Saturday, January 17, 2009

News From The Blog Brawls by Anthony McCarthy


he universe is big, as you might have heard before. Contrary to what’s popularly understood of cosmology, apparently its size is not known with anything like certainty. Its physical composition is also largely unknown, even the most conventional thinkers seem to agree on that. And as investigations of extra dimensions continue, it would appear that it might be vastly more deep than we can perceive unaided by some of our most intensive mathematics and extended reason. A few of those working in these areas, those who I can begin to understand, mention the off-chance that it could be infinitely complex. Do I know if this is true? No. But apparently, neither does anyone else.

Being a skeptic of the supremacy of human intelligence and especially of its manifestation in academic overconfidence, I would love to see cosmology take a kick in the seat of the pants every now and then to shake up the smug satisfaction of those who think they’ve got the problem about licked. I tend to suspect they don’t. The fact is that our view of the limits of the universe lies at the horizon of our best efforts. It’s not easy or comfortably intuitive. This makes me wonder why anyone would think having confidence in the completeness of our picture is wise. I suspect the universe is never going to be within the ability of human intelligence to comprehend, that it is too big, too deep and we are too limited to deal with it. I suspect there are aspects of the universe that even our best math and physics won’t ever touch, that remain unobservable by us. We have no reason to maintain that there isn’t something over that horizon past which we can see at any time. We would be totally at a loss to understand any parts of the universe which we or our tools are incapable of sensing or addressing or, perhaps, imagining. Perhaps there are other beings who possess faculties that can deal with some of those. You wonder if we could even address each other if we ever met.

At this point it would be tempting to go into today’s annoying pop-materialism, which seldom is more than another confirmation of the insight that a little learning is a dangerous thing. It also tends to demonstrate that hubris turns the most brilliant minds into jack asses . And that’s what it turns the smart ones into. The more limited the POV, the more narrowly focused the knowledge and, at times, the sparseness of the materialist’s resources, the more smug that person is about their certainty. But I’ll get on with the real topic of this short piece motivated by a confrontation I had with some blog materialists.

Accusations of anthropo-centricity, of thinking that human beings are the crown of creation, is an automatic accusation in the kit bag of today’s materialists. But isn’t the conceit that human reason and perception are able to encompass the entire universe exactly that? Isn’t the most often entirely unconsciously held idea that the math, logic and science of which we, human beings are the only known practitioners, are THE WAY and only way, to comprehend the universe the ultimate in anthropo-centricity? This central, and hardly ever admitted, foundation of materialism is exactly as parochial as the idea that there is a religious doctrine that is a comprehensive truth. Both pretend to a level of comprehensive knowledge that neither have.

It’s one of the things that is most lacking in a lot of sci-fi, that instead of expanding the boundaries of imagination to speculate the existence of things human beings might not be able to comprehend. A lot of the flatness of much of sci-fi, especially that written by sci-jocks, is due to its being bounded by this very conceit. Even super-human abilities in a lot of the sci-fi are just super-charged human abilities. With all the universe as subject matter, of all of the possibilities, the sci-jock will inevitably try to jam it into his own frame of reference, cowering inside their realm of certainty and limited experience.

In the argument that motivated this piece I rashly said that the most brilliant human had exactly the same knowledge of the innermost secrets of the universe as a vorticella. Thinking about it later, it was a pretty rash, and very vulnerable, point in the argument. Which none of the materialists picked up on. How would I know if that was true? But that’s the point, no one knows. I doubt anyone will.

II. Intelligent Design?

Futile Disclaimer: Neither “Intelligent Design” nor, intelligent belief in a designer are science or a part of science, as I’ve gone into before. The former doesn’t have any place in a science classroom, those who hold the latter realize this and don’t try to. Unhappily, those honest folk are of little use to the polemics of the ID industry or their opposite side and so they are seldom considered. If there is a twain that can connect those two things, it has yet to be found. You’d think everyone would have learned this by now.

he news that self-replicating, artificial RNA has been created at the Scripps Research Institute, and even more interestingly, that variants of self replicating RNA were able to “snatch” “genetic” material from other variants and produce self-replicating mutants, was bound to be latched on to as another nail in the coffin of “Intelligent Design”. Oh, dear. It has been latched on to and the entirely predictable retort has been made.

Does the research at Scripps kill off the ID industry once and for all? Does the “survival of the fittest” asserted in the competitive reproduction of these artificial molecules not, once and for all, demonstrate that life on Earth is the result of chemistry without the intervention of an intelligent designer?

No. In fact, any moderately bright I. D. proponent would be entirely within their rights to point out that the Scripps experiment was the product of an intelligent design and, so, I’m afraid, latch on to it as evidence that it suggests that a designer could have been needed to create self-replicating RNA sequences. And that’s only if the ID proponent was sufficiently honest and reasonable to realize that is as far as this line of “proof” could honestly go. Why materialist fundamentalists fall for that trap so often is one of the more stunning examples that they, like all fundamentalists don’t find it easy to think critically outside of their boundaries set up by their prejudice**.

To go into those callow materialists who are touting this as the creation of life, they should look at what the researchers are claiming, and it isn’t that they’ve created life. For some reason blog materialists seem to have a habit of making wildly out sized claims about scientific papers they read about in news reports, the researchers generally are more circumspect. They should also understand that this is not a proof of how life on Earth actually originated, but evidence that artificial RNA, mimicking natural RNA, is possible and that RNA can replicate itself and mutate. I’d quibble with the assertion of “natural selection” from the test tubes. Thinking about it, the selective fitness of the dominant strain in a test tube is not a demonstration of “natural” anything. I’m not even sure what “selection” means in that context and would like to hear one of the researchers making that claim elaborate. The enviornment in the test tube was almost certainly not even a close imitation of that in which the first life was generated.

A point which I hope, with all my heart, doesn’t become the most important one in this, I don’t like the idea of scientists creating self-replicating anything, nanobots or molecules. The inert products of science are sufficiently eco-cidal without them being able to replicate indefinitely. That these artificial RNA sequences can mutate into who knows what strikes me as potentially very dangerous. I don’t trust scientists to be able to keep genies in bottles, I don’t trust those who might want to try to make money out of them to put caution before profits. The suspected dangers of nano silver haven’t been sufficiently worrisome to keep it out of shoe inserts as advertised on TV. I don’t even trust the scientists to do that, even those without a financial interest but only motivated by the recognition of their colleagues. Maybe those dangers are the materialists best argument to be gotten out of this. Maybe this artificial quasi-life isn’t the product of intelligent consideration or an appreciation of the larger design that is our planet.

* This is also a failure in their consideration of some of the antiquated questions of theology, ie. The rock God can’t pick up canard, which theologians reasoned themselves out of a long time ago. The point that if God is omnipotent, as most theists assert, then God isn’t bound by our logic or our experience. Such a God could both create such a rock and then pick it up, though one suspects that God might have better things to do. Being omniscient as well as omnipotent, such a God could probably come up with an infinite way around any problem which our reason considers to be paradoxical. Though, we being neither, wouldn’t be able to comprehend many of those. I’ve yet to hear a logically coherent argument against these points. You don’t have to believe it, but if you’re going to make such a childish attempt to use logic as a weapon against someone else’s faith you’d better come up with something better than that.

This is mentioned only because I saw it mentioned twice in the blog threads I sampled on this issue. I’ve got a friend who is an atheist who won’t go near atheist blogs, he can’t stand to hear his side presented so incompetently and with such certainty at the same time.

** This trap seems to be an irresistible one for some people, I’ve noticed it in a number of variations. I might get around to seeing if there’s any common aspect of this error and if it’s ever been named.