Tuesday, February 27, 2007

We don't need no stinkin' extra dimensions

I get emailed a "Reason to Believe" from Hugh Ross's organization two or three times a week. Often they are related to biology--junk DNA, molecular motors, etc.--things that I know nothing about and don't find particularly interesting. But today they sent one that I really liked:

Recent gravitational tests further buttress the claim that a supernatural Creator designed the universe to support life. Theoretical work to unify the gravitational force with the other three fundamental forces appears to require the existence of extra dimensions. However, atoms, solar systems, and galaxies are unstable if the size of the extra dimensions is too large. Physicists applied experimental tests using a sensitive type of balance to determine the size of the dimensions. The tests confirmed that the extra dimensions must be smaller than 44 millionths of a centimeter. These results verify the fine-tuning inherent in the universe by demonstrating that the extra dimensions (if they exist) are small enough to not disrupt the stability of atoms, solar systems, galaxies, or other structures on which life depends.

D. J. Kapner et al., "Tests of the Gravitational Inverse-Square Law below the Dark-Energy Length Scale," Physical Review Letters 98 (2007): 021101.

(From Today's Reason To Believe, 2/27/07, see the Reasons To Believe website.)

This is fascinating stuff. In a nutshell, String Theory suggests that there are more dimensions than our familiar three (three not counting time, that is.) The extra dimensions are microscopically compact; from an extremely early point in the universe's history they have not been expanding as have the familiar three.

Three (no more, no less) macroscopic dimensions give us inverse square laws for gravitation and electricity and magnetism. Inverse square laws are absolutely necessary for gravitational and atomic stability. In other words, it's a darn good thing that those other dimensions, if they exist, decided to remain compact. Not just for life as we know it: any kind of life would require atomic and gravitational stability.

These must have been amazingly difficult experiments, using a torsion balance to test the inverse square law down to 55 μm.

Here is an article with some more information about these tests.

I don't always agree with Ross, but I like him. No mincing words about who the designer is. Love ID or hate ID, you have to give Ross credit for being more honest that Dembski, Wells, and the usual cast and crew of the badly listing steamship ID-Is-Science.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Doesn't soon mean soon?

As part of our church's youth group, I meet every other week or so with a small group of high school guys, typically five or six. For some time we've been going over Revelation—partly because, when given the choice of what book of the bible to study, surveys show that a group of teenage boys will choose Revelation 71% of the time . (I made that up. The actual number is probably higher.)

I've been trying to present just two of the views on Revelation.

On is the preterist view: Revelation was prophecy, as written by John around AD 65-68, and describes events that would occur just a few years later, in AD 70 with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Roman legions—effectively ending Judaism proper (at least the practice thereof) since the sacrificial system ended. Though prophecy as written, the preterist view argues that the events of Revelation (most, anyway) occurred in the past as far we're concerned, hence the name preterist.

The other view is the classic dispensational view, or the futurist view, also know as the "left behind" view and the pre-mil, pre-trib view: the prophecy of Revelation has not yet been fulfilled, and will not be until the onset of the end-times is ushered in by the famous Rapture of the church. It also argues the conventional view that Revelation was written well after AD 70 and so cannot possibly be a prophecy of the destruction of the temple. Indeed, if Revelation was written after AD 70, the preterist view is dead in the water.

For a brief blog post into the question of when Revelation was written, look here.

I let the students know that while I'd do my best to be fair, but I was strongly biased toward the preterist view.

I'm always struck by the fact that the dispensational view is said to be the "literal" view. That is unarguably true, but not as clear-cut as a simple label indicates. There are many times when the dispensational view abandons its literalistic hermeneutic. In fact, the difference between the preterist and dispensationalist views could be characterized this way:

The preterist view takes times references (this generation, soon to pass, etc.) literally, but apocalyptic language (descriptions of astronomical calamities, etc.) figuratively, while the dispensational view does exactly the opposite. Given that Revelation contains so much apocalyptic language, it certainly means that in any quantitative sense the dispensational, "left-behind" view is more literal.

For an example, and in my opinion a fatal example, of where the "left behind" view is not literal, we don't have to look very far into the book, just the first half of the first verse:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. (Rev. 1.1a)
Just a bit later, John offers another time reference:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:3)
These are clear time references (there are quite a few more in Revelation), and here the preterist, not the dispensationalist, is the literalists. The preterist view is: yes indeed the events described would soon take place, within a few short years of John's vision.

A dispensationalist explanation for these and other times references often centers around the fact that a thousand years to God is like a day (2 Pet. 3-8) (Except, of course, for the famous thousand years of Rev. 20:2. That particular thousand years is like, well, a thousand years.)

The explanation that John is speaking of "God's reckoning of time" when he writes must soon take place and the time is near makes no sense. Why would God inspire the apostle to write that these events would occur quickly in God's sense of time? The bible is instruction for us, from God, not by us, for God. Such a view renders all time references anywhere in the bible as meaningless. Revelation is meant as a prophecy for contemporary, living people—John's introduction is immediately followed by letters to historic churches that existed in John's time—if the events of Revelation are future events the letters to the churches are a rather inexplicable interjection of dire warnings to churches that won't exist when the tribulation of which they are warned actually occurs.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Answer to another "cool physics problem"

I having fun with these elementary physics problems. Here was the last one I posted:

Cool Physics Problem:

Suppose there is a hole through the center of the earth from the North Pole to the South Pole. Now suppose you fell in. Neglecting air resistance, assuming a spherical and uniform density earth, how long would it take to fall all the way through? How fast would you be going as you passed the center?

The answer: about 42 minutes, and around 18,000 miles per hour.

Here is the solution. Requires some familiarity with the harmonic oscillator problem from elementary physics.

Tests I remember well

There has been a great deal of foolishness written over the case of Marcus Ross, the YEC who, quite appropriately, was awarded a PhD in Geology (or some related field.) All the discussion had me reminiscing about my own most memorable exams. There are three that percolate to the top of the heap. One very bad, and two very good.

My worst test experience came in an undergraduate course that was supposed to be an easy A. It was a course on Mathematical Logic. A sure (so I thought) no-brainer given it was a math course required by philosophy majors (heh) who are notoriously math-phobic. What happened to me in this course is so ingrained in my psyche that I still dream about it, and I included it, with only minor, inconsequential fictionalization, in my not-so-best-selling novel Here, Eyeball This! (Still the only novel to start with the word: Acetone.) So, if you'll forgive me, I'll just post an excerpt. Here the protagonist, Aaron, a physics grad student and a Teaching Assistant (TA), is flirting with an undergraduate in his class. (Scandalous!)

         The day before, right before heading home for winter break, Leila stopped by his office to say goodbye. The topic of grading came up, and she asked him about his policy.
          "Why don't you take attendance? Most of the TAs do."
         She sat in her favorite spot, on the floor just under the whiteboard. The same place where, one night, she had remained invisible to Hiroshi.
          "I don't know, I guess because I never went to class. Unless it was mandatory. So I'd feel like a hypocrite."
          "You didn't go to class? Naughty boy. How about now?"
          "I always go now, ever since starting grad school."
          "And skipping class never affected your grade?"
          "Oh yeah, once it did. Once I got really burned. Unbelievable. I mean, it was bad. You know the dream where you show up to class totally unprepared for a test with no place to hide? Well that happened to me."
         "Tell me, tell me." She smiled, anticipating his humiliation as only a true enemy or a true friend can.
          "You know the Math Logic course?"
          "Yeah, but I don't plan on taking it. Paula just had it. It's all symbols."
         In Mathematical Logic, students applied the rules of logic to prove propositions. A typical problem looked like:

       Let P denote a unitary predicate
       symbol and f a binary function.
       For the following, find a structure
       that satisfies the formula:

       $ν0 (Pν0 Ù "  ν1P fν0ν1)

         It's intimidating if you don't know what the symbols mean. But if you knew the language and had decent math skills, it's simple.
          "Well, I took it for an easy A. You know, it's a joint offering from math and philosophy. Since the philosophy majors stink at math, it seemed like it'd be a breeze.
          "So I went to class the first day. The prof's name was Potinger. He probably still teaches it. I listened while he went through his syllabus and grading policy. I just wanted to know his rules on attendance. Finally, he tells us, 'I don't take attendance, this here is college folks, and you're not kids anymore. I urge you to come to class, but I'm not going to waste time calling out the role.' That's all I needed to hear, that's what they all say."
          "Yep. Always the same line, like we haven't heard it before."
          "Exactly. So anyway, I had two friends in the class who would tell me the assignments. Potinger always gave problems right from the book. I'd do them, and these guys would turn them in for me. The next time I bothered to go to class was for the midterm. I aced it without breaking a sweat. Like I said, the class had a bunch of philosophy majors.
          "Now Potinger was a trip. He referred to himself in third person on the exam. One of the problems required a symbolic proof that 'Potinger was benevolent'."
         Leila made a yuck, that's weird face.
          "Yeah, I know," Aaron said. "So anyway, I finished the exam in about twenty minutes, got up, and turned it in. 'Nice of you to show up,' he said when I handed it to him. I returned his lob with something like, 'Always a pleasure, your benevolence.'"
          "Smart aleck."
          "Not for long. After the midterm, my so-called friends thought it'd be funny not to bother mentioning that Potinger introduced his own private notation for each and every logical symbol and operation. He still gave problems from the book, but he did his lectures and examples with his own symbol set. I just kept turning in the homework using the standard language."
          "What time was the class?"
          "Ahh, it was early. Eight o'clock. You have a point?"
         Leila held up her hands. "Yes, I do. That's why they did it. Your buddies trudged through the early morning slush while you slept nice and cozy in your jammies. What'd you expect?"
         He had never thought of that. "You're probably right. Too bad you weren't around to give me advice."
         She nodded. "Your life would be much better. So what happened?"
          "You can guess. The time bomb exploded at the final. I showed up for the first time since the midterm. Potinger had written the final in his own private, bizzaro symbology. I'm not exaggerating, I couldn't even read it. It might as well have been in Sanskrit. Without the staple in the upper left, I couldn't even be sure that I wasn't holding it upside down."
         Leila grinned from ear-to-ear. "So what did you do?"
          "Nothing I could do. Like I said, this is the stuff nightmares are made of. Only this was for real. The only thing missing was that I wasn't sitting there in my underwear. I got up and left, and got a big, fat zero. Potinger was beside himself. He knew what happened. 'Nice of you to show up,' he says, just like before. This time I had no snappy comeback."
          "Did you flunk?" A strange question when asked by someone who struggled to control her laughter.
          "No, it turns out Potinger really is benevolent, at least with his grading policy. The final only counted for a quarter of the overall grade, so I got a C. It's the worst grade I ever got in a math course, and I got it in the easiest math class I ever took."

Yes, that really happened to me.

My other two indelible exam memories are much more pleasant. Both are from grad school, and both involve the late Dick Cutkosky.

Cutkosky was a first-class particle theorist with a mathematical style. He came of age in the 60's, which might have been just about the best time ever to be a physicist. Thanks to Sputnik there was plenty of money for physics, the colleges hadn't dumbed-down to accommodate the deluge of inferior students seeking draft deferrals (not that I blame them) and the physics problems were real and tangible—not crap like Boltzmann's Brains and the Superstring Landscape with 101000 sets of constants to choose from. (New and improved! Version 2.0! We've squared the mere 10500 choices in Version 1.0!)

I had Cutkosky for Quantum III, which was concerned with many-particle systems. Very cool stuff that nuclear physicists love, like Hartree-Fock calculations. For his final, Cutkosky gave an oral exam. (Which is not a bad policy.) His method was well known to the students—he'd query you on the course material, but then, to separate the wheat from the chaff, he'd go off in some unexpected direction, to see if you could generalize and think on your feet. No point asking for hints from the students who went before you, because he went down a different rabbit trail with each wounded animal that had to face him. Besides, grad school is highly competitive—your classmates would be just as likely to feed you disinformation as anything useful. Anyway, the hour before my exam I'm in the science library. I'd been looking over a Quantum book by Gordon Baym. Not our text, but a book I always liked for its rather unconventional style. For some reason, I notice that Baym had a chapter on Atomic Physics. Not part of our course's content, but like I said I enjoyed his book and was sick of studying, so for no particular reason I read the chapter and then headed off to my exam.

I get through Cutkosky's grilling regarding our material without a hitch. Then off he goes, into left field.

He asks me about Atomic Physics. And he asks as if, in anticipation of taking me in that direction, he had spent the last hour as I had, reading Baym's book. He asked me five or six questions and, only because I had just read the chapter, I fired the answers right back. I didn't pretend to ponder the question, or to slow the pace so that time would expire, I just let him have it. It was sooooo satisfying.

The final story comes a few years later, and I'm giving my PhD defense. Cutkosky is on my committee, and the only examiner that scares the bejeebies out of me. As I am giving my presentation, I look over, and he's sleeping! I take this to be a good sign. Anyway, I finish and the questions begin. When it gets to Cutkosky I'm feeling a bit nervous. He asks me a mathematical question:

"You did that three-body part using relative coordinates. Is the way you set them up unique?"

Now, it wasn't a horrible question, and I probably would have answered it more-or-less correctly with some thought, but, in that environment, it would not have been fun. But I didn't have to struggle at all. History repeated itself. Up to an hour prior to my defense, I had never considered the question. I had followed someone else's scheme for defining my relative coordinates, and never thought much about it. But, in the hour before my defense, sitting in my office watching the clock, I picked up an obscure paper on my office mate's desk, which described a similar calculation. The author wrote: we note that this choice for relative coordinates is not unique, there are in fact three different ways to define the relative coordinates. So without skipping a beat I answered Cutkosky's question with:

"No, this choice for relative coordinates is not unique, there are in fact three different ways to define the relative coordinates."

The only danger would be that he would ask me to work out those other two ways—which would have been tough to do on the spot. But he didn't. He seemed very happy with my answer. He nodded, and said he had nothing further to ask.

Man, it sure is better to be lucky than good!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The playing field is still not level

One of my first battles on Panda's Thumb was over the "level playing field" concept. The claim on PT, which I disputed, was that submissions from ID researchers (a species not unlike unicorns) would receive unbiased consideration from journal editors.

In some way I have changed my position—I believe a real research paper from an ID proponent that presented a way to test an ID prediction would get a fair hearing—even favored treatment. I would bet the farm that if Dembski ever presented a real ID research paper—one that made a testable claim, he could easily get it published in the journal of his choice. Alas, proof by vestigial running-board doesn't cut it.

It is the other end of the spectrum where the playing field is demonstrably not level. Secular "scientists" can get crazy "research" published, while ID, um, researchers cannot get fair treatment for their own untestable speculations.

Case in point. Consider this abstract:

A model consistent with string theory is proposed for so-called paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP). Our mathematical skills are assumed to derive from a special 'mental vacuum state', whose origin is explained on the basis of anthropic and biological arguments, taking into account the need for the informational processes associated with such a state to be of a life-supporting character. ESP is then explained in terms of shared 'thought bubbles' generated by the participants out of the mental vacuum state. The paper concludes with a critique of arguments sometimes made claiming to 'rule out' the possible existence of paranormal phenomena.

The author, it pains me to report, is the Nobel Laureate physicist Brian David Josephson. Here is his home page. Here is his wiki page.

From his home page:

Welcome to the home page of Professor Brian Josephson, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project of the Theory of Condensed Matter Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, a project concerned primarily with the attempt to understand, from the viewpoint of the theoretical physicist, what may loosely be characterised as intelligent processes in nature, associated with brain function or with some other natural process.

And from another writing:

Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation. These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy, an area where Britain is at the forefront of research.

The playing field should be leveled. Continue to decline any unscientific ID submissions—but let's apply the same standard across the board.

Uncommon Descent has descended even further—remarkable given they had already jumped the shark with their now-infamous foray into bathroom humor. They have managed to enter a new era, one dominated by discussions of global warming, speculative cancer treatments (complete with the attendant conspiracy theories) and proof by assertion, where the assertion is a youtube video.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Boltzmann's Brain?

This is science?

This is science? (There is very good stuff on the second law at the beginning—the nonsense comes near the end.)

Or asked differently, is religious apologetics couched in scientific language (ID) less scientific, (or, if you prefer, more unscientific) than untestable, secular mental-masturbations couched in scientific language?

I really do not see the difference. Now, I have no problem with either ID seminars or "Boltzmann Brain" seminars. I would gladly attend either one because provocative seminars are always fun and they have a place in the academy. I would, however, be equally reluctant to label either as science.

Man, that was something!

So there I am watching the Daytona 500 with two three friends. The cars are single file, under the yellow flag. When the green flag comes out, there will be just two final laps of racing. The sentimental favorite, the loved-by-everyone Mark Martin, driving the US Army car, is up front. He has never won this flagship event. Behind Martin is the Kellogg's car of Kyle Busch. Busch, less than half Martin's age, is generally despised by all. We all are pulling for Mark Martin. Everyone in the NASCAR universe is pulling for Martin.

I silently take note that my favorite driver, Kevin Harvick, in his red and yellow Shell/Pennzoil number 29, is about seventh on the restart. I'm hoping he can get a top-ten, but his car has been up and down all day.

And then a perfect storm occurs. Harvick goes outside first, and nobody in front of him does the smart thing, which would be to pull in front of him, to get pushed. As we cheer for Martin to hold off Busch, I alone, being the only Harvick fan present, keep one eye on Harvick coming on the outside. I'm thinking to myself: He just might win this thing! Kyle Busch finally realizes that he has no way around Martin unless he pulls up in front of the charging Harvick, but misjudging Harvick's speed, he waits too long, almost putting Harvick into the wall. Busch comes back down the track leaving Harvick and Martin in a race to the finish. Martin "gets loose" (wiggles) just a bit—and behind him Bush spins out causing a "big one." With cars crashing behind them, Harvick edges out Martin by 0.02 seconds.

One car (one of Harvick's teamates) crosses the finish line upside down and in flames. Unblelievable. What's not to like about NASCAR?

I was really excited but had to curb my enthusiasm because everyone who was not a Kevin Harvick fan was devastated that Martin, once again, came up short.

In fact, the NASCAR world went through some angst, with about half of it arguing that the yellow flag should have come out when the crashing started, which would have frozen the field and given the race to Martin. Nonsense—this understandable response is only because Martin was the driver in question. Had Harvick beaten Kyle Busch in the same manner, the NASCAR world would have been virtually unanimous in congratulating the officials for having the courage to let the race finish under green.

Man, it was something.

If you didn't see the ending, here it is.

Cool Physics Problem:

Suppose there is a hole through the center of the earth from the North Pole to the South Pole. Now suppose you fell in. Neglecting air resistance, assuming a spherical and uniform density earth, how long would it take to fall all the way through? How fast would you be going as you passed the center?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Bestowing Apostolic Power

Prayer is a complicated subject, made more so by those difficult words of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel, including:

13Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)

Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full. (John 16:24)

Why are these words difficult? Because each of us has prayed for something that didn’t happen, or for something we didn’t receive. How then is that reconciled? Because Jesus’ words state quite plainly that whatever is asked in his name shall be given. No exception. No loop-hole. No quid pro quo.

The problem is that seemingly everyone attempts to explain these passages with exceptions, loop-holes, and whatever is the plural of quid pro quo.

One explanation really ticks me off is the “All prayer is always answered, but sometimes the answer is no!” explanation. Apart from being a pointless tautology, that is not what Jesus said. He did not say: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you, except when I say no, but that still counts.” No, he said quite plainly: “Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Period.

Another silly cop out is that it only applies if it is “in his will.” Again, Jesus makes no such qualifications. Besides, we are in agreement, or we should be, that God is sovereign. Everything that happens is always in his will. Adding “if it be in your will” to a prayer is a respectful display of humility—but hardly necessary. God could not grant a prayer that was outside of his will.

A slightly more subtle loop-hole is related to the qualifiers “in my name” or “abides in me.” This routinely becomes and escape clause that we provide for God, as if he needs our help. “Asking in my name” takes on a much grander meaning that the words merit—it becomes a righteousness test for the person praying. Anything not done with a proper heart becomes a prayer that was not really in his name. If the person make two requests and the first one is granted but not the second, then presumably the petitioner backslid mid-prayer, from asking in his name to asking out of his name.

This interpretation of why prayer is not always answered, because it really wasn’t asked “in his name” establishes a pecking order of Christians in a sense for which there is little or no scriptural support. It implies some Christians are good-enough Christians that their prayers are answered, just like Jesus promises, others are not—but that’s not Jesus’ fault, those prayers weren’t really “in his name” given the petitioner’s spiritual shortcomings.

I think this is wrong, yet it is the common explanation. I googled John 14:13 and the very first link that tried to explain the verse gave this usual bad explanation:
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do. What man would dare to make such a promise? It will be noted, that in order to enjoy the fullness of these glorious promises we must, (1) Believe. They are limited thus in Joh[n] 14:12. Without faith it is impossible to please God. (2) We must ask in his name, or, in dependence upon the merit and intercession of Christ. (3) As shown elsewhere, we must come with a spirit of complete submission to the Father's will, feeling that his will is best, and saying in our hearts, Thy will be done (Mt 6:10 Lu 11:2). (boldface added)
No, no, no. Jesus said nothing of the sort. Jesus states plainly: ask anything, and it will be given.

What did he mean? I think it is quite simple: he meant ask anything, and it will be given. Just as he said.

The key is: he didn’t mean it for us.

The chapters of John from which these sayings of Jesus are drawn involve his instructions to the apostles. He is telling the apostles: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” (John 15:16) and “Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Most Christians are never persecuted, but Jesus says they will persecute you. He was talking to the apostles, not to us. Likewise when Jesus warns: “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.” (John 16:2) We aren’t being put out of the synagogue. And with notable exceptions, Christians were not, as a rule, throughout history, killed as part of some misguided attempt to please God.

It is quite clear when the verses about answered prayer are placed in the context of John chapters 14-16, that Jesus is making specific promises and instruction to the apostles. He is not saying: Hey David Heddle down there in the 21st century, if you pray in my name for your son’s autism to be cured it will happen, but only if you pray in my name, and so if it doesn’t happen you must not be praying in my name. No, this is what is happening here: Jesus is bestowing apostolic power. He is saying: Peter, if you ask for a demon to be cast out, it shall be done. John, if you pray for a lame man to be healed, it shall be done.

Later Paul has instruction for our prayer, and his model does not come with explicit promises that prayer will be fulfilled. He prays for journeys that don’t happen and for healing that doesn’t occur—with the understanding that prayer is, in part, where we tell God what we desire simply because He grants us the privilege of this intimate communication.

Confusion arises when we misunderstand Jesus instructions to the apostles, assuming that it applies to us. We should know, when we are forced to do great violence to the text to explain why prayer requests often are not met, that our interpretation is wrong. Jesus would never say ask anything, and it will be given unless that is exactly what he meant.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Fixed Earth Followup

More on the fixed earth nonsense and Jewish Evolution/Big-Bang conspiracies, as reported by Fox, and related to my post below.

Jews are demanding an apology. If the story is true, then Georgia State Representative Ben Bridges also owes an apology to all Christendom, for making us look like idiots. Being a YEC is one thing. Calling the Big Bang a Jewish conspiracy is something else altogether.


That's all for now because: It's time for the Daytona 500, baby!

Friday, February 16, 2007

cgs units

I know this is of little interest--consider it for completeness.

In a previous post I referred to cgs units, and a commenter referred to Gaussian.

We are talking about the same thing--cgs Gaussian to be precise. For a quick lesson, look here.

Why Drafting Works

Drafting, which will be on prominent display in Sunday's Daytona 500, is an interesting phenomenon. While it is fairly obvious how it helps the drafter, the rear car, it's not so obvious how it helps the car in front. But it does—it's a win-win, apart from the fact that if anything goes awry it can lead to disaster.

The drag on a racecar is roughly the difference between the air resistance in the front, slowing the car, and the pressure behind the car, giving it a push. A car running by itself will generate turbulent air in the rear—which has the effect of reducing the helpful rear pressure, and thereby increasing the overall drag.

When another car pulls up to the lead cars rear bumper, the effect for it is clear—the pressure on the front that second car is much lower because he is riding in the wake of the front car. The benefit he provides to the lead car is this: he disrupts the turbulence behind the lead car, increasing the rear pressure, and thereby the lead car also experiences a net reduction in drag.

A skilled driver in the second car can slingshot around the lead car by backing off just a bit—at some point while he is still getting most of the benefit of being in the first car's shadow, turbulence will be reestablished on the lead car, and it will slow down. At that instant the second driver can pull around. It sometimes works, and it sometimes results in a spectacular crash.

PHYSICS QUIZ: Assume car in figure (a) is not only moving to the left but also accelerating to the left while on a straight-away. What is the direction of the frictional force between the car and the track surface?
1. To the left, in the direction of motion.

2. To the right, opposite to the direction of motion.

3. It cannot be determined from the information provided.
Ignore complications related to air resistance (they won't change the answer.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Solution to Hemisphere E&M Problem

For the hemisphere problem discussed below, here is my solution. As I said, I get a factor of 3/16 instead of 1/12 as reported in the link (which was broken the last time I checked.)

Oh brother...

Embarrassing. Not much more can be added. I understand that some people, many of my acquaintances in fact, don't care about the science. They are comfortable in a yom = 24 hours YEC view, and not interested in hearing arguments to the contrary. I have no problem with that. Nor do I have a problem with someone who takes the next step, and says, as I have heard many times: I'm sure you're right about what science teaches, I just don't believe it. Fair enough. But my threshold is crossed when bad science is used to impugn good science, and done so with malice aforethought. I think indifference to science is theologically wrong but understandable. In the grand scheme of things it's not a big deal if someone doesn't want to reconcile his beliefs with science and takes the honest route of saying: "I don't care what science teaches." But what this site and others like it do—well that's just lying for Jesus.

I know I'll upset some of my readers, but the difference between the fixed earth site and the AiG or the ICR is, in my opinion, simply a matter of spit-polish and funding. Rather than admit the possibility that their private interpretation of Genesis might be wrong, they prefer to make God into a god of confusion--one whose creation doesn't proclaim his glory. How could it, if the information it reveals cannot be trusted?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ooooh it's so close!

The Daytona 500 is Sunday. It's often called the Super Bowl of NASCAR. Based on the relative number of spectators in attendance, it makes more sense to call the Super Bowl the Daytona 500 of the NFL.

Daytona is all about the magnitude of the event. An unimaginably large track with banking so steep (31 degrees) that if you place a coin the banking, on its side, it will slide down (so I am told).

The top speed of 210 mph was achieved in a qualifying run by Bill Elliott in 1987. Such speeds are too dangerous, for drivers and fans, so shortly thereafter NASCAR mandated a "restrictor plate" (only at Daytona an Talladega) which slows the cars down--qualifying speeds are now around 185 mph. The result of the restrictor plate is "pack racing" and "bump drafting." The cars race around in a giant pack rather than spreading out in a normal fashion. On the straight-aways, it's acceptable to bump the car in front—the effect is a burst of speed. (The driver in front wants the car behind to bump him. But if you do it on the turns, and someone probably will, the bumpee will spin out and crash.) One mistake, and you get the dreaded though highly anticipated "big one." That's a wreck involving many cars at once.

Here is a big one at Daytona in 2002 started by my favorite driver, Kevin Harvick. In the final tally it involved 20 cars—probably more than half of the cars that where still running at that time. When the video starts, the TV coverage picks up the wreck in progress on a return from commercial. There is a delay until they show you the replay--because they won't show it until they are sure nobody is seriously injured.

The "big one" is undeniably cool, but I've come to prefer normal "hard" racing. One of the most amazing sporting events I ever watched was the last two laps and photo finish between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. They locked cars at the end, and Craven later said he only won because his car was an inch longer. I was watching at the airport, and almost missed my flight because I refused to board until I saw the ending.

Physics Outrage! (And a problem)

First came the feminizing of the Olympics. You can watch deformed prepubescent girls in "women's" gymnastics or figure skating 24/7 (No offense, Amanda--and that deformed comment applies only to the gymnasts, not to the skaters!). But for cool stuff like boxing and the biathlon you have to stay up until 3:00 am and watch on CNBC.

That's bad enough. But now---physics too! Oh no, not physics!

First came the appalling and apocalyptic revelation that J. D. Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics, text book of text books, standard bearer for all that was good and proper about a graduate education in physics, had, in its third addition, in spite of a pledge from Jackson that it'd never happen, switched from cgs units to, *gasp*, mks! Open up Jackson (his book, that is) and you now find unseemly 4πε0's strewn about the pages like mouse droppings. Sigh.

Now word comes to me that there is an even more disturbing trend in physics texts. This is only a rumor which I haven't confirmed—let's hope snopes.com soon reports that it is an urban legend. What I hear, and it brings me to my knees, is that some new physics texts are calling the polar angle φ and the azimuthal angle θ! Unspeakable blasphemy! That's how those lowly mathematicians label the angles! Make them switch! Oh, please say it ain't so!

OK, there is a cool physics problem described here. When I solve it, I get a different factor than the 1/12 in the "obvious" answer. I'm inviting readers to solve it, and tell me what they get. It's driving me nuts—seems like a simple enough problem. I want to know if I am doing something really dumb.

UPDATE: the link to the problem seems to be broken. Here it is: Consider a sphere of radius R and total charge Q. What is the force between the northern and southern hemispheres? (Since the problem did not state that the sphere was conducting, I distributed the charge uniformly throughout the sphere.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gilson on Dawkins

Tom Gilson is the author of the aptly named Thinking Christian, one of the more consistently though-provoking Christian blogs. Gilson published an article entitled Religion isn't bad for kids in my old hometown paper, the Newport News Daily Press. In the article, Gilson calls out Richard Dawkins on his thesis that a religious upbringing is a form of child abuse. I encourage all to read the article.

PZ gets something partly right…

Which is a bad sign for global warming proponents—after all, hell freezing over can’t be good for the cause.

PZ posted about one Marcus Ross, a YEC who was awarded a Ph.D. in Geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Ross’s thesis is conventional—that is, it follows the accepted old-earth viewpoint—one that is clearly at odds with Ross’s personal views.

PZ complains that this is a sign that Ross was merely going through the motions, “lying” being another way that PZ describes it, just to satisfy his Ph.D. requirements. He does not think that Ross should have been able to make it through the program.

No, Ross was not lying. Solving a problem with a model you believe is wrong is not lying. Yes, Ross was going through the motions, but so what? (More on that, anon.) Finally, Ross deserves his Ph.D. every bit as much as PZ deserved his.

In truth, the Ph.D. process is a lot like a big homework assignment. It is not a statement of faith. Given no data, I won’t say all, I won’t even say most, but I am confident that many Ph.D. students “go through the motions,” granted not to the degree that someone like Ross did. In theoretical physics, your average graduate student (speaking from personal experience) inherits a point of view, a model, and methodology from his advisor, which he then applies to a new problem. Only the truly gifted graduate students create new models and paradigms of their own. By the end of their thesis work, many of the typical students, through the normal scientific process (which includes enduring criticism), will have come to realize that the models they are using have deficiencies. As a rule, they are not going to redo their calculations, they will “go through the motions” in order to complete their doctorate.

The bottom line: as I said, a Ph.D. is awarded for something like a really tough homework problem. The only basis for denying the degree is that the assignment was not completed properly. The student’s personal views on the value of his own thesis are irrelevant. If I do the world’s greatest string theory calculation—all the while thinking that string theory is a fraud, I still get my Ph.D.

When it comes to faculty positions, PZ has a better argument. PZ seems to agree that one cannot overtly discriminate on the basis of religious views1. However, faculty positions are not awarded based on generic scientific talent—i.e., selection is rarely (especially at a research university) based on the strategy of “take the best athlete available,” but on a need to fill a slot with a certain type of person. A typical scenario: a famous string theorist with a big grant has been awarded a faculty slot by the university in order to grow his group. It is perfectly reasonable for the search committee to “discriminate” against candidates who are not string theory proponents. The hypothetical candidate who, as a grad student did a blockbuster string theory thesis but was “going through the motions” would, at this stage, be excluded.

Suppose Ross were to apply for a faculty slot in geoscience at a research university. It would be out of bounds for anyone to ask: “are you a Christian?” However, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to ask: “Do you believe in an old earth?” 2 An answer of "no" to that question would be just cause for no further consideration of that candidate. It is to be expected that a geoscience department at a secular university to want no part of someone who advocates a young earth.

Ross has ended up at a YEC institution, Liberty University. From PZ’s perspective, this should be an open and shut case of “no harm, no foul.” From my perspective, I am saddened that there will be another voice, if the other science faculty from Liberty whom I have encountered are any indication, who will be teaching Christian students that mainstream science is the spawn of Satan. That is harmful to Christianity, and Liberty has done more than its share of damaging Christianity in this regard.

1 I wonder if PZ agrees. Has he answered a hypothetical scenario: Given these final two candidates for a faculty position: 1) Ken Miller, whose scientific credentials are much more impressive that PZ's (but has that nasty "moderately religious" baggage) and 2) someone with modest scientific credentials, like PZ, but who is a Sam Harris type (perhaps sans the penchant for Buddhist mysticism) atheist, which one would he choose?

2 In some cases, depending on the zealousness of the university’s equal opportunity office, even that question could be a bit tricky. I served on many faculty search committees at a state university. For some of the searches, we had truly Draconian restrictions. During the committee interview, each member of the committee had to ask exactly the same questions for each candidate, and the members had to ask their questions in exactly the same order. (We had a script from which to operate.) And your private interview was to follow the same model—no rabbit trails—although there was no way that could be enforced. Thus, unless you anticipated asking every candidate whether they believed in an old earth, you couldn’t ask the one whom you happened to notice praying before eating lunch. However, in practice, I doubt that this particular deviation would have raised the hackles of the EEO overseers.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sam Harris in his own words

Commenter “keiths” is calling me to task for my mocking of Sam Harris. Rightly so—it is one thing to say that somebody is wrong and then to give reasons. It’s quite another to say, as I have, that Sam Harris is not worthy of serious contemplation—that he, in fact, has attained a level of absurdity where he should be mocked.

The basis for keiths’s criticism of me stems from comments and a small post I’ve made since reading this post from Joy on Telic Thoughts. In that post, Joy reports excerpts from an article by John Gorenfeld on AlterNet entitled Sam Harris's Faith in Eastern Spirituality and Muslim Torture.

One thing, as something of an aside, Harris’s book The End of Faith is full of errors when it discusses Christianity. (Perhaps Judaism and Islam as well—I wouldn’t know.) For example, in discussing Mosaic civil law, Harris writes, concerning the punishment of stoning:

[I]t is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world. This is a problem for “moderation” in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law. (The End of Faith, p.18.)

This is not the criticism of a scholar, but a hack. It is a blog-comment level criticism, spruced up a bit by a better than average vocabulary and an editing process. Actually, it is worse than most comments, and I have seen quite a few addressing the same issue. The pattern is always the same:

A: Then why don’t you stone adulterers?
C: Because the New Testament teaches that the ceremonial and civil law was abrogated.
A: That’s a load of crap.

Harris doesn’t acknowledge, as a scholar would, that there are scripture based arguments Christian theologians invoke to explain why we don’t stone people—even if (and then I’d have no complaint) he then attempted to dismantle those arguments. He simply presents his point as a manifestly true example of irrationality (if the bible is true, then we should advocate stoning) and also, absurdly, characterizes it as unacknowledged. But even the least theologically inclined Christian would know enough to say to Harris: Jesus did not command the stoning of the adulteress. He ignored the civil law, and if he did, then so should we. That’s a perfectly good refutation of Harris’s claim that modern Christians are ignoring stoning as a matter of convenience. And that is not the extent of the theological argument, which would include extensive references to the Christians’ relation to the law, from both Jesus and Paul. It’s just the first, simple shot across the bow, and Harris does not even do enough homework to answer that most trivial of rebuttals.

Why does Harris make such poor arguments? Well, he certainly doesn’t posses the subtlety of a Fellini. In fact, he’s quite transparent. One of Harris’s main points, one that he is always trying to make, is that even religious moderates, such as Ken Miller, are not rational. Here his point is: their very moderation that you want me to accommodate proves the irrationality of their beliefs. If they really believed what they claim to believe they’d be all for public stonings—but they adapt their beliefs to modern times and culture, thereby inadvertently demonstrating that their beliefs are not based on absolute truth. Rather than address any possible legitimate explanations, he takes the coward’s way out: he pretends there are none.

This pattern repeats itself throughout his book: error after error. He has, as far as I know, been given a free pass in this regard. Presumably most readers feel whether or not he correctly represents the religions he bashes is secondary—but I think that’s a mistake.

Harris, if you believe him, is all about rationality. A belief, to be rational, must be based on evidence. I agree, and have been saying quite the same thing for all the years I’ve been blogging. You see, Harris makes the same mistake that, ironically, some Christians make, that faith means blind faith. Blind faith is indeed irrational, but Christianity is not based on blind faith. For some of my posts on this subject, look here and here.

My faith is based on evidence—however it is not scientific evidence. It is purely subjective. Among other things, the heavens do indeed declare the glory of God to me, though I acknowledge not to everyone.

So, again Harris is wrong—but let’s grant him his premise and run with it. For the sake of argument, let’s agree:
  1. Harris champions rationality and reason, meaning our beliefs should be based on empirical evidence.

  2. Christianity (for the sake of argument) is not based on evidence, therefore it is irrational.
That gets us back on topic. If his criticism of the great monotheistic religions is based on their irrationality, what will Harris say about eastern and new-age type belief systems?

Well, let’s first look at Gorenfeld wrote in the AlterNet article:

[A]ccording to Harris, our civilians must evolve past churchgoing to "modern spiritual practice," he writes. "[M]ysticism is a rational enterprise," he writes in his book, arguing it lets spiritualists "uncover genuine facts about the world." And he tells AlterNet there are "social pressures" against research into ESP.


Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy," in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don't know. Remember the girl in "The Exorcist"? "When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what's going on," Harris tells me. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism's "standard-bearer."

Harris writes: "There seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which have been ignored by mainstream science." On the phone he backpedals away from the claim.

We see the problem: while Christianity is irrational because it is not based on evidence, mysticism is rational. But why is a Buddhist monk’s transcendental state more real than a Christian’s conviction that they experience a living God? Harris never says. It’s easy to come away with the feeling that his reason is no more compelling than he likes one (Buddhism) and hates the other (Christianity.) And not just me—some honest atheists have criticized Harris for his claims that eastern spirituality and mysticism are rational.

Now, keiths, as I stated at the beginning of the article, complains that I base my mocking on Harris on what Gorenfeld wrote that Harris said in an interview and not Harris’s own words. Fair enough, and given that I don’t know keiths I can only assume that he is the very epitome of fairness—that his concern over Gorenfeld’s writing would be just as great if Gorenfeld had interviewed Mike Behe, and reported that Behe said silly things in the interview, silly things not found in his books. I have to believe that keiths would be just as adamant that those reported statements could not be held against Behe. What is worth noting, however, is that, as far as I know, no substantive charges regarding the accuracy of Gorenfeld’s article have been leveled.

No matter. Because, I have read The End of Faith and I know what it contains. So to appease keiths I’ll withdraw the charge that Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy." Maybe Gorenfeld fabricated that. No evidence that he did, but let’s, on keiths’s account, deny Gorenfeld the benefit of the doubt. I’ll stick to what is in Harris’s book.

The juicy chapter in The End of Faith is chapter seven, Experiments in Consciousness, and in the notes pertaining to that chapter. I’ll present some excerpts—and keep in mind that Harris has arguably attained the position of standard bearer for rationalism. He despises even “moderate” monotheism for its irrationality. So what does he have to say about eastern spirituality, in his own words? We get an early glimpse when he compares wise men of the east to, well, unnamed western theologians:

Nevertheless, when the great philosopher mystics of the East are weighed against the patriarchs of the Western philosophical and theological traditions, the difference is unmistakable: Buddha, Shankara, Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Longchenpa, and countless others down to the present have no equivalents in the West. In spiritual terms, we appear to have been standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. (The End of Faith, p.215. Emphasis added.)

Thus we have a bold assertion that the likes of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin are “dwarfs” compared to eastern mystics. No reason for the ranking is provided, just an unsupported assertion that would not bode well for a student looking for a good grade on a freshman writing assignment. But the denigration of great western theologians is secondary—it’s the beatification of mystics that seems to be at odds with the office of Supreme Guru of Rational Show-Me-The-Empirical-Evidence Thought.

Soon after we are treated to another unscholarly assertion, one that is absent the evidence that Harris allegedly esteems so highly, this time in the form of a bizarre challenge. Harris writes:

While this is not a treatise on Eastern spirituality, it does not seem out of place to briefly examine the differences between the Eastern and Western canons, for they are genuinely startling. To illustrate this point, I have selected a passage at random from a shelf of Buddhist literature. The following text was found with closed eyes, on the first attempt from among scores of books. I invite the reader to find anything even remotely like this in the Bible or the Koran.
And in the present moment, when (your mind) remains in its own condition without constructing anything, awareness, at that moment, in itself is quite ordinary.

And when you look into yourself in this way nakedly (without any discursive thoughts),

Since there is only this pure observing, there will be found a lucid clarity without anyone being there who is the observer;
only a naked manifest awareness is present.

(This awareness) is empty and immaculately pure, not being created by anything whatsoever.

It is authentic and unadulterated, without any duality of clarity and emptiness.

It is not permanent and yet it is not created by anything.
However, it is not a mere nothingness or something annihilated because it is lucid and present.

It does not exist as a single entity because it is present and clear in terms of being many.

(On the other hand) it is not created as a multiplicity of things because it is inseparable and of a single flavor.

This inherent self-awareness does not derive from anything outside itself.

This is the real introduction to the actual condition of things. –Padmasambhava
One could live an eon as a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew and never encounter any teachings like this about the nature of consciousness. (The End of Faith, p.215-216. Emphasis added.)

Don’t worry if the Padmasambhava scripture is impenetrable—Harris assures his readers it’s the real McCoy:

While the meaning of the above passage might not be perfectly apparent to all readers—it is just a section of a longer teaching on the nature of mind and contains a fair amount of Buddhist jargon (“clarity”, “emptiness”. “single flavor”, etc.)—it is a rigorously empirical document, not a statement of metaphysics. Even the contemporary literature on consciousness, which spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and neural science, cannot match the kind of precise phenomenological studies that can be found throughout the Buddhist canon. (The End of Faith, p.217. Emphasis added.)

Why is Christianity irrational and Buddhism rational? Because, Harris tells us, the monotheistic religions are based on faith, but Eastern mystical consciousness-raising is “rigorously empirical.” In his notes, we get further educated in this matter:

[I]t remains true that the esoteric teachings of Buddhism offer the most complete methodology we have for discovering the intrinsic freedom of consciousness, unencumbered by any dogma. It is no exaggeration to say that meetings between the Dalai Lama and Christian ecclesiastics to mutually honor their religious traditions are like meetings between physicists from Cambridge and the Bushmen of the Kalahari to mutually honor their respective understandings of the physical universe. (The End of Faith, p.293-294. Emphasis added.)

It is often said that a person cannot learn these things from reading a book. In the general case, this is undoubtedly true. I would add that one is by no means guaranteed to recognize the intrinsic nonduality of consciousness simply by having an eminent meditation master point it out. The conditions have to be just right: the teacher has to be really delivering the goods, leaving no conceptual doubt as to what is to be recognized; and the student has to be endowed with sufficient concentration to follow his instructions and to notice what there is to notice. (The End of Faith, p.298. Emphasis added.)

There is more we could present on Harris’s view on the experimental science of meditation. Since this is already an outrageously long post, I’ll just jump ahead to the penultimate paragraph of the book:

Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognized something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reason for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance. (The End of Faith, p.221. Emphasis added.)

I submit that Harris, just based on his own words from a single source, suffers from a serious lack of self-consistency. His complaints against Christianity:
  1. Suffer from a lack of basic knowledge of Christian doctrine, such as when he suggests we have no good reason to abandon the Mosaic civil law except to shoehorn Christianity into modern times. (I might as well mention another obvious comeback to that particular argument: the early Christians also “ignored” the Levitical punishments, even without the rarefied sensibilities of modern men like Harris.)

  2. Suffer further from the fact that while he condemns Christianity for its lack of evidence, he does not apply the same standard to mysticism—thereby calling his credibility into question. Big time.
So I have to conclude, based on his own words, that Sam Harris is indeed little more than a clown. He has done no scholarship worth mentioning, and cannot present a self-consistent viewpoint. Most unforgivable for “Mr. Rational.” I’ll continue to mock him, if you don’t mind. His own words provide more than sufficient fodder.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Strange, Long, and Rambling Post....

wherein I start out criticizing Dembski, in the end sort-of agree with him, and in the middle repeat many Cosmological ID arguments I have made before.

Over on UD, Bill Dembski is upset at some criticism leveled at his design inference. He opens with:

Here’s a critique of the mathematics of the design inference from an assistant professor of religious studies. The combination of ignorance and arrogance on the part of this individual is staggering.

It would be tempting to base an entire post on the amusing aspect of Dembski leveling a charge of arrogance, and fill it with analogies along the lines of "that's like Imelda Marcus complaining that Leona Helmsley has too many shoes" but—well, it'd be too easy.

Let's look at the post that has Dembski upset:

Youre probably referring to the pseudo-mathematical posturings of William Dembski. Dembski is a fraud whom nobody should take seriously. Here's why: Dembski's model of specified complexity assumes that when attempting to determine the likelihood of a given pattern coming about randomly, that you have the pattern in mind from the outset. In other words, that evolution is a teleological process. But evolution is NOT teleological. It is not more unlikely, from a mathematical perspective, that, say, an eye should develop from a process of natural selection than that some other arbitrary result should take place. It's only mathematically unlikely because you are separating this singular event (i.e., the one that took place), from the billions of other equally singular events that COULD have taken place, but didn't. Those events were equally unlikely. PROSPECTIVELY, any one of them could have occurred. It's only RETROSPECTIVELY that we look at the one that did and say it's unlikely. . . .

Scott Paeth, PhD.
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
DePaul University

Imagine my disappointment when, in this case, Dembski is correct. This is, indeed, a breathtakingly awful criticism. At first I thought he was going to make a reasonable argument—perhaps pointing out that for anything real, such as a flagellum, Dembski's design filter, were it to be applied, which is never has (we're all waiting—apparently for hell to freeze over) must at some point beg the question—effectively it must assume the flagellum is irreducibly complex before it can prove it was designed.

Paeth doesn’t go there, instead he makes one of the most annoying arguments that anyone, anywhere makes against design. And he uses ALL CAPITALS when he wants to be sure we get his point.

This oft-misused argument should be called the: I know enough probability that I am aware that a royal flush is no less likely than any other specific five-card hand argument. Which is true, and is even an important argument in areas like statistical mechanics, but it often gets applied in an incorrect manner, namely: nothing macroscopic should ever be surprising because no matter how amazing it is, it is but one of any number of equally unlikely possible outcomes that, had they occurred, would look just as amazing. Therefore, only chauvinism causes us to feel privileged.

OK, I'm about to take an unplanned diversion into Cosmological ID land. If you are not interested, skip down to the paragraph that begins with: "Back to Paeth."

When applied to cosmological ID this is a bad argument for at least two reasons.
  1. It's wrong. In terms of the physical constants, perhaps it's true that the constants are the result of a random draw (superstring landscape). However, although, in that scenario, all draws are equally unlikely, very few draws are winning hands, meaning they lead to a habitable universe (for any kind of life.) Thus, we still have a right to be amazed at our royal flush—unless there is a vast sample space of universes in existence, then we agree that our amazement has no basis.

  2. (The more important point) It's irrelevant for the Cosmological ID argument, since the CID argument is not (I know, I repeat myself) a low-probability argument, but a high-sensitivity argument. To quote myself from a comment on another blog:
    The fine-tuning/cosmological ID argument is not based on improbability, even though it is often expressed that way. It is based on sensitivity. As many have correctly pointed out, there is no way to calculate the probability of various constants. The fact that many find striking (regardless of their ID position) is that if you change their values by small amounts, the universe goes to hell, so to speak.

    It's tempting, but not correct, to relate this to improbability. However, at least in my opinion, almost the opposite is true. The more unlikely the constants, the more they appear to come from a random draw, then the more indirect credibility (again, this is my opinion) for non-ID explanations, such as the superstring landscape.

    The best thing that could ever happen for cosmological ID is a fundamental theory that predicts the values of the constants. In that case, they would not be improbable but, on the contrary, have a probability of unity. That would mean, given life's sensitivity to their values, that habitability was built, in the form of those laws explaining the constants, into the very fabric of the universe. That would be an enormous bit of circumstantial evidence in favor of cosmological ID.

Somehow my meanderings took me a talk-origins article that misapplies the probability argument with almost unheard boldness. The writer, one Nathan Urban makes the same two blunders, and with such gusto! He wrote, in an aging Talk Origins Post of the Month (yikes!)

And the claim "either the Universe was designed specifically for us by a creator or there is a multitude of universes" is clearly a false dichotomy -- there are other possibilities, perhaps more plausible than either of those two.

Yes and no. There is certainly at least this third possibility: there is just a single universe and we are very lucky indeed. Apart from that, what possibilities exist besides design and multiple—either simultaneous or in sequence or both—universes? Urban claims there are others, perhaps more plausible, but like a lost proof of Fermat's last theorem, he must have written them only in the margins. I'd like to know. Susskind, who argues that if the landscape is wrong it will be hard to answer the IDers, would also, presumably, like to know.

Urban writes:

Sure, the parameters are "fine-tuned" to produce life, but who says that the parameters could have taken on any other values in the first place?? If you're going to say that it's "improbable" that such a universe could have arisen, you must presuppose that the universe could have evolved some other way, but we have no information whatsoever on how, if at all, that may have occurred. It could be a law of physics that the constants could only take on the values that they do, for all we know!

See! Both errors, almost using just one sentence! Amazing! He misses the boat, of course, because he ties the design to improbability. That may be the right thing to do in biology, but in cosmology it's not. Indeed, as I wrote above, a universe where the constants are determined is a net win for the design view, and a crushing blow to theories such as the superstring landscape. Susskind tacitly recognizes this and is pushing his theory even though the price of the superstring landscape is high, and includes: (a) changing the definition of science to include the untestable and (b) proclaiming the death of physics—i.e., Susskind concludes (since design cannot be right) that there will never be a fundamental theory that explains the constants. Searching for such a theory, according to Susskind, is a fool's errand not unlike religion. He may be more right than he realizes.

Urban also writes:

The same goes for the laws of physics themselves. Who says it's even possible for the universe to exist in dimensions other than four? It's very likely might not be; there are many mathematically unique things about four dimensions, and the same laws of physics simply might not exist at all with any other number -- they might not generalize to arbitrary dimensions. It would thus make no sense to say that the universe is "fine-tuned" to four dimensions, since it couldn't be any other way.

This is very muddled and not unrelated logic. He argues, if I parse correctly, that (a) we need a universe with four dimensions (correct) but (b) how can that be a sign of design because who says any other dimensioned universe is even possible? (instead of design, he attributes our fortune to the "mathematical uniqueness" of four dimensions.) Again he misses the boat, namely: if no other dimensionality is even possible, that is a net plus for design. Once again, string theory indirectly backs this up: it makes no claim as to why exactly four of its many dimensions kept on expanding—perhaps in some universes it's a different number. So, if the universe could have a different number of dimensions, that would be bad for design for no other reason than it would be good for string theory. Urban says the opposite: if the universe is fundamentally restricted to dimensions it hurts design. No, it actually hurts the multiverse theory.

He then goes on to discuss Smolin's cosmic evolution. This cannot be one of his alternatives he alluded to earlier (although I think he thinks it is) when complaining of false dichotomies, because cosmic evolution is certainly a multiple universe theory (in fact my personal favorite.) Urban writes:

Second, even if the parameters were fine-tuned, who says that the "fine-tuner" is intelligent? The universe could fine-tune itself. Self-organizing critical systems are capable of fine-tuning all by themselves, following only a simple set of physical laws -- thus making it likely that the parameters are "fine-tuned" the way we see them.

Lee Smolin is attempting to verify such a theory, which he calls "cosmological natural selection". (This is a real, falsifiable physical theory. Quantum gravity would be required to support some of its basic hypotheses, but is not required to support its predictions. So far it has passed the tests which have been applied to it, though that's by no means conclusive.) Cosmological natural selection makes predictions -- for example, it predicts that we should expect universes with stars to be highly probable.

Look at the main prediction that Urban relates: Smolin predicts that we should expect universes with stars to be highly probable.

That is a indeed a "prediction" of Smolin's theory, but in the same sense that string theory "predicts" gravity. Smolin built in the answer by an ansatz: black holes produce new universes with very similar physics (constants). Given this assumption, natural selection will be biased toward producing universes with many black holes (since they are good at passing along their genes.) So we can expect a drift, over time, to a cosmos with many stars, which are prepubescent black holes. Such universes are, as a lucky consequence, habitable. Arguing, as Urban does, that universes with many stars constitute a prediction of Smolin's theory is a shell game—his prediction is built into the theory from the onset. Smolin does make some rather vague (and to me unsatisfying predictions) that boil down to this: if we can prove our universe isn't the best or nearly the best of all possible universes for producing black holes, his theory, he claims, will have been falsified.

Urban then writes:

Of course the theories I've mentioned are still rather speculative, but they certainly show that an intelligent designer is not a logical necessity. (And they also don't require a "multitude of universes" or "multiverse".)

Well, I read the article three times and the only theory he mentions is Smolin's—and if that doesn't require a multitude of universes then, for the same reason, evolution should have needed just a couple generations to take us from singled celled organisms to humans.

At the end, just like most before him and most after him, Urban, explicitly invokes the dreaded "every draw is equal, every draw is beautiful" argument:

As a similar example, look at it this way: suppose hypothetically that the parameters of the universe were determined purely at random by some natural physical process (without intelligent design being involved), such as a quantum fluctuation or something. Further suppose that there are 10 such parameters, which can take on values between 1 and 6, with every permutation being equally likely. And finally suppose that the only configuration of parameters capable of giving rise to a universe with intelligent life is 3526525514, and that the universe happens to, by random, come up with that configuration. To us, those parameters are a meaningless and random sequence, no more and no less likely than any other. But to them, it's an extremely special, unique, and very improbably "fine-tuned" -- the odds are worse than 60 million to one! -- set of parameters. But it would be incorrect for them to conclude that their universe was intelligently designed, because in this hypothetical example, it wasn't! (And again, this does not require a "multiverse".) No matter what configuration actually occurs, you can always after the fact say that that configuration was "selected for" simply by virtue of it being so improbable and you being in it, when in fact it's no more improbable than any other!

Again, and I know I am now repeating the repititions, Urban is arguing that the improbability of our constants is what leads IDers to invoke design. Wrong. Now, it's perhaps mean-spirited to be so harsh with Urban, because many Cosmological IDers make the same mistake.

Perhaps an illustration will help to demonstrate my point.

Instead of Urban's randomly selected universe, let me postulate another made up scenario:
  1. In our make believe universe, it turns out that if some constant C differed by one part in 10100 it would not be suitable for any kind of life (no stars, no heavy elements)

  2. We have just discovered "the" fundamental law of physics, and it predicts C down to that necessary 100th point and beyond.

Now that would be a great day for Cosmological Intelligent Design, even though C, in that universe, is the very opposite of improbable. At that point, the debate could only be between those who interpreted the universe's built-into-the-fabric-of-spacetime habitability as design and those who saw it as blind luck. The "random draw" alternative, as provide by the superstring landscape, would no longer be an option.

Back to Paeth who, irrespective of misconceptions he may have about "specified complexity" is simply joining a long line of fellow travelers misapplying the "all hands are equally likely" argument. Dembski is right to call him on it.

But while we are over on UD, we should take a look at the comments for this post (looking being the only thing I'm allowed to do at UD.)

One commenter uses Paeth's argument as yet another example as to why scientists are not to be trusted—why it may even cause him to abandon his believe in an old universe and a local Noahic flood. Now, I ask, why would anything that Paeth writes, given he is a professor of Religious Studies, influence your views on the merits of a scientific theory (an old universe)? Why, it's akin to PZ fretting over what Scott Adams has to say about evolution.

Another commenter sarcastically points out Paeth's fish-out-of-water problem, that he (Paeth) is a religious studies professor, so how could he ever hope to educate a mathematician (Dembski) on mathematics? There is some merit to that position—training does matter—although you would think that on UD, where there are a slew of non-biologists (including Dembski) lecturing professional biologists about the field of evolutionary biology, that there would be a certain reluctance or at least humility involved when unleashing that particular criticism.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Without Comment

1) On the way to work today, I was behind a car that had its rear-end festooned with bumper stickers. That’s often a fun peek into a narcissist’s psyche. This little red Toyota had a variety of easily readable expressions, among them: Impeach Bush! Iran has no WMD either! Support our Troops: Bring Them Home! There was also a Darwin fish. And there were many more. I got the picture, and I’m sure you get the picture. Again, this is without comment—you have no idea, for example, whether I agree or disagree with, say, “Support our Troops: Bring Them Home!” There were, however, two circular purple stickers that I couldn’t make out. Leaning forward in my seat, I inched as close as possible to the rear bumper. Given my military style haircut, the driver might have gotten nervous that I was trying to be intimidating were it not for the fact that I drive an orange Honda Element rather that a black F250 pickup. Finally I made out the purple stickers: they were astrological charts! Interestingly, this made the driver less complex and less interesting.

2) I certainly am guilty of assuming that, more or less, everyone is interested in the same things that interest me. How could they not be? As a corollary, surely everyone is acutely aware of all the controversies that, on a daily basis, attract my attention. Well, the perfect refutation for this assumption showed up today in our local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph. In an article entitled Nashua picked as charter school site (registration required) we read:

NASHUA – The city will soon be home to a new charter school focused on science and math, with classes expected to begin in the fall.

Organizers of The Academy for Science and Design, a school for middle- and high-school aged students, say they have chosen Nashua as the location for the school. (emphasis added)

If the decision makers, at any point in the process, had any familiarity with the circles I travel, there is no way that name would have survived.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Templeton Foundation Slap-Down

The Templeton Foundation, which most people would be tempted put in the ID camp, has issued a scathing, unambiguous rejection of ID as science. In an LA Times post entitled: Stance is misconstrued on 'intelligent design' a Templeton vice-president, Pamela Thompson, writes:

"Testing the role of trust and values in financial decisions" (Jan. 21) incorrectly describes the John Templeton Foundation as having been an early supporter of the political movement known as "intelligent design."

We do not believe that the science underpinning the intelligent-design movement is sound, we do not support research or programs that deny large areas of well-documented scientific knowledge, and the foundation is a nonpolitical entity and does not engage in or support political movements.

The foundation has provided tens of millions of dollars in support of research academics who are critical of the anti-evolution intelligent-design position.

For almost a decade, the foundation has been a major supporter of a substantial program of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. One of the program's chief activities has been to inform the public of the weakness of the intelligent-design position on modern evolutionary biology.

In the past we have given grants to scientists who have gone on to identify themselves as members of the intelligent-design community. We understand that this could be misconstrued by some to suggest that we implicitly support the movement, but this was not our intention at the time, nor is it today.

Pamela Thompson

Vice president, communications

John Templeton Foundation

West Conshohocken, Pa.

This is a serious (and well deserved) slap in the face of the ID political movement. It can properly be viewed as the Templeton foundation saying: we wuz duped, but no more—you promised us science and you gave us nothing but a bunch of crap—just politics.

In the long run, this is good for ID in its proper role as an apologetic argument. Another nail in the coffin of ID the pseudo-science—a movement that employs non-biblical "ends-justify-the-means" deception—is good for Christianity. For those of us who are scientists and Christians, the Templeton Foundation has just helped us with our stain removal problem.

Immerse the Immerser

The Baptist insistence on immersion as the only acceptable mode for baptism is based on three arguments. One is the meaning of the Greek word babtizo, for which the claim is made that it absolutely implies immersion. The second argument is that Paul's writing identifies baptism as the symbolism for Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, and only immersion gives justice to that symbolism. And the third is that the baptisms described in scripture clearly indicate immersion.

All three of these points are rather weak and easily countered, but the last one is probably the weakest of the three, and is the only one I'll discuss here.

The basis for the argument is the Greek preposition eis which, in the relevant passages we'll examine, is translated as out of and into. However, it can also be translated as to, upon, unto, towards, for, and among.

The most quoted passage is that of Jesus' baptism, another famous 3:16 verse:
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: (Matt 3:16, KJV)
Here the argument goes that if Jesus came "out of" the water, then he must have been immersed. Obviously that is not the case: if one is waist deep with a dry head one can still come up out of the water by walking to the shore. This passage is, at most, suggestive of immersion. It does not require it.

However, the death blow to this argument (not the death blow to the case for immersion, just the death blow for using such passages to prove that it is the only legitimate mode) comes from the case of the Ethiopian eunuch. There we read:
36As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39, NIV)
The problem here for Baptists is that whatever was described for the Ethiopian in relation to the water must also apply to Philip. They both went "into" the water. They both came "up out of" the water. If such language, the same as used in describing Jesus' baptism, demands immersion—then we must conclude that the baptizer (Philip) was also immersed. I know of no Baptist church that requires the pastor to be immersed when administering the ordinance.

The observant will note there is no verse 37. It was not left out.

Sad News

The story I posted below, about the two missing girls--one the daughter of my colleague, did not end well. Please pray for the families.