31 December 2007

A Matter of Taste?

I came upon a seminal bit of Phillip Johnson's stuff over at ScienceMusings.com (Blog) today in a piece called "Miracles" or in the comments on it. I've linked the object of the discusion in the title of this post. Here Johnson makes the case that science does not disprove religious dogma and the supernatural; it simply assumes it to be irrelevant, through its materialist focus. It seems a fair point to me. Is it possible that science is an overreaction to the realization that humans are biased to see intentionality in everything that happens? Is science immune to admitting any possibility of a supreme and supernatural being, by assumption? It certainly could be that's true.

If so, it is clearly by application of Occam's razor, which posits that the simpler story is always to be preferred, when faced with a choice of two different interpretations, in the absence of any clear differentiating evidence. Note the qualifiers on that statement. A good intelligent design advocate would say that complexity is of itself evidence of intention and design. Whereas, a good scientist would say that complexity can arise naturally and that self-organization is a property of matter in some circumstances. It's even a property of numbers and algorithms, clear of any matter. 

So it seems that the biggest questions must be answered as matters of personal taste and the making of bets on the future, unless or until direct evidence can be found. We have our choice of attributing that which we cannot otherwise account to deliberate intentionality on the part of a supreme being, or we can regard it as a challenge to explain otherwise. That is, we can blame spooks, gremlins, or gods if we like, with no apparent guilt concerning the lack of evidence. Or we can blame the inherent complexity of nature and vow to keep seeking to understand what we do not now understand. 

Your choice! But I hope you'll pardon me if I regard ID advocates as quitters and nay-sayers who would find the universe unsatisfying if its ultimate mysteries were removed. And yet, there is common ground here, if scientists and materialists would admit that part of what they find fascinating about the universe is that which we still do not understand. 

25 December 2007

Carl Sagan Blogathon, Year 2

However it came about, I'm really happy and excited to see that Cosmos will be on cable during prime time this holiday season (Discovery Science channel). Perhaps last year's decadal observance helped to make it happen. But I think in the future, it might be well to observe Carl's date of birth (9 Nov) rather than that of his death. Isn't that what we do for great people we wish to remember?

In any case, please follow the title link to Joel Schlosberg's blog central for this event.

17 December 2007

Planet Finder

Geoff Marcy gives a great show as a lecturer on the discovery of planets outside our solar system (extrasolar planets). He presented it on 14 Dec 2007 at Goddard Space Flight Center's Science Colloquium. This was a special colloquium in celebration of the life of John Bahcall, one of the pioneering supporters of the Hubble Space Telescope. Marcy had a bona fide letter from Bahcall, encouraging his astronomical studies. Pretty neat!

Marcy presented many of the nitty gritty details that have been learned about over 200 extrasolar planets and nearly put me and a number of others to sleep, though a few were fascinated by every nuance. Then he got down to business, which he labeled as "speculations". That's fair, but he did attempt to make an inference from what is now a statistically meaningful collection of nearby stars that have planets. Even if one is as generous as can be, there is no way that any of the planets we have found could have life on them. And that sets a limit on how many worlds could be populated in our galaxy, or any other. Given the number of stars in our galaxy, the bottom line is that intelligent civilizations, if they exist anywhere in our galaxy, must be short lived phenomena, just a few million years at most. If that is the case, we have already reached what is apparently the typical lifetime of such civilizations. We have reached the point where they die out. And Marcy's take away lesson was that the supreme challenge faced by humanity is simply to survive for longer than the typical civilization does, assuming that they exist at all outside our solar system.

Or are we happy to have a short fling with the universe, on the way to our eventual demise? For myself, I prefer to aspire to Todd Brennan's challenge: "A truly intelligent species will outlive its home star." What about you?