Monday, June 23, 2014

An excellent interview on scientific cosmology, fine-tuning, and theism

by Salman Hameed

There are different types of God-of-the-gap arguments, and I think fine-tuning argument is the latest fad. I have argued before that science should be left as science - even when it comes to the questions of the origins of the universe. One of the key reasons is that we don't know where the boundaries of our knowledge lie. If history of science is any guide, several of the unsolvable problems got solved with the passage of time. From that perspective, it might be useful to keep faith/religion separated from science - and definitely from religion seeking any validation from science. All of this still leaves the room for the ultimate "why" question - and that depends on faith (both for a theistic and atheistic positions).

In this context, here is a non-nonsense interview with philosopher of science, Tim Maudlin, on modern cosmology and God. You should read the full interview, but I will highlight a few items of interest. He starts with the implication of modern cosmology for theology so far:
Gary Gutting: Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions? 
Tim Maudlin: That depends on the given theological account. The biblical account of the origin of the cosmos in Genesis, for example, posits that a god created the physical
universe particularly with human beings in mind, and so unsurprisingly placed the Earth at the center of creation. 
Modern cosmological knowledge has refuted such an account. We are living in the golden age of cosmology: More has been discovered about the large-scale structure and history of the visible cosmos in the last 20 years than in the whole of prior human history. We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn’t even exist until about 10 billion years later. 
No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us. This realization began with Galileo, and has only intensified ever since. 
G.G.: I don’t see why the extent of the universe and our nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it says anything about whether we have some special role in the universe. The major monotheistic religions maintain that there is a special spiritual relationship between us and the creator. But that doesn’t imply that this is the only purpose of the universe or that we’re the only creatures with a special relationship to the creator. 
T.M.: Yes, of course, there are, in theory, other possible hypotheses about the origin of the universe and our role in it. Someone might hold that the universe was created with humans playing some important role, but a role equally played by other living beings (not living on Earth); or that the universe was created with some living beings playing an important role, but that humans are not among them; or even that the universe was created with no particular regard for any living beings. 
If cosmology is to bear on any such hypothesis, then the hypothesis must lead to some expectations for the sort of universe a deity so motivated would create. The expectations following from the accounts, like Genesis, that make us the main purpose of the universe have, as I’ve pointed out, the great weight of evidence against them. (The other sorts of hypotheses have not been much advocated to my knowledge, and hence not developed to the point where one would know what sort of a physical universe to expect if any of them were true. My guess is that most religious people would not be especially interested in these hypotheses.)
Here is the second part of the conversation about the possibility of deriving theology from fine-tuning arguments, which Maudlin disagrees with:
G.G.: So are you saying that we don’t know enough about the relevant constants to get a theistic argument started? 
T.M.: Yes, since we don’t even know if the “constants” are constant, we certainly don’t know enough to draw any conclusions about the best account of why they have the particular values they have right now and around here. Since we don’t know how the various “constants” might be related to each other by deeper physics, the game of trying to figure out the effect of changing just one and leaving the rest alone also is not well founded. 
One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence. 
G.G.: Once again, that’s assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave. But suppose that a surprisingly narrow range of the relevant constants turns out to be necessary for humans to exist. Some critics would say that even so, cosmological inflation would provide a satisfactory explanation with no reference to a creator. What’s your view on that? 
T.M.: Not everything about cosmology is known. We do not know how to reconcile quantum theory and relativity yet, and such a reconciliation would be needed to investigate the nature of the Big Bang. In particular, we don’t understand the basic physics well enough to tell if anything preceded the Big Bang. Even the existence of an inflationary period is still controversial. 
One very speculative idea in cosmology is that the entire universe contains infinitely many “pocket universes” or “bubble universes,” in each of which the quantities we call “constants of nature” take different, randomly chosen, values. If so, then every possible combination of such values occurs somewhere, and living beings will obviously only evolve in regions where the combination of values supports life. Such an account predicts that intelligent creatures would arise in essentially random locations in a huge cosmological structure, just as we see. But this idea is highly speculative, and there is no direct evidence in its favor. 
G.G.: So is your view that we don’t currently know enough to decide whether or not fine-tuning for human life supports theism? 
T.M.: First, note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions. The attempt to put homo sapiens at the center of this discussion is a reflection of our egocentrism, and has no basis at all in the actual structure of the universe. 
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose that there is a deity who created the universe with particular attention to the fate of some creatures in a distant galaxy. The very existence of the Earth and the evolution of life on Earth was just an unintended byproduct of setting up the “constants of nature” for the sake of those creatures, not us. That would be a fascinating thing to find out, but not what most people with interests in theism were after. The actual values of the “constants of nature” certainly cannot provide more evidence for their (Genesis-like) hypothesis than for this hypothesis.
And two other important things. Maudlin corrects misconception that Lawrence Krauss provided an explanation of how universe came out of nothing (even though Krauss used that in his title) and points out the flaw in that strategy:
G.G.: Finally, let me ask about what I’ve called causal theism, which merely argues that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe, regardless of its purpose. Some cosmologists, like Lawrence Krauss, have suggested that current physical theory shows how the universe could have emerged from nothing — for example, by a quantum fluctuation. What do you think of this suggestion? 
T.M.: The more general claim that a creator is needed to explain the very existence of the universe is a much, much weaker claim, and is consistent with humanity having had no particular significance at all to the creator. That’s why I say that just getting some creator or other is not what most people are after. 
In any case, does there need to be a nonmaterial cause as an explanation for the entire material universe? Causal explanation either goes on forever backward in time or it comes to a stop somewhere. Even people who want to postulate a nonmaterial cause of the material universe often see no need to invoke yet another cause for that nonmaterial cause, and so are content to let the sequence of causal explanations come to an end. But the initial state of the universe (if there is one) could just as well be the uncaused cause. Or if there is no initial state, and the universe goes back infinitely in time, then it can’t have a cause that precedes it in time. 
Krauss does not suggest that the universe came to exist “from nothing” in the sense of “did not come from anything at all,” but rather that it came from a quantum vacuum state. He seems to think that such a vacuum state would be a satisfying place to end the causal regress as the state with no causal antecedent. The vacuum state has many important symmetries, so if one could tell a physical story of everything coming out of a vacuum state it would have a certain appealing plausibility. But one could still ask, “Why start with the vacuum state rather than something else?” I think we don’t know enough to make any plausible guess about even whether there was an initial state, much less what it might have been. This goes beyond what we have good evidence or theory for.
And what about a minimalist theistic view - at least from a scientific perspective?
G.G.: You obviously don’t see scientific cosmology as supporting any case for theism. You also think that it refutes theistic religions’ claiming that the primary purpose of God’s creation is the existence of human beings. What, finally, is your view about the minimal theistic view that the universe was created by an intelligent being (regardless of its purpose). Does scientific cosmology support the atheistic position that there is no such creator or does it leave us with the agnostic judgment that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say? 
T.M.: Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role. Before the theoretical need for neutrinos was appreciated (to preserve the conservation of energy) and then later experimental detection was made, they were not part of the accepted physical account of the world. To say physicists in 1900 were “agnostic” about neutrinos sounds wrong: they just did not believe there were such things. 
As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act. If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon. The problem with the “minimal view” is that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds. Of course, as the example of quarks and neutrinos shows, scientific accounts change in response to new data and new theory. The default position can be overcome.
Read the full interview here

Monday, June 16, 2014

Atheists and Muslims may have a few things in common in the US

by Salman Hameed

The Pew Research Center has a new survey out that looks at the growing political polarization in the US. One of the questions asked if one would be happy if a family member married an atheist, and another question asked about a similar marriage to born-again Christian". Well, roughly half of all Americans (49%) say they will be unhappy if a family member married an atheists, and only 9% unhappy with a born-again Christian (including most atheists). Here are the results divided up by religious (and non-religious) denominations:

Now the Pew survey also asked about a member of another religious faith. But I was wondering how the numbers would look like for a family member marrying a Muslim. My guess is that they won't be that different from atheists. Here is a Gallup poll from earlier this year that showed that Americans are least likely to vote a Muslim or an and atheist for President:

This is the reason I think it will be interesting to see the marriage question for Muslims as well. I should add that this is also a temporary thing, as the same Gallup poll showed that the acceptability for atheists and Muslims go up for the younger generation.

Back to the Pew Survey. Here is the Pew marriage question again and now divided by political leanings:

Perhaps not too surprisingly, liberals (as defined in the survey) place importance on ethnic diversity, whereas conservatives lean towards a similar faith community when picking a place to live:

You can read the full Pew report here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Check out "Jodororowsky's Dune"

by Salman Hameed

This is a documentary about the crazily ambitious attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune to film. I loved the book, but was disappointed by David Lynch's 1984 adaptation (with Sting!). But I didn't know that before Lynch, Chilean director, Jodorowsky made an attempt to turn Dune into the mother of all science fiction films. He wanted Dali to play the master of the universe, and Dali's demands in return matched-up perfectly with the craziness of Jodorowsky. In addition, he convinced Orson Welles and Mick Jagger to be in the movie, and Pink Floyd to do the soundtrack (along with metal band, Magma - "they were awful" so Jodorowsky thought they were perfect for the darker elements of the film). Some of the artwork was done by Giger, who went on to create the alien of the Alien series of films. And yes, Giger himself comes off as a bit scary (by the way, he died just about a month ago).

Here are two of Giger's images for Dune (the first one is Baron Harkonnen's palace in the shape of Harkonnen's face):

This documentary is about the unbridled enthusiasm for creating art for the sake of art. Jodorowsky is completely crazy and at 84, he still has amazing energy. His recollection of going to see David Lynch's Dune is also quite funny. If you have chance, do check out Jodorowsky's Dune. Here is the trailer:

Monday, June 09, 2014

Lifting bans on liberal and secular Facebook pages in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Couple of days ago, Facebook inexplicably banned the page of Pakistan's lefty, liberal, rock band, Laal. Following an international outrage, the page appeared again in Pakistan and the band posted this on their Facebook page:

Yes its true. We were banned. We fought back. And we won. We want to thank all our supporters who supported us on social media and the mainstream media. This was your victory. They say the people united can never be defeated. Today progressives proved their strength through their unity. They forced the authorities to retreat from the ban. This may be a very small victory in relation to all the problems that Pakistan faces today. But a victory nonetheless. Let us take confidence from this victory and continue our work to unban the other progressive pages that continue to suffer from censorship. And struggle for a progressive Pakistan. The struggle continues.
So why was their page banned in Pakistan? Here is a bit from NYT:
Facebook said on Friday that it had blocked users in Pakistan from access to the pages of a popular Pakistani rock band and several left-wing political pages, drawing sharp criticism from free-speech activists who accused the American company of caving in to government censors. 
Members of the band, Laal, whose members have frequently spoken out against the Taliban, confirmed that their Facebook page, which had over 400,000 “likes,” had been blocked. 
Following an outcry on social media and inquiries by reporters to the Pakistani government and to Facebook, the government reversed itself and Facebook restored access to Laal’s page. 
But advocates said late on Friday that at least six other Facebook pages that promoted progressive debate in Pakistan and that had been blocked during the week remained inaccessible.
A spokeswoman for Facebook in London said the company’s policy was to adhere to local laws, and that it blocked the pages after receiving an official request from the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, which regulates Internet content in Pakistan. 
“While we never remove this type of content from the site entirely, like most Internet services, we may restrict people from accessing it in the countries where it is determined to be illegal,” the spokeswoman said, adding that questions about why specific pages were blocked were “best addressed to the authorities who issue these orders.”
There you have it folks. Facebook is a hapless company that is forced to please authorities everywhere. So while Laal's ban has been reversed, there are other pages that are still inaccessible in Pakistan. So here is a direct petition to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to lift their bans as well.

I will leave you with two Laal songs (with english subtitles), both featuring the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Here is Gham na Kar, and it is described by the band as follows:
Laal made this video in Afghanistan. We salute the bravery and fortitude of our nations against the gravest and most unyielding of odds. Let us re-build the broken bridges and heal old wounds for we are bound together by the memory of countless centuries. Let us strive forward together, for ours is the same struggle, the same fight. Against all those who seek to oppress and enslave us. And against tyranny everywhere.

Laal - Gham Na Kar (Faiz) by Taimur_Laal

And here is an earlier song featuring a famous Faiz poem:

By the way, there is a local connection as well. The former lead vocalist for Laal, Shahram Azhar, is currently pursuing his doctorate in economics from UMass-Amherst. I haven't had a chance to run into him yet, but I hope to dod so before he leaves the area.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Video of Saba Mahmood's lecture on "Religious Liberty, the Minority Problem and Geopolitics"

by Salman Hameed

If you are interested in the question of human rights and religious minorities, then do check out this lecture by Saba Mahmood. She starts by providing a historical context for the origin(s) of this discourse, and its use and misuse for political reasons. For example, she points to the US (around 17 minutes in) for championing equal rights for all individuals, while at the same time refusing equal rights to African Americans. But she then spends a large portion of her talk on the case of Egypt, and the case of Coptic Christians in Egypt (in fact, check out the bit about the shifting identity of Coptic Christians in Egypt, about 26 minutes in). Towards the end of her talk, she makes an interesting point that the construction of a "minority" itself, creates a sense of being an outsider, which in turn can lead to hostility against the minority. But there clearly is tension as it is the majorities that also creates such conditions. She doesn't necessarily provide a clear-cut solution, but at least she provides with a set of questions, or as she puts it, "at least we should try to understand how the current system got established". With Q&A, the whole session is about an hour and twenty minutes, and I think it is worth your time if you are interested in the topic.

Monday, June 02, 2014

An excellent article on revoking Spinoza's 17th century excommunication

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent and thoughtful article on how should we think about Spinoza's 17th century
excommunication today. A panel of four scholars, including Steve Nadler, was asked to look into the possibility of lifting the ban on Spinoza. After all, the Catholic Church decided to exonerate Galileo in the 1990s, so why not Spinoza? The judgment came out against lifting such a ban, but in many ways, it is about respecting Spinoza and his ideas. If you have time, you should read the full article, but here is the bit about the differences in the cases of Spinoza and Galileo:
Moreover, if we were to ask Spinoza, “Would you like the ban lifted?” I am certain that his answer would be, “I could not care less.” It is clear that he did not have any interest in being reintegrated into Judaism, much less into the particular Portuguese community that banned him. You might even say that to want to reintegrate Spinoza into Jewish life by lifting the ban would be to misunderstand what Spinoza stood for, given his strongly negative views on organized religion, and on Judaism in particular. 
Here the analogy with the case of Galileo is misleading. Galileo was promoting a set of purely scientific doctrines, albeit doctrines that the Catholic Church had deemed inconsistent with biblical texts and religious dogma. Spinoza, on the other hand, was defending views that were direct and blatant denials of some core elements of the Jewish faith. It is one thing to insist that the Earth goes around the sun, and even to insist (as Galileo did) that the Bible should not be regarded as a source of scientific knowledge; it is quite another to claim that the observance of Jewish law is no longer valid or necessary, or that the biblical prophets were uneducated individuals who spoke not from understanding but only from imagination.
While there are may be good reasons for the ban to stay in place, the article ends with an argument against conformity of ideas and censorship, especially when it comes to the search for religious truth(s):
I think a larger, and more pressing, question concerns the wisdom and efficacy of enforcing orthodoxy, or conformity in the matter of ideas (as opposed to conformity in the matter of behavior), in religious communities. Presumably, religion, in addition to being for many people a source of identity, community, comfort and moral guidance, is also a quest for understanding and truth: truth about ourselves and about the world. As John Stuart Mill and many other thinkers have argued, exercising any kind of censorship over ideas and restricting freedom of thought and speech only make it less likely that, in the end, the truth will be discovered. Why should this be any less a matter of importance in the domain of religious belief than in philosophy, science and other areas of human intellectual endeavor? 
Spinoza believed that he had, through metaphysical inquiry, discovered important truths about God, nature and human beings, truths that led to principles of great consequence for our happiness and our emotional and physical flourishing. This, in fact, is what he called “true religion.” There is a lesson here: By enforcing conformity of belief and punishing deviations from dogma, religious authorities may end up depriving the devoted of the possibility of achieving in religion that which they most urgently seek.
Read the full article here.

Steve Nadler was also our Science & Religion speaker last year, and gave an excellent talk on Spinoza. Here is the abstract followed by the video of the talk, and the Q/A session underneath. Enjoy!

In 1656, the young Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community with extreme prejudice; by the end of his short life he was regarded as one of the most radical and dangerous thinkers of his time. Among his alleged "abominable heresies" was, according to one contemporary report, the belief that "God exists only philosophically." In this lecture, we will examine Spinoza's conception of God, whereby God is identified with Nature, and address the question of whether he is, as is so often claimed, a "God intoxicated" pantheist or a devious atheist, as well as the implications of this for his views on religion.

and here is the Q/A session: