Thursday, May 25, 2017

God the Creator and the "Useless Machine"

A Useless Machine, using a touch screen instead of a switch
External Finger:  "On" or "Box Open"
Internal Finger: "Off" or "Box Closed"
"No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it's doing; but most of the time, we aren't either."  Marvin Minsky, Inventor of the Useless Machine.
"It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."  John Wheeler*

INTRODUCTION

While surfing the internet, looking for my grandsons's birthday gift, I ran across the "Useless Machine," invented by the computer theorist, Marvin Minsky some 60 years ago.     A switch opens the lid on the box, and a hand comes out and flicks the switch to close it.    My version, using touch screens instead of a switch, is illustrated above.

The Useless Machine (also known as the "Leave Me Alone" machine) is one more item in John Wheeler's catalog of bits that make up "It".  The binary nature of computer instructions is given by:   "0" representing  "on" (or "open");  "1" representing "off" (or "close"). Thus the possible states of the box can be represented by (0,1),  as answers to the "yes/no" question cited in the quote from John Wheeler.

This picture is incomplete, I claim.   I will argue in this article that an important element is missing in the description of the Useless Machine, if we only list its algorithmic elements.

WHEELER'S "FOUR NO'S"; "THE PARTICIPATORY UNIVERSE"

My own take on John Wheeler's arguments for "It from Bit" is given in another post, so I won't repeat that in detail here.   However, his premise of "Four No's"  is  relevant to this discussion, so I'll review these again:
  1. No "tower of turtles"**;
  2. No laws;
  3. No continuum;
  4. No space, no time.

The "no tower of turtles" statement asserts that infinite regress in a causal chain is not possible.  In this Wheeler, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other philosophers are in agreement.

The "no laws" assertion denies that the universe is a machine built on laws, a machine that would entail a multiverse, "universes in infinite variety and infinite number".    Rather, Wheeler envisions a "world self-synthesized":
"...the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things." --John Wheeler,  Information, Physics, the Quantum: the Search for Links. p. 314
The "world self-synthesized" by "observer-participants of all places and all times"is Wheeler's "Participatory Universe", the notion that the universe is, as Bishop Berkeley suggested, created by observation: "esse est percipi".
Icon representing Wheeler's "Participatory Universe"
By looking backward in time (to distant galaxies) we create them
 But more questions are raised than answered here.  Would an annelid worm, an eagle, or a human synthesize the same world, or is it only "intelligent beings"?   If the last, what about the world synthesized by a Cro-Magnon man, an Australian aborigine, or Helen Keller?  There is not, as far as I can see, a coherent scheme here.  But I do have a different answer, given below.

By stating there is "no continuum", Wheeler denies the reality of transcendental and irrational numbers.   He uses quotes from the mathematician Hermann Weyl and the philosopher Willard Quine. to support that claim.  One should also note that  the "no continuum" condition requires that space and time must be discrete.

Wheeler's "no space, no time" condition is perhaps the most unappealing of these arguments. He claims that space and time are man-made inventions, and that at the beginning of the universe, "The Big Bang", quantum behavior would override General Relativity--there would be no connectivity in space, and before and after would have no meaning.

GOD THE OBSERVER, GOD THE CREATOR

John Wheeler had an original and inventive mind.   In addition to "It from Bit" and the "Participatory Universe", he proposed a thought experiment, the Delayed Choice experiment, in which the choice of an experimenter, the observer, can yield a change in a  quantum trajectory even after the quantum entity has supposedly traversed its path.   Wheeler's idea has been realized experimentally by several physicists.  One of these, Raymond Chiao, has used the results to argue for a new interpretation of Bishop Berkeley's, "esse est percipi", "to be is to be observed":  God is the observer who creates and sustains the world by His act of observing it.

Which brings us now to the Useless Machine, and what it tells us, as a metaphor for the world,  about "It from Bit" and the Participatory Universe.    Here are three important things to note:

  • There is a finger external to the box that initiates the opening.
  • The machine did not build or design itself;  it was an external agent, Marvin Minsky, who invented it and an external agent, Claude Shannon, who had it built at Bell Labs.
  • The binary nature of the machine does not describe it completely--there is a lid, there is a finger inside the box, etc.   The states of the machine can be represented by 0 and 1, but we would need to know more than that to know all about the box, its attributes, its contents.

Can you translate these objections to taking the Useless Machine as a bit in "It from Bit" to taking the Universe as a collection of bits?   I can.   There is only one external finger, and that is the hand of God.    There is only one designer and creator, and that is the mind of God.   There is only one way to describe our world, and that is as God's Creation, sustained by Him, and only partially known by us.

NOTES


*John Wheeler was one of the world's most creative and brilliant physicists.     See his NY Times obituary for a  partial list of his achievements.

**Wheeler is paraphrasing the expression "turtles all the way down".   There's  a famous anecdote about the elderly lady who  asserts that the earth is flat to a famous philosopher (two versions: William James or Bertrand Russell):  the earth rested on the back of a large elephant, which in turn rested on a larger turtle.   When asked what that turtle rested on, the lady replied, "don't be silly--it's turtles all the way down."

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Suffering--Our Great Gift from God*

The Sufferings of Job, William Blake
from Wikimedia Commons
"In a sense, everything that happens to me is a gift from God.  I may resent disappointments, rebel against a series of misfortunes which I regard as unmerited punishment.   Yet in time I may come to understand that these can be considered gifts of enlightenment."
--One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, May 4
"The witnesses of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ have handed on to the Church and to mankind a specific Gospel of suffering. The Redeemer himself wrote this Gospel, above all by his own suffering accepted in love, so that man 'should not perish but have eternal life.' This suffering, together with the living word of his teaching, became a rich source for all those who shared in Jesus’ sufferings among the first generation of his disciples and confessors and among those who have come after them down the centuries"
--Pope St. John Paul II (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).

INTRODUCTION 

Al-Anon is a Twelve Step group for family members and friends of alcoholics and addicts.  Some twenty-five years ago I went  regularly to Twelve Step group meetings for several years and then stopped because it seemed that I might get more meaningful support  from a deeper religious faith.  A "Higher Power" just didn't cut it then.   A month ago I  came back to Twelve Steps and started to attend a men's Al-Anon group, not because of family circumstances, but because I wanted support for self-examination and from group interactions that would complement and supplement my Catholic faith.

At a meeting two weeks ago a guy new to the group whose son had just hit bottom--been arrested with drugs, needles and other stuff--wondered why this had to happen to his family.  Another member brought up the quote given at the beginning of this post and there was then, shall we say, a  heated exchange of views.   I didn't participate,  but I did recall a talk given early on by a priest, recovering from alcoholism, in which he made the same point as the quote:  the alcoholic and his family have been given a gift from God, a gift that will enable them to grow in faith and spirituality.

I've been thinking about this problem since then.  It's one piece of the general problem of theodicy, why does God allow evil to exist.  As for myself, the suffering I endured 20 to 30 years ago did serve a good purpose:  it led me to my Catholic faith, after I had realized that belief in an amorphous "Higher Power" could not by itself sustain me.   What I will attempt to show in this post is how our Catholic faith does indeed show that suffering may serve purposes we do not perceive, and that we may transform that suffering into--not joy exactly--peace.

SUFFERING DOES NOT DISPROVE THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

A common argument atheists use in attempting to disprove the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, is that such a God would not allow the existence of suffering.    There are variations on this argument (one in Sean O'Carrol's recent apologetic for atheistic naturalism, "The Big Picture," relies on Bayesian probability analysis).   I'm not going to discuss such propositions in this post.   The counter-arguments to atheists have been given by better theologists and philosophers than I--see, for example, Professor Peter Kreeft's audiobook "Faith and Reason", and his CERC chapter, "Faith and Reason")

We, as Catholics, accept the dogmas and doctrines of the Magisterium,  and thus have a rational basis to understand (at least partially) why "bad things happen to good people".  As Catholics we must believe in Free Will and Original Sin, that Man is flawed, and that we inflict evil on ourselves.  We also believe, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that if bad things happen to us in this life, there is another life in heaven that will overshadow present misfortune.

THE SAINTS TELL US TO SEEK SUFFERING WITH CHRIST

There is a special Catholic perspective on suffering:  that by our own suffering we share Christ's salvific suffering for  us.   We should, therefore, not try to avoid suffering but to welcome it.   Quotes from the saints attest to this:

St. Augustine of Hippo:
"Trials and tribulations offer us a chance to make reparation for our past faults and sins. On such occasions the Lord comes to us like a physician to heal the wounds left by our sins. Tribulation is the divine medicine."
St. Francis of Assisi
"... our Lord Jesus, whose footsteps we ought to follow, called his betrayer “friend,” and offered himself willingly to his executioners. Therefore all those who unjustly inflict upon us tribulations, anguish, shame and injuries, sorrows and torments, martyrdom and death, are our friends whom we ought to love much, because we shall gain eternal life by those things which they make us suffer. And let us hate our body with its vices and sins, because by living in pleasures it wishes to rob us of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and eternal life, and to lose itself with everything else in hell.” 

St. Ignatius of Loyola:
"If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint."
"If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ." 
St. Teresa of Avila:
"Blessed be He, Who came into the world for no other purpose than to suffer."
"One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much
more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer."
St. John of the Cross: 
"Whenever anything disagreeable or displeasing happens to you, remember Christ crucified and be silent."
"The purest suffering bears and carries in its train the purest understanding."
St. Rafqua Al-Rayes:
"O Christ, I unite my sufferings to yours, my pains with your pains, as I look at your head crowned with thorns."
St. John Vianney:
 "Whether we will or not, we must suffer...There are two ways of suffering — to suffer with love, and to suffer without love. The saints suffered everything with joy, patience, and perseverance, because they loved. As for us, we suffer with anger, vexation, and weariness, because we do not love. If we loved God, we should love crosses, we should wish for them, we should take pleasure in them."
There are many more--just do a web-search: "quotes saints on suffering".

POPE ST. JOHN PAUL II'S  "SALVIFICI DOLORIS"

"Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man 'becomes the way for the Church', and this way is one of the most important ones."  Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris.
In 1984 Pope St. John Paul II published his encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, three years after he had been shot by a would-be assassin.   Although I have not found any historical accounts to validate my conjecture that he suffered great pain during his recovery, it seems likely,  given that he had two sections of bowel removed.   It is reasonable to assume then that his Apostolic Letter was written in the context of his physical suffering, if not as a consequence of this suffering.

Pope St. John Paul II explores the dimensions of human suffering, from its relation in the Old Testament to God's Justice and the consequences of evil, the good man who suffers (Job), to the New Testament, in which Christ tells us to carry our cross and follow Him.   Pope St. John Paul II emphasizes that suffering is a mystery, but that by realizing  Christ suffered,  took on our sin and death, we can better understand God's purpose in allowing suffering.   By joining in suffering with Christ, we can unite our human distress with Christ's salvific suffering.   I do an injustice to the encyclical by this brief summary, and I urge the reader to read the letter in its entirety.    Two quotes are in order:
"In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed,. Christ, - without any fault of his own - took on himself "the total evil of sin". The experience of this evil determined the incomparable extent of Christ's suffering, which became the price of the Redemption." Salvifici Dolores  18
 "Those who share in Christ's sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ's Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man's weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. " ibid. 23

THE FOURTH SORROWFUL MYSTERY, TAKE UP YOUR CROSS

It's a hard row to hoe, but I can only follow Catholic teaching.   When I pray the sorrowful Rosary and come to the fourth mystery, Jesus carries His cross, I pray that I can take on my sins, my failures, my suffering, offer them up and thereby  lighten the load of His cross.   We can not know what God wills for us,  but must assume that it is for our ultimate good.   And if we suffer now, we have to look to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, to envisage that final reward that faith promises us.

*In an earlier post I have "discussed and compared" the Jewish and Catholic theologies of suffering;  see "Suffering--A Catholic | Jewish Perspective".





Saturday, April 29, 2017

Which is winning--scientism or religion?
I. What science is really all about

Albrecht Durer, St. Michael Fighting the Dragon
from Wikimedia Commons

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works. [emphasis added] Stephen Hawking. ABC Interview, 2010"

The arrogance of scientists is evident nowhere more than in their zealotry against religion." Rabbi Yonason Goldson, Jewish World Review, 26th April, 2017.

"If we discuss a war between science and the Church (notice the difference in upper case), we must define what weapons are legitimate and where the battle is to take place." Robert Kurland,"Truth Cannot Contradict Truth"

INTRODUCTION 

This is to be the first in a series of posts about the supposed war between science--let me change that to "scientism"--and Catholic teaching.   I'll start off with some historical case studies to show how science has proceeded as a fallible human undertaking.  These case studies will then be set in the context of Imre Lakatos's  "Scientific Research Programme" to show how science works, its strengths and limitations.   Later posts will examine the arguments of evangelists for scientism and (I hope) rebut them.   But let's preface all that with a biographical note.

Reading about the recent "March for Science" and what it really stood for*,  I thought about my own past skirmishes between belief in science as the all-in-all and my need for a deeper faith.    I recalled that time 22 years ago when I told scientific colleagues--friends--about my conversion and Easter entry into the Catholic Church, and I imagined them shaking their heads and saying  "What's happened to old Bob, has he gone completely off his rocker?"  Those were the sort of comments I had heard 40 years earlier after a promising graduate student in theoretical chemistry became a Evangelical Christian and forsook his career.  

My friends were tolerant of my idiosyncratic behavior (to my face), but I could imagine them saying "he's not doing science any more so I guess this religion bit is an old age pastime."    Or maybe not.    According to them, belief in God indicated poor judgment, but not a moral defect.  It showed poor taste, like choosing Gershwin over Bach, a Buick over an Audi, or voting for Bush (41) instead of Clinton.

The toleration they showed is becoming is much less common nowadays.   There have have been a spate of recent books by theoretical physicists**, evangelical atheists who would  convert religious believers to their own faith, scientism.   What is scientism?  It's the belief that science can explain everything that needs to be explained and  that it can provide a foundation for morals and ethics.

That faith in science is misplaced.  As my favorite authority on the limits of science, Fr. Stanley Jaki, would put it:
"To answer the question 'To be or not to be?' we cannot turn to a science textbook."
--Fr. Stanley Jaki, The Limits of a Limitless Science.

HOW SCIENCE WORKS--SOME CASE STUDIES

Frankenstein's Laboratory, from Wikimedia Commons

My wife, a student of medieval history, has told me that "History tells you most of what you need to know about a subject", so we'll start with some examples from the history of science to show 1) that science is fallible and tentative, and 2) that it is totally dependent on empirical tests.


The Caloric Theory of Heat Refuted Experimentally
What is heat?  Nowadays we usually think of heat as a form of energy, but back in the 18th and early part of the 19th century that was not so.  At first it was thought that heat and combustion were inter-related via a hypothetical substance, phlogiston, but this theory was disproved by Lavoisier in the late 18th century by his experiments on oxygen and combustion. 

He then introduced a theory in which heat consisted of an invisible fluid, caloric, which flowed  from a hot thing to a cold thing.   The theory accounted quantitatively for temperature changes when a hot body was put into a contact with a cold one (e.g. dropping a given amount of cold water into  a given amount of hot water.)     A principle employed in such calculations was that since caloric was a substance, i.e. something material,  the total amount of caloric involved in heat transfer had to be conserved.
In 1798 Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, submitted a  paper to the Royal Society about his experiments in which boring a cannon could make water boil, and boring with a blunt instrument produced more heat than with a sharp one (more friction with the blunt).     The experiments showed that  repeated boring on the same cannon continued to produce heat, so clearly heat was not conserved.    This experiment validated another theory of heat, the kinetic theory, in which heat was due to the random motion of atoms and molecules.
However the kinetic theory, despite Rumford's groundbreaking experiment, still did not hold sway until some time after James Joule showed in 1845 that work could be quantitatively converted into heat.
James Joule: Work--->Heat
A diagram of Joule's apparatus is shown on the right:
Sir James Joule's Apparatus
from Wikimedia Commons
As the weight falls, the potential energy of the weight is converted into work done (a paddle stirs the water in the container against a frictional force due to water viscosity).   The temperature rise corresponding to a given fall of weights (work done) yields the amount of heat rise (in calories) of the known mass of water.   Since the temperature rise is very small, the measurements have to be very accurate.
It took 30 to 50 years after Joule's definitive experiment (and subsequent refinements and repetitions) for the kinetic theory of heat--heat caused by random, irregular motion of atoms and molecules--to be fully accepted by the scientific community.   James Clerk Maxwell published in 1871 a paper,  "Theory of Heat".  This comprehensive treatise and advances in thermodynamics convinced scientists  finally to accept that heat was a form of energy related to the kinetic energy of the atoms and molecules in a substance. 
Giving Birth to the Kurland-McGarvey Equation


I want also to illustrate how science works with an example from my own scientific career.  So as not to blow my own horn (too much!), I'm going to try to show not only where I succeeded, but where I erred.  A few years into my first academic position at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) a graduate student in my research group was facing a road block with his research problem.   A well-established theory was not giving results matching his data.  
After a lot of thought, it appeared  that we were not taking into account higher energy levels of the compound (potassium ferricyanide) he was studying.   Searching the library, I found a publication by Schwinger and Karplus (recalling my earlier graduate course in quantum mechanics) that offered a road to a solution.   After several weeks of intensive devotion, I wrote a paper that incorporated  density matrix techniques to account for contributions of all electronic levels and submitted it for a publication.   One reviewer pointed out a serious deficiency--I had neglected to account for mixing of excited states with ground state.  I acknowledged he was right, asked him to co-author the paper with me and we collaboratively worked it up for publication.  
There is an equation stemming from that work, (Google "Kurland-McGarvey Equation") that is widely enough used in the specialty that it doesn't need footnoting for reference.    So, one more small brick in the scientific edifice.
Now, the point of all this is to show that science proceeds  by correcting errors in theories,  errors in which theories--which are meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive--don't fit experimental data.    The refereeing process fifty years ago was one where authors were usually willing to be criticized and the reviewers of papers almost always tried to insure that the science in a published paper was good.   
Other Experimental Tests of Significant Theories
There are many more examples of theories that were confirmed--i.e. not falsified--by empirical results.  Links are given below to some examples of such experimental tests  in various fields of science.  
Each of these examples above can be rationalized in terms of Imre Lakatos' "Scientific Research Programme", which is discussed below.

Lakatos's "Scientific Research Programme"

The  "Scientific Research Programme" devised by Imre Lakatos can be thought of as a sphere:  there is an inner core of fundamental principles--not theories, but principles to which theories have to adhere; these principles are assumed, because they seem obvious and confirmed generally by our experience.   But, as we'll see below, there are  occasions when these fundamental principles are modified or violated.    Surrounding this core of fundamental principles is a shell of fundamental or primary theories (e.g. thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics).   Surrounding this shell of fundamental theories are other shells representing auxiliary theories derived from the primary theories and other auxiliary theories.  MRI, chemical bonding, heat transfer are examples of  such auxiliary theories.  And finally  there is an outer shell of experimental facts or data.   The interplay between the shells and core that shows how science works is illustrated below.
Lakatos "Scientific Research Programme
In this diagram the inner core principles are linked to fundamental and auxiliary theories, as shown by the black arrows.   There is feedback from data to theories,  as shown by the red arrows.   There is even feedback from data and fundamental theories to inner core principles, as shown by the red arrows.
Examples: Rumford, Joule
The core principle involved in the caloric theory of heat was the conservation of caloric (since it was a substance).  Count Rumford's cannon-boring experiments showed that the more the cannon was bored, the more heat was produced;  therefore the supply of heat in the cannon was inexhaustible and clearly not conserved. 
A core principle involved in Joule's experiment is the First Law of Thermodynamics:  conservation of energy, with heat and work as forms of energy.   Note that this conservation principle is linked to a fundamental theory of thermodynamics developed in the middle of the 19th century  and to theories of classical mechanics developed in the 18th century and early 19th century.
Examples: Einstein's Relativity theories
Einstein's two theories of relativity are  striking examples of how theory influences  fundamental principle (the red arrow), or perhaps more accurately, how fundamental principles are proposed as a basis for general theories.  His theory, special relativity, introduced the following new general principles:

  • the laws of physics are the same for systems ("frames of reference") moving at constant velocity (i.e. "inertial systems");
  • the speed of light (in vacuum) is constant, regardless of the speed of source or receiver;
  • neither energy nor mass is conserved but only mass + energy (from E=mc²)

His general relativity theory introduced the "equivalence principle", that inertial and gravitational mass are the same.   In every-day terms, this principle says that a person (mass m) in an elevator accelerating upward experiences a force holding him to the floor due to earth's gravitation, mg, plus a force due to the acceleration of the elevator, ma.   This is the same force that the person would experience on a planet where the gravitational acceleration would correspond  to g+a, or in a spaceship accelerating at a rate g+a
Example: The Ultra-violet Catastrophe and Quantum Theory
At the end of the 19th century classical physics came across a real stumbling block.   Theory predicted that the energy of a "black body" (a body radiating energy, in thermal equilibrium with its surroundings) should go to infinity as the wavelength of the radiated energy approached zero (toward the ultra-violet end of the electromagnetic spectrum).
Planck resolved this problem by positing that energy was not transferred continuously, but only in a small discrete packet which he called a quantum of energy.  (And thus was born quantum mechanics.)   So this is another example of how data, experiments affect fundamental principles.
Example: Parity Conserved? Right- and Left-handed Symmetry
Parity refers to mirror symmetry.  For example,  many organic molecules are 
Chiral Amino Acids--Right and Left-handed
from Wikimedia Commons
either right- or left-handed  (see the illustration at right of two amino acids, constituents of proteins:  COOH is the organic acid group, NH2 is an amino group, C is the central carbon, R represents a general group attached to the carbon). Now biological molecules can be chiral either as a whole, or with respect to the constituent parts.   For example, amino acids found in nature are left-handed;  sugars found in nature are right-handed;  DNA as a whole has a right-handed spiral (helix).    The question of why only one kind of handedness for biological molecules came about has fascinated chemists and biologists since the time of Pasteur 150 years ago.  There are recent theories to explain this, but they are to some extent conjectural.
Conservation of parity (handedness) had been a fundamental principle of physics  until the late 1950's, when a proposal to test it for nuclear weak force interactions--e,g, beta decay of Co-60 nuclei--showed that it was violated.  (See here for an expanded story.)   Since that time a conservation principle, CPT symmetry, linking parity (P) with charge (C) and time reversal (T) has been found to hold.
Summary
In all the examples described above there is an interaction between theory and experimental data: either the data confirms the predictions of theory or the data requires a theory  to be modified or discarded.    These interactions are nicely summarized by the Lakatos model, "The Scientific Research Programme".

WHAT SCIENCE CAN'T DO

How do we go from “how science works” to “what science can’t do”? The most comprehensive scheme and, to my mind, the one that best matches actual scientific practice is that of Imre Lakatos, described above. Note again these elements of the scheme: a network of hypotheses AND experimental data. The combination of theory and data requires that predictions or explanations made by models and theory must be validated empirically, if the theory or model is to be truly part of science. Measurements must be replicable, which is to say that essentially the same results are required, for whichever team does the measurement or performs the experiment.
Fr. Stanley Jaki has put more stringent requirements on science:
"Science...is synonymous with measurements, which are accurate because they can be expressed in numbers. Those numbers relate to tangible or material things, or rather to their spatial extensions or correlations with one another in a given moment or as time goes on. "The Limits of a Limitless Science," Asbury Theological Journal 54 (1999), p.24
This need for numerical assessment strikes out disciplines which most people would regard as science—biology, geology, paleontology, and such. Here I would have to disagree with Fr. Jaki: abduction and retroduction can be used to assess non-numerical data rigorously. A fine example is the development of the tectonic plate theory. It started in 1915 with the continental drift hypothesis of Alfred Wegener, based on the matching coastline shapes of western Africa and Eastern South America, and the striking similarity of strata and fossils on the two coasts. In the 1960’s seismographic data showed that continents and ocean floors rested on vast tectonic plates which were vehicles for continental drift. So, both qualitative and quantitative evidence entered into validation of the theory.
A much more important limit to science has been set by Fr. Jaki:
 "Hamlet's question, ‘to be or not to be,’ has a meaning even deeper than whether an act is moral or immoral. That deeper meaning is not merely whether there is a life after death. The deepest perspective opened up by that question is reflection on existence in general. In raising the question, ‘to be or not to be,’ one conveys one's ability to ponder existence itself. In fact every bit of knowledge begins with the registering of something that exists. To know is to register existence. But this is precisely what science cannot do, simply because existence as such cannot be measured.[emphasis added].”--Fr. Stanley Jaki, loc. Cit., p.30.
What this means is that science can not explain itself. Science can not show why it gives us a partial picture of the world expressed mathematically, or to use the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner’s apt phrase, science can not explain “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” by an underlying scientific theory. The only justification for this success is empirical—it works!
Therefore science can not answer questions about religion. It cannot neither prove nor disprove the existence of a Godhead, nor the existence of the Trinity. Thus, to say that science “proves” the existence of God, is as much an error as saying it disproves that God exists. We can only say that all that we learn about our world from science is in accord with that world which an omniscient and omnipotent God would create.


*See  the linked column by Rabbi Goldson and blog posts by William (Matt) Briggs (Statistician to the Stars)
**I'm thinking of Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Kraus, and most recently, Sean Carroll.   I'll be reviewing Carroll's book, "The Big Picture", in another post. It's the best of the lot. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

More St. Augustine: Bearing Our Cross

St. Augustine and the Fires of Wisdom
from Wikimedia Commons
"Christ, Son of God, if You had not wished to suffer, You would not have suffered.   Show us the fruit of Your Passion." --St. Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 21
The quote above also bears on my preceding post, "Why did Christ not come down from the Cross?" 

Here's the April 11th reading from "Augustine Day by Day".   I find it particularly relevant.

"Let them deny themselves, that is not put their trust in themselves.  Let them take up their cross, that is, put up with all the affronts of the world for the love of Christ.  Persist, persevere, endure,  bear up under the delay.  In this way you will bear up your cross."  Sermon 96.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why Didn't Jesus Come Down from the Cross?,
The Final Test of Faith

Hypercube** Crucifixion, Salvador Dali
Fair Use, Wikipedia
 Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe.[emphasis added]--Matt 27:40-42 (KJV).
"Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."--1 Peter 2:24
 "Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe."--St. Augustine

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." --St. Paul

INTRODUCTION

It is late Palm Sunday, and I have listened to-- meditated on--the Passion according to St. Matthew, as I heard it in two Masses, a Vigil Mass and the 10:30 am Mass;  in the latter I participated with our Church instrumental group (alto clarinet*).    Both times the passage in the first quote struck me, and I wondered, what would have happened if, in fact,  Jesus had come down from the Cross?   I'll discuss below why Jesus didn't come down--there are two answers, one with which we Catholics are familiar and the other, perhaps not so much.

A SCIENCE-FICTION PRELUDE  

In an early post, The Theology of Science Fiction I--Some SF Gospels,  I argued that two science fiction stories in which Jesus was not crucified missed the point of His sacrifice and the theological implications.   In one of these, Jesus argues with God in the Garden of Gethesmane that the Crucifixion is really not a rational way to show that God exists, so God lets Him be (or perhaps in this instance I should write "him").   In the other, Pilate heeds the advice of his wife who had a bad dream about Jesus and releases him (Him?);  Jesus retires to Nazareth as an honored (but ignored) prophet, the Roman Emperor takes Judaism as the state religion and moves the Temple to Rome.   

And so we are not saved, we live without the prospect of eternal life, because Jesus has not sacrificed Himself as satisfaction for our sins.

ANSELM'S SATISFACTION THEORY--JESUS TAKES ON OUR SINS

The Eucharistic Liturgy of the Mass is a Sacrifice, continued since the original sacrifice on the Cross.   It is not a symbolic sacrifice, as some Christian sects would maintain.   The Crucifixion is   the sacrifice  Jesus offered to save us from our sins, and is so indicated in many places in the New Testament and even in the Old.

Origen (184-253), in his "Ransom Theory", argued that Jesus gave his life as ransom to Satan to save us and those previously condemned to the nether world.   This theory was disputed by St. Anselm, who proposed in his book Cur Deus Homo ("Why God Became Man") a "Satisfaction Theory".  The quote below from the linked article ("Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement") gives the essence of that theory:
"Anslem believed that humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him." --Theopedia
So, Jesus could not come down from the Cross, because if he did, there would not be a sacrifice sufficient to atone for the sins of men.

NO EASY ROAD TO FAITH

After some reflection, I have come up with another reason that Jesus did not come down from the Cross.   And that is the road to Faith should not be a super-highway, but a path that takes effort and will to travel--it should not be an easy journey.   God could have put signs, "This rock was made by God", but doing that essentially denies our free will to make conscience based choices.  The Priests and Sanhedrin indeed would have believed had He come down from the Cross, but then what?   Would others not believe this was a mass hallucination and ignored it, as they did reports of His appearance after the Resurrection.?

My own journey to faith was a rationally based, top-down experience (see Top Down to Jesus);  no visions, no voices.    It was based on a rational reading of historical accounts (the New Testament) and the insight that these accounts were true, so true that a group of unschooled fishermen and tax collectors gave their lives to spread the faith, and so true that their mission succeeded.   Since the beginning of that journey it has deepened;  I still have not heard a Voice or seen a Vision, but there have been times when I have known that God, Our Lord was present.

NOTES

*Whenever I play with the instrumental group I try to attend two Masses, since my attention sometimes focuses on the music rather than on the liturgy.

**A hypercube, a net of a tesseract, is a three-dimensional perspective of a four-dimensional cube.   The painting represents, therefore, a two-dimensional perspective of a three-dimensional perspective....   See, for example, Robert Heinlein's famous sf story, "And He Built a Crooked House".  I use this illustration, rather than the more well-known Medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Crucifixion, because it illustrates so well that the Crucifixion is a unique event, of this world and not of the world.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

God's Periodic Table...And Evolution

The  Crab Nebula and the Periodic Table
from   NASA/ESA Wikimedia Commons
"Those distinct substances, which concretes generally either afford, or are made up of, may, without very much inconvenience, be called the elements or principles of them.” 
― Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist
"A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect 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."  
--Fred Hoyle (who predicted the triple-alpha process), The Universe: Past and Present Reflections. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics: 20:16
"Through his Word and wisdom he created the universe, for by his Word the heavens were established, and by his Spirit all their array. His wisdom is supreme. God by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding he arranged the heavens, by his knowledge the depths broke forth and the clouds poured out the dew."
--St. Theophilus of Antioch, Letter to Autoylcus
Evolution:   "The process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth." --Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
Evolution: "The gradual development of something."--OED

INTRODUCTION--EVOLUTION--IS IT TRUE?

Evolution--is it true?   A few weeks ago an email was forwarded to me by Father Robert Spitzer's Magis Institute (I'm on the Academic Advisory Board) for comment    The correspondent--let's call him "John Doe"--insisted that evolution violated Catholic Teaching, was in fact heretical, and cited the following pronouncements of  the Ecumenical Councils--Lateran IV,  Vatican I--and of Pope Pius XII's encyclical, Humani Generis, to support his claim.
"God…creator of all visible and invisible things, of the spiritual and of the corporal; who by His own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time created each creature from nothing, spiritual and corporal, namely, angelic and mundane, and finally the human, constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body." [emphasis added by John Doe]--Lateran IV (D.428).  
"If anyone does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, were produced, according to their whole substance, out of nothing by God; or holds that God did not create by his will free from all necessity, but as necessarily as he necessarily loves himself; or denies that the world was created for the glory of God: let him be anathema." [emphasis added by John Doe]--Vatican I (Article 5).
"Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question." [emphasis added, RJK]--Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis
John Doe agreed that "microevolution" could occur by mutation (slight changes of phenotype and genotype within a species due to mutation of genes}, but disagreed with the central tenet of evolution that all living things today descended from one primal original living thing.


GENERAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST JOHN DOE'S PROPOSITION 
Here are general arguments that will be given in more detail below.

Evolution--the gradual change into different kinds from a single kind as per the second OED definition--is not limited to biological things, but to matter in general, so if evolution is forbidden for biology by John Doe's interpretation of the Council pronouncements, it is forbidden also for matter in general, and thereby is forbidden all of physics and chemistry.

The evidence for evolution of living organisms is impressive.  Without going into detail, I'll cite the convincing features and also note that evolution--in the sense given by the first Oxford English Dictionary definition--is NOT the same as the proposed neo-Darwinian mechanism for evolution, which is a theory.

The Council pronouncements and the quote from Humani Generis have to be parsed very carefully to understand the full scope of the meanings of "at once" and "out of nothing";  moreover, the quote from Humani Generis must be put in context and related to other statements in that encyclical.

The position of the Catholic Church on evolution has been well stated by Pope St. John Paul II (see also "On Pope St. John Paul II's Feast Day"), that the Church does not deny the scientific evidence for evolution, the descent of species.   Indeed, Pope St. John Paul II said that there is no conflict between evolution and Church teaching:
"there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points."  St. John Paul II, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.
Pope St. John Paul II emphasized that various theories have been proposed to explain this evidence, but that as Catholics we cannot accept any theory which denies that God creates the soul.  Neo-Darwinism is one such theory to explain evolution; and it is one not universally accepted even by some atheistic scientists and philosophers.    

GOD'S PERIODIC TABLE AND THE EVOLUTION OF MATTER

Cosmic History for the Universe--not to scale
from Wikimedia Commons
In trying to reconstruct how the universe has evolved (pardon that word!), we have to keep in mind that before a time of about 380,000 years after the Big Bang (the presumed origin of the universe from a singularity, i.e. "Ex Nihilo"), the history has to be reconstructed--speculatively--from what we know about the physics of elementary particles--the so-called "Standard Model" (see God, Symmetry and Beauty I and Philosophic Issues in Cosmology 1).   The reason we have to infer what happened before this 380,000 year benchmark is the opacity of the early Universe to radiation--it consisted of a high energy plasma of quarks, gluons, photons and, in the later stages, elementary particles such as protons, electrons, neutrons.  (See Luke Mastin's Timeline of the Big Bang for a complete, if perhaps somewhat speculative account  of the early stages of the evolution.)

For purposes of this discussion, I'll accept (as do most physicists) that "In the Beginning" there was a super-hot tiny ball of energy, "one thing", that changed to quarks, anti-quarks, gluons and then yielded elementary particles--protons, neutrons, electrons.   Subsequently gravitation induced star formation with protons and alpha particles (helium-4 nuclei) present in early stars.   There would have been a serious obstacle to further formation of the elements because a three-body collision of three alpha particles would be required for the formation of carbon-12 (the next step in formation of the elements) and as those of you who have shot pool know, the probability of a triple collision from random motion of particles is small.

Fred Hoyle (who had derisively labelled creation from a singularity as "The Big Bang"--the name stuck) saw a problem in the abundance of carbon-12 and other elements in the universe and the lack of a mechanism for their creation.  He predicted an excited, higher energy state of carbon-12 nuclei that would enhance the formation of carbon-12 by the so-called "triple alpha process" (see the diagram below).  His prediction was verified experimentally.
Triple Alpha Process
from Wikimedia Commons

In this process, two alpha particles (helium-4 nuclei) collide to form a beryllium-8 nucleus, which is unstable.   However, the likelihood of forming carbon-12 from a collision with an alpha particle is enhanced by a "resonance effect".  This effect comes about because an excited, high energy level of the carbon-12 nucleus has almost the same value as the nuclear energy levels of beryllium-8 and helium-4.

Carbon-12 formation would be the bottleneck;  if carbon-12 could not be formed, then no oxygen, nitrogen, or heavier elements.   All these reactions take place at a very high temperature in the interior of giant stars.    When these stars implode, go nova (as with the Crab nebula picture above), all the heavy elements formed in the interior are scattered through the universe for the formation of planets and living organisms.

Here's the important point to be emphasized in this: it is fundamental physics that enables the formation of the elements, the evolution of the Periodic Table, if you will.   It is NOT a simultaneous creation of each element.   It is a much more wonderful thing to have this occur as a consequence of "natural law", rather than an ad individuum, separate and simultaneous creation of each element.   It is evolution, not creation all at once.  And it is God who created the rules of physics that enables this evolution.

EVIDENCE FOR EVOLUTION OF BIOLOGICAL ORGANISMS*

That evolution of biological organisms, gradual changes in species and groups, occurs, is based on two types of evidence:  fossil evidence of transitions between different types of organisms (see here)  and similarities in DNA and protein composition.   Perhaps the most illustrative of the transitional record is that of dinosaurs to birds.   

Nevertheless, there are large gaps between groups in the fossil record, such that the paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed a modification of the Neo-Darwinian theory, Punctuated Equilibrium.   Their theory posited large, discontinuous changes in species, rather than the gradual changes given by Darwinism.

Here's a question for those who propose an instantaneous creation of all species: why does the fossil record of more than a billion years ago contain indicators of only microbial species, and why do the fossil records of different geologic eras contains a progression of types, with no recent phyla (e.g. mammalia) in older records?

The table below gives example of changes in the composition of DNA coding for proteins and random DNA for different species.
SPECIES
GENE SEQUENCE THAT CODES PROTEIN
RANDOM DNA SEGMENTS BETWEEN GENES
Chimpanzee
100%
98%
Dog
99
52
Mouse
99
40
Chicken
75
4
Fruit Fly
60
About 0
Round Worm
35
About 0
From Francis Collins, "The Language of God", pp.127,128.
Note the similarities between mammalian species, and the differences between different groups (e.g. round worm vs chicken).   Also note that the differences are much greater for "random (non-functional?) DNA" since mutations here won't affect survivability as much.   
I want to emphasize again: evolution is the change of species one into another, along with the supposition of common descent from some single celled organism in the distant past.   Many people--including scientists--confuse evolution with the neo-Darwinian proposed mechanism for evolution, mutation leading to small changes that enhance survivability and thus gradually yield different species.   Many scientists and philosophers do not think the neo-Darwinian model is sufficient to explain evolution.  Some of these critics are atheists or agnostics, so it isn't a question of neo-Darwinism violating their religious beliefs.   (See, for example, Thomas Nagel's book, Mind and Cosmos.)


PARSING LATERAN IV--"AT ONCE"; "OUT OF NOTHING"  

"John Doe" emphasized the phrases "at once" and "each creature from nothing" in citing the dicta of Lateran IV against evolution.   Now there are two ways of getting at the meaning, parsing, "at once."   First, if we believe the universe evolved from an instant of creation, The Big Bang, Creatio ex Nihilo, as described in the section above, then we can believe, along with St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Catechism (CC 308),  that God is a First Cause, and that He can operate through both primary and secondary causes.   As St. Augustine posited 
"...each one [type of creature] fulfills its proper function, comes to creatures from those causal reasons implanted in them, which God scattered as seeds at the moment of creation  [emphasis added] ... Time brings about the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers, but there was no passage of time when they received these laws at creation.[emphasis added] --St. Augustine of Hippo, de Genesi ad Litteram (the Literal Meaning of Genesis.)
Second, God is eternal, timeless--like a photon of light, time does not exist for God.   He sees our future and our past and our present simultaneously, so the term "at once" to imply a single moment in past time is a limitation on this Godly timelessness.

With respect to the phrase "out of nothing," I can't believe that God, like a magician conjuring a rabbit out of a hat, made each individual species out of nothing.   Certainly God created the whole universe out of nothing; I firmly believe in the dogma of Creatio ex Nihilo, but again--we have to consider not only primary but secondary causation.

THE PRESENT POSITION OF THE CHURCH ON EVOLUTION*

The Dogma of Original Sin and the Dogma/Doctrine of monogenesis  are crucial in determining the present position of the Church on evolution, I'll use quotations from Pope Pius XII  and Pope St. John Paul II to illustrate this.   (Unfortunately John Doe's quote from Humani Generis was out of context and thus did not reveal the full import of what Pope Pius XII was trying to impart.)
“...with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter [but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” [emphasis added]--Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis
"Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God..." Pope St. John Paul II, Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences:"On Evolution". 
“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. [emphasis added] The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved.
ibid.
"As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man..."  ibid.
I've given a more detailed account of this in a post, Do Neanderthals have a soul?

SUMMARY

Pope St. John Paul II in his Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, said
"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."  
Because we do not understand at present how evolution works are we to reject it as a magnificent work by God and rely on a literal interpretation of Scripture and Medieval Councils (which required Jews to dress differently from Christians)?   We don't do this for the creation of matter and the universe, for which physics gives a clearer explanation than molecular biology does for evolution.   The Church today does not require that we do so;  the Church requires only that we do not fall into the trap of believing materialistic theories that attempt to explain evolution.

I'll close with a quote from my favorite saint, St. Augustine of Hippo, that says it all for living with science and faith:
"Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,... and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn." --De Genesi ad litteram; the Literal Meaning of Genesis.

NOTE

*This topic and the position of the Church on evolution is explored in greater detail in Chapter 6 of my ebook, "Science and the Church--'Truth Cannot Contradict Truth'".  (Please pardon the shameless self-promotion.)

About Me

My photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.