Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

That Mystery of Mysteries

I read an interesting article in the latest issue of Philsophy Now (Issue 105, Nov/Dec 2014) by Toni Vogel Cary titled, That Mystery of Mysteries, about the 2 centuries old debate regarding the theory of evolution and God-manipulated speciation. Toni Vogel Carey is introduced as ‘a philosophy professor in a former life, has written for twenty years… and serves on the US advisory board of Philosophy Now.’

She presents some interesting statistics that suggest ignorance in science this century is increasing rather than decreasing. For example: ‘In Great Britain, few besides evangelicals paid attention to creationism before 2002. But by 2006, a BBC poll showed that 4 out of 10 in the UK thought religious alternatives to Darwin’s theory should be taught as science in schools.’

She then gives equally scary anecdotes for the former Eastern European block countries, where, for example: ‘In 2006, Poland’s minister for education repudiated the theory of evolution, and his deputy dismissed it as “a lie”.’

She gives other examples, from various countries and educational institutions that should ring alarm bells for anyone interested in providing scientific tuition to future generations. Towards the end of her lengthy discussion that goes back to Herschel, Lyell and Darwin (of course), she cites a recent publication by Thomas Nagel, titled Mind & Cosmos (2012) (which I haven’t read, it must be stated) where ‘Nagel argues for “natural teleology”, a view of nature as forward-looking and purposeful, yet secular rather than deistic or theistic.’ And herein lies the rub: it is very difficult for us to believe that something like us (humans) could not be the consequence of some ‘cosmic plan’ (That Mystery of Mysteries), the why and wherefore we have speculated about ever since we gained the ability to think and imagine in a way that no other species can even cognise.

At the risk of going off on a complete tangent, I wish to reference an excellent BBC doco I saw recently called Apeman – Spaceman, the first of a 5 part series, Human Universe, presented by that cross between David Attenborough and a failed rock star, Brian Cox. Cox starts his programme, in a very Attenborough-like moment, attempting to cosy up to some baboons who live in the highlands of Ethiopia. Though not our closest relative and not even true baboons, Cox explains that, amongst the higher primates, they have the most complex social behaviours, second only to humans, and can even string together a series of vocalisations, thus combining sounds that have different meanings individually.

The point of this explication is to demonstrate the humungous gap that exists between humans and all other species on the planet, cognitively. One really cannot overstate this point, as many people prefer to believe that there is nothing ‘special’ about humans at all. But as Cox states explicitly, we are ‘unique’, certainly on planet Earth and possibly in the entire universe. We are unique because we are the only species that can speculate about, let alone comprehend, our place in the much larger scheme of things. It is from this unique cognitive vantage point that both religion and science arose.

If there is any one thing that defines humanity as a species it is surely curiosity. It is curiosity that has led us into space (the focus of Cox’s first episode) but also led us on an intellectual trail uncovering such wonders as mathematical calculus, nuclear physics, the human genome and every scientific discovery since we first grasped the art of writing down our thoughts so future generations could build an unassailable cumulative knowledge that has given us computers, air travel, smart phones and all the mod-cons we take for granted in Western societies the world over.

And this exceptional evolutionary ‘success’ also creates a paradox in popular Western thinking as Carey’s discussion exposes. Whilst we all accept the benefits that science has provided for us, without even thinking about them most of the time, many of us can’t accept that science has also provided an explanation for how Earthly species have developed, changed, evolved, gained ascendency and become extinct.

I believe there are 2 reasons for this. Firstly, scientific knowledge is always contingent on future discoveries. This means we never know everything, and, what’s more, we never will. There are limits to what we can know as I’ve discussed in another post. So how do I know that evolution is true? Because the biological knowledge that underpins the human genome project (DNA) also underpins the theory of evolution, completely unknown and unforeseen in Darwin’s time. This is a well documented and carefully studied case where future discoveries enhanced a contentious scientific theory beyond its originators’ (Darwin’s and Wallace’s) wildest imaginings.

But there is still a lot we don’t know about evolution: for example, how did DNA evolve and how did it originate? Did it come from outer space? In response, creationist and ID advocates can provide glib answers that, if taken seriously, close off any further avenues of investigation; effectively stemming the very curiosity that has given us what we have learned to date.

The second reason is that our intuition and common sense can let us down when it comes to scientific knowledge. There are 2 well-known examples: Einstein’s theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Relativity theory tells us that clocks run slower when they travel faster (relative to another clock) and clocks run faster in lower gravity (like on satellites as opposed to ground level, Earth). Intuition and common sense tell us that this can’t be true, yet the GPS in your mobile phone or in the Sat-Nav of your car depend on relativity for their accuracy.

Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can exist in superposition with itself: an electron can go through 2 slits at once and interfere with itself on the other side, though if we try and determine which slit it goes through then it will only go through one of them. Yet quantum mechanics is not only the most empirically successful theory in the entire history of science, it underpins every electronic device you use, from TVs to computers to washing machines.

As I’ve stated many times on this blog in a variety of contexts, the biggest mystery of the universe is that it created the means to understand itself, through us. As I’ve also stated, more recently, the biggest difference between religion and science is that religion maintains the universe is teleological and science tells us that it’s not. So how do I reconcile this? Basically, I argue that ‘purpose’ has evolved, meaning there was no pre-ordained plan. It’s like God really did cast a set of dice and allowed the universe to find its own purpose. Einstein famously said, "God does not play with dice", but chaos and quantum theory suggest otherwise.

Addendum: This is a related post that I wrote a few years back, where, in the final paragraph, I come to a similar conclusion.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Ursula Le Guin's acceptance speech at the American Book Awards 2014

An acerbic commentary on the publishing industry from someone who's been in it for a long, long time; very successfully, I might add.

I've added Neil Gaiman's intro because it says so much about both of them.

I came across this by accident; posted as recently as November last year.

I'm a huge fan: Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and the Earthsea Quartet, which I re-read not that long ago. She's one of the greats: up there with Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert and Arthur C Clarke.