Paul P. Mealing

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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.


Arthur Witherall said...

Quantum theory could point to a form of natural teleology. Schrodinger's equation provides the probability that a particle will be in a given state. What happens to get the particle into that state is not known. Each quantum event is indeterministic, because it is not fully determined by the Schrodinger equation.
This is possibly because the particle acts by way of (something like) free will. It has a naturalistic teleology.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Arthur,

Are you aware of the 'principle of least action', whereby a particle takes the path of least action, which is expressed as a Lagrangian mathematically? It simply means that the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy is always at a minimum. It gives the curve for a body in a gravitational field (like a thrown projectile) and gives us the refraction of light in glass or water, which seem totally unrelated. Curiously, h, Planck's constant, is in the units of least action, so it's built into quantum mechanics, and, according to Brian Cox, Richard Feynman used this principle to derive Schrodinger’s equation, based on a paper by Paul Dirac (you can read about it here).

The reason I mention this is that it gives the impression (illusion?) that the body, particle, photon, whatever, is teleological.

I'd be very wary of giving anything without consciousness the characteristic of 'free will'. No doubt you appreciate that many science-philosophers argue that there is no such thing as free will.

Having said that, ironically, if you allow that the universe is teleological then it is totally deterministic and it calls the very idea of free will into contention. Personally, I don't think the universe is deterministic and I believe in free will, which is a lot harder to defend, I admit.

Regards, Paul.

Arthur Witherall said...

Hi Paul

The principle of least action is very interesting, but my reason for thinking that particles have some kind of "freedom" - not free will, but something like it, without the "will" - is based upon quantum indeterminism.
It may be that each tiny little quantum interaction event is a decision to make something be, and that each one has a miniature "purpose" in making the decision. It is like an unconscious "drive" to be in a specific state. This does not mean that the universe as a whole has its own teleology, only that it is made up of squillions of purpose-driven events.
A quantum event is a random leap into something specific. It is inclined, without being necessitated, in a certain direction. The inclination can be measured as a probability.
Or something like that.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Arthur,

Much of physics is statistical, not just quantum mechanics. A point that Erwin Schrodinger makes in some detail in the opening section of his book, What is Life?

But the best example is trying to understand how radioactive decay works, which is based on a half-life as you know. There is no physical reason nor any way to predict when a particular isotope will decay, but statistically (therefore holistically) it can be determined with extraordinary accuracy. Schrodinger makes this point and it's one that fascinated me even when I was in school.

So quantum mechanics would suggest that there is a connection between everything, because it’s based on a probability, which, by definition, entails all possibilities and not just the one we eventually observe.

The idea that the particle, photon, whatever, can determine its own destiny through some built-in purposefulness is a fancy and certainly not testable.

You may or may not be aware that it was Max Born who turned Schrodinger’s equation into a probability function, otherwise it would have been consigned to the scrapheap of history. As it is, it’s ‘the most important equation in all of mathematical physics’, according to cosmologist, John Barrow.

Squaring the modulus of the wave function, gets rid of the imaginary component of the equation and makes it relevant to the ‘real’ world. As Schrodinger himself pointed out in a later paper, this is equivalent to running the wave function both forward and backward in time. In quantum mechanics, backwards in time is allowed, and has even been demonstrated experimentally, believe it or not.

Regards, Paul.

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