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Posts Tagged ‘Sagan’

Cosmology and science

Let me offer two examples of the confusion of science and cosmology.

The Berenstein bears

Although I was never a fan of the Berenstein Bears, we did have at least one or two books in the house, and I remember coming across quite an odd little piece. The young bears were going on a nature walk or something, and one of them asked the fundamental question: what is nature? The answer was something like: “Nature is everything that is, or was, or ever will be.”

That’s not science, not natural science; it’s cosmology. Neither nature walks nor the natural sciences cover everything; specifically, they don’t cover the manner in which we come to make statements about all of existence throughout all of time like Papa Bear. We not only make such statements, but we believe that they are meaningful and true; again, these beliefs do not come from the realm of the natural sciences, for they cannot be verified in the quantitative, observational manner that is the hallmark of the natural sciences. Rather, they are rightly discussed from the combined perspective of common sense on the one hand and logic on the other. This combination is the leading edge of philosophy. These questions can, that is, be approached by reason, and by reasoning from evidence to conclusions, but the whole discussion is not part of the natural sciences.

In philosophy, the rules of evidence include things that cannot be measured. Philosophy works on things that are clear to us in our intellectual lives, but they cannot always be observed in the outward sense. Saying that “nature,” as in, “what you study on a nature walk,” is everything that is or was or will be is a sly reference to the prayer that praises God who is, who was in the beginning, and who ever shall be. Papa Bear is hereby suggesting that a good scientist is either a pantheist (thinking the whole cosmology is God) or an atheist who thinks there is no God, since nature is everything.

We can call him Papa Sagan, for he is taking this line from that old (20th century) pagan.

Call him what you may, this is not a correct definition of nature as the topic of the natural sciences. It is a statement of cosmology masquerading as a definition of science.

Giordano Bruno

You will have heard of Copernicus, and that he wrote a book explaining his reasons for thinking that the sun must be at the center of the cosmos. At the time he wrote it, the Church was trying to figure out the motions of the heavens so as to be able to calculate the actual date of the first day of spring and thereby plan her Easter celebration in relation to that day. Copernicus studied and wrote at the request of one pope, and his model of the universe (submitted 40 years later to a different pope) was of no concern at that time and he was not particularly criticized except in Lutheran circles where the literal reading of the Bible was a demand of doctrine.

For scientists of the day, the hardest thing about the Copernican model was the recognition that if Copernicus was right, the universe must be enormously much larger than they had thought. Saturn, for example, must be 700,000 miles away. It was simply unbelievable! (Actually, it’s more like 700 million miles away, but never mind that.)

Well, there was an Italian, named Jordano Bruno, who read Copernicus and became quite excited about the new map of the heavens. He understood the enlargement and quickly got comfortable with it. He understood and accepted the idea that the sun might be a star like other stars. So far, so good. Also, he had a prodigious memory, and he went around showing off his memory and teaching his memory tricks. Teaching the tricks was both interesting and important because some people thought he must be practicing sorcery to remember so much. Sharing his tricks helped prevent that story from becoming too dangerous.

Nevertheless, Bruno was definitely a smarty pants, deeply persuaded that his superior intelligence could not fail him. He reasoned, therefore, with no hesitation, that all the innumerable stars were other suns:

  1. in an infinite series,
  2. each with other earths,
  3. each earth with other peoples,
  4. each people with its own redeemer son of God, its own Christ
  5. and therefore the intelligent man should give up not only the celestial centrality of the sun, but also the cosmic uniqueness and centrality of Jesus Christ.

It was natural that such a string of reasoning should occur to someone, but none of the five listed steps was a necessary conclusion from the evidence, and in fact each step was erroneous, the first three being now demonstrably erroneous, and the others therefore having no reason to follow, either then or now.

What happens with a man like Bruno is that some people take his part because, in certain ways, he’s the smartest man around – or seems to be; of course you want to bet on the smart guy. Other people back away and mumble that “smarts isn’t everything,” whereupon they are considered stupid; maybe they are, maybe not; maybe they feel, correctly but without being able to express it, that he is thinking a little too fast for the size of his thoughts. There are only relatively few men who clearly see that not one of these five steps is actually demanded by logic or reason; only a few can explain why some of them must fall by the wayside.

In fact, reasons to reject Bruno’s conclusions quickly surfaced, not only in theology but in other fields of thought.

But my point is that this was a confusion of science and cosmology.

Now, just to close this topic: it is fairly well-known that Bruno was burned at stake for his opinions. His modern-day advocates claim that he was burned for being a Copernican, and he might have said so himself, but as you can see, the truth is a little larger. He was a heretic, as Copernicus was not.

Many people also know that Cardinal Robert Bellarmine stayed up with Bruno the entire night before the burning trying to dissuade Bruno from his opinions, for Bellarmine was deeply troubled about the whole business. Bruno boasted that Bellarmine was more upset about his burning than he was. In that, Bruno may have been right. It is a fact that, for the next quarter-century and not because he had nothing else to do, Bellarmine personally made sure the Galileo was protected. Galileo was not brought before the inquisition until after Bellamine died, and even at that point, the measures Bellarmine had taken probably saved Galileo’s life.

That said, let us return to the question: how much credence should we give to science? Perhaps we are asking: how much credence should we give to what some scientists call the inevitable cosmological consequences of science?

And the answer to that is: maybe some, but maybe none at all. The information we find in the natural sciences does have a cosmological echo and sometimes also consequence. But scientists are not always qualified to recognize those consequences. Sometimes they are not sufficiently restrained about drawing conclusions in a field they really don’t know.

TBC

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How likely intelligence?

Carl Sagan, the great scientific pagan of the mid-20th century, estimated that there must be at least 10,000 inhabited planets per galaxy. It would be ridiculous to think we had the universe to ourselves. He was very famous, and the number was repeated again and again.

Still — no sign of anyone else.

In 1965, Penzias & Wilson found the radio signal that Gamov had said would vindicate LeMaitre’s Big Bang and lock physics into a finite universe. The universe was not eternal; it had an age, and in consequence of its age, it had a finite dimension, somewhere between 1024 and 1027th meters. We had a universe size at last. Not perfectly definite, but fairly so. Not infinite. Not even as much as 30 billion light years in diameter. Probably 13 or 14 billion light years radius.

1027 * 1024 * 1021 galaxy size * 1018 * 1015 *

1012 * 109 sun size * 106 * 103 * 100 =1 people size

10-3 * 106 * 10-9 molecules * 10-12 * 10-15

Just at the turn of the century, Robert Jastrow of NASA wrote a book called God and the Astronomers, in which he acknowledged that this discovery had forced him to abandon a lifetime of atheism, and he invited his Catholic subordinate, John O’Keefe, to write an Afterword. O’Keefe had several interesting things to say, including a suggestion on how to approach the relative likelihood of other intelligent life. It could be very simple. If there were, say, 23 independent conditions for the development of intelligent life, and if each one had a 10% chance of turning up near a given star, then the chance of developing life in the universe would be 1/1023rd. That is about the number of stars in the universe. If the conditions were more likely, then we should continue to look around; if less, we’re probably alone.

This was much better than just by saying, “Gee, it’s awful big for just one human race.” Math is always nice; you can get somewhere.

In the 1990’s Ward and Brownlee came along with a book, Rare Earth, which listed all the known conditions for life, including very unexpected conditions such as tectonic plate motions. Many of the conditions were much less than 10% likely and they concluded that, yes, we might be the only ones.

The sense of human specialness was again on the march. It deepened as further consideration of the Big Bang – the explosion at the origin of the universe – showed that it had to have been incredibly specific in order to work – too intense and the universe would have blown to dust without forming stars, planets, or people – too slight and matter would have been recaptured by gravity before it had time to form stars, planets, or people. It was very, very special. The sort of exactitude its numbers required went to 51 decimal places, which is about what it would take to locate your nose within the solar system — the entire system, out to the furthest comets.

It began to look as if the intelligent radio signal had indeed been found, right there in the Big Bang, and it meant that our one intelligent companion was the creator.

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