Monday, December 27, 2010

Isaac Asimov on the Relativity of Wrong

Here's the original link

Isaac Asimov - The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 14 No. 1, Fall 1989

The Relativity of Wrong

pg.. 35-44

I RECEIVED a letter the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important. In the first sentence, the writer told me he was majoring in English literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, so I read on.)
It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the universe straight.
I didn't go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What's more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.
These are all twentieth-century discoveries, you see.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.
My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.
However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.
...When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree? Let's take an example.
In the early days of civilization, the general feeling was that the earth was flat. This was not because people were stupid, or because they were intent on believing silly things. They felt it was flat on the basis of sound evidence. It was not just a matter of "That's how it looks," because the earth does not look flat. It looks chaotically bumpy, with hills, valleys, ravines, cliffs, and so on.
Of course there are plains where, over limited areas, the earth's surface does look fairly flat. One of those plains is in the Tigris-Euphrates area, where the first historical civilization (one with writing) developed, that of the Sumerians.
Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days.
Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.
Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.
There were reasons, to be sure, to find the flat-earth theory unsatisfactory and, about 350 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle summarized them. First, certain stars disappeared beyond the Southern Hemisphere as one traveled north, and beyond the Northern Hemisphere as one traveled south. Second, the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse was always the arc of a circle. Third, here on the earth itself, ships disappeared beyond the horizon hull-first in whatever direction they were traveling.
All three observations could not be reasonably explained if the earth's surface were flat, but could be explained by assuming the earth to be a sphere.
What's more, Aristotle believed that all solid matter tended to move toward a common center, and if solid matter did this, it would end up as a sphere. A given volume of matter is, on the average, closer to a common center if it is a sphere than if it is any other shape whatever.
About a century after Aristotle, the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes noted that the sun cast a shadow of different lengths at different latitudes (all the shadows would be the same length if the earth's surface were flat). From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25,000 miles in circumference.
The curvature of such a sphere is about 0.000126 per mile, a quantity very close to 0 per mile, as you can see, and one not easily measured by the techniques at the disposal of the ancients. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.000126 accounts for the fact that it took so long to pass from the flat earth to the spherical earth.
Mind you, even a tiny difference, such as that between 0 and 0.000126, can be extremely important. That difference mounts up. The earth cannot be mapped over large areas with any accuracy at all if the difference isn't taken into account and if the earth isn't considered a sphere rather than a flat surface. Long ocean voyages can't be undertaken with any reasonable way of locating one's own position in the ocean unless the earth is considered spherical rather than flat.
Furthermore, the flat earth presupposes the possibility of an infinite earth, or of the existence of an "end" to the surface. The spherical earth, however, postulates an earth that is both endless and yet finite, and it is the latter postulate that is consistent with all later findings.
So, although the flat-earth theory is only slightly wrong and is a credit to its inventors, all things considered, it is wrong enough to be discarded in favor of the spherical-earth theory.
And yet is the earth a sphere?
No, it is not a sphere; not in the strict mathematical sense. A sphere has certain mathematical properties&emdash;for instance, all diameters (that is, all straight lines that pass from one point on its surface, through the center, to another point on its surface) have the same length.
That, however, is not true of the earth. Various diameters of the earth differ in length.
What gave people the notion the earth wasn't a true sphere? To begin with, the sun and the moon have outlines that are perfect circles within the limits of measurement in the early days of the telescope. This is consistent with the supposition that the sun and the moon are perfectly spherical in shape.
However, when Jupiter and Saturn were observed by the first telescopic observers, it became quickly apparent that the outlines of those planets were not circles, but distinct eclipses. That meant that Jupiter and Saturn were not true spheres.
Isaac Newton, toward the end of the seventeenth century, showed that a massive body would form a sphere under the pull of gravitational forces (exactly as Aristotle had argued), but only if it were not rotating. If it were rotating, a centrifugal effect would be set up that would lift the body's substance against gravity, and this effect would be greater the closer to the equator you progressed. The effect would also be greater the more rapidly a spherical object rotated, and Jupiter and Saturn rotated very rapidly indeed.
The earth rotated much more slowly than Jupiter or Saturn so the effect should be smaller, but it should still be there. Actual measurements of the curvature of the earth were carried out in the eighteenth century and Newton was proved correct.
The earth has an equatorial bulge, in other words. It is flattened at the poles. It is an "oblate spheroid" rather than a sphere. This means that the various diameters of the earth differ in length. The longest diameters are any of those that stretch from one point on the equator to an opposite point on the equator. This "equatorial diameter" is 12,755 kilometers (7,927 miles). The shortest diameter is from the North Pole to the South Pole and this "polar diameter" is 12,711 kilometers (7,900 miles).
The difference between the longest and shortest diameters is 44 kilometers (27 miles), and that means that the "oblateness" of the earth (its departure from true sphericity) is 44/12755, or 0.0034. This amounts to l/3 of 1 percent.
To put it another way, on a flat surface, curvature is 0 per mile everywhere. On the earth's spherical surface, curvature is 0.000126 per mile everywhere (or 8 inches per mile). On the earth's oblate spheroidal surface, the curvature varies from 7.973 inches to the mile to 8.027 inches to the mile.
The correction in going from spherical to oblate spheroidal is much smaller than going from flat to spherical. Therefore, although the notion of the earth as a sphere is wrong, strictly speaking, it is not as wrong as the notion of the earth as flat.
Even the oblate-spheroidal notion of the earth is wrong, strictly speaking. In 1958, when the satellite Vanguard I was put into orbit about the earth, it was able to measure the local gravitational pull of the earth--and therefore its shape--with unprecedented precision. It turned out that the equatorial bulge south of the equator was slightly bulgier than the bulge north of the equator, and that the South Pole sea level was slightly nearer the center of the earth than the North Pole sea level was.
There seemed no other way of describing this than by saying the earth was pear-shaped, and at once many people decided that the earth was nothing like a sphere but was shaped like a Bartlett pear dangling in space. Actually, the pearlike deviation from oblate-spheroid perfect was a matter of yards rather than miles, and the adjustment of curvature was in the millionths of an inch per mile.
In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
This can be pointed out in many cases other than just the shape of the earth. Even when a new theory seems to represent a revolution, it usually arises out of small refinements. If something more than a small refinement were needed, then the old theory would never have endured.
Copernicus switched from an earth-centered planetary system to a sun-centered one. In doing so, he switched from something that was obvious to something that was apparently ridiculous. However, it was a matter of finding better ways of calculating the motion of the planets in the sky, and eventually the geocentric theory was just left behind. It was precisely because the old theory gave results that were fairly good by the measurement standards of the time that kept it in being so long.
Again, it is because the geological formations of the earth change so slowly and the living things upon it evolve so slowly that it seemed reasonable at first to suppose that there was no change and that the earth and life always existed as they do today. If that were so, it would make no difference whether the earth and life were billions of years old or thousands. Thousands were easier to grasp.
But when careful observation showed that the earth and life were changing at a rate that was very tiny but not zero, then it became clear that the earth and life had to be very old. Modern geology came into being, and so did the notion of biological evolution.
If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.
The Greeks introduced the notion of latitude and longitude, for instance, and made reasonable maps of the Mediterranean basin even without taking sphericity into account, and we still use latitude and longitude today.
The Sumerians were probably the first to establish the principle that planetary movements in the sky exhibit regularity and can be predicted, and they proceeded to work out ways of doing so even though they assumed the earth to be the center of the universe. Their measurements have been enormously refined but the principle remains.
Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What is the Evolutionary Benefit of Art?

Is art only a more highly developed offshoot of our drive to procreate? In other words, is art a nice accident of our cognitive abilities being a desired feature for mating purposes? And on a more basic level, is art or any other human behavior always and only predicated on propagation of the species? Is everything always about sex?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Evolutionary Christianity

A series of discussions/interviews will be occurring starting today (in fact, right now) through to Epiphany on the issues related to Christian faith and evolution at the site Evolutionary Christianity. The speakers run the gamut from orthodox evangelicals such as John Polkinghorne and Dennis Lamoureux to theological liberals like John Shelby Spong. Therefore each needs to be considered critically, but I am looking forward to hearing the range of views over the next several weeks. If you're interested in the relationship of faith and science, especially evolutionary science, this should prove to be quite valuable.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Whither Christian essentials?

What should Christians who accept evolutionary biology declare to be "essential" to an orthodox Christian faith? For me there are several essentials that if they were given up would evacuate the Christian faith of any meaning and substance. First off, that there is one eternal Creator God which created all that is, whether physical or spiritual. I would add that this creation was from nothing, otherwise known as ex nihilo. Yet I understand that other Christians differ on whether this belongs to the essential category. I put it there because of the nature of God being eternal and before all things, thus anything other-than-God must be created, and ultimately that means it came from nothing into being. Unless we hold to a kind of pantheism or panentheism which has the created world being part of God. My understanding of the biblical text is traditionally theistic whch sees a sharp divide between the creator and the creation.

Another essential to the faith for me is the centrality of Christ in salvation. Whether you hold to a strictly exclusive understanding of salvation (no one can be saved apart from a conscious faith in Christ as savior) or a more inclusive understanding (Christ is still the only way to the Father, but there are hidden Christians, or a second chance to choose Christ after death) is not my main concern. The biblical witness is clear that reconciliation with God is conditioned upon Christ's work on the cross and especially in his resurrection.

Which is a nice segue to another essential that if rejected leaves Christianity being nothing more than another moralistic philosophy that's essentially indistinguishable from other belief systems. Miracles. In particular the miracle of Jesus' virgin birth, his miracles throughout his ministry, and ultimately his resurrection from the dead. Paul, not to mention the other apostles, makes it clear that their faith was predicated on Christ rising from the dead and therefore defeating death itself. If this didn't happen then Christianity is just another ultimately meaningless philosophy, no better, no worse. Actually it would be worse, because it claims to be more and if that's not true, then it would be guilty of knowingly lying about one of the most essential questions in life: What happens after death?

And since I opened this with a reference to those who, like me, accept evolutionary biology as true, is belief in an historical Adam and Eve necessary to an orthodox faith? I happen to believe that they were historical people. But I don't believe they were the only humans around at that time. Thus I have no problem with the necessity of a thousand or more early humans to provide the genetic diversity that we see in the human genome. I see them as representative figures standing as federal heads over all of humanity, just in the same way that Christ is the federal head over all those who are under him. So I would say that Adam was historically real, first of all because the rest of the biblical writers assumed that to be so, especially Paul, but also because there is no reason to reject his historicity for scientific reasons if he's seen as a federal head as mentioned above. It's when he's seen as the sole progenitor of all humans that we run into serious scientific problems. Ironically that same literalistic reading of early Genesis also sees the same genetic bottleneck with Noah as Adam. because if the flood was worldwide (btw, I don't believe the flood was worldwide) and only Noah's family survived, then we're once again stuck with the same genetic problem as we saw with Adam. So Adam makes the cut in my scheme, though I'm not sure how essential he is to an orthodox faith. But at least in my reading, he's really important in light of what the rest of scripture says.

There are of course many other doctrinal issues, some more important than others, involved in the Christian faith, not to mention the myriad practical aspects to being a true Christian such as charity, mercy, purity of heart, etc. Christianity, while it is a cognitive faith, is so much more than that. And it isn't a true Christianity that is only cognitive without the moral life being lived out.

So is this enough? Are there other essentials that need to be included? Is it too much? What might you drop in my list as an unnecessary burden?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Did Neanderthals Possess the imago dei?

I just read a fascinating piece about the relationship between early humans and Neanderthals at the Big Ideas blog. Realizing that early humans and Neanderthals "coexisted" and even interbred, made me wonder if we should consider them to also have the imago dei? This of course strays into a couple of different and tenuous areas of inquiry. One has to do with the fact that any interaction between the two groups would necessarily have to have occurred more than 20,000 years ago, when Neanderthals went extinct. That immediately pushes back at any literal reading of the creation narrative, which among young earth creationists, typically sees the earth as being less than 10,000 years old. It also raises the very basic but also notoriously difficult question of what does it even mean to possess the imago dei or the image of God? So if our ancient DNA was complementary enough so that we could interbreed with our Neanderthal cousins, a DNA difference that would need to be less than 3% for successful breeding to occur, can we legitimately say that we homo sapiens  have the imago dei, but the Neanderthals didn't?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Big Bang, Big Boom

BIG BANG BIG BOOM - the new wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

A great stop action short giving an artist portrayal of how life started and may end. Brilliant and troubling.
ht/ Derek Webb, Charles Johnson

Friday, April 30, 2010

My Primordial Post!

Rod Dreher has a good piece today about a new book that just came out called Science vs Religion. I haven't gotten this one yet myself, but I hope to and it sounds quite promising. These are exciting times to be a scientifically literate Christian. More resources are coming out every day and the evangelical church really needs to take notice if it hopes to have any future as a viable voice to the next generation.