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Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.

Einstein's blackboard

Einstein’s blackboard

In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.

What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).

This is how Fr Philip puts it:

The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).

Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:

“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]

In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.

Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).

What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

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There are so many reports in the press and adverts on the tube for IVF that you’d think it was the only form of fertility treatment on offer to couples who are struggling to conceive a child.

A friend of mine,  Leonora Paasche Butau, has been studying bioethics, theology of the body, and fertility management for the last few years. I recently read this report from her on the ICN website about the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, and the pioneering alternatives to IVF that they have been developing.

The Pope Paul VI Institute is the brainchild of the bold and courageous Dr Thomas Hilgers, MD and his wife Sue Hilgers who founded the institute in 1985 as a response to the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI, in this encyclical letter, expressed the Catholic Church’s longstanding tradition on marital life and love and called on “men of science” to direct their research to reproductive healthcare which fully respects life and the dignity of marriage and women. Dr Hilgers, as a young medical student in 1968, felt that the Church was speaking directly to him through this letter and by December of that same year he started his first research project to better understand natural fertility regulation and women’s health care.

The results of years of study and research have been phenomenal. The Pope Paul VI Institute has developed a new and superior approach to women’s reproductive health care which embodies the best principles of medicine and builds up the culture of life in a world which finds its solutions in contraception, sterilisation and abortion.

The Institutes 30+ years of research has seen the development of the highly successful Creighton Model Fertility Care System (CrMS) and NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology) which has reached 14 countries around the world.

NaProTechnology allows a couple to observe certain biological markers to determine when they are naturally fertile and infertile so that they can either avoid or achieve pregnancy. In addition to this, it is a very effective tool in identifying and treating underlying causes of infertility with success rates up to three times higher than In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). It would seem that the current philosophy of reproductive medicine does not seek to treat underlying diseases meaning that millions of women suffer from infertility without ever knowing the reason. Although IVF is by far the most common approach to the treatment of infertility, the women who undergo treatment using IVF would still remain with the underlying diseases which are causing the infertility to begin with.

As well as being used to treat infertility, NaProTechnology helps to obtain proper diagnosis and effective treatment for a range of other health and gynaecological problems and abnormalities such as recurrent miscarriage, premenstrual syndrome, postpartum depression and abnormal bleeding ‒ offering great hope to women.

Another of the unique contributions of NaProTechnology is the empowerment of women that comes with the knowledge and self-awareness of their bodies and their reproductive cycles.

Dr Anne Carus, a NaPro Specialist doctor from Life Fertility Care in Leamington Spa, states: “with NaProTechnology couples cycle charting empowers them through education.  We find couples value the active contribution that they are able to make to the diagnostic and treatment process. NaProTechnology provides an individualised medical support. Our annual audit indicates that 89% of our clients would have found it helpful to receive information about NaProTechnology from their GP practice. Couples find it difficult to find real support to natural conception within the NHS.”

The research of Dr Thomas Hilgers – at a time when it is difficult for many obstetrician-gynecologists to practice their profession without prescribing oral contraceptives, carrying out sterilisations or referring patients for procedures such as IVF ‒ is testament to his faith in Christ and commitment to responding to the challenges of Humanae Vitae.

For more information see the website of the Institute here. See the articles here from the UK Life Fertility Care site. And for more general issues about fertility and for practical help in the UK see the Life Fertility Care site itself.

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I was searching for information about the ‘population explosion’ and came across the Spiked campaign entitled “No to Neo-Malthusianism: Why We Oppose Population Control”. There is a string of articles exposing the prejudices and undermining the arguments of contemporary neo-Malthusians, many of them occasioned by the celebration at Spiked of the birth of Baby Seven Billion last year.

This article here by Brendan O’Neill is already three years old, but it’s a good summary of the alarmist arguments put forward by those who fear for the future of the planet and the future of humanity because of the population growth. And then, as you expect from O’Neill, a trenchant critique of their position.

First of all the facts (as they were in November 2009):

In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180 million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

Well today, nearly 180 million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives.

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – there would be food shortages, ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’, which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.

Well today, more than the entire world population of Malthus’s era now lives in China alone: there are 1.3billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many Chinese have improved immensely over the past few decades. In 1949 life expectancy in China was 36.5 years; today it is 73.4 years. In 1978 China had 193 cities; today it has 655 cities. Over the past 30 years, China has raised a further 235 million of its citizens out of absolute poverty – a remarkable historic leap forward for humanity.

Then the general critique:

What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’

There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.

Then the analysis:

The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people. They make the schoolboy scientific error of imagining that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same. That is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee how the industrial revolution would massively transform society and have an historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things. Population is not the only variable – mankind’s vision, growth, his ability to rethink and tackle problems: they are variables, too.

The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is. That is why the Christian Tertullian was wrong in 200 AD when he said ‘the resources are scarcely adequate for us’. Because back then pretty much the only resources were animals, plants and various metals. Tertullian could not imagine that, in the future, the oceans, oil and uranium would become resources, too. The nature of resources changes as society changes – what we consider to be a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will hopefully be discovered or created. Today’s cult of the finite, the discussion of the planet as a larder of scarce resources that human beings are using up, really speaks to finite thinking, to a lack of future-oriented imagination.

And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

So the population panic is rooted in bad sociology, bad science, and bad anthropology. And this is leaving aside the question of whether the world’s population will, in fact, keep increasing, or whether we are more likely to face a crisis of an imploding population over the next hundred years (e.g. see this article by David Brooks).

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This is how the apparently logical/scientific argument goes: Teenagers keep getting pregnant, and thus having more abortions and unwanted babies. So if we give them more drugs to stop the pregnancies, and include the morning-after pill in the package, the pregnancies will decrease.

This kind of unquestioned argumentation colours many of our opinions, and drives public policy. But it’s not empirically true. It’s bad science.

Morning-after pill for girls aged 16 and under

Marianne Neary explains why. She examines some of the epidemiological or ‘population-based’ evidence:

The morning-after pill was introduced to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, yet subsequent abortion rates have continued to increase unabated. The morning-after pill was then made available over-the-counter to over 16s in the UK in 2001, again with the rationale that the ease of access would curb unplanned pregnancy. Yet there was still no effect on the ever-increasing abortion rates.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched an online campaign this month to make the morning-after pill freely available in advance via the post. Randomised controlled trials investigating whether advance provision of the drug reduces the numbers of unplanned pregnancies have shown no such effect; in fact they show that women increase usage of the morning after pill and some studies even suggest that normal contraception is compromised. A study published earlier this year by Nottingham University found that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst teens was increased in association with local authorities increasing their access to the drug.

What we see is an effect known as “risk compensation” or “behavioural disinhibition”: where a safety net (a Plan ‘B’) is provided – in the form of abortion and the morning-after pill – “risky” sexual behaviour then increases as a result. We are apparently in a lose-lose situation [...]

Professor David Paton, Nottingham University, reports to ScienceDaily in January 2011: “Our study illustrates how government interventions can sometimes lead to unfortunate unintended consequences. The fact that STI diagnoses increased in areas with Emergency Birth Control schemes [schemes increasing access of the morning-after pill to teenagers] will raise questions over whether these schemes represent the best use of public money.”

Neary also goes beyond the scientific analysis to look at some of the broader cultural issues involved:

Instead of tackling the root of the problem, by promoting fidelity and faithfulness, campaigns brandish the word “sex” in fairy lights, framed by the slogan, “Are you feeling turned on this Christmas?” advertising the online access to the morning after pill (BPAS December 2011). The U.S. is currently in debate whether it should allow underage girls to obtain the pill over-the-counter. I think society owes an apology to the girl who winds up pregnant at 14 when she’s bombarded with adverts trivialising sex, when a boy uses the easy access to the morning-after pill as a persuasive device and when the government makes a public statement that casual sex at any age is normal behaviour.

Reporting to the BBC, Ann Furedi adequately epitomises society’s backward attitude towards unplanned pregnancy: “Unintended pregnancy and abortion will always be facts of life because women want to make sure the time is right for them to take on the important role of becoming a parent. Abortion statistics are reflective of women’s very serious consideration regarding that significant role within their current situation.”

While the voices of “Plan B” advocates are louder, couples are increasingly exposing themselves to sexually transmitted disease by engaging in unprotected sex, more women are taking the morning-after pill (a mega-dose of female hormone) when the long-term health consequences are unknown. Perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the US and UK now with the increased availability of the morning-after pill under scrutiny, is that underage girls could get hold of it without face-to-face contact with their Doctor. The latter serves to flag underlying problems which can be discussed and most importantly, keeping a medical record of who is taking it and how often can potentially flag cases of sexual abuse in underage girls.

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Take a look at this great optical illusion. Stay with it for a few moments, and then there is a wonderful ‘aaaah…’ moment.

I don’t want to turn this into a philosophical treatise, but it shows – as all optical illusions do – how wrong our first impressions can be, and how there can be a completely different way of looking at things that hasn’t occurred to us. On the other hand, it shows how the ‘solution’, the truth of the situation, is usually something that makes complete sense to us in the terms of the knowledge that we previously had – otherwise it wouldn’t actually be a solution for us.

So an illusion like this momentarily undermines our hold on truth, and yet reinforces the hold that truth has on us. The experience of being deluded or mistaken isn’t actually an argument for scepticism, because you can only know you are mistaken if you have some new purchase on the truth.

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If you thought that the whole point of science fiction was to transport you into a world of the improbable, the impossible, and the utterly fantastical – think again. NASA has stepped into the debate about what makes good science fiction, and the answer is: good science.

The best science fiction takes us to the very edge of what is currently known and currently possible, it draws out the unforseen implications of this present knowledge, it stretches the boundaries and speculates about where we might be in a year or a millennium, but it doesn’t throw aside reason and create a world of nonsense or sheer fantasy. To put it another way, good science fiction is prophetic, it helps us see where we might be going – scientifically, technologically, even morally and politically. And it helps us see where we might not want to go.

How has NASA got involved? By joining with the Science & Entertainment exchange to compile a list of the best and worst science fiction movies of all time. Wenn.com writes:

NASA scientists have named John Cusack’s blockbuster 2012 as the most “absurd” sci-fi film of all time.

Experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Science and Entertainment Exchange have put together a list of the least plausible science fiction movies ever made, and the big budget 2009 picture came top.

The film, which depicted Earth besieged by natural disasters, featured ahead of two more ‘end-of-the-world’ movies – 2003’s The Core and 1998’s Armageddon.

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, says of 2012, “It’s absurd. The film-makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012.

“The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Staff at the organization also compiled a list of the top 10 most realistic sci-fi films, with 1997’s Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman as space agency workers, winning the highest praise from the scientists. NASA experts also named dinosaur movie Jurassic Park and Jodie Foster’s Contact among the most realistic sci-fi films.

I’d agree with this. Part of the fascination with these three films is the idea that this could really happen, this could really be round the corner. Gattaca: a genetic underclass is created in the near future and denied certain rights and privileges. Jurassic Park: fossilised DNA is used to recreate the dinosaurs. Contact: we listen for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system, and one day we finally hear something [but ignore the crazy mystical ending].

Here are the two lists.

The worst sci-fi movies of all time:

1. 2012 (2009

2. The Core (2003)

3. Armageddon (1998)

4. Volcano (1997)

5. Chain Reaction (1996)

6. The 6th Day (2000)

7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

The most realistic sci-fi movies of all time:

1. Gattaca (1997)

2. Contact (1997)

3. Metropolis (1927)

4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

5. Woman in the Moon (1929)

6. The Thing from Another World (1951)

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

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