Science has been losing its mojo. Two generations ago, scientists were revered as truth tellers and bringers of progress. Today, science is often viewed as fallible, obscure and, in some cases, untrustworthy. Many factors are blamed for the falling star of science including failures in science education, religious superstition and broader social changes. Yet much of the problem rests with science itself.
“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Walt Kelly 1970
Dr. Kraus, in his article in Nautilus, has given us a marvelous recap of 50 years of theoretical physics – a dramatic tale of spilled GUTs, twisted strings, branes and broken symmetries. What a strange world we live in! Under those nested layers of increasingly inaccessible explanations, what will we find? More layers? More puzzles? An infinite recursion of theory upon theory? This has to be a discouraging time in the field. Even Stephen Hawking gave up on the TOE – “…there is no picture or theory-independent concept of reality.” ( )
There may be no solution to these condundrums. There are features of physics as well as mathematics that have defeated the best minds for more than a century. Some of these features are paradoxical in ways that more data and better math will not be able to overcome. Perhaps we need to learn to embrace paradox and admit that our reality and existence is, in some sense, truly miraculous. This does not mean we should stop trying to pierce the veil, but it does call for humility and the admission that we are, after all, merely finite human beings. And maybe, after all is said and done, we will find that “love is the answer.”
Sexuality seems to be a simple binary characteristic of human and animal physiology. But modern science has begun to unravel some extraordinary complexities in the way male and female physiology and behavior develops, and reveals a wide variety in how individuals experience their sexuality. Many of our cultural ideas about sexuality need to change.
Biologist Stephen J. Gould in 1989 (Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History) theorized that evolution is essentially random, and that if “the tape of life” for evolution were to be rerun, the end result would be entirely different. New research is increasingly challenging that view. Certain evolutionary outcomes have emerged more than once — and some appear to be inevitable. These are not exceptions to the laws of nature, but essential outcomes of mathematical and environmental constraints. Purpose seems to be deeply ingrained in the fabric of life.
Privacy is not a simple concept, as we discussed in our previous post. The moral implications of privacy are complicated — “it depends.” In a spiritual context, privacy, or the illusion of privacy, is an invitation to the temptations to lie, cheat or steal! So how are we to decide between the claims of law enforcement and the claims of the tech industry when it comes to the Bentonville and San Bernadino cases? The answer boils down to a simple question – what do you fear most? (more…)
In the continuing downward trend in the civility of discourse, we are confronted daily with accusations and counter accusations of fake news. Perhaps the truth will catch up eventually (see: The Challenge of the Post-Truth Era) and the media circus will deflate. In the meantime, it is useful to ask what the spiritual implications are of the ongoing fascination with and continued promulgation of fake news.
Emmanual Swedenborg (1788-1872) would characterize fake news as a form of adultery – taking something positive and useful and perverting or soiling it, much as adultery perverts and soils a marriage relationship with betrayal. He acknowledges that for some people, this is enjoyable, but rejoinds that “the thrill of hatred and adultery, viewed in itself, is no more than a delight in excrement; and this is what it turns into in the other life.” Secrets of Heaven (A.C.1096). In other words, the appeal of fake news corresponds spiritually to excrement and a fascination with excrement. As he reported from one of his spiritual experiences, “Sometimes there has also been the odour of excrement, and when I asked where this came from I was told that it did so from the hell where adulterers live.” (A.C.4631)
Pope Francis, in a December interview, admonished the media to be “very clear, very transparent,” noting that promulgating fake news is “probably the biggest damage a news organization can cause”. He similarly likened the fascination with negative stories that smear reputations or promote fake news to “the sickness of coprophilia”, e.g. the abnormal interest and pleasure in feces and defecation.
The admonishments of two spiritual leaders, one from the 18th century and one from the 21st century, are clear. We all need to be careful to avoid and to confront the contamination of fake news, lest our own thoughts become soiled. And, of course, wash your hands frequently!
In 2016, two high profile police investigations triggered major fights over privacy with two of the world’s biggest tech companies, Apple and Amazon. In both cases, one a terrorist attack, the other a murder, investigators requested access to data from digital devices potentially relevant to the investigation. The Tech companies refused the court orders secured by investigators on grounds that this was an undue intrusion into personal privacy. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s worth taking a closer look. (more…)
A new article in Humans and Nature by Christopher Boehm suggests that, contrary to the position of many strict Darwinians, evolution may not be random. “I propose a kind of purpose that could reside inside of, and not outside of, evolutionary process.” As an example, he points to purposeful human decisions that have influenced evolution. “Purposeful decisions enhanced altruistic tendencies, just as they reduced bullying and helped to domesticate us as a species.”
This article is a good update on the relevant arguments, but in my view it hardly goes far enough in admitting the powerful role that purpose plays throughout the entire evolutionary dynamic. In a previous post I wrote: “If, in fact, natural selection answers the question of the development of empathy and perhaps even of religious impulses, what is the role of religion? On the other hand, is it not also possible to see the unfolding of empathy and the religious impulse through natural selection as an affirmation of God’s continuing and divine influence – as evidence for God, rather than a conventional, materialist refutation? Rather than being a random process, the emergence of empathy is the “coming-into-being” of a spiritual potential contained within creation.”
On November 16, the Oxford Dictionary announced it had chosen “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. After Brexit, the recent US election and the increasingly isolated and polarized nature of online communities where fake news stories get equal play or better than the real ones (see: Buzzfeed Facebook Probe), the choice seems entirely appropriate. This forum has posted 13 articles on the difficulty of knowing what is true and an extended series on the challenges of being rational. So perhaps being “post-truth” is no big deal? Nothing could be further from the truth! We ignore true facts of our experience, our science, and our spiritual teachings at our peril. The fate of the world, and the fate of our souls, hangs in the balance.
Human beings are often credited with intuition, the capacity of knowing something without being able to explain where the knowledge comes from. Intuitions are inherently inscrutable, even to ourselves. Interestingly, as Artificial Intelligence researchers have tackled the challenges of interrogating big data with “deep learning” algorithms, they are finding the algorithms great at scouring through masses of data to make good predictions, but programmers can’t explain how the algorithms reach their conclusions. Like their human creators, algorithms are becoming inscrutable. <MORE>
Imagine 100 monkeys typing (presumably randomly) on 100 typewriters for a limitless period of time: Eventually, hidden somewhere in the seemingly endless streams of nonsense, they would produce all of the works of Shakespeare. This popular thought experiment has been around for more than a century (longer than typewriters!) and demonstrates interesting features of both randomness and infinity. It is a useful starting point for discussing unique problems now being encountered with large data sets.
I’m a big believer in science and the significant benefits it has brought to human civilization. However, I’m also a skeptic when it comes to the “science knows all” attitude that has been so prevalent in modern culture. Ancient cultures and practices have great wisdom to share, as well. We should be willing to question the conventional modern “scientific” mythologies — and be open to the possibility of finding truth in ancient wisdom.
On August 29th, the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ (AWG) reported its summary of evidence and provisional recommendations to the 35th International Geological Congress. They conclude that this new epoch has replaced the Holocene (which started approximately 12,000 years ago), and is characterized by the dominant influence of human activity on the earth’s geology and climate.
Recently, I’ve wondered about the way humans relate to the things of the material world – including each other. There are two ways of approaching these relationships. One way focuses on the value the relationship provides to the human – what is the good that accrues to me from my relationship with that person, or that thing? The second approach is to consider the value, if any, of the person or thing independent of its usefulness to me – the value of the thing-in-itself. The first could be called the instrumental value and the second the intrinsic value. I’d like to suggest a thought experiment: What if humanity refocused its collective attention away from the instrumental value of things and people to their intrinsic value?
My wife and I have a dear friend who was traveling recently to Jerusalem. She asked if we might have a prayer for her to put on the wailing wall. This seemed a great opportunity to express our feelings about the state of the world and our hopes for it:
A Prayer for the World
Oh God, Oh God, why have we forsaken you?
We fill the earth with enmity and make waste of creation, often in your name’s sake, for the love of self, of power, and of dominion.
Please lead us, instead, to a state of right thinking, where all of us, Christian, Muslin, Jew, followers of all faiths, or no faith, realize that we are all your children, interconnected and interdependent, living on such a very small planet for such a very short time.
Help us learn to stop committing violence against one another and against nature, and to become fully human in the image of your love and beauty, that we may each and all thrive in blessedness and peace, now and forever more.
In your name we pray, eternal and everlasting God, Lord of life and love, Amen.
(image of the wailing wall)
Parents, philosophers, theologians and educators for millennia have grappled with the challenge of teaching morality to young people. Many great thinkers have proposed theories, models, practices and programs designed to instill virtue, yet people young and old consistently fail to live up to the morals their elders promote. Microsoft recently experienced this phenomenon in relation to artificial intelligence. As reported in the New York Times, Microsoft launched a self-learning chatbot program named Tay, designed to emulate a 19-year old female, into the Twitter-sphere. Within 24 hours, the program had to be removed as it had been quickly corrupted by exposure to anti-moral attacks that turned Tay into a “sexist, Holacaust-denying supremacist” (according to The Week, April 8 at p.18). It turns out that the company your chatbot keeps is important to its moral development. True, the program is not really a sentient human and has no morals per se, but the social learning the incident demonstrates is a reminder of how powerful social influences can be on the impressionable. Moreover, while the influence of social networks, e.g. family and communities, on human moral development has always been apparent, modern technology powerfully amplifies these influences in ways that we may not appreciate.
We’ve known for decades that junk food containing lots of palate-pleasing calories and little nutritional value is bad for human health. It turns out the same is true for plants! Applied fertilizers and pesticides promote vigorous plant growth, but undermine plant health and nutrition, further depleting the nutritional content of our food supply. (see: Junk Food is Bad for Plants Too). There is a universal life lesson here as well: Our modern world is awash with interesting and captivating amusements and entertainments – the equivalent of junk food for the mind. If we cede too much of our time and attention to the easy gratifications they afford, we gain very little nutritional content for our hungry and troubled souls.
My nephew Cody and his wife Natalie began a food blog called the Gantzery about a year ago focused on healthy and nutritious recipes, but with a strong personal flavor. It often contains interesting philosophical remarks. This week, these remarks asked about one’s “personal lens” in how we approach the world in the search for knowledge and understanding, and it inspired some deep personal reflection. What is my lens? My Big TOE!
Photo courtesy of The Gantzery. (more…)
As noted in the Economist (2-27-16, p71), Michael Desai and his colleagues at Harvard (article published in Nature) report that “Sex Speeds Adaptation by Altering the Dynamics of Molecular Evolution.” The findings arise from Desai’s research with yeast, which reproduces both sexually and asexually. This feature has allowed Desai et al to experiment with the evolution of mutations in yeast populations that are limited to either one or the other reproductive modes.
Desai Lab, Harvard
In January, we reported on research at Stanford and Berkeley that verifies what we already know – there are physiological and psychological benefits from spending time in nature. This topic has gotten excellent humorous treatment in the youtube series Nature Rx. With more than 2.5 million viewers, Nature Rx offers brilliant and effective satire directed at the omnipresent medical ads with hyper-sentimental messages in staged nature settings. Yet its message is fundamentally positive – experience in nature is an excellent remedy for what some commenters refer to as “nature deficit disorder” – the stress and anxiety we experience in out modern, human, and largely artificial world.
The idea of actually prescribing nature may now be taking hold, as reported in Children and Nature. With inspiration from The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, medical centers in northern Oregon will soon give prescriptions, known as Rx: 4 Play. With a doctor’s permission, people will get an Oregon Coast Pass good for one year of free parking at state and national parks on the North Coast.
Imagine the long term health benefits and reduced medical costs that would result from a nationwide movement to increase our collective experience of nature.