “why” question into a “how” question is the most used tool in the box, so much so that the typical scientist doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s not much further along this path that he might start to claim the “why” questions are meaningless, and he adopts a purely physicalist attitude towards the universe and, presumably, himself – there is no “why”, only “how”, anything else is embarrassing.

Forgetting the hard problem for now, let’s just take the human mind as a straightforward property of a complex brain. Indeed, I have no problem with the idea of consciousness being the inevitable consequence of a complex mind, built into the rules of the universe. That is, consciousness is a natural and inevitable, even requisite part of the universe, with nothing supernatural to it. All you need is a process which is capable of producing a brain complex enough to generate a dynamic, extrapolative model of its surroundings, constrained by the input of its senses. Since such a thing grants some degree of control over those surroundings, it seems likely that it would be a survival trait.

You knew I’d get to evolution sooner or later.

Many evangelical atheists come from a background steeped in the lore of Darwinian evolution. Richard Dawkins is their pope for the moment, Daniel Dennet something of an archbishop, and Christopher Hitchens a bit of a Torquemada, although personally I think he’s less of an atheist than someone affronted by the idea that anyone, including God, would know better than him about, well, pretty much anything. His favorite strawman is the question that if he didn’t get his morals from God, then where did they come from? He dodges this by being offended by the idea that he wouldn’t know better than to indulge every base urge without God, leaving unanswered the question as to why he does know better than to simply indulge himself. The correct answer is, of course, that his morals are bred and socialized into him. He learned them from his father and mother, and from the people around him and perhaps, to some degree, through introspection, although that introspection is inevitably informed by the same people. Morals are simply necessary to get on with others.

No need for God? Well, maybe. God, if He exists, might reasonably be expected to take an interest in morality. But let’s politely ask Him to be quiet for a moment and ask why cannot religion, as a purely social entity, not be an adequate vehicle for the generation and promulgation of morals? I don’t see why it can’t.

Does that make religion necessary? No, because there are other such vehicles, such as political parties, or sports clubs or any of a myriad other ways in which humans interact, which might be as effective, although, human and therefore fallible. Organized religion’s usual claim to precedence is that it is not, fundamentally, of human origin and therefore not subject to the same fallibility, which is where God raises his hand to make a point. We’ll ask Him to wait.

Evolution gives me a bit of a problem.

That is not to say that I don’t think it is real, or that it is “just a theory” which is the weakest possible criticism that organized religion can possibly make and only makes a total fool of itself when it does. The problem that I have lies in the sense that, on its own, it has something missing.

Evolution, as normally described in the popular science press, is really just natural selection. It is the process by which living things get from one generation to another and survive their environments and over time produces changes in those living things. “Just” natural selection? Natural selection is a filter, it is like the sieve used to sort the rocks from the sand. It is like the turnstile at the football ground, letting through only those with tickets. Yes, you’d be a fool to turn up without a ticket, but it’s not the turnstile that makes you show up if you do have one. Likewise, the sieve doesn’t fill itself and push through the small stuff.

Natural selection is a bit cleverer than this, as many of its filtering properties are also a function of the objects, living things, being filtered. Some aren’t, such as the combination of carbon dioxide and water using sunlight into sugar and oxygen as a vehicle for plants to exploit solar energy. If that didn’t work, then plants wouldn’t photosynthesize, and life might have remained hanging around deep ocean volcanic vents, where some believe it started.

(By the way, a quick look at Wikipedia and I learn that “The amount of energy trapped by photosynthesis is immense, approximately 100 terawatts which is about six times larger than the power consumption of human civilization”. Personally, I see that the other way around, that the power consumption of the human race is immense, being by now up to 1/6 the total photosynthetic absorption of the planet.)

There are other constraints, such as the changing illumination by the sun, on a daily and annual cycle.

Then there is the fact that ice floats. Not an obviously critical point, but if it didn’t the world’s oceans and lakes would freeze from the bottom up and getting out of an ice age would be next to impossible and life very, very difficult.

The point is that natural selection has to work within a certain context. It operates on living things partly through interactions between themselves, partly through the particular properties of the local environment, and it must obey the laws of chemistry, physics and, ultimately, mathematics.

On top of this, it needs an energy supply. Mostly, that would be the sun. Throw in the laws of thermodynamics and we’re not far from viewing all life on Earth as just some highly structured eddies that result as the universe inexorably increases its entropy through the dissipation of the sun’s energies. It happens because it has to happen. The laws of the universe require it. (But, the small voice in the back of my head wonders, why those particular laws? Does that matter?)

Why did evolution get started in the first place? It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes (and most of a brain) that it’s in full swing all around us right now. But what happened to trigger it and why didn’t it just fizzle out? If you’re sharp eyed, and have been paying attention, you’ll notice that this is another of those tricky questions with two answers. But anyway, let’s ignore the “why” and let the evolutionary scientists run with the “how”, as many of them are right now.

Given space-time, base matter and energy with their laws of thermodynamics, and other organizing principles (the bare rules) and the process that emerges (natural selection itself) perhaps we can get all the way from inanimate matter to fully organized eukaryotic life and even emotions, consciousness and morality. All this is just how, not why, and once again, awed by the explanatory power of answering only “how” questions, we might be tempted to conclude that “why” doesn’t matter. Worse we might think there are no answers to “why” questions, rendering them meaningless, simple howls in the dark.

There is further to go along this direction of exploration. We have considered only life, as we know it, from origin to present day. But one has to ask how the Earth and other planets were made, and here I catch myself in another potential abuse of the language. Being “made” usually implies a maker, but today we seem to be able to explain how planets form without any need for anything but the matter and energy of the universe and the laws they follow. In fact, if anything, the problem is more straightforward to answer than most faced by science (it takes time because, well, it’s slow and we can’t do the experiment in the lab). The planets seem to make themselves.

Likewise we ask how, not why, the stars are formed, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters and all the way up to the universe itself. But that last is in a category all of its own. Everything else gets explained by the action of physical laws on what the universe contains. The universe itself came with its own laws – out of nothing? A quantum fluctuation in, er, nothing, that got carried away? Like life, how did it get started? Why didn’t it just fizzle? Or did it, almost infinitely many times, descending into primordial chaos with no structure and no laws? Again and again? Except for us and we’re just the lucky one (of infinitely many?) that survived.

Far better minds than mine are working on these hows, I don’t know of any that work on the “why”.

Perhaps the universe came out of nothing, for no reason, and it can then perhaps be claimed that it created itself. If so, to say that the Universe created itself is, to me, a fundamentally religious statement, no less bizarre than requiring a God to do it, even if it means we have to invent the whys ourselves. But doesn’t, therefore, the universe generate its own whys, through us?

What arrogance of these tiny little, mushy brains to suppose that they know the meaning of any “why” question, and how pathetic of them to think that they cannot answer!

They ridicule religion, but it is not the principles of religion they mock, it is the human institution. (Which, er, heaven knows, richly deserves it.)

Science does not answer “why” questions, it answers “how” questions, but you wouldn’t know it in today’s world because there is a modern, unspoken taboo against asking real “why?” questions of scientists. So much so that they have been able to hijack “why” and use it as if it meant “how”. As scientists – as opposed to armchair philosophers, like me for the moment, but it’s Saturday so I reserve the right – the only permitted “why” questions are actually “how” questions. So much so that I, as a scientist, get nervous about raising the point, but like I said, it’s Saturday, so bear with me.

‘Why is the sky blue?’ is a question with two answers. Almost always, we ignore the “why” and implicitly translate it into the “how”. ‘Rayleigh scattering, my son’, comes the response and we think we’ve answered the question. I just Googled the question and got some 55 million hits. I went some 300 hits in before the silly and the artistic began to become significant and even so, the last few that Google will serve (up to 1000) are dominated by this answer. I’d be willing to bet I’d have to go quite a lot further to find anything else.

But really, all we’ve done is describe the process of how the sun’s light gets scattered by the atmosphere so that preferentially short-wavelength photons interact with our retina and get converted into nerve signals which combine with others until we experience the color “blue”. No-one, at any point, has explained what is “blue” and why it is attached to this particular blend of photons. I expect cognitive science will probably, eventually, be able to explain how we correlate those photons with the sensation of “blue”, but I suspect it will never be able to tell you why you experience blue the way you do. Nor will it ever be able to prove that the guy standing next to you experiences “blue” in the same way you do.

Some philosophers of science call this problem of experience “the hard problem” of consciousness studies. It’s hard because no-one has even begun to make a dent in it, although billions of hours of cogitation have been expended on it.

It’s a pretty strong statement for a scientist today, to claim that there are limits to science’s potential knowledge. I can see my adviser shaking his head in disappointment (or perhaps I am unfair). So strong is the conditioning that I even went back and added the word “suspect” to the sentence claiming science won’t be able to tell you why you experience blue as you do. Just to cover my backside. But it’s a pretty strong suspicion.

The properly indoctrinated scientist doesn’t like what he calls philosophical questions. He considers them irrelevant and evades them. The sleight of hand that converts a “why” question into a “how” question is the most used tool in the box, so much so that the typical scientist doesn’t even know he’s doing it. It’s not much further along this path that he might start to claim the “why” questions are meaningless, and he adopts a purely physicalist attitude towards the universe and, presumably, himself – there is no “why”, only “how”, anything else is embarrassing.

Forgetting the hard problem for now, let’s just take the human mind as a straightforward property of a complex brain. Indeed, I have no problem with the idea of consciousness being the inevitable consequence of a complex mind, built into the rules of the universe. That is, consciousness is a natural and inevitable, even requisite part of the universe, with nothing supernatural to it. All you need is a process which is capable of producing a brain complex enough to generate a dynamic, extrapolative model of its surroundings, constrained by the input of its senses. Since such a thing grants some degree of control over those surroundings, it seems likely that it would be a survival trait.

You knew I’d get to evolution sooner or later.

Many evangelical atheists come from a background steeped in the lore of Darwinian evolution. Richard Dawkins is their pope for the moment, Daniel Dennet something of an archbishop, and Christopher Hitchens a bit of a Torquemada, although personally I think he’s less of an atheist than someone affronted by the idea that anyone, including God, would know better than him about, well, pretty much anything. His favorite strawman is the question that if he didn’t get his morals from God, then where did they come from? He dodges this by being offended by the idea that he wouldn’t know better than to indulge every base urge without God, leaving unanswered the question as to why he does know better than to simply indulge himself. The correct answer is, of course, that his morals are socialized into him. He learned them from his father and mother, and from the people around him and perhaps, to some degree, through introspection, although that introspection is inevitably informed by the same people. Morals are simply necessary to get on with others.

No need for God? Well, maybe. God, if He exists, might reasonably be expected to take an interest in morality. But let’s politely ask Him to be quiet for a moment and ask why cannot religion, as a purely social entity, not be an adequate vehicle for the generation and promulgation of morals? I don’t see why it can’t.

Does that make religion necessary? No, because there are other such vehicles, such as political parties, or sports clubs or any of a myriad other ways in which humans interact, which might be as effective, although, human and therefore fallible. Organized religion’s usual claim to precedence is that it is not, fundamentally, of human origin and therefore not subject to the same fallibility, which is where God raises his hand to make a point. We’ll ask Him to wait.

Evolution gives me a bit of a problem. That is not to say that I don’t think it is real, or that it is “just a theory” which is the weakest possible criticism that organized religion can possibly make and only makes a total fool of itself when it does. The problem that I have lies in the sense that, on its own, it has something missing.

Evolution, as normally described in the popular science press, is really just natural selection. It is the process by which living things get from one generation to another and survive their environments and over time produces changes in those living things. “Just” natural selection? Natural selection is a filter, it is like the sieve used to sort the rocks from the sand. It is like the turnstile at the football ground, letting through only those with tickets. Yes, you’d be a fool to turn up without a ticket, but it’s not the turnstile that makes you show up if you do have one. Likewise, the sieve doesn’t fill itself and push through the small stuff.

Natural selection is a bit cleverer than this, as many of its filtering properties are also a function of the objects, living things, being filtered. Some aren’t, such as the combination of carbon dioxide and water using sunlight into sugar and oxygen as a vehicle for plants to exploit solar energy. If that didn’t work, then plants wouldn’t photosynthesize, and life might have remained hanging around deep ocean volcanic vents, where some believe it started. (By the way, a quick look at Wikipedia and I learn that “The amount of energy trapped by photosynthesis is immense, approximately 100 terawatts which is about six times larger than the power consumption of human civilization “. Personally, I see that the other way around, that the power consumption of the human race is immense, being by now up to 1/6 the total photosynthetic absorption of the planet.)

There are other constraints, such as the changing illumination by the sun, on a daily and annual cycle.

Then there is the fact that ice floats. Not an obviously critical point, but if it didn’t the world’s oceans and lakes would freeze from the bottom up and getting out of an ice age would be next to impossible and life very, very difficult.

The point is that natural selection has to work within a certain context. It operates on living things partly through interactions between themselves, partly through the particular properties of the local environment, and it must obey the laws of chemistry, physics and, ultimately, mathematics.

On top of this, it needs an energy supply. Mostly, that would be the sun. Throw in the laws of thermodynamics and we’re not far from viewing all life on Earth as just some highly structured eddies that result as the universe inexorably increases its entropy through the dissipation of the sun’s energies. It happens because it has to happen. The laws of the universe require it. (But, the small voice in the back of my head wonders, why those particular laws? Does that matter?)

Why did evolution get started in the first place? It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes (and most of a brain) that it’s in full swing all around us right now. But what happened to trigger it and why didn’t it just fizzle out? If you’re sharp eyed, and have been paying attention, you’ll notice that this is another of those tricky questions with two answers. But anyway, let’s ignore the “why” and let the evolutionary scientists run with the “how”, as many of them are right now.

Given space-time, base matter and energy with their laws of thermodynamics, and other organizing principles (the bare rules) and the process that emerges (natural selection itself) perhaps we can get all the way from inanimate matter to fully organized eukaryotic life and even emotions, consciousness and morality. All this is just how, not why, and once again, awed by the explanatory power of answering only “how” questions, we might be tempted to conclude that “why” doesn’t matter. Worse we might think there are no answers to “why” questions, rendering them meaningless, simple howls in the dark.

There is further to go along this direction of exploration. We have considered only life, as we know it, from origin to present day. But one has to ask how the Earth and other planets were made, and here I catch myself in another potential abuse of the language. Being “made” usually implies a maker, but today we seem to be able to explain how planets form without any need for anything but the matter and energy of the universe and the laws they follow. In fact, if anything, the problem is more straightforward to answer than most faced by science (it takes time because, well, it’s slow and we can’t do the experiment in the lab). The planets seem to make themselves.

Likewise we ask how, not why, the stars are formed, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters and all the way up to the universe itself. But that last is in a category all of its own. Everything else gets explained by the action of physical laws on what the universe contains. The universe itself came with its own laws – out of nothing? A quantum fluctuation in, er, nothing, that got carried away? Like life, how did it get started? Why didn’t it just fizzle? Or did it, almost infinitely many times, descending into primordial chaos with no structure and no laws? Again and again? Except for us and we’re just the lucky one (of infinitely many?) that survived.

Far better minds than mine are working on these hows, I don’t know of any that work on the “why”.

Perhaps the universe came out of nothing, for no reason, and it can then perhaps be claimed that it created itself. If so, to say that the Universe created itself is, to me, a fundamentally religious statement, no less bizarre than requiring a God to do it, even if it means we have to invent the whys ourselves. But doesn’t, therefore, the universe generate its own whys, through us?

What arrogance of these tiny little, mushy brains to suppose that they know the meaning of any “why” question, and how pathetic of them to think that they cannot answer!

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