Bryan Appleyard and creationism

British journalist Bryan Appleyard continues to use The Sunday Times newspaper as a platform for pro-religious campaigning. Today he excels himself with an article on Darwin and natural selection which quotes, without reproach, Dr David Menton of Answers in Genesis, and David Rosevear, chairman of the British Creation Science Movement. Appleyard also quotes the anti-evolutionary opinions of James Le Fanu, (a medical doctor and journalist, no less):

[Le Fanu] insists that new biological discoveries have overthrown Darwin. The old man is “screwed”, he says gruffly.

Perhaps most startling is the discovery from the deciphering of the human genome that we have only between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. We were previously thought to have 100,000. A mere 25,000 doesn’t seem to be enough to sustain our vast complexity and yet genes are supposed to be the heavy lifters of the Darwinian enterprise.

“I wouldn’t get out of bed for 25,000 genes,” says Le Fanu, “and we don’t find form in the genome. We share most of our DNA with chimpanzees, but nowhere in the genome have we found what it is that makes us so different from chimps.”

Which is an interesting point. But here’s a good response:

It is unarguably true that the differences between a monkey and a human are huge…The point is – as every geneticist…knows perfectly well – that a small number of nucleotides can make a very big difference…The fact that, at the molecular level, the difference appears small is irrelevant because, at the molecular level, everything appears small. And, besides, the whole of modern science from quantum theory to chaos theory has successfully persuaded us of the fact that small things make big differences.

Very well put, don’t you think? And the author of those words? Bryan Appleyard, Brave New Worlds, p102. Strange that Bryan didn’t choose to raise this point here, but I’m sure he wasn’t in any way dishonestly attempting to mislead his readership, most of whom will be non-scientists.

Staggeringly, Bryan even uses today’s article to wheel out the most famous evolutionary canard of the creationist movement, namely the claim that natural selection cannot explain the evolution of the eye:

It’s all very well to talk of small mutations changing an organism, but how do such changes make, for example, an eye? Without all its bits and pieces, an eye does not work. It is, in the terms used by the biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex”, beyond the reach of blind, random mutation.

On the contrary, as Richard Dawkins points out, “intermediates are not only easy to imagine: they are abundant all around the animal kingdom. A flatworm has an eye that, by any sensible measure, is less than half a human eye. Nautilus…has an eye that is intermediate in quality between flatworm and human. Unlike the flatworm eye, which can detect light and shade but see no image, the Nautilus ‘pinhole camera’ eye makes a real image; but it is a blurred and dim image compared to ours.” (The God Delusion, p124).

The creationist/intelligent design attack upon evolutionary theory is two-pronged: not only does it seek to imply that evolution is incomplete or flawed as a theory, but it hedges its bets by also arguing that the consequences of evolutionary theory have been detrimental to society. Appleyard, of course, follows this exact rhetorical template, and duly quotes David Rosevear’s assertion “If [we are not the children of God], then there is no right or wrong – we can do what we like.”

This argument, another popular canard of the creationist/intelligent design movement, presupposes that the existence of God is necessary for the truth of ethical principles. As philosopher Adolf Grunbaum pointed out in The Poverty of Theistic Morality, this fallacy was exposed by Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro:

Is the conduct approved by the gods right (“pious”), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.

For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept. Indeed, Richard Gale sees the thrust of Plato’s Euthyphro to be the claim that “Ethical propositions are not of the right categorical sort to be made true by anyone’s decision [command], even God’s” (R. M. Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 34).

Neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbour’s wife”).

Appleyard tells us that Darwinian evolution “was and is, for many, a grim vision,” but also points out that “Darwinism remains only a small part of the popular imagination.” So the claim, then, is that we are depressed by something we are largely unaware of! This contradiction is important because it points to the fundamental fallacy of Appleyard’s worldview. The general thrust of Appleyard’s output is to characterise science as providing a threat to human well-being, with the ulterior motive of promoting, as the remedy, a religious worldview. The general theme permeating the Appleyard oeuvre, is to suggest that humans have needs which, in general, they don’t actually have, such as the need for ‘the sacred’, and the need for ‘spiritual depth’, and to suggest that science is a threat because it threatens these needs. Appleyard wishes us to believe that science is depriving us of something essential. On the contrary, the needs Appleyard speaks of are not general truths about what the human condition is, or what it feels like to be human, but truths about what it feels like to have inherited a certain religious worldview. Darwinian evolution entails neither a ‘grim vision’, nor, as Darwin himself suggested, a type of grandeur; these are extra-theoretical valuations that are tacked-on, depending upon the subjective personality of the individual.

Ultimately, on the subject and evolution and religion, I would agree with the verdict of the Reverend Michael Heller (Where physics meets metaphysics, p272-273, On Space and Time):

Correct theology is obliged to take into account what science has to say to us…And the verdict of science…is clear. The Universe we live in is an evolutionary process, and the thread leading from the plasma of primordial stuff, through chemical elements, galaxies, stars and planets, to more and more complex systems, intelligent life included, is but a fibre in this overwhelming process. And theology that would choose to ignore this magnificent process is a blind way to nowhere.

Bryan Appleyard

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Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

On space and time

The problem with Christmas is that it interferes with the right to freedom of mobility. Hence, as Yuletide approaches each year, I initiate a search programme to find a book or paper of depth, clarity, originality, and elegance, which will sustain me through this bleak period. This year, I was amply rewarded when I discovered On Space and Time, a collection of essays at the interface between physics and philosophy, a matter of days before ‘festive’ ground-zero.

The book contains lengthy articles by Shahn Majid on duality and self-duality, and Alain Connes on his non-commutative approach to space-time and particle physics, but the outstanding contribution is a 50-page exposition from Roger Penrose of his conformally cyclic cosmology.

With the apparent discovery of dark energy, and the accelerating expansion of the universe, the far future of our universe is representable by de Sitter space-time. Penrose noticed that the future conformal boundary of de Sitter space-time is spacelike, hence it can be joined to the spacelike initial conformal boundary of a Friedmann-Robertson-Walker (‘Big Bang’) model. The fact that the universe is very small and hot at the beginning, and very large and cold in the far future, is not a problem, argues Penrose, because both the early universe and far future universe contain only conformally invariant, massless particles. Without massive particles, there is no way of defining lengths or times, hence the only physically meaningful structure is the conformal structure, i.e., the causal structure. By compressing the conformal factor towards the far future, and expanding it towards the beginning, the geometry of the future conformal boundary can be joined seamlessly to the initial conformal boundary.

Penrose proposes that the far future of our universe contains only electromagnetic radiation and gravitational radiation. The electromagnetic radiation comes from the cosmic background radiation of the Big Bang, from stars, and from the eventual evaporation of black holes. The gravitational radiation, meanwhile, comes mostly from the coalescence of black holes. Penrose proposes that massive particles such as electrons, either annihilate with massive particles of opposite charge (positrons), or decay by some as-yet undiscovered mechanism.

The cycle of Penrose’s model is one in which the universe ‘begins’ in a conformally invariant state, with zero Weyl curvature, but in which there is a normal derivative to the Weyl curvature. This seems to trigger the formation of massive particles. The matter then clumps together into stars and galaxies, such clumping increasing the Weyl curvature and decreasing the Ricci curvature. Eventually, much of the matter is swept into black holes, where the Weyl curvature diverges, but the Ricci curvature is zero. The matter which isn’t swept into black holes decays or annihilates into radiation, and the black holes eventually evaporate themselves into radiation. The Weyl curvature thereby returns to zero, all particles are massless again, and conformal invariance resumes. Gravitational radiation, however, never thermalizes, and this appears to be responsible for the normal derivative to the Weyl curvature, which triggers the formation of massive particles in the next cycle.

Two potential problems spring to mind. Firstly, following an argument by Gibbons and Hawking, de Sitter space-time is widely believed to possess a minimum temperature due to its cosmological constant. With the value of the cosmological constant we observe, this temperature is about 10-30 Kelvin. A black hole will only evaporate if the temperature of its horizon is greater than the temperature of surrounding space. The temperature of a black hole is inversely proportional to its mass, and a black hole which grows large enough that its temperature drops below 10-30 Kelvin would never evaporate. However, such a black hole would have a mass approximately equal to the current observable universe, so the formation of such a black hole may well be impossible in a universe whose contents are diluted by the accelerating expansion of dark energy.

The second problem is that if the quantum fields in the far future of our universe can be treated as quantum fields in thermal equilibrium in de Sitter space-time, then because such a universe is eternal, quantum fluctuations ensure the spontaneous generation, at a constant rate, of anything you care to name, including massive particles and black holes. This would prevent our universe from ever reaching an exact state of conformal invariance in the far future. However, because gravitational radiation never reaches thermal equilibrium, one could perhaps argue that the quantum fields in the far future of our universe cannot be treated as quantum fields in thermal equilibrium in de Sitter space-time.

Penrose’s proposal remains fascinating and elusive. A perfect antidote to Christmas.

Penrose’s conformally cyclic cosmology

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Near-death experiences

Christian author Bryan Appleyard writes an article for The Sunday Times which argues that near-death experiences (NDEs) are evidence that the mind can be separated from the brain, and there actually is an afterlife.

Bryan refers to the “consistency and clarity of these [NDE] reports across cultures and time zones,” which is misleading, not only because people of different religions see different religious figures in NDEs, but as Carol Zaleski detailed, “through her comparative studies of medieval and modern NDEs, many features of these experiences vary in ways that correspond to cultural expectations. A striking instance of this is the minimal role played by judgment and damnation in modern NDEs; unlike the medieval cases, the modern life-review tends to be therapeutic in emphasis. In view of this, Zaleski ascribes the experiences to the religious imagination.”

As Appleyard himself points out, “all the evidence [for NDEs] remains anecdotal, and even the most impressive stories…tend to look less convincing on closer examination.” Moreover, as Michael Shermer explains, the hallucination of flying is triggered by atropine, out-of-body experiences are triggered by ketamines, the perception of the world enlarging or shrinking is triggered by dimethyltryptamine, the retrieval of long-forgotten memories is triggered by methylene-dioxyamphetamine, and a feeling of oneness with the cosmos is triggered by LSD. “The fact that there are receptor sites in the brain for such artificially processed chemicals means that there are naturally produced chemicals in the brain that, under certain conditions…, can induce any or all of the experiences typically associated with a NDE,” (Why people believe weird things, p80).

Bryan attempts to support a dualistic approach to the ontology of the world, by arguing that thoughts cannot collide with bricks. “Dualism,” says Appleyard, “means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs.” However, in general, an object cannot collide with a process. For example, a brick cannot collide with evaporation, but this is hardly evidence of a fundamental ontological duality. Moreover, if non-collidability enables the mind and the brain to be separated, it follows that computer software can also be separated from computer hardware. Presumably, a terminating program will briefly float at ceiling level in the IT department, above the computer it was running on, before it enters a cybernetic afterlife.

Most remarkably, Bryan takes huge liberties with the interpretation of quantum theory, and claims that it supports mind-brain dualism, quoting with approval the eccentric opinions of Henry Stapp. “‘The observer,’ Stapp tells me, ‘is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics’.” This is the familiar canard that observers are a crucial part of the quantum world because it is observers who trigger wave-function collapse. In fact, wave-function collapse is triggered by any measurement-like interaction, and observers are completely superfluous to the process. Appleyard even claims that “quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room.” Quantum non-locality pertains to non-local interactions between particles separated over large distances, and entails no such possibility of separating the mind from the brain.

There seems to be a quite remarkable degree of selection and manipulation of the facts going on here. Appleyard is twisting some well-known canards in the interpretation of quantum theory, to provide a post-hoc justification for a belief about the nature of the mind which is crucial to his religious world-view. Honesty and integrity seem to have taken something of a backseat here.

Bryan Appleyard

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 10:27 am  Leave a Comment