science

Observations, Causes, and the Higgs Boson

Note: I have already written a longer post for IGNITUM TODAY about the discovery (or potential discovery) of the Higgs Boson and what it means for the Faith. This wasn't going to fit with the rest of that post, so I've expanded on it and made it into its own post.

The discovery—or potential discovery—of the Higss Boson has fueled much excitement, some speculation, and a large number of columns and blog posts. Of these by people whose interest is everything from the political (or financial) side of things to its impact (or lack thereof) on science and future technologies to the potential impact of this discovery on religion. Among other reflections sparked by this discovery comes this passage from Mr Mathew Sullivan, a fellow Austin diocese Catholic:

'One of the primary fruits of these efforts was a better understanding of causality.  When something happens, people tend to wonder why and how.  “Why A?”  “Because B.”  “Well why B?”  “Because C.”  Eventually one comes upon what’s known as a self-evident truth, one or more truths that cannot be rationally proven but must be believed for all other knowledge to stand.  This applies not only to religion, but also to science, politics, and all other types of knowledge [1]. The truth that proceeded from the scholastics and formed the foundation of modern science is that the universe contains an intelligible order – it can be understood through the faculty of reason.'

RCIA Question Box: Stem Cells

What is the Church's stance of stem cell research?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God" (CCC 2319). In that same Catechism we read that

Truth, Opinion, and Knowledge

I've started reading through Mortimer J Adler's How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization (edited by Mr Max Weismann), and I am struck by his insights into ideas which ought to be almost common-sense, and yet which are largely overlooked, ignored, or forgotten today. The book itself is not necessarily meant to be read in any broad order*--there are some chapters which are clearly sequels to each other--but Mr Weismann did a good job in arranging it so that the first topic addressed is Truth and the Second is Opinion.

To Be or Not to Be

A lively if somewhat off-topic discussion has ensued in comments section of Mrs Stacy Trascanco's recent post about the existence of space as opposed to God. Is space nothing? Or is it something? I argue that space is not nothing, because it is something. I will give a few quick reasons for this--that is, "ways" for knowing that this is true--and will attempt to address the objections to these reasons.

Before I can do that, I need to lay out some definitions and distinctions. The first definition is of “nothing.” There are quite a few common definitions (and other usages) of this most pregnant word, but the relevant ones are 1) no thing, not anything, naught; 2) nonexistence, nothingness. Thus, for example, the idea of creating something out of nothing means literally bringing into existence something which did not exist with no raw materials (including energy), etc; of of imparting existence where previously there was none.

Concerning Intelligent Design and Materialism

I really don't have a lot to say about Intelligent Design. They've brought up some interesting critiques of evolution as a purely natural phenomenon, but I don't think that theirs conclusions necessarily follow. That is to say, I do not think that just because a theory has some holes in it now does not mean those holes will never be filled, even filled with purely natural evidence and theory. In any case, I basically agree with Professor Stephen Barr when he says (with my emphases):
The self-styled Intelligent Design (or "ID") movement says that while evolution may have happened the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random genetic mutations is not adequate to explain it. In particular, the ID people point to the great complexity of life, especially at the cellular level. If they are right, that would be very interesting, as it would almost force one to invoke miraculous intervention by God to explain many of the facts of biology. It would give us a slam-dunk proof for the existence of God. I, for one, would be very happy about that.

But are they right in saying that the Darwinian mechanism is inadequate to explain biological complexity? Most biologists, including most of those who are devout Christian believers, doubt it very strongly. And even if the ID people are right, it will be virtually impossible to prove that they are right because they are asserting a negative. They are saying that no Darwinian explanation of certain complex structures will ever be forthcoming. Well, there may not exist such an explanation now, but there might exist one later. So, in practice, I don't see a slam-dunk proof for miraculous intervention in evolution as coming out of this movement.

Epistemological and Ontological Certainty in Science

"If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to observe it, did it really happen?" This is the age-old question posed by the arm-chair philosopher, a sort of brain-tease "prove-it-to-me" question which can be difficult to resolve using formal logic and reasoning (especially for the average untrained or amateur philosopher), but which finds a rather simple resolution in common-sense experiences. That resolution is the insistence that solipsism is false, that there is a world outside of my own immediate senses and perceptions; and that this solipsism is equally false even if extended to cover the whole of the human race, or any other finite observers for that matter.

The Timing of Creation and Idle Speculation

"[Some, especially the Platonist,] philosophers agree that the world was created by God, but they go on to ask us how we reply to questions about the date of creation. So let us find out what they themselves would reply to questions about the position of the creation. For the question, 'Why this time and not previously?' is on the same footing as 'Why this place rather than that?' For if they imagine that there were infinite stretches of time before the world existed, and infinity in which they cannot conceive of God's being inactive, they will, on the same showing, imagine infinite stretches of space; and if anyone says that the Omnipotent could have been inoperative anywhere in that infinity, it will follow that they are compelled to share the Epicurean fantasy of inumerable worlds [cf. Lucr. 2, 1048 f.]. The only difference would be that while Epicurus asserts these worlds come into being and then disintegrate through the fortuitous movements of atoms, the Platonists will say they are created by the action of God. The infinite number of worlds must follow, if they refuse to allow God to be inactive throughout the boundless immensity of space which stretches everywhere around the world, and if they hold that nothing can cause the destruction of those worlds, which is what they believe about this world of ours....Now if they assert that it is idle for men's imagination to conceive of infinite tracts of space, since there is no space beyond this world, then the reply is: it is idle for men to imagine previous ages of God's inactivity, since there is no time before the world began" (City of God Book XI, Chapter 5.

This is one of those myriad "philosophically pregnant" passages to be found in the writings of Saint Augustine. Quite a few interesting philosophy of science ideas jump out at me from this: the prescient linking of time and space, the point that there is no space of time outside of the world (that is, the universe), his dismissal of the many worlds theory (or, alternatively, of the oscillating universes theory). Since I am not particularly well-versed in all of the philosophies which were floating around in Saint Augustine's day, I don't know the exact shape that many of these things took: for example, this linking of space and time together probably didn't resemble, say, Einstein's relativity theories. I do suspect that he wasn't intentionally addressing these philosophies as we understand them today--yet at the same time, he does this (think, for example, of how Epicurean the idea of multiple universes becomes, especially if used by and atheist like Professor Stephen Weinberg as a "proof" that our own universe is not created).

Film Review: Contact

Film Review: Contact
1997, Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, David Morse, Angela Bassett

Overall Recommendation: B-
Moral/Spiritual (-5, +5): -1
Artistic (out of 5): ***1/2

Sci-Fi treats of the topic of extraterrestrial life in several ways. They’re either there, or they’re here. E.T. phones home from here, or he phones here from home. They’re either bright-eyed, childlike scientists (E.T.), or benevolent emissaries come to help us progress into the future (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), or they’re hostile invaders who want our planet, our service, or whatever (War of the Worlds, Battle: LA). Nevertheless, it always seems that the best sci-fi treatment of extraterrestrial life strives to find a balance between the awe and wonder of such encounters and the crippling fear that accompanies the possibility. Contact, while giving a place for each of these poles, often fails in taking seriously the very real apprehension that rightly flows from the possibility.

Teleology in Science

Newtonian physics is also "mechanistic" in the sense of dispensing with "teleology," which played so important a role in Aristotelian science. That is, in Newtonian physics the behavior of a system can be predicted without invoking any "final cause" (any future "end" toward which it is tending, or "goal" toward which it is striving). Rather, it is enough to know the past state of the system and the laws of physics. This fact contributed to the idea that nature is "blind" and without "purpose." It should be noted, however, that a somewhat more teleological way of looking at Newtonian physics is possible. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...powerful ways were developed to reformulate Newtonian mechanics in terms of the so-called "least action principle." A similar principal for optics, called the "least time principle," had been formulated a century earlier by Pierre Fermat (1601-65). The least time principle said that in traveling from some initial point to some final point a beam of light will follow the path which takes the least time. To solve for the light's path using this principle, one must therefore know in advance both where the light begins and where it is going to end up. The analogous principle in mechanics says that any system will evolve from its initial configuration to its final configuration by following the sequence of intermediate configurations (called the "trajectory," "path," or "history") that minimizes a quantity called the "action" (usually denoted S).

This passage comes from Professor Stephen M Barr's short and highly read-able A Student's Guide to Natural Science. Here is a comparison in brief between Aristotle's physics and the Newtonian physics which supplanted it. I have noted before, half tongue-in-cheek, that Aristotle's four causes can be applied to physics, provided that we are willing to look beyond physics for a "final cause."

Socrates, Dualism, and Science

I was reading one of Plato Socratic Dialogues—Phaedo--when I had a sort of epiphany. The section I was reading was the dialogue between Socrates and those present at his death, most notably Cebes, regarding the immortality of the soul. Socrates, incidentally, is portrayed as having a very dualistic (or even Manichaean) view of the body and the soul: a philosophy which he shared with his student Plato.

In the course of this discussion, Socrates argues that death is a good thing because it frees the soul from the body in which it was effectively imprisoned. An effect of that imprisonment is that the soul is hindered in the pursuit of wisdom and of truth:

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