Friday, September 16, 2005

A tweak of God's knobs, etc

Here are science news excerpts with my comments in square brackets:

A tweak of God's knobs: New research appears to put humankind back at the centre of the universe, The Guardian, Johnjoe McFadden, September 13, 2005. ... In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy the Deep Thought computer announced that the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything was 42. Contemporary physicists are finding themselves just as frustrated as the hyperintelligent race of beings who built Deep Thought after discovering that the ultimate answer to their questions turns out to be a set of meaningless numbers. Many scientists conclude that the answers are contingent on biology and the facts of life. Imagine if the values of one or two of nature's fundamental constants were slightly different, say the strengths of forces that hold atoms together. One consequence might be that the Earth's oceans would regularly freeze. Water - essential for life - is unique in being lighter as a solid than as a liquid. So ice sheets float and form an insulating layer that stops the deeper waters freezing. If water was more conventional then the primordial oceans would never have stayed liquid for long enough for life to evolve. But then of course we would not be here to ponder our good fortune. This is the point of the anthropic principle, which starts from the fact of our existence and then argues backwards to claim that the precise properties of the universe that emerged from the big bang had to be those that made the eventual emergence of humans inevitable. The unique properties of water depend on an exquisite level of fine tuning of the fundamental constants. So why are these constants just right? Because if they weren't we wouldn't be here. There are lots of other fine tunings. Carbon, also essential for life, is made in stars by the fusion of three helium atoms. It is only due to an extraordinary "coincidence" in the resonant energies of helium, beryllium and carbon that stars make lots of carbon. Change the resonant energy by just 0.0001% and no carbon. Proponents of the anthropic principle claim it is pointless looking for theoretical explanations for the precise values of the fundamental constants; they are what they are because if they weren't we wouldn't be here. Opponents claim that the principle betrays a lack of imagination for assuming that other forms of life wouldn't be possible. But this is harder to sustain when considering some of the more cosmic consequences of tweaking the constants. If the weak force that binds atomic nuclei had been just a bit weaker, all hydrogen would have turned to helium without making any of the heavier elements. If the strong force had been a bit stronger, the universe would not even have had any atoms. New research is making even the sceptics grudgingly accept the anthropic principle. A paper by Mario Livio and Martin Rees, the astronomer royal, explores the value of the cosmological constant, a measure of how much energy is contained in empty space. Without this value being tweaked to an extraordinary level of precision, the universe would be filled only with huge black holes or entirely empty of stars. But who's doing the tweaking? Another reason scientists are wary is that it seems to reverse the Copernican revolution and place humankind at the centre of the universe. Even worse, it could allow creationists to bring the G word back into science: a God to tweak all those knobs to make life possible. But if God is needed to tweak the universe's knobs then who was there to tweak God's knobs? Physicists such as Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking prefer another scenario whereby an infinite number of universes exist, each with different values of the fundamental constants. In just a few of them the constants have taken on the right values for the creation of stars, life and evolution. For a biologist like me the anthropic principle has a persuasive charm. Physicists have long claimed that biology reduces to chemistry and chemistry reduces to physics. But now physics reduces to biology! To explain the values of the fundamental constants physicists have to look not at their equations but at the structure of the eye or the brain or the building blocks of life. Who knows which fundamental constants take their value from the fact that fish had to propel themselves through water before evolving into intelligent tetrapods like us. Biology explains everything. ... [The Anthropic Principle is either a tautology or a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of reversal of cause and effect. It is, together with the "infinite number of universes," naturalism's attempt to avoid the obvious, that as Fred Hoyle put it when he discovered the "extraordinary `coincidence' in the resonant energies of helium, beryllium and carbon that stars make lots of carbon", "Another put-up job ... a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology":

"From 1953 onward, Willy Fowler and I have always been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 Mev energy level in the nucleus of 12C to the 7.12 Mev level in 16O. If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just where these levels are actually found to be. Another put-up job? Following the above argument, I am inclined to think so. 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." (Hoyle F., "The Universe: Past and Present Reflections," Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Vol. 20, 1982, pp.1-35, p.16)

This BTW was a successful intelligent design prediction in a peer-reviewed journal (Burbidge, E.M, Burbidge, G.R., Fowler, W.A. & Hoyle, F., "Synthesis of the Elements in Stars," Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 29, 1957, p.547) (albeit by one who was not an IDist - ID didn't exist then) which in fact won a Nobel prize (but not for Hoyle). The answer to McFadden's version of the village atheist's question "who made God?": "But if God is needed to tweak the universe's knobs then who was there to tweak God's knobs?" is "a pointless category fallacy ... God, if he exists at all, is a necessary being, the uncreated Creator of all else." Note that "Martin Rees and Stephen Hawking" merely "prefer" that "scenario"! BTW, Hoyle himself rejected in this context the "anthropic principle" as a "trick" and "no more than a tautology" (not to mention an "inexcusable ... deception"):

"Seen in retrospect, to have produced some of the building blocks of life in experiments of the Urey-Miller type was of no relevance to the origin of life, especially as some of the materials used in the experiments were already biological in origin, since no one doubts that life can give rise to life. The building blocks of life are commonplace. It is the structures to which they can give rise that are remarkable, and where the problem of the origin of life really lies. Not to have realized this in 1952-3 was understandable, but not to realize it today is inexcusable. Not to realize it today amounts to overt deception, at least on the part of research scientists who have ample time and opportunity to study the matter in depth. Students, on the other hand, can be excused, yet likely enough it will be from students that a general realization of the deceit will first come. The deceit has strong motivation. It is to avoid the question of whether the situation, as facts have uncovered it to be, can sensibly be regarded as accidental. Is it reasonable to suppose that the commonest elements should by chance alone have such a range of properties as have been determined from biochemical studies, as for instance in the properties of enzymes? Or is there a teleological component, a purposive component, even in the properties of the chemical elements, let alone in the origin and development of life? If so, we are instantly thrown into very deep waters indeed. The creationist exclaims forcibly, to the point of shouting, that there is indeed a purposive component, while the soi-disant respectable scientist shows, not by shouting but by tricks, that of course it is not so. A typical trick is the so-called anthropic principle - that if the situation is not exactly the way we find it we would not be here to discuss it. Therefore, remarkable as the accidents may look at first sight, our presence is a guarantee that they occurred. But our presence could just as well be a guarantee that life is purposive, planned. The situation is decidedly unproven, with the anthropic principle no more than a tautology." (Hoyle F. & Wickramasinghe C., "Our Place in the Cosmos: The Unfinished Revolution," [1993], Phoenix: London, 1996, reprint, pp.32-33)

and although he remained AFAIK an atheist and an anti-creationist, he regarded the fine-tunedness of the chemical elements for life as evidence that "our presence could just as well be a guarantee that life is purposive, planned"!]

New species of early Man, Daily Telegraph, Nic Fleming & Roger Highfield, 14/09/2005. A fossil of a diminutive human nicknamed "the Hobbit" does indeed represent a previously unrecognised species of early Man, according to a new technique ... Sceptics had argued that the Hobbit, discovered in Indonesia and first announced last year, could have been an individual who suffered from microcephalya, a disorder that limits brain growth. The fossils' discoverers had suggested that the Hobbit was either a pygmy form of a known species or a previously undiscovered species of early human. Yesterday Nathan Jeffery ...described a new way to study the imprint left by the brain on the inside of fossilised skulls. ... The cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, where scientists found the fossil, also contained remnants of stone tools, fire, and a pygmy elephant, suggesting but not proving that Homo floresiensis may have had surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities given its chimpanzee-sized brain. The endocranial volume of the Hobbit is about 380cc to 417cc. "This is considerably smaller than expected for any Homo species, even one of such diminutive stature, and is only slightly bigger than that of living chimps (383cc). "Unlike chimps, H. floresiensis was found alongside some very impressive looking stone tools. Most modern humans would struggle to fashion such elegant tools in a timely manner let alone some dwarf-like and presumably slow-witted hominid," he said, adding that either the stone tools belonged to some other larger-brained hominid or else our assumptions about brain size were "utterly wrong". ... Dr Jeffery has revealed a simple yet effective measure of the endocranial cavity which gives a proportion of frontal and cerebellar parts of the brain and appears to reflect the rudimentary cultural advances between species. "The proportion for H. floresiensis (168 per cent) falls within the range for Homo erectus (165 -171 per cent) and is approximately 20 percentage points greater than that for the chimps," he said. "As expected the mean proportion for modern humans is much higher than the rest at 205 per cent." Because Homo erectus is the first hominid to demonstrate clearly what could be called culture, by the use of stone tools, living in camps and with a social organisation that was similar to modern hunter- gatherers, "these findings show that the cognitive and cultural capabilities of H. floresiensis are not entirely inconsistent with the stone tools discovered on Flores". "Although the brain of Homo floresiensis is very small, it is very similar in its proportions to that of Homo erectus and hence not inconsistent with the stone tool assemblages also found on Flores." Australian and Indonesian archaeologists began to unearth the Hobbit in 2003 ... [Sounds like H. floresiensis may be a dwarf variant of H. erectus? Or maybe an advanced Australopithecine descendant? That this species has not been found in Africa, is more evidence that humans arose in Asia, not Africa. ]

Judge: School Pledge Is Unconstitutional, ABC News/AP, David Kravets, September. 15, 2005 - A federal judge declared the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools unconstitutional Wednesday, a decision that could put the divisive issue on track for another round of Supreme Court arguments. The case was brought by the same atheist whose previous battle against the words "under God" was rejected last year by the Supreme Court on procedural grounds. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge's reference to one nation "under God" violates school children's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God." Karlton said he was bound by precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2002 ruled in favor of Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools. The Supreme Court dismissed the case last year, saying Newdow lacked standing because he did not have custody of his elementary school daughter he sued on behalf of. Newdow, an attorney and a medical doctor, filed an identical case on behalf of three unnamed parents and their children. Karlton said those families have the right to sue. Newdow hopes that will make it more likely the merits of his case will be addressed by the high court. ... [As an Australian my understanding is that it was not "the Supreme Court" but another Court of Appeals (the 4th US) which rejected Newdow's case on procedural grounds. Personally as a Christian I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I am against `civic religion' which forces unbelieving children to learn religious hypocrisy reciting a pledge about God that they don't mean. But on the other hand, if the Supreme Court upholds this atheist's appeal, its symbolism will be immensely important and it will be just one more stage in the USA's slide down the slippery slope from having been (despite its faults) the world's most Christian nation. I said this before in this context on my former list CED, and at least one USA Christian member agreed with me.]

PS: I have added a quote of the first article and the above Hoyle quote and the following tagline quote, to my "Problems of Evolution" book outline, sections PE "Universe's fitness for life ... Physics ... Constants"; PE "Universe's fitness for life ... Chemistry ... Elements ... Carbon"; and PE "Naturalistic explanations ... Anthropic principle ... Tautology", respectively.

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

"Some may also object that if we hold that all events need causes, then what caused God? But we can consistently hold that all events need causes and that God does not need a cause because God is not an event. Furthermore, the question `What or who made God?' is a pointless category fallacy, like the question `What color is the note C?' The question `what made X?' can only be asked of Xs that are by definition makeable. But God, if he exists at all, is a necessary being, the uncreated Creator of all else. This definition is what theists mean by `God,' even if it turns out that no God exists. Now, if that is what `God' means, that the question `What made God?' turns out to be `What made an entity, God, who is by definition unmakeable?" (Moreland J.P., ed., "The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 1994, p.22)

No comments: