Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Line-of-sight limited miraculous relics

A curious phenomena reported across many faiths and cultures is the solemnly held belief in the miraculous power of certain objects-- especially those objects believed to have been touched or held or used by the venerated religious figures of the faith. Modernly, many relics exist which are held by tradition (and in some cases, no small degree of chicanery) to have come in contact with, for example, Jesus, Mohammad, the Buddha -- a reporter debunking claims about one particular relic quipped not long ago that "There are enough pieces of the 'True Cross' in circulation to make a wooden aircraft carrier. And enough nails to put it together." And beyond that, there are countless relics claimed to have been connected with countless minor holy figures of these and other traditions, Prophets and Imams and Saints. And for every such object claimed as an artifact out there, there is some testimonial, maybe many, about the wondrous miraculous powers imbued in that artifact, most often expressed through the ambiguous healing of (non-amputation related) ailments, and the more generalised experience of good fortune.

Believers may be inclined to express as much certainty in the power of the artifacts of their own faiths as they are in the faith itself -- possibly even after the historical validity of a particular item claimed as such an artifact has been debunked. Presumably a correlary of this, though not one which I've seen much expressed, is a similarly active disbelief in the miraculous powers attributed to artifacts from competing and doctrinally exclusive religions. But in any event, there are two most curious thing about these artifacts, one being the seemingly haphazard incidence of their existence at all, and the other being the quizzically limited physical field of their effectiveness.

As to the first thing, why is it that every spot on the ground once stood upon by the Buddha, or Mohammad, or some especially pious Pope stood is not miraculous in its qualities? For the assertions of miraculous points of contact suggest that it is contact itself which makes holy that point, and so it remains to be explained why only some such points, and not all, have this characteristic. One would think that if a spot on the ground absorbed healing powers due to the passage there of a venerated figure, that all of the other spots which marked the path of this figure as it approached and then departed from that sacred spot ought to be, if not imbued with the same capacity, detectably holier than spots where the figure never tread. And so with every vessel drunk from by them and every article worn by them. Amongst the qualities oft attributed to such relics is that of staying power, of continuing to exist in much the same state for centuries onward from their sacredness-imbuing moment of use.

As to the second thing, why, if a thing is miraculous in itself, that its miraculous power is limited to affecting those who come to a close physical proximity to it? After all, there is a certain presupposition at play that metaphysical powers are not limited in the way in which forces which are simply physical are physically limited. Why are those with faith so strong as to believe indelibly in the power of the artifact of their religion unaffected by that power unless they draw within some proximity to it? Why is a person in Australia who believes in the healing power of a blessed stone in India not healed by that belief alone, but only by travelling to the site of the stone? Mohammad and Jesus and the Buddha all stood, or so it is reported, on the planet Earth; and so why is not 'the planet Earth' imbued with miraculous healing powers which present themselves to all who touch it? Were all of these figures so limited in their inherent power as to be unable to affect a physical reach beyond a few feet, to affect an object bigger than what might be conveniently carried about?

The obvious solution is, indeed, that if relics believed to have such limited range and power do possess any supernatural power at all, then such power is the product of supernatural forces themselves possessed of limited range and power. Naturally, those having especial fealty to any faith will insist on the infinitudes of power available to their favored deity, but will have at the ready any number of excuses as to why their deity only ever behaves entirely consistently with an entity of limited power. But such an explanation does nothing to satisfy the objection that other entities claiming the same essentially exclusive power share approximately equal or comparable limitations in the effective range of the relics with which they are associated. And, at last, it must be recalled that their are theological models -- pandeism leading them, but other ideations of pantheism and deism and panpsychism as well -- which account for all such phenomena occurring within all such faiths as notions of a single underlying power from which miraculous results are drawn, unwitting, from man's own predispositions.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The relative unnaturalnesses of vegetarianism, homosexuality, and pants

An oddity of rhetoric is the constant effort by homophobes to label homosexuality as 'unnatural' -- yet the same people who are so declaredly interested in the naturalness of human behaviour only rarely decry vegetarianism, and never rail against that most fundamental of unnatural human practices, the wearing of clothing.

So let us consider the relative 'naturalness' of these and other things commonly found in the human pattern.

Homosexuality, first and foremost, is fairly well recorded in the, ahem, annals of history. Naturally, to the degree that ancient expressions of condemnation of it exists, this can only mean that the practice then existed to be condemned. Ancient accounts do not, by contrast, condemn internet addiction because there was no such thing at the time. But, turning our focus to nature itself there are, it is now well recorded, hundreds of animal species in addition to humans who are happy to provide an example of how to gay up the jungle (or the woods, or the icy Antarctic floes). So, though opponents of the freedom of those who would engage in homosexual acts deem the predisposition toward same-sex-attraction to be a matter of choice, nature itself instructs that this is a natural choice to make.

Vegetarianism is indeed a far less 'natural' practice, man being an omnivore by nature (and prehistorically quite a big bug-eating insectivore on top of that). But this observation lays out the crux of another question: is there anything wrong with doing things in a way which is contrary to the practice in nature? Here is starker item of comparison. Suppose a lost teenage boy from a different city came wandering onto your property, looking for something to eat. What would you do? Well, going back to the ways of our prehistoric forebears, you'd kill him. Or, at least, you'd try, try to drive him off with sticks and stones, and if he persisted in loitering in your neighbourhood, to make a more level effort to end his life. Nature is violent. However peaceful it may appear in the moment of a quiet glen or solemn wood, it is filled at every moment with the predator aiming to kill, and the prey animal avoiding sudden death, and with competitors from the same species contending over turf and resources, often with deadly results. Other animals may even kill competitors to punish them for their own attacks against the territory of the killers, even to make an example of them before their peers. True though it is that man has a broader range of reasons for killing, and methods of so doing, man is as well the only animal for which members of a tight-knit social group will contend to prevent one of their own from engagin in violence against a stranger. And, though many animals are vegetarians by dint of their biology only permitting the digestion of plant matter, man remains the only animal fully capable of eating and digesting meat which will naetheless choose to refrain from eating meat when it is available, plentiful, even. For man is the only animal possessing ethical purposes, and so, the only one which acts against its own nature in defiance of his biological compulsions.

Now let us look at clothes wearing, and its natural converse, nudism. Wearing clothes, it may not seriously be denied, is highly unnatural. True, there are creatures like crabs and turtles who are oft anthropomorphised as treating their shells like clothing, or as externalities wherein they make their home. And there are indeed some small number of exotic species, mostly kinds of crabs biologically alien to us, who assemble for themselves a carapace incorporating bits of material from their environment, instead of grown from their bodies. And yet humans in most (though assuredly not all) cultures around the world have adopted the practice of draping themselves with cuts of cloth situated for the coverage of uncomfortably exposed body parts. This is to a degree an expression of the evolutionary process, for man came to be man on African plains where bodily hair for warmth could be disposed of, and so did the bareness of human skin evolve. But then man spread out in a way that few other large animals ever do. And in so doing, man encountered climates which demanded cover against the cold, and indeed it was man's intellect, man's ability to defy nature even, which enabled the spread of the species to prevail even into arctic climes. Clothedness, then, was never any thing which originated in response to some imagined wrongful character of nakedness. To be sure, every human being is still born unclothed, though perhaps the prudes will someday imagine up a way to clothe the baby in the womb, so it is delivered with its naughty bits inoffensively covered. And even the most prudish, even the ones who have campaigned in the past to require zoos to put pants of chimpanzees, unashamedly experience at least some moments of nakedness in their homes, unless they are so pathological in their objection to nudity that they bathe, shower, sleep, and have sex all while clothed (or that they do none of these things).

A few other modern mores venture into the exceedingly unnatural. Monogamy, and its corollary legalistic expression, marriage. Precious few species of animals out there really do mate exclusively, or for life, and man in his natural state is decidedly not amongst them. Eating food which is cooked (no matter whether flora or fauna)? No beast of the wild does so except by some bizarre circumstance following a forest fire or volcanic eruption. Abortion? Animals experiencing scarcity while pregnant will give up their unborn rather than have it born into hunger which can not be fed -- though this is an unchosen process more akin to miscarriage than to the human activity of abortion, though that practice in humans may well be an expression of the same natural instinct. But the practice of going to a clinic for a late-term procedure to exact revenge against the wayward father of the fetus, that seems a more unnatural thing. In sum, there are a great many things which fall within not only the permissions, but even the expectations of our society which are deeply unnatural. But before anyone comes to condemn any behaviour for being unnatural, for God's sake, they ought to take their damned pants off!!

Monday, August 15, 2011

On The Evolution of the Pocket Watch

One of the more striking arguments (if you will pardon the pun) for the existence of a Creator-god is what is popularly known as the divine watchmaker argument. The argument suggests that things which are the product of an intelligent designer's design are immediately apparent to us by their complexity and intricacy.

It was British religionist William Paley, who perhaps most famously enunciated this contention when he wrote in his Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there.

Naturally, there remains (if you will pardon another pun) some grit in the gears of this argument -- for it seems to suppose that the pocket watch itself sprung fully-formed from the mind of man, needing and having neither antecedent technology nor a chain of ancestry for the men who invented it (and observe that the pocket watch is the technology of choice for this illustration because, naturally, the evolution of the wristwatch was yet incipient). In Paley's day, then, startling a conception as it may be, the pocket watch likely represented the very height of peacetime portable technological advancement -- and, indeed, more modern variations of the argument have substituted things such as 747 airliners and cellular phones (both of which by no small coincidence necessarily have time-keeping devices built into them). And yet, the very first 'pocket watch,' assembled at some early point in the 1510s, was necessarily made from some simple parts which had been made for only passingly similar purpose, or even for some other purposes entirely, but which were loosely and handily adapted for use in making that first pocket watch. Nor would it be correct to assume that the very first attempt to make a pocket watch was a complete success; surely it may have worked well enough to draw a few oohs and aahs, but as surely it was a primitive thing when put next to its more advanced descendents.

In fact, the earliest handily portable timekeeping devices which might be called 'pocket watches,' born in the early Sixteenth Century, were relatively heavy brass boxes several inches across, with a single hand -- an hour hand. Mechanisms able to accurately reflect smaller increments had not yet evolved. And even that hour hand didn't rightly tell the hours, typically tending to be off by several of them per day. Metal grillwork, instead of glass, covered the face, and the whole thing was combined by tapered pins and wedges, as screws usable for this purpose had not yet evolved either. Though they needed twice-daily winding to be kept running at all, they were as a practical matter useless as timekeeping devices, impossibly inaccurate and inconsistent. Their use was strictly ornamental, as baubles for show.

But the passage of time and generations of watchmakers developing new innovations, incorporating some and discarding others as obsolete or unhelpful, brought about a gradual and continual advance. Smaller and smaller gears shrank the whole of the thing; more finely tuned springs improved accuracy until it became feasible to add another hand to count off minutes. Lighter and more durable materials were found or innovated, the grillwork was replaced with a glass face. Eventually -- in the far future even from Paley's perspective -- inventions were added ranging from the second hand and a little window displaying the date, to the quartz crystal to keep time, to the watch battery and the digital display.

But were we to come upon even an Eighteenth Century pocket watch on the heath, though we might in an instant recognize it as the product of an intelligent craftsman's hand, we would in the same instant be as well assured that the watch was not produced by a person who had himself never studied watchmaking or some analogous art, nor seen or interacted with a pocket watch. Nor would we credibly assume that the only possible explanation for the existence of the pocket watch on the heath was that it was plopped into existence from nothing by an all-powerful genie who happens, for the sake of arbitrariness, to impose punishment on all people who eat grapes and wine in the same meal, or who have sex with others of a disfavored tribe.

Nor would we be justified in imagining any capacities for the watchmaker other than that he was physically and mentally up to the task of making this one watch, and -- possibly most intriguingly for this analogy -- that he had been taught the particulars of how to make that watch by someone initially more learned on the subject than himself, though the advance of knowledge necessitates that with the passage of generations, some future craftsman would indeed exceed their teachers and improve the craft itself. And so, if a pocket watch implies a watchmaker, it at the same time implies a string of predecessors to the watchmaker, each of whom taught the next and likely improved on the craft itself.

Nor, again, does the finding of the watch demonstrate that the ability to manufacture pocket watches has existed with man, the designer, since time immemorial. Even the hundred most able and intelligent men amongst the Ancients of Greece or Rome or the Dynasties of China would have been unable to build such a device. To the contrary, man began with no way to estimate time but for the following of the sun and moon, first with eyes alone, then with sundials and other stationary devices which caught and distributed their shadows. Then came hourglasses, water clocks, and candle clocks (which measured time by the stable melting time of candles of certain lengths), and finally, only after metallurgy and the consequent discovery of the spring, the true clockwork-mechanism time-telling devices. And even these took countless models, countless small improvements, occasional combinations of innovations, to go from nothing to the modern clock over a few thousand years -- an eyeblink in the vaster geological time scales over which the biological form of evolution occurs.

So, when someone proposes finding a pocketwatch on the heath and wonders how it got there, the accurate response is that it came from ancestors which sprang by unbidden coincidence from the elements, and evolved.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Temporal fortuity in light of the End of Cosmology

In 2007, astrophysicists Lawrence M. Krauss and Robert J. Scherrer published The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology, wherein they made certain remarkable projections about far future cosmology. Chief among these were the observations that the radiation remnants of the Big Bang were slowly evaporating, and that at the same time, the process of generation of new stars was working towards obscuring the initial chemical composition markers of our Universe. Most remarkably of all, they proposed that the The expansion of the universe is speeding up|expansion of our Universe was possibly accelerating, and that such would continue to the point where the rate of expansion of distances between galaxies would outpace the speed of light itself!!

Observe that, though the speed of light is an absolute limit, faster-than-light expansion is permissible in physics because it does not describe the speed at which anything actually 'travels,' the increasing distance between galaxies resulting from the increasing size of space itself, and not anything happening 'in' space. And so, concluded the paper, astronomers coming to the fore a few trillion years in the future would find no signal that a Big Bang had ever happened, either through telltale Cosmic Microwave Background, or through the chemical signature of our Universe pointing to such an event, or even through the observation of cosmic expansion visible in the continuing movement of all galaxies (or galactic clusters) away from every other.

In fact, once expansion of our Universe overtakes the speed of light, and the last light emitted leading up to that moment passes by the reaches of our world, all of our Universe from beyond our own galactic neighbourhood will disappear. Undetectable, it will be as though it never was. And the astronomer born in such a time will have no reason to imagine that anything ever did exist beyond the borders of our own galaxy (and perhaps one or two close companion galaxies tied to a common centre of mass, though it is predictable that in sufficient time, all galaxies locally attracted in this manner will collide and merge into one). They will live in what the authors describe as an 'Island Universe,' wherein they shall forever remain "It's the End of the World as We Know It|fundamentally incapable of determining the true nature of the universe, including the existence of the highly dominant vacuum energy, When we have reached the end of time and light|the existence of the CMB, and the primordial origin of light elements."

An Element of the Pandeistic:

Now, though Krauss is an outspoken critic of the idea of Intelligent Design (and perhaps rightfully so in respect to the ham-handed wholesale-plopped down life forms model of that theory), let us consider this circumstance in the light of the pandeistic model. Pandeism propose that ours is a created Universe, and that Creator became our Universe -- and, naturally, not just any sort of Universe, but one possessed of careful balances of fundamental constants, governing dynamics designed to bring about complexity. Such complexity would, in turn, eventually yield self-replicating molecular structures -- the building blocks of life itself. And life, once brought into existence, seems to find a way to continue in existence, including adapting copying errors -- mutations -- to its advantage by promoting those which are advantageous, a process which is inclined to bring about more and more intelligent beings.

But another aspect of our Universe which would be of vital importance to such a designer would be the capacity of intelligent life to go beyond this slow and steady natural process, and instead use that intelligence to 'crack the codes' of our Universe. Intelligence, once achieved, must be usable to figure out how and why electrons and atoms and DNA ribbons work as they do, and to use that knowledge to self accelerate. By this, we mean that intelligent life ought to be able to accomplish things like building machines capable of performing quick and massive calculations, and crafting substances capable of fighting disease. Eventually, such knowledge will rise to the point where the calculating devices may be integrated directly into our brains, and where the new disease fighting methods will be addended directly into our immune systems, possibly even through DNA modifications permanently affixing them to our species. But, more than that, Pandeism predicts that we ought to be able to crack the code of the origin of our Universe, to come into possession of the ability to detect the proofs of its age and state before those become obscured from perception by time and space.

Now then, it is possible to conceive a Universe wherein certain chemical reactions necessary to our evolution progress three-hundred times slower than our experience; in such a Universe, intelligent life might arise in four trillion years, instead of the 13.5 billion years which passed before this happened (that we know of) on Earth. A civilization arising in that era would see no signs that our Universe had a singular point of origin, a particular age, or even that it existed at all outside of our galaxy and perhaps one or two others positioned nearby. Atheism offers no explanation of why this ought not to be the case; and for theistic faiths, our current circumstance is positively anathema to such a Universe. For the theist who believes in a special and wholesale Creation of life on Earth especially, out of all the Universe -- and in young earth creationist
|a Creation of a relatively recent duration -- there is simply no reason that the nature of our Universe ought to be able to contradict their theistic account. There is no reason that massive stellar gravitational wells ought to have bent and tugged the light of stars billions of years distant into our view, no reason for us to be able to observe cosmic background radiation or distant stars midway through multi-billion year stages of development. Indeed, no reason at all for us to not exist in an 'Island Universe.'


I grant that, in light of this it remains conceivable that at some past point, perhaps mere millions of years after its birth, our Universe was at the centre of other companions, other Universes which quickly faded from our ability to detect or even contemplate them. Such other entities may have become invisible to us in the same way that the galaxies we current observe might become invisible to cosmologists of a far-distant future. But if so, then at least our capacity to gauge the ultimately transient nature of our own cosmic observations ought to inform us of the possibilities to be modelled, if not actually observed. And it remains with us, in our generations of advancement yet to come, to leave such signals as may be found by far flung future inhabitants of our galaxy, informing them of that which they are no longer able to observe. Indeed, such ought to be the responsibility of intelligent life arising in any galaxy, once this potentiality comes within the grasp of their knowledge. And so, in addition to the fortuitous circumstances of properties of matter and energy which suggest our Universe to be one designed to bring about life through a random-wandering billions-of-years process, we may now add temporal fortuity. For ours is a Universe wherein the capacity of intelligent life to gauge its own cosmic pedigree indeed balances upon the edge of a knife, thanks to the speed of evolution so far outstripping the speed of expansion of our Universe.


For those who are interested, here is an hour+ lecture by Krauss (minus two minutes of introduction delivered by Richard Dawkins), intriguingly outlining his entire cosmological schema from beginning to end....