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Friday, September 15, 2006

Monkeying around

"A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question."
-- Frederick Hoyle (British astrophysicist)

13 comments:

Lifewish said...

A common-sense interpretation of the facts also suggests that the Earth is flat, that space is Euclidean, that something can't be both a wave and a particle, and that cricket is a horribly boring sport.

Fortunately, we have people who are willing to go beyond a common-sense interpretation, to look in more detail and to approach what they see without the crushing mental burden of folk wisdom. And their success has led to massive increases in standards of living all over the world.

I find it rather depressing, therefore, that people are so willing to ignore these reasoned conclusions, going instead with their inaccurate gut instincts.

In this case, for example, Hoyle's argument is quite obviously a traditional appeal to large numbers - if something is improbable enough then obviously it can't happen... Hoyle codified this in the form of an infamous metaphor about tornadoes through junkyards. Apparently the irony completely escaped him - from a purely probabilistic point of view, the order represented by the tornado itself is also ridiculously implausible.

Fortunately, the laws of nature and their effects (such as evolution) couldn't care less about the supposed difficulty of obtaining results that naive probability would suggest are unlikely.

Bro. Bartleby said...

But I do like the image of God "monkeying around" ...

Lifewish said...

Well, something has been busily jury-rigging biological systems over the course of the past few billion years. We'd figured that it was evolution, but maybe God just isn't terribly good at planning ahead... :)

mdfay said...

Those who like to point out the absurdity of God often do so in the same worshipful breath about the divinity of science. Science, always described by its devotees as so advanced, in failing to discover and or prove the existence of God, declares there is no God. The great failing of this, at least for me (especially in light of the fact that science has failed to create one molecule of any viable life form), is that there already exists a highly technological evolved machine that detects and records the presence of God, the human heart.

Lifewish said...

Those who like to point out the absurdity of God often do so in the same worshipful breath about the divinity of science.

If it wasn't for science both of us would probably be dead today. In childbirth, in childhood, of whooping cough or smallpox or typhoid or just starvation. The mortality rate has plummeted since the scientific method was figured out.

Our survival? That's what I call a miracle.

Science, always described by its devotees as so advanced, in failing to discover and or prove the existence of God, declares there is no God.

No, it just declares that, if there is a God, He has no discernible impact on the world around us. Science, over the years, has developed thousands, if not millions, of demonstrably accurate models of how various parts of the universe operate. Any guesses as to how many of them require the existence of God?

You're perfectly entitled to believe He exists; just be aware that there is absolutely zero solid evidence backing you.

The great failing of this, at least for me (especially in light of the fact that science has failed to create one molecule of any viable life form), is that there already exists a highly technological evolved machine that detects and records the presence of God, the human heart.

Really? I thought the heart mostly just pumped blood round the body. That's what you find if you subject it to scientific scrutiny, anyway. Wouldn't your version mean that people with a pacemaker were damned to Hell?

However, I'd like to thank you for illustrating precisely the standard of evidence that was and is the norm in prescientific societies. Now answer me this: who would you prefer to be treated by if you got sick? The faith healer, who feels God's grace all around and believes in his heart that God will heal all? Or the doctor who, with hundreds of years of science behind him, will be able to diagnose your Hodgkins' lymphoma and prescribe an appropriate course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy? People die in their thousands from making the wrong choice in this situation.

Incidentally, IIRC it's perfectly possible to produce viruses from raw materials. Remember that every strand of Ebola is one of God's creatures too. We can't produce more complicated creatures yet, but we'll get there some day. After all, science gets results.

P.S. to Bro. Bartleby: sorry to be cranky, I get irritated when people criticise my beliefs in obviously dodgy fashion. At least if the arguments were vaguely sensible I'd be able to milk some self-improvement out of them.

Lifewish said...

You're perfectly entitled to believe He exists; just be aware that there is absolutely zero solid evidence backing you.

Sorry, should have stuck a "currently" in there - science, unlike religious dogma, is always open to new evidence.

Why not try it yourself? You've got a direct line to an omniscient deity, yes? Why not ask Him for a proof of the Riemann hypothesis? Or the co-ordinates of a new dwarf planet (there've gotta be a few more out there)? Anything like that would be good.

It's amazing how millions of highly religious people have failed to produce anything of this sort, despite their claimed divine wisdom on things like morality, politics and requests for cash.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Your crankiness duly noted. And about that pumping mechanism, the heart? Ahem ... it is a metaphor for a persons innermost core or spiritual center. "Heart" is shorthand for "the total person" or "one’s whole being or self."

And I don't think the discovery of how nature ticks (science) somehow grants the ownership of those discoveries to the scientist (even though we create a fictitious sort of ownership with patents). A discovery is a discovery, I find a van Gogh painting at a flea market, yes a wonderful discovery, but than do I act as though I painted the picture? Or further, that my act of discovery is the essense of that painting? So much of this science/religion fuss is meaningless to me, except when a self-proclaimed camp attempts power plays, or other disingenuous actions.

I think discovery a wonderful adventure, and so too utilizing the understanding of the A priori in order to engineer useful stuff and contraptions for the betterment of all. Of course as a believer in a God, I believe that ALL comes from His drawing board, be it the spark that produced the Big Bang, or the spark that ignites all life, or the spark that prompts the engineer to design a rocket, or the spark that brings us together and attempt, as civilly as we can, to discuss the paths of life that each of us has travelled, and perhaps to rise above ourselves and leave our comfort zone behind, and in the end be better for it.

Lifewish said...

Your crankiness duly noted. And about that pumping mechanism, the heart? Ahem ... it is a metaphor for a persons innermost core or spiritual center. "Heart" is shorthand for "the total person" or "one’s whole being or self."

I know. However, before the Enlightenment, it was thought that the heart was the home of the spirit. It's only since science kickstarted itself that we have a clue about these most basic principles of our body and mind.

People forget this - they start treating their cars and computers as The Way Things Are, and forget all the hard work that went into understanding the universe well enough to create them. They confuse natural history with science, and forget that the latter is the only approach that successfully reveals the former. In thought and word and deed, they tell scientists: "OK, we've got enough knowledge, you can push off now".

And I don't think the discovery of how nature ticks (science) somehow grants the ownership of those discoveries to the scientist

I'm not thinking in terms of ownership; I'm thinking in terms of trust. Over the years, scientists have set up a truly paradoxical system: none of its members are expected to have trust in any of their fellows, and hence the system as a whole is uniquely trustworthy.

It's actively painful to work in a situation like that - imagine every nasty person you've ever met working day and night to undermine your pet project and/or beat you to the conclusion. And yet people do it anyway, quite often primarily for the good of humankind. I have a great deal of respect for that.

Bro. Bartleby said...

"People forget this - "

Don't you think folks also forget that they stand atop the shoulders of all their ancestors, in all senses, the shoulders of all humanity before, and also atop the direct bloodline of ancestors in your own family, and even if you now consider the beliefs of all those before you as beliefs birthed from ignorance, in one respect I think you should not forget that each of those who you were passed their DNA, they did obviously survive to pass the genes on to you, and how are we to judge them? Are not the echoes of the multitude of uttered prayers still reverberating in your soul? And should we forget this? Deny this? Try to rid ourselves of these prayers? Or declare that only today all those ignorant genes have finally given birth to wisdom? Or simply to forget how we were constructed?

Bro. Bartleby said...

"none of its members are expected to have trust in any of their fellows, and hence the system as a whole is uniquely trustworthy."

I agree that science is based on skepticism. But trust is a slippery fish. You indicate you gain comfort in trusting science, rather than religion. But was trust required for you to exist? If we take the claims of evolution, I would think we could trace a straight line from the very first spark of life, the first single-celled creature, and follow the evolutionary trail, of the branches of that tree, until we arrive at the genes that resided with what you call, "me" ... amazing that chart would be, to follow every evolutionary turn and detour and branch until we arrive at humans, then continue until we arrive at "you." And I must admit, it all happened without (except perhaps with you) any of those countless cells and critters and proto-humans and humans and ancestors and even grandfathers needing to "trust" in the whole matter. A slippery fish indeed.

Lifewish said...

I think you should not forget that each of those who you were passed their DNA, they did obviously survive to pass the genes on to you, and how are we to judge them?

"Merely" having passed genes on does not in and of itself entitle one to respect. Some of the greatest patriarchs in history were also some of the nastiest, most inept rulers.

Knowledge that stands the test of time, on the other hand, is a powerful gift to all humanity.

You indicate you gain comfort in trusting science, rather than religion.

I wouldn't tend to describe it like that. I gain comfort in knowing that my understanding of the world is as accurate as it can be, and hence that I'm less likely to win a Darwin award. Currently, as best I can tell, the scientific community is the best way of getting such an accurate model. My trust in them in and of itself gives me no comfort; it's the demonstrably-accurate foreknowledge they give me that's reassuring.

But was trust required for you to exist?

No, but well-placed trust helps me to keep existing, and misplaced trust could result in my existence being prematurely terminated.

And I must admit, it all happened without (except perhaps with you) any of those countless cells and critters and proto-humans and humans and ancestors and even grandfathers needing to "trust" in the whole matter.

Knowledge that wasn't true unless it was believed in would be poor knowledge indeed. Reality is that which doesn't go away when you close your eyes.

Bro. Bartleby said...

" 'Merely' having passed genes on does not in and of itself entitle one to respect."

But I am not speaking in generalities, but speaking about "you" and the seemingly infinite line of DNA succession, through countless evolved transformations, until we arrive at this moment when your eyes gather the photons from this computer screen and process them into intelligent musings. That certainly is a long unbroken chain, perhaps 4 billion years? Since the first microbe set the succession in motion until we arrive at "now" ... and how many didn't make it? While "you" forever evolved and transmutated, countless others met deadends and extinction.

Yet, all this rates only a "merely having passed genes on does not in and of itself entitle one to respect ..."?

I would allow at least it does deserve the same kind of respect that say one would give for a talented cricket player?

Lifewish said...

I guess that depends on the selective pressures they were under - if one of my rodentlike ancestors had to spend all their time running from velociraptors, I guess that would at least be cause for me to be impressed.

However, for those early mammal ancestors, and for most of their forebears and descendants, their physical and mental abilities were pretty much a direct result of their genes and their circumstances. So shouldn't it be the genes who get congratulated for their incredible ability to help their host survive? For them, of course, carrying on their line is reward enough. The obvious way to ensure that I'm respecting my genes properly, then, is to have lots of unprotected sex :)