Arguing Toward the Middle

As a benefit of my attendance at the Skeptic’s conference last may, I have been receiving copies of their flagship magazine. The magazine has begun to entertain the views of theists that work in the sciences. The dialog is generally pretty counterproductive, with the participants often talking past each other. Motivated by the debate between Dave Matson and Douglas Navarick (Debating the “God” Construct) in Vol. 20 No. 4, I address the issues of abiogenesis (the origin of cellular life) and the distinction between “supernatural” phenomena and those such as spirituality that lack an explanation.

You’ll find another response to Navarick’s original article here.


Dave:

As a scientist who believes that the soul is a part of the physical construction of this reality, I am dismayed by the tone of your response to Douglas Navarick.

“Supernatural” is a tendentious term

The scientist loves to ask “Why?”, and comes up with theories that propose explanatory relationships. In propagating those abstractions, an elite cognoscenti is created. As this elite solidifies its political power, funding of scientific research tends to crowd out radical ideas (I refer you to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

So the researchers at CERN focus on the discovery of the “Higgs boson” (which looks nothing like the Higgs boson I studied in graduate school), despite the fact that the Higgs mechanism actually doesn’t explain particle masses – you still need to generate the coupling constants that determine the mass of each individual particle. The “Higgs boson”, however, has been built up as an accomplishment worthy of pursuit, and so is trumpeted as a Nobel-worthy achievement even though – with the exception of charge – no property of the simplest composites (the mesons and nucleons) can be calculated from the standard model of the fundamental forces – even given the measured properties of the quarks. Thus we have a situation in which the obvious failures of current theory are ignored to the purpose of sustaining funding for large-scale research programs with many stakeholders outside of the sciences.

Following Kuhn, I would argue that fundamental physics is ripe for a revolution. The issues as I see them are outlined here. Conceptually, it would seem that if one posited structure inside the current collection of “fundamental” particles, it actually wouldn’t be too hard to make room for the soul. I also have a far simpler picture of this reality, without the unobservable (and highly unstable) Planck-scale plasma and alternate universes. (The multiverse theory, BTW, being obviously another version of your magical hare-brained Easter Bunny.)

So rather than “supernatural”, I would prefer a term that suggested “beyond the things that scientists can yet explain.” “Spirituality” may fit. I would hope that you would admit that scientists, with their emphasis on material experience, may self-select from among those that are spiritually insensitive. As one not so insensitive, often marveling at the healing power of love, I find that “hare-brained Easter Bunny” provides no explanatory leverage. There is something to life beyond what particle physics can yet explain. I’d like to have a rational dialog on the topic.

Of course, if I am right, everyone will be confronted with the need to rethink the record of scripture that has been brought forward from many cultures. Clawing back the sarcasm is going to take a great deal of courage, I recognize, but no less than surrendering the comfort of dogmatism on the other side.

Abiogenesis

This really isn’t that hard a problem. Assume that the oceans contain distributed pools of heavy hydrocarbons in contact with various sources of heat and minerals on the ocean floor. The hydrocarbon pools will develop a skin of polarized molecules (maybe even phospholipids, as phosphor is not rare). Other fundamental components of life (nucleic acids, amino acids, etc.) may also be sourced from the complex chemistry of the pool, which could support (as we know) selective exchange of materials with the water. Agitation of the pool (through earthquakes, overflow, or venting) will result in formation of protocells. These events will  produce innumerable trials, liberated into sub-sea currents. Eventually among those trials will be cells that can scavenge materials for growth from the environment. Voila! Life.

Pools lying on different mineral strata will form protocells with different morphologies. Those with compatible membranes could merge, producing further biochemical trials. Which is what we actually know happened – cells are composed of organelles that were protocells in their own right before being absorbed.

BTW – there’s an IMAX on life around thermal vents in which the pilots of the deep sea vehicle actually interact with such a hydrocarbon pool.

Regards,

Brian Balke

Why Physics is Important

For roughly 1400 years, from the time of Ptolemy until Kepler, the most accurate method for calculating the motions of the planets assumed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. Ptolemy used a model of perfect circles. To account for observations that showed that the other planets sometimes appeared to reverse their direction of motion, circles were added on top of the circles (somewhat like the moon Deimos moves in a circle around Mars as it moves in its own circle). The size and velocity of the circular motions were calculated by comparison to nearly 800 years of observations of planetary motions. The care taken in that work made the tables of Ptolemy the best means of predicting the position of the planets until Tycho Brahe made more precise measurements of planetary motion in the second half of the 16th century.

The problem with Ptolemy’s model, when the telescope was finally improved to the point that we could observe the moons of Jupiter and the positions of the stars, was that it didn’t allow us to predict the behavior of anything else in the sky.

Did anybody care? Not particularly. What was important was to know the position of the planets precisely for purposes of navigation and agriculture, and the more arcane and less reliable discipline of astrology (predicting the future based upon the configuration of the planets against the stars). Until, perhaps, generals became concerned with the trajectories of cannonballs. Then the work of Newton, inspired in part by Kepler’s laws, produced a universal theory of gravitation that could be used to predict the motion of any collection of massive objects.

All of the great advances in science have come when a large body of data is shown to be encompassed by a simple behavioral theory. Newton’s theory of gravitation assumes that the force exerted acts along the line between the two masses, and drops as the distance squared. Often, however, these behaviors are overlooked because scientists, like Ptolemy and his followers, can do pretty well simply by adding more shapes to their models. It doesn’t make a difference that the only reason circles were used was because they were perfect (and therefore easy to calculate). As long as you could get the right result by adding more circles, that was easy and comfortable.

Those of you that stick with this blog will learn that I believe that we are at another turning point in physics. Since 1950, the theorists have assumed that the objects they use to describe the universe are “perfect”: they have no additional structure. As their data became more and more complex, they stuck with this principle, despite the fact that every revolution in physics has come from discovering structure inside of things that were previously thought to be fundamental. Matter was discovered to be made of atoms; atoms are made of electrons and a nucleus; the nucleus is composed of neutrons and protons; neutrons and protons are made up of inscrutable objects called quarks. These insights gave us, successively, chemistry; optics and spectroscopy; radioactivity; and particle physics.

Like Ptolemy, the theorists draw upon a huge body of measurements that provide numbers that they can use to accurately predict the results of experiments. They are so successful in this regard that they have stopped asking “why” about the numbers. Why is the electron mass 0.511 MeV/c2 while the muon mass is 140 MeV/c2? As a graduate student, this drove me absolutely crazy. Mass is a primary fact about the universe, and the failure to adequately explain it means that nothing else in the models can be considered secure.

So why am I going on in this in a blog about religion? Because I think that we’re in the same boat with ethics.

The most powerful theories of moral action have been brought into the world by people that insist that there is a soul. Yet over the last 300 years, those moral theories have been slowly eroded under the skepticism of scientists that can’t find the soul anywhere in their models. Thomas Jefferson, for example, went so far as to remove every reference to miracles from his personal copy of the Bible, and considered Jesus of Nazareth to be merely an inspirational philosopher.

This impact of this perspective has propagated so deeply into our religious dialog that our focus is now primarily on material facts. Does life begin at conception? Is it possible for natural selection (Darwinian evolution) to generate a human being? If marriage is the seat of the family, how can the sterile union of a gay couple be marriage?

So the reason that I bring up physics is because when I began to consider models of structure beneath that known to modern particle physics, I came up with a large class of models that contain a soul – a personality independent of a material body. The theories also support the ability of souls to accumulate large amounts of energy. The most efficient way for them to organize energy is to love one another. That insight allowed me to evolve a whole array of methods for controlling predatory personalities, methods that are suggested in all the myths regarding the exemplars of love that gave us our most powerful theories of moral action.

In other words, I believe that I can prove that Jesus and Muhammed and Buddha were right.

And I hope that I can give women enough courage to stand up and be counted in their number.