February 3, 2011

The Godlessness of the Gaps

If religion sometimes tries to fill the gaps of science with God, science strives often to coat the order of the universe with a faith-based chaos.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:48 PM

January 8, 2011

The Predicament of Dementia

Dementia could be evidence for a particular interpretation of reality.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:00 PM

January 3, 2011

In the beginning was the Word

If gravity is a consequence of the importance of information in the universe perhaps human consciousness drives our biological existence, not the other way around.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:23 PM

January 1, 2011

The Foundation for Everything You Know

It's fascinating to know that the discovery of a tooth could change our understanding of history.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:41 PM

November 21, 2010

How Little We Know About How We Know

Scientists are just beginning to discover how complex our brains are. For all that complexity, though, we'll never be able to conceive of all of reality in the terms of science.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:59 AM

November 14, 2010

Toward Order

The universe tends toward order.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:04 PM

October 24, 2010

The Universal Nothing That Is Something

Stephen Hawking recently proclaimed to be moving physics beyond the need for God, but some would argue that he's actually moved physics closer to God — at least the Christian concept of Him.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:59 AM

October 21, 2010

Happiness by the Numbers

I'm skeptical that it's possible to divide happiness into categories of causes, from genetics, to circumstances, to personal relationships.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

September 18, 2010

The Origins of Orientation

Thinking on the psychological and biological foundations of homosexuality appear to be moving in the direction that I've long thought to be true.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:00 PM

July 15, 2010

Time Traveling in Their Minds

Doesn't it seem as if those most eager to proclaim a particular breakthrough as definitive proof that religious believers are wrong already behave as if it's already been proven?

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

June 19, 2010

It's the Authority, not the Debate

In keeping with this morning's theme, President Obama's approach to a federal bioethics board compares with Bush's such that the latter appeared to welcome public debate while the former thinks he's answered the fundamental questions for us.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:32 PM

April 21, 2010

Two Choices, Neither Science

If science fiction strives to apply real science to fictional situations, it still has to address the question of God.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

April 18, 2010

Defining "Objectionable" as "Not This"

Congressman Jim Langevin (D, RI) wants to skirt objections to human cloning just beyond the boundaries of the techniques that he wants to permit. Somehow, that doesn't seem very democratic.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:09 AM

December 4, 2005

John Derbyshire: Scientismist

Evidence for the conclusion expressed in the above subject line appears even in a minor bit of rhetorical cheating. In the piece that set off this latest science versus various disciplines skirmish, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

This is what they now inadvertently remind us: that there are, after all, other modes of knowledge, other scholarly disciplines--philosophy, history, literature, theology--that have taught us a good deal, over the ages, about human nature, social behavior, ethical principles and practices. [Emphasis added]

Beginning with a quotation that cuts Himmelfarb off after "human nature," Derbyshire's lengthy response winds its way to the conclusion that:

... you can't build bridges or design drugs by thinking like that [i.e., that all abstract thought is really religion], and you can't enlarge your understanding of the natural world, either--no matter how many philosophers, theologians, novelists, and historians you hire.

The topic's transition from "human nature" (among other social considerations) to "the natural world" can only appear seamless to a writer for whom all we really need to know about human nature we can learn in biology class. If human nature has a spiritual side, however, then it would certainly be plausible to believe that knowledge can be developed by and transferred through means that have nothing to do with science or its method. To imply otherwise — to suggest that "understanding the natural world" will complete one's understanding human nature — is an expression of humanism. (One wonders whether Derbyshire makes it as a scientist or a theologian.)

Extend this same sort of consideration to a somewhat striking Derbyshire passage:

If impartial scientific inquiry turns up results -- reproducible results with real predictive power (if you do this, then this will happen; if this is the current state of affairs, then either this or this will be the future state after time t, with probabilities p and q) -- if, I say, inquiry turns up these results, and the results are emotionally displeasing to us, or to loud, powerful factions among us, should we stop the research? How exactly WOULD we stop it world-wide -- in China, for instance, or India?

The implied answer to Derbyshire's first question is, obviously, "no," and the fact that he does not deem qualifying clauses to be necessary introduces into the discussion the mechanical reductivism that has led many a wary eye to glance toward science more regularly. At the very least, one might hope for the concession that a substantial negative emotional response to scientists' activities is not totally lacking in import. Even a Darwinist might hypothesize that the chemical reaction of displeasure is rooted in some bit of humanity's historical experience.

But, says the adherent to scientism, science should not be impeded — CANNOT be impeded. (Who knows but that we may eventually develop a treatment for the chemically inspired impulse to do so.) Of course, scientismists would do well to understand that humanity does not simply "dwell in the natural world"; we affect it — increasingly. It may be little more than a faint call from the desert in the face of science's relentless logic, but if scientists truly have the sole capability of defining the boundaries of science, perhaps a few should investigate the likely consequences when we find ourselves stranded, having crossed too many bridges built without destinations.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:38 PM | Comments (4)

February 10, 2005

The Ideal as Trojan Horse

Before my wife gave up trying to find a full-time teaching job in Rhode Island's public school system, I had to learn how to disguise my sneer at the notion that "teachers are the most underpaid professionals." It was perfectly clear to me that, in this state at least, teachers unions and their political allies were holding up struggling near-outsiders such as my wife in order to argue for benefits and job protections for those who were already established and hardly impoverished. Groups have a tendency to hold up the most convenient faces from among their members toward any given end.

That seems to me to be what John Derbyshire is doing here:

Science is not an ossified establishment, defending privileges and power against all comers. Look into some science journals. Talk to some working scientists. Science is bustling and anarchic. When a plausible new theory comes up, keen young scientists flock to it in the hope of making a name for themselves by overthrowing the established orthodoxy. A high proportion of scientists are contrarians by temperament. "Why is this so?" they demand. "You SAY it's so, but where's the evidence?" Scientists don't take kindly to authoritiative pronouncements handed down from on high on tablets of stone. It's just not like that.

I've started and discarded a few posts on the running discussion in the Corner of which this quotation is a part, mostly because I think the debate misses the point theologically. Back in August 2002, I expressed it thus (excessive emphases in original):

...while the standard line is that, as humankind figures stuff out, God keeps getting smaller, the more intricately we understand what it is that God has done, the broader and more intrinsic God becomes.

It's difficult to bridge this gap in debate because the faithless just do not get it. God isn't hiding in the recesses of what we do not know; He is in such plain view that we often fail to see Him. We are not inventing scientific theories; we are discovering what is already there. And faith does not forbid questions; it allows them because the faithful already know that which is truly important.

Derb's latest tack brings to light another aspect of the debate that misses the point, the one about broad groups that I described above. He conveniently discards Richard Dawkins — an actual scientist — in the very same post in which he sides with the ACLU in its lawsuits against school districts that wish merely to highlight that evolution is a theory. Derb may see the ACLU as a convenient ally in his defense of science, but the average conservative probably understands that the ACLU sees the evolution debate as an intrinsic part of the broader secular worldview that it promotes.

The rhetoric is well developed to dismiss the pushback against evolution in public schools as an indication of "a cohort in the armies of Unreason," in Derbyshire's words. It might capture an important consideration, however, to ask whether those armies aren't reacting to something other than mere science. One would think that agreement with the ACLU on one of its big issues would raise a red flag for conservatives, as indeed it should.

Jonah Goldberg has replied to Derb's exaggeration in the heat of blogging with the suggestion that there "is a long history in this country of scientific experts trying to short-circuit democratic processes in order to run the show themselves." And Derb has ceded a limited version of the point. The "rearguard claim" that he tries to salvage, however, is the problem: scientists are "a libertarian lot" in the same sense in which libertarianism aligns with secularism.

To those on the other side of the debate, the ACLU's court action to disallow a local community from setting its own tone for the teaching of evolution is precisely an attempt to short-circuit democratic processes. The libertarianism, in other words, is akin to the restricted image of scientists as distinct from a broader cultural movement, and both are akin to the particulars of the role that evolution plays in the cultural battle; they all focus on their narrow truth as a means to slip past the argument that the broader whole is preponderant.

With matters of religion and morality banned from the classroom, it isn't surprising that those who privilege religion and morality would seek ways to keep out the worldview that has latched itself to evolution. The privileged treatment that the reasonable face of science attracts is quickly abused once the opposing "armies of Unreason" have been told to wait outside.

Well then. According to Mr. Derbyshire:

Lots of researchers in fields like human genetics, psychometrics, and neuroscience regard the kind of people who pontificate about these things in outlets like PBS and the New York Times as moronic ideologues, and will freely say so in private. Not in public, though -- they want to keep their research grants.

It seems a bit unfair to insist that those on the defensive side of the cultural battles playing out in the nation's schools react to scientists based on the views that they may or may not generally hold in private, while the other side tramples through the society with proclamations that scientists aren't willing to disclaim in public. If scientists don't want bio-theologians dabbling in their fare, then perhaps they ought to be more vocal about the ideological purity thereof.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:56 AM | Comments (74)

February 8, 2005

Ain't No Limits but the Ones I Got

If you haven't yet read Wesley J. Smith's Weekly Standard piece about bioscientists' ethics, you should. (Although it's spread out over two html pages, it's not that long)

[Stanford University's Irving] Weissman's stated purpose is to help the human condition by learning how the brain works. But helping the human condition can become an excuse for casting aside profound ethical concerns. Besides, Weissman apparently believes that as a scientist he has the right to do just about whatever he wants. "Anybody who puts their own moral guidance in the way of this biomedical science," he told the National Geographic News, "where they want to impose their will . . . interfere with science that could save lives." In other words, Weissman can impose his will on the rest of us because he believes an experiment is worth conducting, but society has no right to impose its collective will on him.

So how does this fit in to the ongoing conversation about experts and understanding human nature? Personally, I haven't yet worked through the disturbing realization that the moral lessons of classic science fiction have all but disappeared behind the "coolness" of its tricks. Perhaps the illustrious John Derbyshire is a bit too quick to mock English as among the "spurious academic disciplines."

Perhaps, indeed, too few scientists have put down their test tubes to benefit from the wisdom of the ages. If Derb and his fellow math and science students hadn't had so much "royal fun scoffing at the Eng Lit crowd," the less restrained of his codisciplinarians mightn't now be transforming horrific fiction into fact.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:05 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2005

Toward Religious Armor in a Pill

Believers have long wanted science to return to an internal culture with proper respect for religion, but this isn't quite what they've had in mind:

Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.

Headed by Baroness Greenfield, the leading neurologist, the new Centre for the Science of the Mind is to use imaging systems to find out how religious, spiritual and other belief systems, such as an illogical belief in the innate superiority of men, influence consciousness.

A central aspect of the two-year study, which has $2 million (Ł1.06 million) funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the US philanthropic body, will involve dozens of people being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions.

Jeff Miller and his commenters have highlighted two disturbing aspects of the experiment. The first is the impression, the subjects' consent aside, that "scientists" are torturing Christians presumably with impunity. The second is to be found in this paragraph from the news story:

The study is considered of vital importance in the present world climate, given the role of religious fundamentalism in international terrorism. A better understanding of the physiology of belief, the conditions that entrench it in the mind and its usefulness in mitigating pain could be crucial to developing counter-terrorist strategies for the future.

The obvious implication is that those who think this study is "of vital importance" wish to discover "the physiology of belief" in order to reduce it to what might be seen as acceptable levels through scientifically developed techniques. But see if the impression doesn't deepen — and darken — while you ponder a question that Paul Cella posed to his readers:

What is preferable — that Europe continues on its path of secular nihilism, with the crushing weight of multiculturalism descending in an ever-drearier enervation; or that Europe becomes Islamic?

Perhaps we American theists, watching from the sidelines, have been too quick to assume that secular nihilism would passively prostrate itself to Islamic fundamentalism. We all understand secular nihilism (or whatever you prefer to call it) to be a faith in its own right — its greatest lack being the fortitude that positive* faith provides. It seems to me that the envisioned "counter-terrorist strategies" (whatever they are) could evolve to remedy this weakness in two ways: The mettle can be sapped from theistic faiths. Or it can be artificially generated in an atheistic faith, whether for political or military combat.

This is the stuff of science fiction, to be sure, but cultural clashes of continental proportions seemed, until recently, to be the stuff of historical fiction. Either way, maybe our culture's dabbling in surrealism was part of a divine plan to prepare us for the future.

* I use "positive," here, in the descriptive sense, opposite "negative," not in the sense of attributing value.

A graph of E.U. demographics that Dan Drezner posts on his blog gives some perspective about what the future holds for Europe — and not mitigating perspective.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

December 22, 2004

The Other Stem Cells

You've surely come across Michael Fumento's excellent piece on adult stem cell research, but it's worth noting here anyway. (In part to make it easier for me to find it for future reference.)

There's no scientific research so promising that it can't be hyped further. Still, the ASCs — which the Democrats won't acknowledge, and which the New York Times recently claimed have proved futile in treating human illness — have actually been helping people in the U.S. since 1968. On one website you'll find a list, far from comprehensive, of almost 80 therapies currently using ASCs. This is treatment — not practice or theory. Incredibly, there are also about 300 clinical trials involving ASCs.
Posted by Justin Katz at 8:21 AM | Comments (8)

May 26, 2004

Research Versus Principle

Eric Cohen takes a look at the latest push for more federal dollars to be granted for embryonic stem-cell research:

Stepping back, a pattern of facts emerges. Embryonic-stem-cell research is promising but so far purely speculative; the federal government in no way limits such research in the private sector; supporters of the research believe they can obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding in the next few years, as the creation of new stem-cell institutes at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin demonstrates; and yet, despite the ethical objections of a very substantial portion of the public, stem-cell advocates insist that Congress should compel every American to support the research with tax dollars, and to make that happen they inflate the promise and distort the facts surrounding the research.

Cohen's most useful service is to illustrate how putting aside specifics erases all possibility of an accurate moral calculus. It's one thing to approach the American people with the suggestion that the sacrifice of a few lives is almost certain to save and improve the lives of many. It's another thing if the reality is that a great many lives will have to be sacrificed in order even to prove or disprove speculation.

I'd oppose either proposition, but the distinction would make the difference for a substantial portion of voters, I'm sure.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:46 PM

May 7, 2004

Saving Lives? Yes, but What Else?

Frankly, I'm not optimistic that our society can mature quickly enough, and bolster its ethical demands enough, to counter or even significantly mitigate the emotion-drenched choices that technology will allow:

In a growing practice that troubles some ethicists, a Chicago laboratory helped create five healthy babies to serve as stem-cell donors for their ailing brothers and sisters.

The made-to-order infants, from different families, were screened when they were embryos to make sure they would be compatible donors. Their siblings suffered from leukemia or a rare, potentially lethal anemia.

This is the first time embryo tissue-typing has been done for common disorders like leukemia that are not inherited. The results suggest that more children than previously thought could benefit from the technology, said Dr. Anver Kuliev, a Chicago doctor who participated in the research.

The Chicago doctors said the healthy embryos that were not matches were frozen for potential future use. But some ethicists said such perfectly healthy embryos could end up being discarded.

Unmentioned, in Lindsey Tanner's AP report, is that the ethical complications don't end with the frozen and discarded embryos. As difficult as these discussions may be, one has to consider the children who are actually allowed to live because they are of use to a sibling. Sure, most parents won't treat the first child as more important, but this is a dangerous road with too many potential unintended consequences on both the individual and cultural levels.

What happens, for instance, when the practice makes the leap from treating a sibling's illness to treating a parent's?

(via Amy Welborn)

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:29 AM

March 29, 2004

Dr. Frankenstein's Amoeba

A natural first reaction to news that scientists "are finally ready to try their hand at creating life" is to declare the endeavor dangerous and immoral. That, I think, has more to do with the scientists' use of language that makes what they're doing sound more interesting than it really is and the media's tendency to couch things in terms of controversy.

It seems that for the foreseeable future, by "life," we're still talking very basic organisms. One would be somewhat less fearful, I imagine, if scientists announced that a new technology coming out of the botany field had developed a plant from which a self-healing fabric could be made. And even that sort of advance remains somewhat distant. The leap to "live" products would still merit extremely close scrutiny, but from a practical point of view, a large swath of the innovations would hardly be notably organic. This, however, is worth a nervous laugh:

"It's certainly true that we are tinkering with something very powerful here," said artificial-life researcher Steen Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"But there's no difference between what we do here and what humans have always done when we invented fire, transistors and ways to split the atom," he said. "The more powerful technology you unleash, the more careful you have to be."

"No difference" must be a counter-intuitive technical term, because I can think of plenty of differences between fire and nuclear technology, and presenting "life" technology as the next stage in that trend makes me think that perhaps all such research ought to be conducted on Mars.

ADDENDUM (for comic book geeks):
Putting the peril in "apparel." One memory that comes to mind whenever I hear about the apparel applications for these superadvanced new technologies is from the Marvel Comics Secret Wars. In that 1984 series, Spiderman's costume is destroyed, and an alien machine gives him new threads that can do all sorts of fancy tricks, like transforming appearance and responding to his mental commands. As we all know, that particular costume didn't turn out very well...

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:07 PM

February 12, 2004

"I think it could help spur a medical revolution."

Well, it had to happen somewhere. In South Korea, live human beings are now considered an involuntary resource for their parts.

I don't know what all the fuss is about. I'm sure North Korea has fully grown people whose organs are available for the price of a bullet and a scalpel.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:22 AM | Comments (1)