Chapter One – Miracles and Explanations
` As Point of Goodness has commented (on my last post), Skepticism is a paradigm because it makes assumptions. When I had the chance, I countered that its only real assumption is that objective reality exists outside of our heads. (By the way, Galtron, I like that joke about the Red King. You bad.)
` Indeed, objectivity is the core assumption of science and Skepticism in general – a ‘real world’ exists, and we can all agree upon it. And since the world is not relative to different people's existences, experimental results are consistent with one another (as long as conditions are identical).
` Even if we have to imagine a concept – say, the atom – without the benefit of direct evidence, there is still more than enough consistency in the workings of the world to infer its existence. And yet, there is no certainty that it exists, because atoms have never actually been observed.
` As Raymo puts it:
Science is based upon our ability to imagine what we cannot see: nuclear reactions in the cores of stars, the spinning of galaxies, the dervish dance of DNA…. Science takes as given that a real world exists “out there,” and that it can be represented, albeit imperfectly, in the world of ideas. We struggle mightily to make the partition between the imagined world and the real world as transparent as possible.` So you see, many things cannot be seen to exist directly, and yet scientists reason that they must exist on account of their being so plainly practical to make sense of the real world!
` No scientist will dispute that “atom” is a made-up concept; however, the concept “atom” is the most concise way – perhaps the only way – to make sense of our detailed, quantitative experience of the material world. Without the concept “atom,” chemistry, X-ray crystallography, nuclear energy, thermodynamics, and other broad territories of external experience make no sense at all. Indeed, so transparent is the partition between “atom” and experience that most scientists would say that atoms are “facts,” or at least so close to being facts that no quotation marks are called for.
` Biologist Richard Dawkins has suggested that the way in which children are so eager to accept what their parents tell them has been strengthened by natural selection because those kids who mind a parent’s warning are not as likely to put themselves in danger. (“Putting Away Childish Things”, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan-Feb 1995.) In other words, taking the word of someone who has experienced danger that you have not may save your life, therefore increasing your chances of passing down your genes. (And, of course, genes probably have some influence over just how obedient one is, at least early on in life when people are young and ignorant.)
` It is this credulity, you see, that also makes children receptive to other ideas, such as the Tooth Fairy. Eventually, however, children question these things and eventually discover that there is no evidence for them – perhaps even evidence against them (parents caught in the act of swapping money for lost teeth).
` Here is where the Tooth Fairy, mentally mapped as ‘something that exists’ becomes a mental map of ‘neat-but-pretend’ childhood mythology.
` Many times, however, these children grow up into adults who do not at least try very hard to distinguish between what they map as ‘true’ and what they map as ‘neat-but-pretend’ abstract conventions. They do not bother to seriously question other ideas that have just as little evidence for them, even if there is evidence against them! This is because they require certain emotional and aesthetic needs to be met.
` What these needs are, I can’t say I understand yet myself. All I require for my mental well-being is to be healthy and mentally acute; to have a lab that is in working order; to have the ability to be creative, and to educate myself; to have my mad scientist friends, and means of communicating with them.
` It’s quite simple, really. However, I trust that other people know what they are talking about when they say that they themselves or others have a ‘deeper need’ in life. As far as what Raymo has to say:
We get in trouble when the two kinds of [mental] maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need….[M]any of us accept the astrological influence of the stars on our lives because it satisfies an inner need, even in the face of convincing evidence to the contrary (every objective test of astrology has proved negative).` In other words, it takes imagination in order to perceive the world, no matter if one is a True Believer or a Skeptic.
` The True Believer retains in adulthood an absolute faith in some forms of empirically unverifiable make-believe (such as astrology or the existence of immortal souls), whereas the Skeptic keeps a wary eye even on firmly established facts (such as atoms). Both Skeptic and True Believer use made-up maps of the world.
` For example, it takes imagination to think of the way carbon dating works. There are two kinds of carbon isotopes – one is called carbon-12 (six protons, six neutrons) and the other is carbon-14 (six protons, eight neutrons). Carbon-12 nuclei are stable, while those of carbon-14 are radioactive and will decay. Precisely every 5,568 years, half of the carbon-14 atoms will disintegrate. But, because carbon-14 is being created at a constant rate, the ratio of the two isotopes are fairly stable in the atmosphere, and in living things.
` When an organism dies, it stops taking in either isotope: The carbon-12 levels in its remains will actually stay the same while the carbon-14 decays more and more, changing the ratio of isotopes.
` We know that the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,568 years because it has been matched to objects with a known age: For example, it has been calibrated against both historical objects of various times as well as the ring count of ancient trees.
` So, it is an evident fact of nature that carbon-14 decays at a certain rate, though it takes some real mental imagery to picture the atoms and their pattern of disintegration. It is not directly observable with the naked eye, and so it is no surprise that some people have doubted carbon-14 dating in all or at least certain cases, usually for faith-based reasons.
` Case in point, says Raymo, is the Church-commissioned study of the Shroud of Turin. (P.E. Damon, D.J. Donahue and B.H. Gore, “Radioactive Dating of the Shroud of Turin,” Nature 337 (Feb 16, 1989): 311-15) Having been woven from flax, its fibers were once alive and growing. In the light of carbon-14 dating, the question is; ‘When did the plants die?’
` Answering this was a complex process – first, there needed to be controls in order to keep the experimenters blind as to the identity of the shroud, as well as more than one team involved in order to see if the test was repeatable.
` For the controls, a 900-year-old piece of linen from a Nubian tomb was commissioned, along with a bit of St. Louis D’Anjou’s clothing from 800 years ago, and a snippet of second-century linen from Cleopatra’s mummy.
` One set of these controls were sent with a bit of the Shroud to a lab in Zurich, another was sent to Oxford, and another was sent to Tuscon, Arizona. Each team was not told where any of the samples were from, and none of them communicated with one another until they had completed the tests.
` As it turned out, all of the labs came up with the correct results for the control samples, and each determined that the flax making up the Shroud of Turin was harvested during the mid-fourteenth century – a time of many false shrouds and similar artwork. This is consistent with historical evidence, because there is no record of its existence before that time.
` The test was carefully controlled and objective, nothing was suspicious, and so the Church officials accepted the results. The end.
` Keep in mind, however, that scientific tests of any kind cannot prove anything with absolute certainty, though such well-designed tests, where everything adds up, are convincing enough for a Skeptic. True Believers, on the other hand, have the ability to ignore scientific tests as relatively airtight as these and try to explain them away.
` One argument for this one is that the body of the risen Christ added extra neutrons to the carbon-14, making it only appear as young as its first appearance in historical documents. In other words, the argument involves adding on something that no one has any reason to think has ever happened, nor can anyone explain why a neutron discharge would occur (physically or with reference to the bible).
` Other arguments involve bacteria adding on carbon-14, and the presence of pollen from Jesus’ burial grounds. However, no such bacteria or pollen (nor first-century Roman coins, etc.) have been detected under the closest scrutiny.
` ...I may be going off on a rant here, but I don’t even understand how blood or other fluids on a dead body could be expected to imprint the body parts they cover on a burial cloth in only two dimensions - something that wraps all the way around a body could only be printed in three dimensions: The nose, for example, would be about three inches wide, and the ears would be five inches or so from either side of the nose!
` Anyone familiar with this concept would expect the image of a body on a burial shroud to resemble the distorted-looking shape of a stretched-out animal hide rather than a picture of the same animal when it was alive, because that animal’s skin once covered its entire body.
` However, it turns out that – despite claims to the contrary – the rust-colored substance on the shroud is red ochre paint and does not contain blood or embalming fluid. In other words, it was evidently painted by an artist. Nevertheless, even if it were a real burial shroud of some sort (or at least made by wrapping a bloodied person in a linen cloth), that the flax was evidently alive until the 1300’s tells us that there is no reason to think it could be a burial shroud of anyone before that time.
` Ah, but I am rambling in my clarification. Back to the book:
` Raymo recalls that, as a young boy going to Catholic school, “the Shroud of Turin was offered to me as evidence for the risen Christ, and therefore for the truth of Christianity.” Back then, miracles were the evidence for his beliefs. Until he began college.
The text we used for my freshman theology class was Frank Sheed’s Theology and Sanity, the thrust of which was that any sane person must be a Roman Catholic, so persuasive is the evidence for the objective truth of that faith. Meanwhile, I was studying science and discovering a way of constructing mental maps of the world that allowed no place for miracles.` He explains that on its own, any one miracle can be explained by things already familiar to science – it is only when you add up all these supposed miracles that evidence for them appears to be substantial. Then again, one does not need ‘one-time’ miracles to be amazed.
` This is not to say that science proves miracles are impossible. One does not prove the invalidity of a miracle by showing that it is inconsistent with the laws of nature. It is the nature of miracles – the strength of their force as evidence – that they violate natural law. Science works by finding consistent patterns in nature; miracles, if they occur, are by definition one-time things. In my university science classes, I did not learn that miracles are impossible, but that there is no reliable evidence that they occur.
` Says Raymo; ‘None of the miracles I had been offered in my religious training were as impressively revealing of God’s power as the facts I was learning in science.’ Also, said John Donne in 1627; ‘There is nothing that God hath established in a constant course of nature, and which is therefore done every day, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.’
` Of course… of course! Plenty of mundane things do seem miraculous – the changing colors of leaves in the fall, their death, and then the rebirth of new leaves. If that only happened once, I am sure that everyone who bore witness to this would flip out. Can you imagine people saying; “The leaves! They turned orange! And then they fell out – for months we thought the trees were cursed! But then, each and every leaf was replaced with a new one… it was like nothing had happened!”
` Or, what about gravity? Buoyancy? The fact that anyone can walk? The process of dead things rotting and becoming plant food? The fact that plants take in their energy from the sun? It is all fairly wondrous, and I’m sure that the idea would seem so for anyone confined to a space station without much in the way of terrestrial life and such.
` But, for our non-space-station confined readers, Raymo gives the example of the life cycle of a sandpiper called the red knot, which travels over 18,000 miles every year in a specific pattern: At one step in the cycle, the birds spend the southern summer in Tierra del Fuego in order to moult and build up their strength in preparation for the long journey north. In early February, flocks of hundreds or thousands of birds sail through the sky over Argentina and Brazil, occasionally stopping to eat at the same specific points along the way. By the time they get to the northern coast of South America, they take a nonstop flight over the Atlantic ocean until, in mid-May, they finally ground themselves in the marshlands of Delaware Bay.
` At this time, the horseshoe crabs are laying millions of eggs, and so the red knots, hungry from their flight, begin feasting: One bird can eat 135,000 of these eggs. After this crucial gorging, the now-replenished birds head off north of Hudson Bay to the Canadian archipelago.
` By this time, it is summer in the northern hemisphere, and so it is fine weather for the birds to pair up and start families. Soon after the chicks hatch, they are developed well enough to walk, and they continue to rapidly develop until they are both properly feathered and robust enough to fly.
` Halfway through July, the females take off by themselves for the south, and the males follow a few weeks later. The young ones, by this time, are quite tough enough to take care of themselves, so it is not until late August that they also head south.
` This is the most astonishing part: They follow the migration route used by their ancestors – using the exact same feeding grounds and everything! – from northern Canada, to the shores of New England, across the Atlantic to Guyana and Suriname, and along the eastern coast of South America.
` So, the amazing ‘miracle’ is this; how do the juvenile birds, without having ever left their natal grounds, spontaneously spring into the air and travel 9,000 miles along a specific string of stopping points and across an ocean, to a place they have never seen before? Even with the help of the earth’s magnetic fields, polarized light, the sun, the moon, and the stars, the question remains; how do they know that route?
` Obviously, that specific course must be ‘plotted’ into the migratory instincts of this species, as they take no other way, nor are they likely to get lost. It is a very specific course, and there is little room for error. Apparently, the animals that had a faulty idea of what they needed to do for survival were removed from the gene pool, thereby reinforcing the correct route. Only the survivors – ones that proved themselves able to fly south and then back to the breeding grounds – were able to breed, thereby passing on their genes.
` Truly, DNA is a wonderful thing, and yet it is so simple: Two twists of phosphate and sugar molecules joined in the middle by four different types of nucleotides – adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thyamine (T). To make things even less complex, adenine can only pair with thymine, and cytosine can only pair with guanine, so the only linkages found in DNA can be A-T, T-A, G-C and C-G. (Of course, this limited pairing is the reason why DNA can replicate – it ‘unzips’ itself down the middle and so each half can only be assembled into a whole in only one way.)
` Considering that each strand of DNA contains billions of nucleotides, the pieces of it that actually constitute genetic code are not very substantial. And yet, this small bit of four-letter-coded information is enough to create an entire organism, including a bird that comes pre-wired with a map and strategic navigation skills, no learning necessary.
` …How this came to be in the first place, I don’t know. (It might help me to have ornithologist friends here.) Perhaps the ancestors of red knots actually stayed with their young ones and guided them to Tierra del Fuego. Eventually, the migration route began to program itself into the wiring of the birds’ brains, as it is a matter of life and death to keep oneself on course – the ones which strayed off the path were the ones who died.
` The survivors, which were born with at least a rough idea of the course, did not necessarily need to fly with their parents. At that time, the adults could begin migration whenever it was most convenient to avoid competition with one another over food and whatnot.
` Plausible as my top-of-the-head hypothesis might be, it may have actually happened another way. After all, the migration of Monarch butterflies requires a series of generations – each butterfly migrates but one leg of the journey, reproduces, and then dies. Yet, though this sounds baffling, the process of attaining this genetic information might be deceptively simple.
` I’d have to ask an entomologist/geneticist for ideas. In any case, things that really do happen every day are quite astounding when you think about them. Who needs miracles to wonder at when you have red knots?
` That is all for today. Though, as I now have more of these completed, I promise not to force any interested person to wait terribly long for the next installment. And if you thought it couldn’t get any better, the next one has a pretty, shiny picture in it!