Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Morality and empathy

Philosophical materialists are in effect claiming that free will does not exist and that  all thought is illusory, including presumably all the findings of science from evolution by natural selection to cosmology. Philosophical materialism is the belief that reality consists exclusively of matter and energy.
If you do not regularly read popular science magazines you may find this incredible but only today I came across an old New Scientist cover story with the headline ‘THE GRAND DELUSION: everything you think is an illusion’. (This statement is meaningless unless there is a reality somewhere, since the very word illusion means a departure from reality.)

The latest illusion to emerge from materialists is that empathy, evolving out of the natural world, is the source of morality.  This is indeed an illusion.

Empathy is defined in the web dictionary as ‘understanding and entering into another’s feelings’.  It could be broadened to include seeing the world from another’s perspective, a capacity of particular value in business negotiations, for instance. Morality, however, is defined as ‘concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong; right or good conduct’. If a person is moved to do good, say by helping someone being bullied, then empathy can be a powerful tool in deciding the needs of the person being helped. If empathy is absent it makes it more difficult to gauge a person’s feelings and so act to build up or sooth that person. However, it says nothing about the moral worth of an action.

Empathy can be an instrument of the most extreme evil, such as deriving pleasure from the gratuitous infliction of mental or physical suffering on another person. An example of a lesser evil where empathy would be useful to the perpetrator would be in personally and deliberately deceiving a victim into losing money in a confidence trick.  

It is true, fortunately, that empathy is mostly employed in the cause of goodness because acts of charity are more likely to take place when we identify with a suffering person and it also helps in the practicalities of help, e.g. in enlisting the cooperation of others, since it is easier to judge who will donate their time or money if you can empathise with them and if they in turn empathise with you they will more likely recognise your sincerity and feel impelled to offer assistance.

Yet it is also common for those having low empathy to do good simply because they recognise right from wrong and do not want people to suffer. As believers they want to serve God by serving the children of God. If they are non-believers they think they are doing it from their own sense of right and wrong, which I maintain still derives from our Creator which the non-believer is too proud to acknowledge, believing himself to be the authority for righteousness, or misled into accepting the precepts of some self-appointed authority, say Marx.

I have often wondered how much empathy was around during the Holocaust. If empathy is a purely naturalistic phenomenon one would have expected it to be as common among the thousands of perpetrators as among the population at large. It cannot be denied that some kind of evil was at work, both during the mass executions and in the 1920s and 1930s when German nationalism was coming to a climax. Perhaps the source of evil, which many call Satan or the Devil, is able to eclipse or magnify empathy in the cause of evil.

This may sound unscientific, but not as unscientific as the statements emanating from some scientists – hopefully a minority, otherwise science is doomed to ridicule, withdrawal of funding and oblivion. See also the 5-fold threat to science.

Peace on earth rests on facing the truth in a spirit of humility before our Creator. Pride is perhaps the greatest sin because it gets in the way of truth and eventually, relentlessly, divorces individuals and whole nations from God and sanity and plunges them into hell on earth.

reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Fighting bacteria

The media in the UK at least has recently been full of concern verging on hysteria about the possibility of bacteria gaining resistance to all known antibiotics. The mechanisms by which germs infect the body and overcome antibiotics is phenomenally complex and anything but random. Often one hears about how bacteria mutate into new forms, almost as though they just randomly and magically transformed themselves from one microscopic bullet into another, so that eventually a form would emerge which could beat the antibodies which protect against them.

One look at even an instructional website for laymen like me shows the daunting complexity of the biomolecular processes at work in what looks like a fight of good against evil in a science fiction movie. See, e.g. see a previous post on the engineering miracle of a bacterium.  In particular it needs to be born in mind that when healthy or hostile bacteria (germs) mutate they do not do so at random but in a way which is structured in both time and space. The mutation process responds to the situation, such as a threat, and occurs only in selected parts of the genome – i.e. parts of the bacterial genome which are involved in essential functions like reproduction do not mutate.  See, e.g., this research from the Francis Crick Institute in Cambridge.

The germs also only attack when they reach a critical number. They know when this number is reached by communicating via signalling molecules called autoinducers, and this process is known as quorum sensing. If potentially harmful bacteria get wrong data they don’t attack at the right time.  So if the signalling between germs could be confused or disrupted this would render them harmless and this strategy is being explored.

Knowing little about biology I am nevertheless puzzled by the apparent absence of antibiotic research based on the recent discovery of bacteria totally isolated for millions of years in an underground cave. It suggests the possibility that there are bacteria in nature already resistant to all antibiotics we are likely to develop in future.

 In a way this does not seems surprising. The medicines used against harmful bacteria are all from a natural world that has been around for many millions of years. Could it be that the research on combating germs should widen its scope to consider not just systematic mutations by bacteria but the possibility that resistant strains might well be propagating around the world through winds, ocean currents, animal movements and human travel, and that whenever a new antibiotic is launched into the environment it will eventually encounter such a germ, and this germ would then be at an advantage over those still being killed by the antibiotic.  

Recently I learned that it is very likely that bacteria permeate not only the biosphere but the Earth's crust, down to several miles. Could this be another means by which bacteria spread around the planet? There is also evidence of soil bacteria being resistant to penicillin. Some scientists suspect that bacteria are embedded in extra-terrestrial debris, such as comets and meteors, along with viruses, but this does not seem to have become mainstream science since the idea was pioneered by Fred Hoyle et al in the 1970s.
Whatever direction is taken by antibiotic research it is now recognised that the way it is funded, developed for use and dispensed to the public needs to be radically revised. There are several promising antibiotics that are now at a dead end because no pharmaceutical company is prepared to take on the huge expense and risk of testing them and getting them though the regulatory hurdles erected by governments in response to demands from the general population and the medical profession, amplified by the media, for ever higher safety standards. Perhaps the research could be done by universities and non-profit philanthropic organisations, with the government issuing prizes to the groups which come up with the best solutions. The bringing to market of the medicines could be done separately on a contract basis with funding by governments and international charities.

Returning to the actual front line battle against germs one solution that has been gaining ground slowly over the decades is the use of bacteriophages. These are viruses which eat germs and were pioneered in the USSR before the Soviet break-up. Success has been achieved in curing certain minor infections but this approach could conceivably lead to big breakthroughs.

Hopefully, the dark memory of a world before penicillin and other antibiotics will be enough to shock us into doing what it takes to get new drugs into use and more prudent ways of dispensing them.

Author 2077 AD
Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com


Monday, 11 March 2013

Striking the knowledge barrier: what next?

One spiral galaxy, a small part of our universe
 A recent edition of the New Scientist (2 March 2013) is a special issue with the cover story WE’VE RUN OUT OF EXPLANATIONS FOR THE UNIVERSE: what’s next?

The editorial refers to ‘a cornucopia of awesome ideas: hidden dimensions, shadow particles and an infinity of parallel universes, to name but three.’ It points out that 'our understanding of the universe is stuck in a bit of a rut'.

Some of these ideas depended on space-time being like a quantum foam; but a recent observation of a gamma-ray burst 7 billion light years away indicates that this is highly unlikely and that, as Einstein always envisaged, it is continuous. This conclusion was reached because three photons which had travelled this distance to reach us were not displaced by any discontinuities in space-time.
(A gamma-ray burst is the unleashing of gamma rays from a huge rotating star as it collapses. It releases in half a minute as much energy as the sun in 10 billion years.)

Others theories depend on endlessly replicating, eternal universes and these have been shown to be intrinsically non-viable by agreed theoretical criteria. Only three months ago the December 1 2012 issue had as its cover story  Before the Big Bang: three reasons why the universe could not have existed forever. See also The end of eternity.
So the universe must have a beginning. It originated from inside a sphere having a diameter of one trillionth of a trillionth of a hydrogen atom, a sphere so inconceivably small that it is outside of reality. Not only is the observable universe full of inexplicable phenomena but we have in recent decades become aware that it consists almost entirely of dark (i.e. undetectable) energy and matter (NB mass can be expressed in energy units), restricting our concept of the universe to the theoretically detectable part. Most of it is beyond the limit of any telescope or scientific instrument that relies on receiving information at the speed of light. This is because the edge of the detectable universe is receding so fast  that light emitted from beyond the edge  will never reach us. Moreover, the rate of recession is increasing.

Limits on our understanding of the physical and biological world are imposed by the discovery last century that when observing atoms or smaller entities the observer becomes part of the system he is observing (this is a consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle), so that phenomena on this scale cannot be explained by any experimentally testable physical theory. The observer’s consciousness and what he is observing  become one system, so it is not possible to fully objectively observe  the phenomena at the atomic level.

There is also a growing awareness of the extraordinary fine tuning of the universe for life and the inadequacy of neo-Darwinism in explaining its evolution once started. As for how it started this remains a profound mystery. Attempts to mimic biological systems will always be limited since this would involve modelling atomic and molecular processes hidden by Heisenberg Uncertainty.

Does this mean the end of science?

No. This would be catastrophic for the achievement of God's plan for humanity. It just means that we will have to be content with understanding, and continuing to seek understanding, of aspects of the reality within which we exist, rather than the whole of it.

Even if the four forces of nature are unified and a model is found to make sense of dark energy and dark matter,  we need to have the humility to know that there are limits to what we can know or even rationally investigate. For instance, there is no reason we can’t attempt to mimic or simulate processes of life for better health care and biotechnology, or search for new ways of generating energy by copying nature, or find out enough about physics to be able to construct spacecraft that can fly dozens of time faster than existing ones.  In a way it will be like integrating science and engineering.

Just understanding parts of reality can make the real world endlessly fascinating and add to our sense of awe at the Creator's artistry.  But to seek to describe the whole of reality by equations is to embark on a fool’s errand blinded by pride.

author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Wonders of Life (BBC): a personal perspective


Earth rise as seen from Apollo 8
In my post Professor Cox’s limited world view I criticised the first episode of the BBC series Wonders of Life for presenting what I can only conclude was Cox’s world view, one of philosophical materialism (a form of atheism) as science. To avoid irritating people like me, who think they are more than a bag of chemicals, all he had to do was admit that the present neo-Darwinist view of evolution is not the only attempt to explain the reality of which we are part and that it is full of holes and contradictions.


Happily for me and I believe many others,  the subsequent 4 episodes did not try to move us in this direction, although uncomfortable subjects like cosmic fine tuning and epigenetics in evolution  (see this youtube video) were conveniently ignored.

In the last episode he finished up with a recording of an Apollo 8 astronaut reading from the book of Genesis as the spacecraft circled the Moon in 1968. I remember witnessing this on TV as an agnostic in my early adulthood and feeling there was something moving about the whole situation. Inability to understand the Holy Bible without invoking God's help prevented me from becoming a confirmed Christian until only 3 years ago but, looking back, the Apollo 8 event certainly gave me a push in the right direction.

Another push came in 1975 as I was flying back to England after visiting my brother in San Francisco. A delicately structured wisp of cloud was caught by the rising sun and it stirred up an epiphany, a feeling that this moment was charged with significance. Some intelligence had conspired to give me this experience at this time and it had to be God.



The third push was a book I read in 1992. It was one purporting to be on evolutionary science and I was particularly interested to obtain a clear explanation of how new species appear in nature. Instead I got an assertion that this simply happened under certain conditions and had something to do with genetic mutations. The main point was a diatribe on the pointlessness of existence. This seemed totally fallacious and I knew it could not be true. (The book was River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins.)


 It still took another 25 years of reflection and historical probing, a touch of mysticism and the discovery of how to approach prayer and the reading of the Bible, to get me into a church. It was a long hard road but I thank God for both the destination and the journey.


Author 2077 AD
Reach me at cosmik.jo@gmail.com