Sunday, December 10, 2006

Grandiose humility

In contemplating the recent shouting match between "evangelical" and "Neville Chamberlain" atheists that has raged across the blogosphere, I wonder if an element of humility is not in order.

From where I sit, the most crucial drivers behind questions of religious belief pertain not to origins, but rather to the severe human dilemma presented by the inevitability of one’s personal death. Although I happen to believe that oblivion will follow my own death, and indeed all deaths, I would be lying if I denied sometimes bolting upright in the middle of the night with the full realization of that reality, accompanied by a very cold fear. Although this quickly passes, and indeed I cannot reproduce this feeling at will (psychological denial and intellectualization quickly reassert themselves, I suppose), it seems clear that this is really the central human dilemma.

In view of that, I have enormous sympathy for those who cope with the spector of death by, in essence, denying its reality and positing an afterlife. In particular, having children and finding myself unable to even contemplate loosing one of them, I cannot fault those who have responded to such an unbearable grief by resorting to the comforting notion that death is not real. Probably one of the most severe costs that accompany what I perhaps vainly fancy to be my intellectual honesty is that such comforts will not be available to me should I be faced with a similar losses. Part of me is sympathetic to whatever cover an individual wishes to take in the face of those realities.

A second point vis humility pertains more directly to questions of science and religion. I recall reading – I think that it was in Timothy Ferris’ “The Whole Shebang” - a description of some of the implications of inflationary models of the origins of the universe. Ferris invited the reader to imagine the observable universe – that volume of the universe from which light (and hence any causation) will have had time to travel since the big bang - as a sphere with a radius of 13.9 billion light years. Ferris asserted that, if inflationary models prove correct, that volume stands in proportion to the actual volume of the universe as the area of a silver dollar stands in relation to the area of the surface of the earth (I hope I am properly recalling this – I don’t have a copy handy). That, frankly, blows my mind. Undoubtedly, even if this proves to be inaccurate, the realities that do emerge from cosmology will be equally mind-blowing.

My personal response to facts like these is one of awe and humility. Although we have mathematics based upon powers of ten with which to calculate on such scales, I find that it is not really even remotely possible to directly imagine the reality that such facts denote. Speaking for myself, I feel my level of comprehension of such things stands in relation to these facts much as an ocean going larva stands in relation to the Pacific ocean itself. Indeed, the universe being disclosed by contemporary science (and here I most emphatically include evolutionary biology) is so vastly larger and richer than any pre-modern view of any deity that I would argue that the concept of “God” is best properly viewed as an historical placeholder for these larger, vastly more rich realities, a placeholder that we could only just now have discarded. If some people are not quite ready for that, I understand completely.

What we don’t find in this contemporary view, however, is a larger agency that resembles human agency, nor refuge from death. That’s the tradeoff. I am an atheist in that sense: I don’t believe in life after death, and I don’t believe that something resembling the human capacity for intentionality and design underlies this particular shebang. I am sympathetic to those who believe that it does, but happen to believe that they are mistaken. I wouldn’t presume to steal that belief from them, however.

All that said, the battle over science classrooms at the K-12 level is over for now, and it had the right outcome. The battle was won at Doverloo. That was my primary concern.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Rub together, right now, over me

Lets rub together two key ID concepts vis the origins of life on earth and see what sound they make.

1) The universe is designed for life. Dozens of universal constants, physical laws, and physical circumstances - from the strength of the electroweak force to the unique phase states of water to the emergence of habitable zones in the universe - display values and behaviors that are tuned with exacting precision to foster the emergence of life. Moreover, the earth, a “privileged planet,” has been endowed with the required dimensions and planfully situated in orbit around a specific class of star, at a specific distance, within a specific habitable zone of the universe such that not only is the emergence of life inevitable, but the emergence of intelligent organisms capable of making scientific observations and ultimately discovering these markers of design is inevitable.

2) It is impossible that life arose on earth without special intervention from an intelligent designer. The complexity observed in subcellular machinery of contemporary organisms tells us that it is impossible that self-catalyzing reactions capable of reproduction could have emerged without the special intervention of a designing intelligence. Indeed, other transitions observed throughout the history of life – the emergence of flagellar propulsion, multicellular body plans, the major phyla, human intelligence and morality – required the repeated infusion of additional information, hence the intervention of a designer or designers.

So lets rub these ideas together:

- The very fabric of the universe is designed for life, and the earth was situated to foster life.

- It is impossible that life emerged and evolved spontaneously on earth.

(rub rub rub)


(rub rub rub rub)

Still nothing.

I do smell something, however.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tchaikovsky's ultralinear topology

Last night - Sunday night - I spent some time with Tchaikovsky's fourth. This by means of the Cleveland Orchestra captured by Soundstream in the early 1980's, SACD conversion, two monaural, 12-watt Harman Kardon receivers circa 1956, and highly efficient, home built speakers using vintage University drivers (HF-206 and 4409 horns - hence the cognomen "Reciprocating Bill" - and C15-HC woofers). The sound quality of this recording is absolutely astounding, vastly superior to any redbook recording I have ever heard. Equally amazing is the sound quality attained by this ancient suite of equipment when provided a wide range, analog-like source: horn choirs that are both silky and perfectly etched (not shouty), beautiful massed strings, and authoritative percussion and dynamics. I've recapped the amplifier sections of the receivers (power supply and coupling caps), which run 6L6GBs very conservatively through a ultralinear topology. But most important was this sometimes manic, sometimes sweet composition. Worth the time and felt thought.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Water under the irony

Lots of water under the bridge.

The lingering ID shennanigans perpetrated by ID supporters at the Ohio Board of Education has pulled my attention back to the dimwittery of ID. I briefly posted at Uncommon Descent on a few topics as Reciprocating Bill. Following a series of respectful and carefully articulated posts I joined the ranks of the banned. The discussion concerned the simulation of natural selection by means of computer modeling:

ID sympathizer:

If you’re a computer scientist/engineer, and you have some deep-seated desire to demonstrate that a “Darwinian process” can produce IC, my suspicion is that when the first models don’t produce this IC, that some tweaking takes place. And, after enough trials and tweaking, lo and behold, IC appears (of course, I suspect that their definition of IC and my definition probably won’t be the same). But even conceding that this is “real” IC, it is almost 100% certain that in the “tweaking” that has been done, some kind of information has been snuck in.These same computer scientists/engineers would most presumedly say, “We didn’t do anything of the sort.
Reciprocating Bill:
Just so we are clear: You just made all that up.
For which I was bannished. Because I was the second or third participant unsympathetic to ID to be disconnected within a few hours, the thread quickly devolved into an echo chamber of ID choir-preaching and DaveScot's unilateral declarations. What else is new?

Yesterday William Dembski at UD committed aggravated unintentional irony by posting on a "Review of Major Symptoms" of "Groupthink," and wondered aloud whether these better described ID or evolutionary science. I was particularly entertained by this:
8. the emergence of self-appointed mindguards - members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions...
For anyone familiar with UD, this stands on its own an needs no comment.