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.”
The 2017 FQXi essay contest is underway, with nearly 200 entries on the topic “Wandering Towards a Goal: How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?” George Gantz has submitted an essay, titled “The How and The Why of Intention,” that explores the questions of emergence, causation and intention. How one answers these questions depends on a metaphysical premise — is creation random or purposeful? Mr. Gantz argues that this question is logically undecidable and beyond empirical determination, but that there is strong evidence of a cosmic intentionality flowing through the universe. He concludes that this flow is love. The universe loves us, and we should love it back, with humility and gratitude for its many gifts, including the gift of our imperfect and necessarily limited empirical understanding. Mr. Gantz’s previous FQXi essays include The Tip of the Spear (which won 4th place) and The Hole at the Center of Creation.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring the genetic connections between modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) and other offshoots of the human evolutionary tree, including the Neanderthal and Denisovan lines, all of which are now extinct. Early speculations had presumed that modern humans had wiped out the inferior evolutionary lines. Yet studies confirmed that modern, non-African humans carry DNA unique to the Neanderthal genome, proving that inter-breeding occurred. A recent study shows that these Neanderthal genes continue to play significant roles in modern human biology and provide added diversity to the modern human genome. They are not simply lost remnants, but play important roles in the incredibly complex interplay of genes, gene expression and consequent biological functioning. While our species may have outcompeted other branches of the human evolutionary tree, it is now also clear that we also collaborated, at least to the extent of breeding children together. That inter-breeding has brought benefits to our species – something for which we should be grateful! As we reported previously, the myth of Neanderthal’s as brutish and cognitively deficient has been transformed in recent decades. They appear to have had art, ritual and religion. Any by some accounts, they may have been more honest and more benevolent than our own species today.
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!
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.”
George Gantz, director of this Forum on the Integration of Science and Spirituality, has begun writing for Peace News, the online newsletter for Promoting Enduring Peace, headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. The focus of his writing will be on the intersection of science and culture and the need to work for positive social change that facilitates human thriving in its broadest terms.
His first article is titled: Preparations for Nuclear War Mark the Beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch.
On Being, the NPR weekly program hosted by Krista Tippett, recently broadcast two interviews with leading secular thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow, an eminent physicist and writer, and Alain de Botton, an English Philosopher and founder of The School of Life. Mlodinow explicitly believes in physical determinism – that everything flows from past physical states in conformity with the laws of physics, and that the universe is fundamentally random. Yet he also finds a place for meaning and value in human life, and Tippett’s interview draws out the close parallels between secular and religious perspectives on living well. The conversation leaned in to what the Celts might call a “thin place” where the veil between the physical and the spiritual becomes translucent. De Botton was raised in an atheist household and has no religious beliefs, however he has concluded that religion and religious practice have much to offer. His vision for The School of Life is to create a religious-like community for non-believers. De Botton is explicitly committed to human ethical and moral development and credits religion, at its best, for its unique role in affirming and sustaining through ritual, tradition and community the very values to which the secular world should aspire.
A recent article in Nautilus explores some of the latest scientific findings on the benefits of silence. What’s interesting is that most of the findings were inadvertent – researchers were studying the effects and of sounds and music on behaviors and brain function, with “silence” being the control. But silence was found to offer significant benefits of its own including reduced stress, increased generation of neurons and improved self-knowledge. As author Daniel Gross puts it: “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace <the brain> to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”
Of course, this is hardly news to anyone familiar with meditation, prayer and other traditions embracing silence that trace back to the roots of human culture. One needs quiet to be able to hear “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19, verse 12) that guides our thoughts and actions in the right path.
Incidentally, if you are craving silence, you might consider traveling to Finland, which has adopted a new branding campaign with silence at its heart. As the author notes: “In a loud world, silence sells. Finland saw that it was possible to quite literally make something out of nothing.
The Empirical Standard of Knowing – Faith Misplaced by George Gantz helped set the tone as the opening presentation for the 2016 Annual Conference of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) on Star Island, New Hampshire. The topic of the conference was “How Can we Know? Co-Creating Knowledge in Perilous Times” and more than twenty papers, dialogues and workshops were presented during the week-long event. The key theme of the paper is that empirical science does not, and cannot, “know it all”. Faith is at the foundation of science as well as religion – and empirical and spiritual modes of knowing are both required for a full understanding of creation and life. The introduction discusses the broad arc of human civilization and offers an overview of the problem of knowing. Subsequent sections discuss the mysteries of space and time, entropy and emergence, quantum physics as well as math and logic. As stated in the conclusion: “There are levels of knowing that are inaccessible from within the physical and mathematical constructs of empirical science. The universe has awakened to itself… At the pinnacle of this awakening is our human consciousness – reflective observer of the world and self, the anchor for quantum physics and the purposeful end-state of evolutionary complexity.”
George Gantz to present “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced” at the 2016 IRAS Conference
The IRAS (Institute on Religion in an Age of Science) Conferences have been held at Star Island, New Hampshire, since 1954. The 2016 Conference title is “How Can We Know? Co-creating Knowledge in Perilous Times”, and George Gantz has been selected to present a paper on “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced.” His proposal has also been awarded the Booth-Shapley Fellowship as one of the best proposals to this year’s conference. IRAS is a society of natural scientists, social scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, theologians and others who seek to provide a forum for discussing issues of relevance to religion in an age of science. The 2016 Conference will be held June 25 to July 2, 2016. For information see IRAS Conference.
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.
For virtually all of my adult life, I had heard that the human appendix is an evolutionary vestige that no longer served a useful purpose. When it gets infected, as sometimes happens, you just take it out. In addition, I had always heard that the purpose of fat cells was energy storage for the lean times. Other than that, fat is bad. Recent scientific discoveries have revealed how very wrong this conventional wisdom has been – a different kind of medical reversal.
In the past decade, research has confirmed that that the appendix plays a key role in the development of the human immune system, and in serving as a repository for good gut bacteria. When dysentery or flu depletes the micro biome of the human gut, the appendix can help re-establish it once the illness has run its course. Perhaps more significantly, lymph tissue accumulates in the appendix after birth and helps train the immune system and its systemic response to threats. It is remarkable to realize that these functions were undetected just a few years ago. References: What Does the Appendix Do?, Global Healing Center (2015); Gut – The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Enders and Ender (2014)
As for fat tissue, it turns out that fat tissue is a complex human organ and is a rich source of stem cells – more so even than bone marrow. Stem cells have the ability to divide and grow into a wide variety of tissue types. Fat stem cells have been shown to grow into bone, cartilage or muscle tissue, and researchers are now exploring the opportunity to treat injuries or damage in these tissues with a patient’s own fat tissue. This is certainly a lot deeper story than the one reflected in conventional wisdom. See: Fat Cells Mend Bone, Cartilage and Muscle, Science News (2016).
These are good reminders that the truth is not always what we think it is.
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.
This may not come as a surprise, since most of us appreciate the good feelings we experience when enjoying nature, but scientific research is now validating physiological benefits correlated with these good feelings. In a series of studies at Stanford University (reported in the NY Times and elsewhere), Gregory Bratman and his Team found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic. More specifically, walking along the highway resulted in higher blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex (a key part of the brain involved in mood) and a greater broodiness. Volunteers who strolled along quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, reduced dwelling on negative thoughts and less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex. A study at UC Berkeley led by Jennifer Stellar, has also found that the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality generate positive emotions and lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. Sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and depression.
Enjoying nature is not just a self-indulgence – it is a healing experience.
This week AEON magazine published a provocative article by Michael Schulson suggesting (half-heartedly) that we might consider government regulations in responding to websites and apps that are designed to promote compulsion or addiction, just as we do drugs or casinos. Schulson traces the manipulative tricks of Internet designers to the experiments of B.F.Skinner, who found that pigeons facing variable timing of rewards “went nuts… One pigeon hit the Plexiglas 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.” He suggests that our individual battles with legions of savvy, well-funded Internet companies is “not a fair fight”, and yet, as we do in gambling or drugs, we blame the addicts and not the purveyors. Can we rely on industry auto-regulation to help us, or do we need government regulations? In our series on The Human Race and the Technology Race, we focused on the only realistic option —personal self-regulation, and we offered the four “A’ tips: AVOID; ADOPT; ADAPT; ADEPT.
Brian Nosek is a professor of psychology and Executive Director of the Open Science Project dedicated to improving the transparency and credibility of science. Earlier this year he and his team reported the results of a project seeking to reproduce 100 psychology studies published in top journals. The results, reported in Science, Nature and this Econtalk podcast, indicated that less than half the findings could be reproduced. According to Nosek, the point is not to critique individual papers but to gauge just how much bias drives publication in psychology. He believes that other scientific fields have the same problem – one analysis found that only 6 of 53 high-profile papers in cancer biology could be reproduced – and new reproducibility efforts are getting underway. Hopefully, the critical self-reflection represented by this effort will spark debate on science research and publication, and greater humility among scientists. For additional posts dealing with the problems of bias, see:
Nathaniel Comfort, in Better Babies – Aeon Magazine, offers an interesting take on the history and current trends in human genetic engineering. The idea has a very long history – back to Plato, even. It took a nasty turn in the 20th century – did you know California had a very active Eugenics (forced sterilization) program well before Hitler? Thankfully neither are in place today, but in the last few decades, new promises are being hyped for designer babies and genetic cures for disease – these are supposed to be just around the corner. As the article points out, this is very unlikely. Genes encode proteins, not human traits; Genes (and proteins) play multiple roles; The same gene will have both upside and downside effects; Genes act in clusters and cascades; Genes express differently and at different times for different reasons. Notwithstanding the moral questions of human genetic engineering, the technical barriers are profound. The author concludes: “The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.”
EconTalk this week hosted physician Robert Aronowitz to discuss his newest book, Risky Medicine, which deals with the risk/reward tradeoffs we struggle with in addressing health risks. Specifically, he notes the dilemma in routine PSA screening for men and routine mammograms for women: randomized trials suggest minimal benefits in terms of documented life extension but significant consequences in terms of heightened anxiety, high numbers of false positives and unnecessary follow-up procedures and surgery. These are difficult questions with inadequate answers – the dialogue is timely. As noted in an earlier post in this forum, (More Data is Not Enough), in the face of uncertainty, more data does not solve the problem – ultimately we have to take a leap of faith in making a decision. The best we can do in the case of decisions about health is to explore and be informed about both the science and the psycho-social dynamics of the issues, while accepting that most of what happens is beyond our control. This is exactly the advice found in Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.