20 February 2007

The Shore of the Cosmic Ocean

This is an annotated transcript of the video clip that can be found in the navigation column, down at the bottom, under the same title. It's Carl Sagan's materialist manifesto, overlying an unspoken declaration of the irrelevance of supernaturalism. It must surely rank among the most eloquent statements of scientific confidence and ambition ever made. A similar transcript is given in the first chapter of the printed version of Cosmos. But that version is missing some of the best touches of this one.

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the Cosmos stir us. There's a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as of a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

This defines the intended scope of the Cosmos, but though it fails to rule out anything specific, one understands immediately that the supernatural and the paranormal will not be needed.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But, our species is young and curious and brave and it shows much promise. In the last few millennia, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

Adopting a god-like perspective, we are said to be lost in eternity, but yet the present is seen as a special time of awakening, as Carl returns to the collective "we".

We're about to begin a journey through the Cosmos. We'll encounter galaxies and suns, and planets, life and consciousness, coming into being, evolving and perishing; Worlds of ice and stars of diamond; atoms as massive suns, universes smaller than atoms. But it's also a story of our own planet, and the plants and animals that share it with us. And it's a story about us; how we achieved our present understanding of the Cosmos, how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture, what our fate may be.

A taste of things to come is offered, an enticement, and also a promise to glimpse the future.

We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature.

A credo for study of the Cosmos is advanced, using a balance of imagination and skepticism as we explore. And again, we will be focused on the "machinery of nature."

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little way out into the sea, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. The ocean calls to us. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. And we can because the Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.

This is a metaphor that has stayed with me ever since I heard it in 1980, and it became a core concept in a successful early research paper of mine, written about then. But it's our atmosphere that is the shore of the Cosmic ocean, not the surface of Earth. We don't leave the shoals until we venture well above the atmosphere. And Earth's magnetic field creates a harbor of sorts, fending off the solar wind.

This paragraph borrows a concept from Alan Watts that originated at least a decade before "Cosmos" appeared. Sagan says: "We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself." Watts says, somewhat more verbosely: "We are not egos in bags of skin, that come into the world. We come out of it; as trees leaf and cows calve, the universe "peoples". We are the universe, become conscious of itself." Some of the most important ideas are also among the simplest.

The journey for each of us begins here. We're going to explore the Cosmos in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits on speed and size, drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies, that can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it can carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of fact. Come with me.

19 February 2007

The Misuse of Intelligence

This from Michael Barone today in National Review Online:

"The Bush critics' position is that we must believe without reservation or criticism any intelligence that can be used to argue against military action and that we should never believe any intelligence, however plausible, that can be used to argue for it. That's not very intelligent."

This reminded me of that quote from no less a warrior than Victor Davis Hanson: "It is as difficult to provoke the United States as it is to survive its eventual and tardy response."

This quote, offered by a friend and debate partner, has always epitomized for me the important American/Western ideal of temperance in the practice of war. Unfortunately, I don't believe the USA has demonstrated much temperance along these lines. In light of that ideal, I would not-so-subtly reword Barone's statement, putting in what seems like an appropriate bias to enforce a moderate response:

"... we must take very seriously any intelligence that argues against military action; and we must demand the highest possible standards of proof for any intelligence, however plausible or widely believed, that argues for it. This is the only intelligent and responsible approach to military action."

If you substitute "use of nuclear weapons" for "military action" it reads even better my way, I think.


18 February 2007

Evolution/Shermer v. Intelligent Design/Dembski

Larry Moran pointed out a debate between Michael Shermer and William Dembski Thurs. evening at Bridgewater College in the Virginia Shenandoah valley. It was a bit too far for me to have attended even if I'd seen it coming, and I was caught up the NASA THEMIS launch that ended up being postpoined until Sat. evening.

According to Jason Rosenhouse, writing on PandasThumb.org, Bridgewater College is a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. According to Wikipedia, this is a pacifistic Christian church without evangelical tendencies. However, it was clear from accounts that the audience was well populated with evangelical Christians. Shermer experienced very aggressive questioning by them, and then Dembski was able to rebut each of his answers.

I've been thinking there is a need for such a debate, but I was expecting it to occur online. It amazes me that Shermer would agree to a debate in so rural an area with a population known for its conservatism. The audience numbered only about 150 according to Rosenhouse.

According to Sal Cordova writing on uncommonDescent.com, Dembski managed to get Shermer to state that he is now open to "ideas like self-organization, or other evolutionary scenarios", relaxing his earlier contention that "no one, and I mean no one, working in the field is debating whether natural selection is the driving force behind evolution".

This is the first time I can recall seeing in print the idea that self-organization might be an alternative to natural selection. If I get Cordova's point right, his idea is that the design of complex organisms could be built into them in a way that is non-interactive with the environment. That is to say, in evolving to a complex state, organisms are following the dictates of an internal design, rather than evolving it as a solution to the problem of their successful interaction with the environment. I really doubt that Shermer was saying that, but it sounds like that was the way his statement was taken. This bears more investigation...

13 February 2007

Darwin Day

Just a quick post to note the occasion. Wish I had time to do more of an observance. Click the title to see what is going on for Darwin Day. Perhaps on President's Day or this weekend? Cheers!
Click to enlarge

10 February 2007

Teach the Revolution!

The state of dialog between evolutionists (Darwinists in the view of creationists) and creationists (IDiots in the view of evolutionists) is truly terrible, but perhaps that's the way it should be. Perhaps the entire ID schtick is as vapid as claimed, and they should be given no quarter whatsoever. They come on so reasonably with plausible sounding critiques of Darwinian natural selection, one is tempted to take them seriously, or at least I have been for about four years now. But my recent explorations have pretty much cleared up any doubts I may have had about whether ID critiques of natural selection need to be taken seriously. They don't. These are the quibbles of people with ulterior motives, and don't stand up to scrutiny at all. Even if they did, their source pretty much disqualifies them, since these folks have no serious interest in improving our understanding of life, only in tearing it down.

So it is fair to conclude that science and education simply cannot afford the indulgence of "teaching the controversy." But I would carry it a step farther than simply ejecting creationism and ID from our schools. In my view, we should be teaching the revolution in human thought that took us from creationism to natural selection. Our best physics curricula teach the revolution in astronomy that wrenched us from the geocentric Ptolemaic universe to the heliocentric Copernican revolution, forever changing our understanding of our own place in the universe. Similarly we should teach the revolution in biology that took us from creationism to the Darwinian revolution. The change has been even more transformative and religiously-disturbing in this case, and clearly we are still struggling with it, but the time has come to stop treading lightly and respectfully toward religion on this and to make a point of stating the case for science. So yes, by all means let us teach both creationism and natural selection in our schools, but let us put them in their proper perspective and say clearly and emphatically that creationism has been superseded in modern thought, with repercussions that religious believers must confront and reconcile with their dogmas.

There should no claim here that Darwinian evolution is the final story, but neither should there be a mistaken impression given that there is any possible return to the idea that a supernatural intelligence might help us explain our world and how we came to it. We can marvel at the incredible grandeur and exquisitely detailed complexity of the universe and life within it, and at the universal laws that so clearly regulate it throughout. But we will gain no useful wisdom for this world from the idea that we must eventually face a designer-creator in another.

So let's teach the revolution as the revolution that it truly is and not as a controversy. Still it is well to keep in mind Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, which includes: "Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view." Click the title or graphic of this post and then click: "Ideas"

07 February 2007

More Fun and Games with Evolution

Finally I found a simulation of the ID/creationist model of random variation and selection. It's extremely simple, but if you're patient, you can select and revert your way to some positive changes in the "genome". The key in my view is to start with random character strings so you aren't distracted by the initial state. Basically, one selects (saves) any positive change, and then continues mutating. If nothing better comes along, you revert to your selected case, and then continue mutating again. The effect is to simulate a larger population with only the single individual character string. This is being discussed at Pharyngula.

Also being discussed there is a rebuttal simulation that is pretty interesting, and much more sophisticated. It actually shows how irreducible complexity can evolve. If you follow the discussion of it, you'll learn that most cases of irreducible complexity result from a decrease in the fitness of the individual. One commentator gives a useful analogy with an arch that becomes irreducibly complex only when the scafolding used to build it is removed. There is a net reduction in robustness at that point, and then the arch has many parts that can no longer be removed without its falling. Pretty cool!

It's a bit disappointing watching the evolutionists and creationists chewing on each other, usually on separate blogs. The level of discussion has sunken to a new low since the Dover decision, I suppose. Still, the evolvers are not the least bit gracious in victory, nor do the creators give any quarter. Perhaps I'm just being wishy washy, but I would really like to see them compare the above simulations and the standard weasel program and argue the points to a polite agreement to disagree, rather than engaging in endless hurling of sophomoric epithets and insults.

04 February 2007

Human Weapons of Mass Destruction

I have yet to come upon any popular discussion of nuclear proliferation that seems at once lucid, rational and realistic. Everyone seems to regard it is beyond question that acquisition of nuclear weapons by developing countries is an intolerable evil. Most especially, this is true of the NRA set, those staunch defenders the right of American citizens to possess lethal force for self defense, regardless of any demonstrated fitness to manage and responsibly use such weapons. The irony of that position is (in the words of Mike Dunford on Panda's Thumb) is "so dense that four mining firms have put in bids on it". But even if one thinks that warfare has served an evolutionary purpose in human history, enhancing our technological skills, nuclear weapons represent a new and significant opportunity for us all to collectively win a cosmic "Darwin Award." So, I hereby take it upon myself to supply said discussion of nuclear proliferation.

My beef with the NRA position on personal weapons lies in the unwillingness to treat this analogously to the licensing of automobile drivers. Cars are arguably as lethal as guns, and every bit as important to the rights of an individual. The right to autonomous transportation is something I personally find to be far more important than self-defense, because I've been fortunate enough to live in benign environments where there are essentially no threats to a healthy male. So, I would argue that it is every bit as important to train, test, and license the possession and use of guns as the uses of automobiles. This is self-evident truth to me. No one could credibly sloganize to the effect that "now that cars are outlawed, only outlaws own cars."

It also seems self-evident to me that the representative, democratic rule of law that we practice in the industrial world should also be practiced on the international level among nations. The principal problem there is the lack of a credible and legitimate International respresntative government, which seems to have eluded our efforts with the League of Nations and then the United Nations. All war among nations is civil war in my view, and occurs only through a deficit of will on the part of the nations to organize the adjudication of disputes through a representative legal process.

Nation states have a self-evident right to defend themselves when faced with aggression, just as individuals do in a democratic state. The argument that individuals should be empowered with the strongest forms of lethal force carry directly over to an argument that nations should also be empowered with the strongest forms of lethal force, for self defensive purposes. However, they should also be required to demonstrate the capability to manage and deploy that force in a responsible manner, just as we require individuals to do so when operating vehicles, and as we should do for individuals seeking to possess guns.

Currently, there exists a process for nation states to control the acquisition of nuclear weapons, known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, proposed by Ireland and signed by 188 nations. According to Wikipedia, two confirmed nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) and one unconfirmed nuclear power (Israel) would not sign the treaty. And one nation that signed has withdrawn and become a nuclear power (North Korea). The treaty prohibits additional proliferation beyond the five current nuclear states (USA, France, Russia, UK, and China), promotes disarmament, and legitimizes the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. However, the treaty provides no legitimate way of acquiring nuclear weapons except for leaving the treaty agreement. It does provide for an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor nuclear materials in nonnuclear states and to alert the treaty parties to any violations of the treaty. The IAEA estimates that 40 states could develop nuclear weapons if they so chose and withdrew from the treaty.

When the NPT is reviewed every five years, it is routine for the US and other powers to assert NATO agreements to share nuclear weapons, while complaining about proliferation among other nations and opposing Iran's rights to develop a civilian nuclear power capability. The NATO powers also assert that the treaty will be voided if a state of "general war" should arise, effectively releasing them from the terms of the treaty in that case. More recently, the Bush administration has asserted the right to share civilian nuclear technology with India, in violation of treaty terms, while continuing to accuse Iran of developing weapons in violation of its treaty agreement.

Nations with adversarial postures relative to the western industrial nations, and especially those with alleged ties to terrorist organizations, are naturally regarded with suspicion as potential threats, especially if empowered with nuclear weapons. However, taking military action to interdict the acquisition of nuclear weapons would clearly violate the rule of law dictum mandating that violence be used in only in self defense. But rule of law can be practiced successfully only when an authority exists that can monitor and deal with perceived threats.

We clearly need a treaty that puts the UN or other international body in place as the adjudicator of nuclear disputes. Ideally, the treaty rules would allow for "licensing" the acquisition of civilian nuclear technologies by any nation seeking to do so, provided that specified criteria were met, as judged by an organization like the IAEA. Among those criteria might be the demonstration of freedom from terrorist links. In addition, licensing of nuclear weaponry should also be explicitly provided, with more stringent criteria to be met, such that it would be exceedingly difficult to meet them. Qualifications might include the demonstration of a credible nuclear threat from a non-participant nation.

With this sort of rule of law in place, the US could quite properly insist that nations like Iran must meet basic requirements for use of even civilian nuclear technologies. A representative agency could regulate the acquisition and use of nuclear arms by nations, including the USA, regardless of their agreement, by monopolizing the legitimate use of force to take military action against those nations that violate the law as set by the participating nations.

A treaty, after all, is just an agreement to a common good that is shared by the signatories and infringes on the acknowledged rights of none. The problem is that a treaty cannot be imposed on non-signatories as well, even if they are a minority.