Thought of the day

To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.

But I am persuaded that such behavior on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress.

~Einstein

Language

Language is a dicey thing. It’s especially dicey for scientists. Take Einstein for example. He used to use the word “God” quite often. He usually did not mean anything related to the Christian god (or any other god concept). Let’s look at the Einstein phrase “Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?” He wasn’t literally asking if any particular god had a choice. He was asking if the Universe could have come into being in more than one way. Incidentally, the fact that the answer to this question is unknown should throw some light on that awful argument, the “anthropic principle“. Allow me to digress.

The anthropic principle is the creationist delusion that their particular god made the Universe with humans soley in mind. It’s likely the most arrogant concept ever presented. Beside that, it basically says “Humanity (or life in general) is too well adapted to the Universe for everything not to have been made for humans/life”. Humans are evolved to the Universe (at least one, insignifcant part of it that holds no special relevance). The whole argument ignores this fact. Of course, that is the creationist motif: hear no facts, see no facts, speak no facts. What’s more, it’s just an argument from personal incredulity: “The Universe is just too perfect to not be for me! I can’t believe anything else! It’s too much!” Mooks.

But I return. Language in biology can be difficult. In order to popularize the subject, scientists will use personifying terms. “Genes want to replicate”, or “Cuts and bruises want to heal”. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with this. It’s human nature to do this. We call computers stupid or say “the flowers danced in the sun” (for the more poetic among us). Of course, there is a contingent of people who hear these terms and think they are literal. They also happen to often be people who don’t realize the Bible is metaphoric in its entirety and therefore take it literally.

Take the comment section from a recent thread. Not to harp on a particular commenter, but the term “code” is taken wildly out of context. Rather than read for what it is, it is read as being something with intention at its root. Let’s examine.

Biologists may say “DNA codes for the genome”. This is true, but it has no connection to intentionality. What it means is simply that DNA is in one form until it is translated and transcribed into another form. In other words, it goes from being a series of amino acids into a series of proteins and enzymes. This does not require some grand creator or intelligence. It requires a slow, gradual process that provides for plenty of random variation while being governed by a non-random mechanism. Evolution by natural selection fits the bill.

Einstein on religion

I came across a quote from Einstein regarding religion and thought I’d post it here. I’ve discussed Einsteinian religion in the past.

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religiosity of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands, so to speak, in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe. But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation… There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection… It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

~ Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild, Amsterdam: Querido Verlag, 1934

Emphasis mine.

Properly leading science articles

Not long ago I wrote about misleading science articles, where it was claimed something in science was proved by a group of authors, one of which responded to the post (thank you, Christian Hoelbling). Now here’s a better article which is properly leading.

WASHINGTON – Mysterious dark energy, which likely causes the universe to keep expanding, seems to have another effect: It prevents the biggest clusters of galaxies from getting too fat. Astronomers used X-rays to study the formation of galactic clusters billions of years ago. Their research supports the hard-to-fathom concept of dark energy as a potent force that governs the growth of the universe.

It also means Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of general relativity passes another crucial, but not conclusive, real-world test.

Emphasis added.

Science is about disproving, not proving. By relativity “pass[ing] another crucial…test” it is meant that it was not falsified; it does not mean that anything was proven. The continued inability to falsify general relativity simply reinforces the theory.

Incidentally,

“[Dark energy] much more important and abundant in the evolution of the universe than the atoms that make us up,” said Princeton theoretical astrophysicist David Spergal.

Misleading Science Articles

French, German and Hungarian physicists have taken another step in supporting Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France’s Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world’s mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

All that is fine. What is misleading is the title of the article:

    e=mc2: 103 years later, Einstein’s proven right

Nothing here has been proven. Science never does that. What is seeks to do is disprove. The hypothesis here is that energy and mass are equivalent. In order to discover this, scientists attempted an experiment that, if falsified, would weaken Einstein’s great discovery. That isn’t what happened. It turns out that energy and mass are equivalent – in this instance. That doesn’t mean that in every instance that that will be the case. We cannot possibly know for certain that if the experiment is run again or a new experiment is created that the results will be the same. This is precisely what occurs in all of science. Evolution is not proven in the scientific sense of the word. Gravity has never been proven. We could find a slew of rabbits and sharks in the pre-Cambrian whose fossils fall up tomorrow, disproving both theories, at the very least disproving them in part.

Of course, it should be noted that we know these events to be vanishingly unlikely because of the strength of both theories; neither (modern) one has been disproven in any way meaningful to their overall statements. Despite the constant attempts of scientists to show these (now) theories to be incorrect, they have failed. These constant failures – which manifest themselves as monumentally beautiful and elegant discoveries, quite unlike anything we should normally call “failures” – are what make hypotheses into theories; they are what enable us to refer to so many worthwhile ideas as facts, even if they are tentative by their very nature. They are the core of science – a way of knowing that never seeks to prove anything.

Einsteinian Religion

There are these perverse notions floating around about what Einstein believed or didn’t believe regarding religion and god(s). The page at Conservapedia – which deserves no link – will give the impression that Einstein believed in some sort of conscious, higher power. Any research will show this is highly unlikely. Einstein believed in ordering physical principles to the Universe which are ultimately far beyond the understanding of humans. This is not a god at all, which is why it’s somewhat unfortunate that he used the term “god” to describe these ordering principles. On the one hand, it’s misleading and it tends to invite people to attempt to associate a brilliant thinker with their own positions, as if appeals to authority confer truth to a statement or thought or idea. On the other hand, there’s a certain poetry to his language; we should all appreciate personification in our literature.

Ultimately, Einstein was an agnostic. Precisely where he stood on, say, Richard Dawkins’ Scale of Religiosity is unclear. I suspect he may be slightly to the left of someone like Carl Sagan (physically assuming “1” is left and “7” is right – see scale video). That may place him as a 4, as I would place Sagan as a 5. Unfortunately, neither man can clarify at this point. However, it is quite clear that neither one believed in any personal god – the seeming indifference of Nature to our plights, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, it all indicates a lack of personality, of personalization, no matter how much poetic personification we like to use.