Category Archives: Science

Robert Barron and the nature of the world

In a review of a pop. movie, Robert Barron writes that

The Revenant is unremittingly honest in its portrayal of people caught in the awful reality of this fallen world, which is marked through and through by violence, suspicion, hatred, revenge, and the constant struggle to survive in the context of an indifferent nature. For the denizens of this universe, the correct mottos are indeed “kill or be killed” and “love your friends but hate your enemies” and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

If there is no God, as Fitzgerald suggests to one of his underlings, survival at any cost, the law of the jungle, is the supreme law. But if there is a dimension that transcends nature, if there is a God who provides a moral compass and presides over human affairs, then one can let go of vengeance and seek a higher justice. The film ends just as this consciousness of God dawns on Glass.

This characterization of a world without a certain conception of God echoes early naturalists’ descriptions of the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’, characterized almost completely by zero-sum competition.

Yet, the actual natural world is characterized by both competition and cooperation. Both of these dynamics are engendered by more basic variables in the natural world. Although some have thought aspects of cooperation more difficult to explain than aspects of competition, my guess is that this is a bias, perhaps created by Christian notions of man’s (and the world’s) fallen nature.

What are some examples of cooperation? It’s all around us.

Multicellular creatures function because they have a bunch of different cells cooperating together. The cooperation dynamic is occurring basically whenever you see a multicellular organism.

Cooperation and altruism, more broadly speaking, are widespread in nature, found most often between kin (prominent examples include many parent-child relationships, or ant or bee colonies).

Yet, symbiotic (and similar kinds of) relationships outside of kin are also quite common.

The point here is that the natural world is not simply ‘kill or be killed’, or what have you. Indeed, even the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ was intended to limit a spiralling cycle of violence. Retribution had to be proportional to the offense.

Two significant points of Jesus’ teaching to let go of anger and hatred are that it improves a) one’s society, but b) one’s own life. The primary person affected by one’s anger (and so on – various negative emotions) is oneself. These dual insights are what make his teaching so powerful – for the individual who adopts it in his own life, and for a society that figures out how to implement it.

Coming together as a group, people can recognize a), and put into place various societal measures (laws, customs, and so on) that lead to an improvement in the mutual society.

Regardless, one can put into action b) in ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The point here is that Jesus’ teaching, at least in significant part, isn’t dependent on ultimate retribution by God, but rather by more basic psychological and sociological insights.

Similarly, cooperation in nature or between men makes sense in many cases – it comes about by the same basic dynamics that can lead to competition.

Historical trends and Christian eschatology

What are some of the historical trends over the last 2,000 years as relates to Christian eschatology?

For all of these things, I am looking in the long-term and overall. These trends haven’t all been constant.

1. and 2. Communications and knowledge. Basically, the ability to communicate has increased. If humans are the ‘body of Christ’, then that body has added important aspects of its nervous system. Of course, a lot of the new communications is noise or spread of falsehoods or ‘misdirection’, yet if you were to think of humans as a super-organism on the likes of an ant colony or bee colony (the latter being a traditional Christian motif for understanding human relations), one would expect for a kind of communication system to develop along with the organism.

Combine this with humans having increased significantly their understanding of cause-and-effect systems in the universe. This has led to various things, such as making the idea of humans as stewards of the Earth (and even the entire universe) something that sounds much more plausible now as opposed to 2,000 years ago, or the idea of physical bodies that are immortal more plausible.

These changes in plausibility of core ideas related to Christianity weren’t just coincidental to Christianity – the rise of science was caused by Christian institutions (such as the various universities), Christian men (most of whom in the early, most difficult stage of science were devoutly pious), and specifically Christian motivations (such as wanting to understand the mind of God better, believing that God would create a basically reasonable physical universe, and so on).

Countering this, you have a seeming decrease in the output:input ratio for important scientific progress. Simply put, the average scientist seems to be achieving much, much less than the average scientist 150 years ago (indeed, the decrease in impact of a given scientist seems to track the rise in secularism). Nonetheless, a good case can be made that significant scientific progress is still being made, and science has now become a global (instead of almost entirely European) process.

3. Rise of Christianity. The idea that Christianity would become a global phenomenon was not in evidence in the first century A.D. Indeed, the first disciples of Jesus of Nazareth didn’t even know most of the land mass in the world that existed. The idea that Christianity even could reach ‘every tribe and every nation’ was, practically speaking, impossible when they were given the ‘great commission’. Yet, first it expanded around the Mediterranean, then through Europe. Then with the rise of the European explorers, it moved to the Americas and parts of Asia (such as the Philippines). Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, it has continued to expand, in particular in Asia and Africa.

Of course, this has not been a one-sided affair. You also have the rise of secularism (in particular in Europe, but also to a lesser extent in the United States). You also have a parallel rise of Islam (although originally known as a Christian heresy, due to its reliance on Jewish and Christian stories and the recognition of Jesus of Nazareth as a prophet), and the removal of Christians from various parts of the Middle East. Yet, on the whole and overall, we are continuing to see Christianity expanding, both in numbers of adherents and geographical reach.

These are a few trends that might be relevant for a Christian eschatology. Where does that leave us as far as evidence for this or that eschatology?

Conceptual frameworks

Certain concepts are essentially secular in their meaning. That is, there is no God involved.

Now, for example, angels are essentially ‘intellectual’ beings in Christianity. The closest matchup to these in secular concepts is perhaps ‘cognitive’ processes.

So, it is useful to say angels are what in secular concepts would be called certain kinds of cognitive processes. This can illuminate the concept of angels, or it can help in communication between secularists and Christians, say.

Having said that, it is not useful to say that the concept ‘cognitive processes’ is adequate to the concept of angels. This is because there is no God ‘in’ or associated with the former concept.

If one thinks angels are real, then the secular vocabulary is inadequate. What would have to happen is a redefinition of ‘cognitive processes’, in which they are related to God, and so on.

So, much of contemporary, ‘neutral’ discourse is secular. Put another way, if people aren’t talking about God, they’re talking about not-God. Effectively, there isn’t neutral ground, because the Christian God is (supposedly) far-reaching, and causally tied up in everything that has real existence, in a way that makes a difference.

Why does panpsychism seem implausible?

Why does panpsychism – the view that all of the universe (pan-) is in some sense conscious (-psyche) – seem implausible to many Western intellectuals?

I think there are two main reasons.

The first is that they believe that the mind has to do with the brain in particular. Non-mind -> evolution -> brain -> mind. Therefore, consciousness (an aspect of mind) ought to have to do with the brain in particular (or things that are similar to brains – perhaps complex computers), and not with matter in general.

Yet, if panpsychism is construed as consciousness in (at least most of the time) a more structurally simple sense than consciousness associated with brains, then there’s good reason to think the intuition isn’t applicable. I.e, people are confusing intuitions about structural complexity with a metaphysical issue. The brain is complex, but consciousness could be much different from consciousness as we experience it. Therefore, structure like that of a brain may not be required.

The second main reason it seems implausible is a belief that ‘science says’ all matter is non-conscious (except for matter associated with brains or other similarly complex systems). Science in the forms of physics, however, is just a description of cause-and-effect systems. It doesn’t speak to what it is that’s doing the causing in a metaphysical sense.

Panpsychism, in at least some of its forms, postulates that all matter is conscious, but is completely compatible with the cause-and-effect system worked out by, say, contemporary physics (or a hypothetical completed future physics). Conceptually, panpsychism and physics are talking about distinct aspects and therefore (as far as we know) completely compatible. Moreso, one could say they are complementary, as panpsychism fills out what it is that is playing the role in the cause-and-effect systems described by (say) physics.

So, it seems that at least two of the main intuitions against panpsychism are mis-intuitions.

Politics properly applies to science

Politics applies to all organizations (societies, churches, and so on). It is not that one realm is political (what we typically refer to as ‘politics’), and then other areas become politicized. Rather, politics is part-and-parcel of inter-personal human activity.

Therefore, politics is part of the scientific process whenever it becomes inter-personal.

What distinguishes political systems? In one important sense, it is the electorate. My guess is that the defining feature of a polity isn’t the generally-agreed-upon rules by which things are done (although these are important), but rather the character of those within the polity.

In science, the electorate ought to be prioritizing truth, as real science is simply doing one’s best to figure out what the truth is. (While in typical politics, it is the long-term well-being of society that ought to be the principal goal.)

Anyone arguing for this or that view within science has to factor in, anticipate, and take measures to account for, the political aspect. This is not something antithetical to science – rather, it is part of any inter-personal project.

(That is not to say the political aspect can’t be more or less conducive to real science!)

It behooves any scientist to study, understand, and gain practical know-how in this field. Certainly, to understand it better than those for whom truth is a secondary goal. To become a scientist of politics, in addition to a politician, campaign strategist, and so on – as much as this may not suite certain people’s strengths.

Of course, given the proper goal of science, it is entirely appropriate to take issue with people who are not primarily interested in the truth within the scientific enterprise. Due to the increase in careerism, grants, bureaucracy, and so on, they abound – more so than a hundred or two hundred years ago – and it makes the scientific enterprise more difficult. Regardless, if one cares about the truth, then one must account for these and the political processes one finds oneself in.

The impact of evidence

Since all evidence for a view can be denied, ignored, or interpreted away, ought we to give up on evidence?

No. We are willful creatures – yet, evidence has an impact. Evidence cumulatively can have a very large impact. Put another way, there is an epistemic cost to denying, ignoring, or interpreting away evidence.

When looking at whether evidence is important, one can’t just look at extreme or hypothetical cases. It’s possible that someone could deny the moon exists, for example.

Simply put, there are people who are interested in the truth (for whatever reasons), and these people are looking for compelling reasons for this view or that.

It is sometimes difficult to make a compelling case, especially when it requires making sub-cases for multiple other things. Marshaling a significant cohort of evidence, showing how certain metaphysical beliefs make more sense of the available evidence, clearly and cogently drawing out limitations or contradictions in certain lines of thought, and so on, and then effectively communicating this to large numbers of relevant people, is not typically easy or quick – especially when there are entrenched interests that would stand to lose by a given view’s adoption.

Yet, it seems to be one of the most important things one can do, if one believes a given theory to be important and true.

Evidentiary thresholds

There is a cost to evidence + belief combinations. This is to say, although certain evidence can be interpreted away with certain beliefs, there is an epistemic cost to doing so – it becomes less plausible.

When people get to a certain point, they can look at another belief set, to see which belief set has less epistemic cost to it – which is more plausible.

Once the evidence + belief epistemic cost outweighs some alternate, we can say a person arrives at an evidentiary threshold.

Needless to say, various non-epistemic factors affect people’s evidentiary thresholds – for example, they might have money or status tied to a certain belief being true, and so dishonestly downplay certain evidence.

In one’s own case, if one is interested in the truth, one ought to weight things accordingly, as it is easy to allow these factors to influence our own decisions.

Evidentiary thresholds can be galvanic. They can push one to find more or different evidence, hence changing the equation, or push one to carefully review implicit or explicit beliefs related to the evidence, to see if there is something wrong there.

Technological advances that might happen

There is a large amount of hype about scientific or technological advances – most science reporting is actually a form of science fiction, where the purported advances never happen. We know this by looking back at past reporting, and seeing what percentage occurred as predicted. Very few.

Yet, there are some things much-talked about that do seem to have a significant chance of occurring, and do seem to have the potential for a significant impact. Two in particular are

1. Incrementally improving self-driving capabilities for cars.

2. More engaging or quicker learning methods.

In both cases, these are already happening, and the technologies for making them happen moreso are largely already here or near at hand. It’s more a question of doing it, and working through the bugs.

Both of these areas have very significant consequences.

Take 1. Self-driving capabilities have already been expanded, even in cheaper cars, with automatic transmissions and cruise control. The marginal innovations are largely being seen, currently, in luxury cars and specialized (industrial) automobiles – but it seems reasonable that these will eventually end up in wider usage.

Because much of the increases in self-driving capabilities are dependent on software, and because computer processing and memory are increasing significantly, it is reasonable to expect these capabilities to continue to increase as long as the computer factors are getting better.

It is difficult to think through exactly what consequences fully self-driving cars would have. Consider taxation. A large amount of municipal revenues comes from parking tickets and speeding tickets. Self-driving cars will probably not need to park in places where it will cost money, and won’t speed as much.

Of course, a fully self-driving car may not happen. This is because 98% of what cars do is fairly ‘easy’, programmatically, but the other 2% is difficult to handle by a computer program. Rather, what seems clear is that cars will get incrementally more self-driving capabilities.

2. is a fulcrum or magnifier technology. It can significantly increase other breakthroughs, by increasing the rates at which people learn relevant things.

A few examples of these are Google, StackExchange, and the Khan Academy. These are all already having a significant impact on the speed at which people can learn things.

Of course, at any given time, society is going both ways on various indicators of well-being. For example, better learning technologies, but also more ways to distract people with long-term sub-optimal entertainment. It is difficult, in the midst of things, to see which aspect will have the bigger effect in the long run.

Scientific methods

One interesting consequence of the scientific method being at its most basic to simply ‘try to figure out the truth’, is that it can encompass seemingly contradictory methods.

For example, in some cases, being passionate about a view, and working through seemingly contradictory evidence, could lead to a breakthrough. In other cases, being dispassionate, and instead carefully following where the evidence seems to lead, could lead to a breakthrough.

As far as tools for finding the truth, different dispositions, strategies, techniques, and so on will probably work in different situations. The trick is figuring out which situation one is in.

One form of evidence

One form of evidence that something is right about a belief is technologies based on that belief (i.e., based on that theory).

Christians ought to, therefore, focus on psychological and sociological technologies. They have, of course, but they don’t talk about it this way. They ought to do studies, figure out how effective they are, publish the results, experiment with new forms, and so on. To some extent, this is being done.

It should be a primary focus, because it will help them to 1) recognize what they have right, and 2) get better at getting things right.