Sunday, October 21, 2007

Science and Religion

"Couldn't evolution be the answer to how and not the answer to why?"

Were it not for the occasional glimpse of intelligent commentary strewn about the average episode of South Park, it would be a real disconcertion that such an astute, insightful question must be attributed to a show so generally foul. But the wit that the show's creators manage to display at least once per episode make it easier to admit that I first heard that line from the character Stan Marsh, and that I immediately understood the evolution/creation debate much more clearly at that moment.

In a recent article ("The Origin of Species, and Everything Else", National Review, 10/8/07), Jim Manzi points out, "Scientific atheists put forward two propositions as logically deducible from science: that evolution eliminates the need for a Creator, and that evolution has no ultimate goal or purpose." The mistake that such atheists make is to consider evolution an end in and of itself. On the contrary, evolution is a mere tool of Creation.

The first of the atheists' propositions is easily disproven by applying Aristotle's realization that "any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause," as Manzi puts it. Ironically, it was my college philosophy professor, Daniel Dennett, a world-famous proponent of atheism, who first got me thinking about this topic when, on the first day of lecture, he dismissed the class with the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Every time that we come up with an answer of what caused something to come about, we would be remiss not to then wonder what, in turn, was the cause of that cause. Even if we identify a chain of events going back to the Big Bang, we have to consider: Who put that ball of mass there, and what caused it to adhere to what we recognize as the laws of physics? And even if scientists could discern the exact force that created the mass that "Banged Big", so to speak, the question would remain: Whence came that exact force? I am convinced, therefore, that there must necessarily be an Immortal Power that has always been and will always be, and from which the rest of Creation comes about. That is G-d.

Whatever the case, the question of ultimate origins is not one that science is meant to answer, as per the very definition of the scientific method itself. (Manzi says it well: "A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect.") A scientist would therefore be out of order in claiming that any scientific theory, including evolution, "eliminates the need for a Creator".

The second proposition that Manzi identifies is not disproven quite as easily as the first, but it is necessary to address the point. Manzi himself refers to a very keen but very complex and fairly boring analogy involving computer software known as Genetic Algorithms in order to make his point. Those who are interested in reading his explanation in full are encouraged to do so, but I would rather speak more generally here.

In short, evolution must have a goal in the same way that any applied algorithm must have a goal: it takes a large number of possible genetic combinations and, even as new combinations join the mix, weeds out less fit combinations so that over time, the collective gene pool becomes fitter and fitter. It would be astoundingly difficult for us to determine what the genetic goal of evolution is, but that does not mean that the goal does not exist, or even that figuring it out is literally impossible. It just means that as human beings, we do not have the lifespan or brainpower to do it on our own, and we have not come up with the correct technology to accomplish that goal for us.

The way to determine evolution's genetic goal would be to take all possible gene combinations (in other words, all possible organisms), compare their abilities to survive and reproduce over time, and see which one has the most fitness. Of course, as I said, we humans rather lack the ability to do that, but the fact that we cannot figure it out does not mean that the conclusion does not exist. After all, the algorithm known as evolution is literally performing that task for us as we speak. If, rather than waiting until the end of time, we would like to know the answer a bit quicker, then perhaps we might collect the genetic information of every species on Earth and re-create the world in a computer model that we can "fast-forward", so to speak.

Here, I am going to hear some protests that say something to the effect of: "But you are not taking into account the fact that the physical environment of Earth is always randomly changing, so the evolution of species, far from being the tool of some ultimate goal of Creation, is really just a reflection of the fact that some species do better in certain environments than others." But that argument does not hold water.

First of all, that argument does not take into account the evolution of species that takes place within a constant environment. Once a new species comes onto the scene in a certain environment, if it is more fit than the species that were there before it, then the older species might become much fewer in number, or perhaps die out altogether. Within a few years, the exact same spot on Earth – without a changing landscape or climate – may have a very different gene pool that can only be altered if a new species, fitter still, comes onto the scene. Evolution really does imply a gene pool that is destined to approach (in the mathematical sense of the word) ultimate fitness over time.

Second of all, and more substantially, the changes that take place in the Earth's environment are not necessarily random. People tend to forget that the Earth, and all of its natural phenomena, are just another small part of the workings of the universe as a whole. The natural environment changes according to physical forces that have been present in the universe since long before the first life form appeared on Earth. Here, I cannot help but defer to Jim Manzi, who explains that "the [changing] fitness landscape, after all, is only the product of the interaction of other physical processes". He continues:

The scientific atheists sweep a lot of philosophical baggage into the term "random": It is often used loosely to imply a senselessness, a basic lack of understandability, in natural occurrences. But in fact, even the "random" elements of evolution that influence the path it takes toward its goal — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws. Human uncertainty in describing evolution, which as a practical matter we refer to as randomness, is reducible entirely to the impracticality of building a model that comprehensively considers things such as the idiosyncratic path of every photon in the universe compounded by the quantum-mechanistic uncertainty present in fundamental physical laws that govern the motion of such particles. As a practical matter, we lack the capability to compute either the goal or the path of evolution, but that is a comment about our limitations as observers, not about the process itself.
In other words, if I may apply that concept back to the world's changing environment, meteorologists may have a difficult job with a poor track record, but it is technically possible to predict those patterns for all time because they are the result of interactions of finite amounts of matter and energy that are as old as the universe and that continue to follow set laws of physics.

As a side note: Perhaps one day, humans will have perfected that technology, and we will be able to predict environmental changes of all sorts for the rest of time. We would then, of course, adjust our behavior accordingly in order to better survive and reproduce. The fact that the brainpower that would enable us to do that would be an evolutionary advantage in and of itself is further proof that the changing environment is not random according to the evolutionary process.

Here, my dear reader will kindly note that nothing that I have said above challenges the general veracity of the theory of evolution; indeed, I accepted it as true from the very beginning of this post. I bring this up because it is of interest, given that I am a political conservative and a believing Jew. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that the clash that we see in our political arena between proponents of evolution and proponents of religion is rather unique to our society. Nothing illustrates this better, in my opinion, than the following excerpt from Stephen Jay Gould's wonderful 1997 essay "Nonoverlapping Magisteria":

In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. ... Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about "scientific creationism"? One asked me: "Is evolution really in some kind of trouble, and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?"

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history - a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean. We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.
The thesis, and, indeed, the very title of Gould's essay express what in my own humble opinion is the correct approach to the two disciplines of science and religion. A magisterium is a "domain of teaching authority", as Gould explains it, and indeed, the domains of science and religion, properly understood, do not overlap and can in fact be complimentary.

Science's domain is that of the physical realm. It is meant to perfect techniques of observation and analysis. What is here? How does it work? How long has it been here? What was here ten billion years ago? How did that work? How can we even know that? What can we create to be here in the future in order to make our lives better? How will that work? These are questions that science is meant to answer.

Proponents of scientism need to learn the natural limits of mankind's capacity for comprehension and the existence of questions upon which no physical force has any bearing. So you have proven evolution to be a fact; how could that possibly mean that G-d does not exist? How could any aspect of science prove what is right and what is wrong? Those are, at the very least, opinion questions. Most people treat them as religious or philosophical questions. Only someone who has the debased notion of science as a "side" to be "taken" against anything that is not science (i.e. another category for identity politics to corrupt) would consider them scientific questions.

Religion's domain is the spirit, the soul, and the supernatural – including arguments against the existence of such things. It is philosophical in nature, and it is meant to guide human beings as they wander through life. What is Good, and what is Bad? What makes Right, and what makes Wrong? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Why should I care about what happens to others? What happens to my consciousness when I die? Why is there something instead of nothing? These are questions for religion.

Religionists need to learn the purposes of religion itself. Religion teaches many wonderful, priceless things, but history, for example, is not one of them. In other words, if sound science proves that a literal reading of the first chapters of Genesis is incorrect, then it is misguided to presume that science is wrong. Our faith is best reserved for more worthy notions, such as the existence of G-d and the truth of His morality. Theologists, just like scientists, need to be wary of the temptation to disgrace their magisterium by failing to recogize its proper boundaries and making it an object of identity politics.

Perhaps if we accept the genius of science to explain "how", and encourage it to continue, we will have an easier time understanding "why".

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Wrinkle in Time

When I heard a few weeks ago that author Madeleine L'Engle had passed away, I was surprised, and then saddened. Surprised, because I thought that she had already passed on; saddened, because I remembered enjoying her writing very much as a youth.

The news story about her passing mentioned that her writing highlighted her Christian faith. This peaked my interest, because I had read perhaps her two most well-known books, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and I did not remember any sort of religious message in either. I then decided that it was because so many years had gone by since reading those books that I did not remember such an important aspect of them, and that I ought to re-read them to see if I could learn something new from them the second time around.

Quickly finishing the book that I was already reading, I sat down and read A Wrinkle in Time. Being more of a children's novel than anything else, it took me just one evening to finish. There was no doubt about it: It was meant to frame the universal struggle between Good and Evil on a religious note.

The designation of the book as being of a 5.8 reading level almost surely stems from the novel's simple sentence structure, basic plot, and mostly transparent characters. Very few fifth graders now-a-days could understand the educated diction of some of the characters; the science that forms the premise for some of the more fantastic aspects of the fiction; the frequent references by one of the characters to proverbs from around the globe and lines by Shakespeare, Pascal, Seneca, Dante, Perez, Cervantes, Delille, Euripides, Horace, and others; or the relatively advanced vocabulary that L'Engle scatters throughout her book, such as "ephemeral", "belligerent", "inadvertently", "omnipotent", "precipitously", and others. Also advanced are the morals and lessons presented in various stages of the novel, some more subtly than others.

When I first read the book as a child, I thought that the point was to tout the scientific notions that form the basis for much of the plot, such as the "tesseract". The tesseract is the employment of the fifth dimension to move about space with ease. The best way to explain it is like this: We all know the three dimensions - a line, a square, a cube. In the novel, time comprises the fourth dimension. The fifth dimension is a little more complicated. We all know that, at least in terrestrial reality, the shortest distance between two points is the first dimension, a straight line. However, if those two points could be brought together for a moment, then no travel would be necessary. Imagine an ant walking from one end of a piece of string to the other; though a straight line would get him there more quickly than if he swerved about, wouldn't it be faster still to join the two ends of the string so that with one step the ant could go from one end to the other? Well, imagine the joining of any two points of the entire universe so that travel through it could be done with ease. The condition of having two points of the universe joined as one comprises the fifth dimension.

When I first read A Wrinkle in Time, I was fascinated by this and other scientific concepts in the book. My young mind's interest in them, and their novelty to me, blinded me to the very possibility that there was another point to the book. The fact that I was relatively uneducated in my own religion, let alone in Christianity, did not help any in this regard. However, upon re-reading the book, I could see that the science, though important to the plot and to the enjoyment of the novel, was clearly not as important as the morals. There are a variety of themes upon which L'Engle touches, ranging from religious to political; the evil society in this novel has an eerie similarity to the totalitarian one that Lois Lowry depicts in her masterpiece, The Giver. However, the main theme that the author seeks to emphasize is that the importance of a just faith in G-d, and the struggle between Good and Evil, are truly universal. Mankind has been caught in the thick of this struggle since our arrival on the scene, and L'Engle stresses the importance of remaining vigilantly on the side of Good, even when it seems futile, because the struggle is very real, ever ongoing, and never hopeless.

When I put the book down after re-reading it, and while thinking about it soon afterwards, I was less-than-impressed. Though a wonderful thinker, L'Engle was hardly a great writer - not bad, not too good. However, as I think about it more and more, and as I write this review, I realize that there is something striking about A Wrinkle in Time. It is no Narnia, but it definitely deserves a place next to Maestro Lewis on the shelf. The writing may not have been terribly sophisticated, but it was good enough that this discerning and capricious reader did not put it down until the book had been finished from cover to cover. Furthermore, the writing hardly did L'Engle's ideas justice. In considering this, I am reminded of a favorite concept of mine, that language is the dress of thought. Sometimes, a woman's beauty is obscured by awkward make-up and ill-fitting clothing. Similarly, the philosophy and concepts that L'Engle seeks to expound are of high caliber, but she dresses them in the simplest language, making it all the more difficult to appreciate their importance and complexity.

All in all, I would recommend this book to parents who wish to offer their children (ages 12-14, in my estimation) good, wholesome reading. It is the sort of book that a child can read alone or together with a parent. Also, I would recommend this book to older or more sophisticated readers who would like a break from adult writing, if not from adult topics - in other words, if you would like a good book that will not put you to sleep with its academic language, then A Wrinkle in Time will provide you with a good couple of days of reading. Finally, given the universality of its messages, I would recommend the book to anyone of any age who enjoys an intelligent exploration of moral and/or religious themes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thought Criminalization

I learned to expect this kind of thing from some of my more extreme classmates at college, but even though I am not a fan of the current Congress, I never imagined that this could become federal law. The House has actually passed, and the Senate is close to passing, hate-crime legislation, thereby making certain opinions grounds for punishment. Let me repeat that: Certain opinions will be grounds for punishment.

If this legislation passes, then when a person finds himself declared guilty of a crime in a court of law, the very fact that he has certain opinions will mandate increased sentencing. This is not about using certain biases that he has in order to establish a motive. It is about taking whatever sentence he gets for committing the act of a crime, and then increasing that sentence for the sole reason that he had held certain opinions while committing that crime.

The New York Sun recently published an op-ed by Kenneth Blackwell opposing this bill. It is worth the read, although, while I agree with him, I would have chosen a different angle. Anyhow, today the Sun published a letter to the editor by Joel Levy of the Anti-Defamation League defending the bill.

Levy's letter is key because it illustrates how flimsy the arguments in favor of the bill really are. For example, he argues, "Hate crime laws... do not punish thought. They punish actions..." If that's true, then why do we need the law? We already have a plethora of laws on the books that allow for punishment of the "actions" that Levy has in mind, including all sorts of assault, battery, and so on. Isn't the whole point of hate crime legislation to require the justice system to be harsher on people who have hateful thoughts when they committ actions that would otherwise get them a somewhat lesser punishment (but still a punishment)? Levy himself betrays this point in the rest of the second sentence quoted above: "...and are triggered only when an individual commits a hate crime that is motivated by bias or prejudice."

Let's step back for a moment. "[M]otivated by bias or prejudice"? Presumably, Levy means bias or prejudice against race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, and probably even age, disability, and so on. To be sure, it is wrong to attack someone because of his race, religion, or whatever. Nobody is arguing against that point. But who picks what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike? What if someone gets beaten up for wearing a shirt of a certain color? Surely that is "prejudice," and one could even argue that it is "bias." There is no question that it is discrimination - in fact, it is as arbitrary and stupid a discrimination as racial or sexual discrimination. Why shouldn't the law punish that sort of opinion? Here, I am going to hear that it is because people don't choose their race or sex, but they choose what shirt to wear. That is terrible reasoning for two reasons: 1) A person chooses his shirt based upon his own personal preferences, which he does not consciously acquire, and 2) It doesn't matter, because a person is as entitled to wear a black shirt as he is to have black skin. But I'm getting off topic: The point is that the bill begs the question of who will pick what aspects of the victim it is forbidden to dislike (which, ironically, will entail a great deal of "bias" and "prejudice"). How on Earth do they plan on answering that question fairly?

People get attacked for a variety of reasons. Most of them involve "hate" of some sort or another. Racial hate is not any more special than any other sort of hate, and should not be treated as such. In any case, the hate is not the problem any more than some other motive is the problem. The problem is the action, and the action is what should be punished. This is true even on a basic legal level: It is considered a basic right that when a defendant is brought into court, he is being tried only for specific charges that have been brought against him. If he is seen attacking someone, and is charged with assault and battery, prosecution cannot throw in a robbery charge in the middle of the trial because someone comes forth claiming that the defendant held up a convenience store the year before. That is a separate charge, and if the DA thinks that there is a case, then the defendant will be tried separately for it. Similarly, if someone is convicted of assault and battery, an addition to his sentence because of his beliefs amounts to throwing on another charge of illegal opinions (on top of the assault and battery) for which he should receive further punishment. In other words, one's opinions have become something with which the authorities can charge that person. In other words, there will be such a thing as "illegal opinions." How disgraceful is that?

Levy ends his letter to the Sun with the following simple-minded paragraph: "Hate violence deserves priority attention. When enacted into law, this legislation will improve the criminal justice system's ability to respond to these devastating crimes." He misses the point by a mile. The criminal justice system already "respond[s] to these devasting crimes," as witnessed by every example of people getting locked up for assault, battery, rape, murder, etc. The legislation would just require it to "respond" to the criminal's personal beliefs as well.

In "responding" to the criminal's personal beliefs, the bill would validate the criminalization of certain thoughts. I think that I've explained that enough. But there is another consequence: With thought crimes there necessarily come thought police. Along these lines, Blackwell asks an important question in his op-ed: "As a country, do we want to be in the business of 'proving' what someone thinks?" Indeed, are we comfortable with people's beliefs and opinions being tried in a courtroom, with people testifying against their fellow citizens' thoughts, with defendants brought to tears as they plead for people to believe that they don't actually hate minorities, with a policeman patiently explaining to a jury the mechanics of how the latest law-enforcement technology can be used to show that the defendant does, indeed, have a politically incorrect opinion about some hot-button issue? By G-d, I hope not.

If we as a nation have become so pathetic as to not get frightened at and react swiftly against the prospect of routine thought policing, then we should be more ashamed than any people on Earth have ever been, because it would mean that after achieving unprecedented liberty, we have become too lazy and disinterested to even think about defending it, making us unworthy of our freedoms and of the countless lives that have been lost protecting them. I, for one, cannot abide such a disgrace, and I dare not presume that many of my countrymen can either.

So, why was this bill ever put forth? Do the Democrats, who spearheaded the bill, like the idea of thought policing? Probably not. Personally, I give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they never even thought of it that way. The Democrats just think that they are helping minorities and other people who might plausibly be considered disadvantaged based upon how they can be categorized. (Remember exactly which views will be prohibited.) But lurking in the shadows of the naive idiots who pushed this bill in Congress are the people who came up with the idea in the first place. These are the dangerous people whose hierarchy of values puts their agenda above freedom. They are the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, who benefit every time a member of some superficially constructed minority is given an opportunity to blame others for his outrage.

In a commentary for The Primary Source, I once mentioned that my fellow Tufts students "should ask themselves whether they care about the bias itself, or whether they have really just been working to encourage the sensitivities of certain groups whose identity politics they support." I think that we need to apply that same question to this context, and wonder how we could ever live with ourselves if we sacrifice our children's freedom to have any beliefs, opinions, and preferences that they please just to avoid bothering to oppose a dangerous, moronic bill that won't accomplish anything anyway.