Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Ethical Embryonic Stem Cells?

At the risk of spending too much time blogging....

Science News notes two techniques designed to side-step ethical concerns in obtaining embryonic stem cells: Do No Harm: Stem cells created without destroying healthy embryos (Week of Oct. 22, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 17 , p. 259)

The first plucks a single cell from an eight-cell blastocyst (early embryo) as they do in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The other (about which I've written before) creates embryonic clones (from somatic cells), but missing a gene essential to implantation.

Perhaps you've already realized that neither of these techniques effectively avoid the core moral objections to embryonic stem cells (aside from the first's reliance on IVF). As the article notes,

Although these methods may ease ethical concerns for some people, others may view them as just "a new version of embryo destruction," says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She notes that research hasn't ruled out the possibility that a single cell plucked from an early embryo, as in Lanza's work, can form a new embryo. Furthermore, some people may view the abnormal clumps of cells missing cdx2 in the Meissner-Jaenisch study as "terminally ill" embryos rather than just masses of cells.

Science News deserves credit for exploring the ethical issues, and these researchers deserve credit for trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to resolve the ethical problems with embryonic stem cells.

I'm still beginning my study of the biochemistry of cellular determination (in early development), so this is just me thinking out loud: it seems to me that it should be possible in principle to grow embryonic clones in a chemical environment that makes them "think" they should become part of an individual, instead of a full individual. So far I can't any problem (ethical or technical) with this approach, though my gut reaction is that it's just too easy not to have some invisible difficulty.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dawkins's Faith

Just ran across this amusing picture put together by Julian at trinetizen:

I find your lack of faith disturbing

The quotation, in case you don't recognize it, is from Return of the Jedi and Julian, who is apparently a fan of Dawkins, says, "Note, how Dawkins looks a lot like the insidious Palpatine in pic above, thus the Darth Vader quote and lightning streaks." (Palpatine, to those unfamiliar with Star Wars lore, is the real name of the arch-antagonist of the series, the Emperor.)

Aside from the sheer entertainment value, I've posted this photo because (whether consciously or not) it reflects the truth that Dawkins's position depends on faith just as much as that of the religious people he so despises.

Here's an excellent analysis of one of Dawkins's books:

Stephen M. Barr, "The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded," First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.

Barr does a great job exposing the inconsistency of Dawkins's world-view.

An interesting quotation from Dawkins:

I believe, but I cannot prove, that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection," said Prof Dawkins in the responses published yesterday on www.edge.org. (Telegraph UK 05/01/2005)

As any Darwinist will admit, natural selection doesn't create anything: it only weeds out the unfit forms created by "random mutation." So Dawkins's conception of the origin of the universe is purely negative: a "theology" of death.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Intelligence Transcends Science

In my last post I discussed the very real limits of science's powers and how they prevent Darwinism from saying anything meaningful about the real cause of particular genetic novelty. It bears repeating that in neither that post nor the present am I by any means arguing with the scientific theory of Darwinism (or "evolution" as the historically and philosophically unschooled call it) in these posts. My intention is merely to show how irrelevant evolutionary theory is to our culture at large, and thus that the whole "evolution vs. ID" flap is a tremendous waste of time.

The main point of my writing here is to remedy a fault of the last post by showing just how unextraordinary it is that science says "chance" (i.e., "we don't know") when the actual cause could well be an intelligence.

To illustrate this ordinariness, let's take an example. Let's say a post-modern anthropologist is monitoring your home power consumption. When your family goes on vacation you have one of those automatic switches to turn the lights on at regular intervals, so naturally the anthropologist sees that the power varies in a regular way (and could even find a mathematical function to describe it). When your family's at home (say, during the summer), on the other hand, the power consumption is erratic, seemingly random with all your comings and goings (outdoor activities, home repair, household appliances, etc.).

The way many scientists interpret data these days, the anthropologist might interpret the regularity to indicate an intelligence at work (or at least a kind of order) when you're on vacation, but no intelligence when you're home! So if he were asked when you are at home, he might give you the exact opposite of what is actually the case.

Of course, he could tell the truth, if he included more information in his research: say, by observing your comings and goings from your home.

This backward result is an inseparable part of the nature of science. The great virtue of science is that we can see all kinds of new things if we methodologically limit our considerations. I wouldn't be a scientist if I didn't believe it to be a very powerful type of human knowledge—but it is very limited. Notice in the example that the scientist only draws from a narrow amount of information, excluding other, non-quantitative data. With the limited amount of information, it is no surprise that he doesn't arrive at the full truth in his conclusions.

In general, if we insist that only those things exist that we can measure (put a number on) that we can deal with scientifically, then there's no wonder we conclude that the most important things at life don't exist!

Science generalizes from regularities. It doesn't attempt to explain particular events in themselves, but only particular events as part of a larger, overarching pattern. But intelligences act in concrete situations in light of particular facts; these particulars are necessarily excluded from science's limited scope. Scientific generalizations necessarily exclude at least one intelligence: the scientist's. So is it any surprise that science excludes other intelligences?

Anthony Rizzi, to whom I owe a great intellectual debt, discusses chance in a way that highlights the constricted considerations inherent in science:

Chance is the intersection of two independent lines of causality. If an asteroid is set on a path by an explosion somewhere far from our solar system that ends by intersecting the path of the earth, which was independently set on its path by another event, one calls it chance. In the empiriometric system of Newtonian physics, it can be thought of as initial conditions on the equations of motion. Take a simpler but, in principle, equivalent case. Think of two balls on a pool table. they will only hit if given certain velocities and starting positions. If they hit, the fact that they hit is what we call chance in the true sense. In such a case there is no cause in the system (pool table plus balls). There is no being in the system that can be considered responsible for the collision. hence, it appears as an irrational element. Even in this case, however, as one can readily see from the principle of causality, there must be a cause. In the case of our pool ball, someone shot one ball at the other. In the case of the asteroid, God [ultimately] set the initial conditions. Hence, even in the most extreme possible ontological case, chance is a relative term. Absolute chance is a complete irrationality: being coming from non-being.

Darwinism (as Dawkins calls evolution) relies on random mutations for the genetic novelty on which natural selection works. As we've seen, randomness or chance is always relative to the limits of one's considerations: a larger, more encompassing frame can always include the explanation. The scientific theory of Darwinism (properly speaking) says nothing about the cause of the mutations behind genetic novelty, but only that it can't speak of them. Only when Darwinism becomes an unscientific ideology does it arrogate to itself the denial of causation.

Darwinism, like any scientific theory, casts a very broad, but coarse net. Its failure to capture the slippery eel of intelligence indicates nothing about the presence or absence of intelligence.

Anthony Rizzi, The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century (Baton Rouge: IAP Press, 2004), 256.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Providence and Chance

For my bio class I've been investigating Darwinism and I promised to write something about my explorations. I present some preliminary conclusions here.

Now I need to warn you that my results are a bit unsatisfying to a compulsive contrarian like me. Yes, I'm proposing a way that Darwinism and Providence are compatible. But I think this explanation is a little different from the usual hand-wavy, quasi-philosophic incantations that accompany such apologetics. The argument rests purely in ordinary non-sectarian reason (assuming from religion only the definitions of its terms). The upshot is that the conclusion refrains from shuffling religion off to "the kiddie table," that is, to its own "magisterial realm" completely divorced from the visible, real world.1

The Christian (and I surmise traditional Jewish) idea of Providence is God's complete and ultimate control over every single event in His creation: strictly speaking THERE IS NO CHANCE:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will.2

Modern science invokes chance when a system involves too many complications to treat in detail or with generality. The classic example is tossing a coin: a physicist could model all the classical mechanics of the process, but there are too many uncertainties in measurement of boundary conditions to predict outcome with any accuracy, so he just treats it as a fifty-fifty chance of each side landing up.

In other words, science invokes chance to express ignorance of causality.3

So my basic point is that the "random" mutations that Darwinians use to "explain" the genetic novelty that natural selection works4 on is no explanation at all, but really just a way of saying "we can't explain the particular events that caused adaptive mutations." Now, I'm not faulting Darwinists for invoking chance, as it is almost certainly impossible to say why a particular cosmic ray struck a particular codon in the DNA of a particular sparrow's germ-line cell to make the species mutate in a special adaptive way. Such are the limits of modern science.5

This is where Providence has an opening to big enough to pilot an aircraft carrier through.6

Of course, some Darwinists will derogate such an explanation as a "God in the gaps" theory. Fine. But labeling an explanation "chance" is no better than labeling it "God." Neither Providence nor chance is a scientific explanation: Providence isn't "scientific" (that is, naturalistic) and chance isn't an explanation.

So despite my visceral reaction against saying it, I have to conclude that Darwinism, as a scientific theory, is not incompatible with Providence.

The Limited Efficacy of Numbers

The problem is when some Darwinists try to extend the reach of science to the domain where science must remain silent. There are permanent limits to scientific methodology, especially the quantitative.7 What's problematic is the claim that because we can't scientifically find a cause then there must be no cause ("chance").8

Atheistic Darwinists have completely over-reached when they invoke Darwinism to deny evidence of design in creation and thus of the reality of its Creator.9

This over-reach is essentially what Cardinal Schönborn was getting at when he clarified his July 7 New York Times op-ed:

[N]eo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science.

The key word phrase is "absolutely unguided." The touchstone of modern science is measurement. Science can no more speak definitively of absolutely everything than it can measure absolutely everything. One can certainly hypothesize that the universe is infinite, for example, but such an assertion can never be scientifically confirmed.

The Panda's Thumb discussion thought-provokingly flagged the Cardinal's clarification as inconsistent with the op-ed. Among the sentences highlighted:

Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

What might have annoyed them is the phrase "overwhelming evidence... in biology." On the surface there does seem to be an inconsistency: on the one hand, the Cardinal is saying there's overwhelming evidence for design in biology and on the other hand he's saying that scientists can validly say there's no evidence of design.

The difference turns on what one means by "biology."

On the one hand, the design in nature is evident to anyone who looks at the order in the natural world with an open mind: the merest child spontaneously asks who made the world.10 Biology, in this broad, traditional sense, can't help but see design.

On the other hand, biology—like everything else these days—is following physics in becoming uniformly quantitative. Concentrating purely on quantity strips the world of the living enfleshment of qualities.11 This is not to say that quantities are not important (could I be a physicist and believe that?), but simply that they don't suffice to explain the world completely. It is biology in this narrow, quantitative sense that is blind to order and design. After all, how does one reduce to mere numbers a multi-faceted, metaphysical reality like order12?

So the problem is not the scientific theory of Darwinism; the problem is taking Darwinism to be a complete, comprehensive explanation of life in general, and human life in particular. As far as religion is concerned, Darwinism is not a wide-ranging wolf, but a yipping yard-dog.

Conventional wisdom would say that science is master of the visible world but might gratuitously grant religion a small fiefdom of reality. What I'm saying is that science (Darwinian) has a small kingdom that poses no threat to the very real and sizable domain that religion owns outright. There is a frontier between the two that science is impotent to cross—whether or not it can see it. That Darwinists might "deign" to tolerate religion is like believing the fantastic claims of the businessman in The Little Prince to own unreachable planets.

Why the Popular Mistrust?

Scientists assure us Darwinism is scientifically true, but with all their equivocations (one example discussed here) it's hard not to suspect there's an extra-scientific agenda lurking in the background, especially when you've got Doctors Gould and Dawkins weilding Darwin as a club for atheism.

Darwinian friends, let's be reasonable here. If this sort of evangelizing atheistic Darwinists—the kind that superciliously affix "Darwin" amphibian logos to their cars— misrepresent Darwinism, then why aren't "scientific" proponents of Darwinism evangelizing just as sincerely against these people's misconception that Darwinism supports atheism as they are for teaching Darwinism in schools? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe that teaching Darwinism in public schools is non-sectarian?

To swallow that fish-story would really require "blind" faith.

The Deeper Lesson

Gould, Dawkins & Company insinuate that if God's effects aren't scientifically measurable, then He isn't real. That's the real danger: failing to realize that science is not the last word on absolutely everything. To see only the magnified shadow is to make the Darwinian mouse that casts it your master. Don't grant atheistic evolutionists that power.

As great as modern science is, it has very real limits—limits that all of us, scientists and citizens, disregard at the cost of our freedom.


1. Cf. Gould's "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA).

2. Mt 10:29, cf. Lk 12:6.

3. For the philosophically minded, chance is the intersection of two otherwise independent lines of causality (Aristotle). You go to the market and happen to run into a friend. Neither of you coordinated the meeting. There was no interaction between the lines of causality: they are independent. "Chance" doesn't explain the meeting, but can only express our ignorance of the cause. Western civilization, and indeed science itself, is built on the belief that everything in the visible world has a cause, whether we can know it or not. To define chance as the cause is to resort to pure irrationality.

4. As you can read in any biology textbook, natural selection only eliminates individuals from populations, but doesn't explain where the genetic variation/novelty came from in the first place. Random mutation is the empiriological explanation for genetic novelty. You can think of the gene pool of a population as precisely a pool of genes or characteristics. Natural selection only siphons off and disposes of some of the pool, narrowing it, not expanding it. Random mutation is what causes the pool to broaden, according to Darwinists.

5. What I am faulting them for is saying that chance is an explanation.

6. This is not to say that God sticks his finger into the universe everytime there's a genetic mutation, but that every mutation is part of his Design from all eternity; there need be no break in the self-consistency of the physical universe. On the other hand this doesn't necessitate deism, cf. Jn 1 and Col 1. See also J. Pelikan's chapter on the historical Christian belief in Christ as Logos and Archetype of creation in Jesus Through the Centuries.

7. For example, the ideology called "empiricism" says that only the measureable is real; unfortunately "empiricism" is itself immeasureable.

8. This very same disease afflicts the conventional, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

9. See St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, itself a paraphrase of Wisdom 13. Also the pronouncements of the First Vatican Council.

10. Formally philosphically, the principle of sufficient causality tells us that the maker of a thing can have no less perfections than the thing he makes, so whatever perfections anything in the universe has must be attributable to its Creator, and primarily these are the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, Unity, etc.; but also the rational perfections of human beings: intelligence and will.

11. For more on qualitative (non-ID) biology, see the Nature Institute.

12. Negentropy (negative entropy) is a likely candidate, but is only analogous to order. Information is another proxy, and the attempt to equate order with information can have validity, but limited.

Christoph Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times (July 7, 2005).

John L. Allen, Jr., "Follow up news: Schönborn and evolution," National Catholic Reporter (August 5, 2005 Vol. 4, No. 43).

Stephen M. Barr, "The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded," First Things 145 (August/September 2004): 25-31.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Unforgivable Sin

I did wrong.

The Chronicle of Higher Education article I mentioned previously said "we shouldn't teach students about intelligent design" (emphasis added).

Without thinking of what I was doing, I made copies of this article that I distributed to my class for discussion. SO I HAVE TRANSGRESSED THE ARTICLE'S INJUNCTION. May the politically correct powers that be forgive me!

If this weren't a private school, I would expect an ACLU lawyer to haul me before a judge—and not for a wedding (unless of course the lawyer were a man and the case were across the border in Massachusetts. That's the only kind of marriage the ACLU seems to like nowadays. Ugh!).

PLEASE forgive me, PC Powers!

Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazan, and James Trefil, "Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum," Chronicle of Higher Education (September 2, 2005), B6-B8. [subscription required]

Monday, October 03, 2005

Judicial Irony

It's interesting that the Reuters story on the Miers nomination, "Bush pick for high court outrages conservatives," mentions Abe Fortas:

Manny Miranda, head of a conservative coalition called The Third Branch Conference, said Miers was "the most unqualified choice" for the high court since Lyndon Johnson tried to make Abe Fortas chief justice in 1968.

Fortas's name came up in the discussions over the judicial filibuster. He is the only Supreme Court nominee ever filibustered, though it was a bipartisan effort without support of either party's leadership.

The Republicans are still itching to pull the trigger (the poorly named "nuclear option") on a Democratic judicial filibuster, an opportunity much more readily available had Bush nominated someone in the mold of Thomas or Scalia, both of whom he has explicitly praised. But judging from initial reaction, it sounds that in the impossible event Harriet Miers were to draw a filibuster, it would be more likely to come from conservatives rather than liberals.

It's hard to know which side of the fence Bush is playing. The line between genius and sheer stupidity is often very fine.

Steve Holland, "Bush pick for high court outrages conservatives," Reuters (October 3, 2005, 1:00pm).