Fulton Sheen’s Praise of Science


Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s cause for canonization has been suspended due to differences about removal of his body from New York, it seems. One upside of the story, though, is that while reading about Sheen’s biography, I discovered he had written a Philosophy of Science, and it’s available online here. The video above is of the Archbishop praising the “Glories of Science”, complete with his characteristic jokes throughout.


Back to Sean Carroll. He writes:

“It’s interesting that the “religious beliefs are completely independent of evidence and empirical investigation” meme has enjoyed such success in certain quarters that people express surprise to learn of the existence of theologians and believers who still think we can find evidence for the existence of God in our experience of the world. In reality, there are committed believers (“sophisticated” and otherwise) who feel strongly that we have evidence for God in the same sense that we have evidence for gluons or dark matter — because it’s the best way to make sense of the data — just as there are others who think that our knowledge of God is of a completely different kind, and therefore escapes scientific critique. It’s part of the problem that theism is not well defined.”

It is also part of the problem that “evidence” is not well-defined. “Evidence” does not mean self-evident. I consider Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy to be “evidence-based”, for instance, in that it is based on observation and reflection on the world around us, though not in the measurable, scientific sense. What Carroll forgets is that scientific observations are not self-evident. Observations are, as they say, theory-laden. They only make sense within complex chains of reasoned connections—and if there are errors in that reasoning, the observations don’t show what they are claimed to show. To make a measurement with an instrument—say, a particular value of X-ray intensity, or electrical charge, or some such thing—and then to interpret that as “evidence” for a particular value of the age of the universe or for some cosmological process requires a chain of logic, induction, and deduction. But then, philosophical reasoning works the same way. Science depends on metaphysics. Science depends on philosophy. You can’t just say it is “evidence-based” as if that means its results, unlike those of philosophy, are independent of potentially controvertible lines of reasoning.


Neanderthal art?

Is this Neanderthal artwork? It was found etched onto a table-like rock in a cave in Gibraltar (Nature). The design is identified as Neanderthal because it was found beneath sediment layers containing clear Neanderthal tools, before modern humans had migrated into the region. The archaeologists investigating the remains also determined that the designs could only have been made by repeatedly carving the same design, i.e., it is not likely to be an accidental byproduct of some other process. But it’s also not obviously a representation of something identifiable. So did Neanderthals make art?

Maybe. There’s been a few other circumstantial cases that have suggested they did as well. “Art is the signature of man,” Chesterton wrote. So was Neanderthal man?

I suspect he was, though that’s just a hunch, as there’s not evidence enough yet to conclude such firmly. For theological and philosophical purposes, what matters is that each individual man contains an immaterial, God-created intellect, and is biologically unified (through descent) with the human race. It is not required that he fall within that particular genetic and phenotypic range that is identified today as Homo sapiens.


A new blog has been started dedicated to Catholicism and science, Rational Catholic. Take a look.



The Milky Way’s place in space has been studied in more detail, and it turns out we are embedded in a supergalactic structure the researchers have now dubbed the “Laniakea supercluster”, from the Hawaiian (I am told) for “immeasurable heaven”. Read Sky & Telescope’s write-up here.


Even a prominent embryonic stem cell researcher opposes “three-parent” embryos (via Mary Meets Dolly).


I’ll have more to say later about Sean Carroll’s most recent science-and-religion post, but the first thing I’d like to object to is the implicit characterization of the argument that God is a necessary being as a fall back or as some sort of way around the lack of evidence for God. The argument that God is necessary doesn’t really start from the need to provide arguments for God; it arrives from reflection on the nature of reality, hence its origin not in Christianity but in earlier philosophy. The Christian addition is to realize that this “Necessary Being” must be God. The earliest proponents of the “necessary being” argument were non-Christians and even non-theists, in the modern understanding of that term. They developed it long before modern science was touted as a way to disprove God. I suspect that if the argument wasn’t so identified with Christian thought today, skeptics would be more willing to admit its strength.


It seems that Thomas McDonald visited my parish on vacation, and encountered our unique Thomas Aquinas.

Atheist’s Awe, Pleiades, & Realism

“Atheists feel awe too,” writes Barbara King at NPR. But of course—who said they didn’t? The problem for atheists is not that they don’t fell awe and wonder. The problem is that their theory can’t account for it. For the believer, and even for the agnostic, awe and wonder are, at least potentially, actual contact with the awesome and the wonderful. There is, for them, a real and objective reality outside of ourselves that we can glimpse. For the materialist atheist, however, these experiences and “feelings” are nothing more than purely subjective experiences, reducible to various electrochemical reactions in our heads. I don’t dispute that the atheist feels awe and wonder. I simply challenge him to explain, on his own terms, why he should care about such material illusions.


The Catholic Herald reports:

“A scientist honoured by the Vatican for his work in the field of adult stem cell research is close to producing a therapy to treat congestive heart failure – the biggest killer in the industrialised world.

Professor Silviu Itescu, the chief executive of Mesoblast, an Australia-based regenerative medicine company, is pioneering a therapy that requires a single injection of 150 million adult stem cells into the heart – and no conventional surgery.”

Read here.


Hubble view of M45 (NASA/STScI)

How far are the Pleiades?


John Farrell writes about science and philosophy, and on the question of scientific realism in particular. While of course naïve realism is clearly false, I incline more towards the moderate realist side than the anti-realist. My ultimate objection to anti-realism is that, if science doesn’t uncover something of the truth about nature, however incomplete,  then what’s the point? Rather than an attempt to perceive truth, goodness, and beauty in Creation, science becomes little more than the associations of an animal learning that it gets a reward when it presses the blue lever and a shock when it presses the red one. In the strongest forms of this view, scientists simply correlate causes and effects, and sometimes figure out ways to use those effects to our advantage, but never really “know” anything about the natural world around us at all. This seems to me to be a very deficient view of the human intellect. If science is merely useful, I’m not interested.


Scientism, the Nature of God, & Life Inside a Supernova Remnant

At Catholic World Report today, Christopher Morrissey reviews philosopher Edward Feser’s new textbook on Scholastic metaphysics, discussing it by way of scientism.

I’d like to propose that we may distinguish between two types of scientism: a strong scientism, which holds that science alone is capable of attaining universal, reasonable knowledge—i.e., that only scientific knowledge is publicly and objectively trustworthy, and it is also capable in principle (if not in current fact) of explaining all that is knowable about reality.

Then, there is a second form of weak scientism, which holds that there is a lot more to reality than science can ever discover, but outside of science we can have only opinion, because only science produces true knowledge. Holders of this latter, weaker form of scientism may admit that there is much that lies beyond science’s purview, and that such “knowledge” is even necessary for a full human life, but it can only ever be a private, relative “knowledge”.

Strong scientism seems to be common among the most strident scientifically minded opponents of religion; the latter, more sympathetic position, is found more often amongst “skeptics”, who often tolerate or even embrace religion, but believe it lies entirely in the realm of personal intuition and feeling, not of intellectual investigation. It is even understandable, insofar as we so often find that judgments are presented with more certainty than the evidence for them warrants.

The error of both forms of scientism, however, is the same: science depends on an extrascientific, philosophical foundation. Science’s own trustworthiness and effectiveness cannot be scientifically demonstrated. To admit science means implicitly to admit philosophy, and from the principles that uphold science, more than just science can be demonstrated. For more on that, read the article at CWR.


On a similar note, and also at CWR, Fr. Robert Barron writes about God as an “imaginary friend”, a charge leveled against believers by atheists. He argues that God’s existence as discovered by reason shows that God is not “a being”, as so many criticism of theism mistakenly think. I read Fr. Barron’s article immediately after reading this one discussing experiments testing whether the universe may be considered, at a fundamental level, as being two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional, an idea known as the holographic principle. This hypothesis is now set to be tested by a laser interferometer at the Fermi National Laboratory. Setting aside a consderation of te theory itself, my point is this: just observing the interference patterns created by the interferometer means little without a theory to interpret those observations. Observations are, as they say, theory-laden (just as theories are laden with observations). We must, that is, understand our observations in light of chains of reasoning. The observations alone are not enough. If we can reason from observations to unseen structures, as is being proposed in this test of the holographic universe theory, then at the least whatever criticisms we may wish to make about arguing for God, it does not lie in the simple act of reasoning from the seen to the unseen.


Does the solar system lie within an ancient supernova remnant? Science@NASA investigates.

Video: NASA

Nye, RealClearScience on ESCR, & New Horizons at Neptune

Popular Science posts a profile of Bill Nye, focusing on his debate with creationist Ken Ham earlier this year. Needless to say, it’s not a new observation that debates of this sort hardly lead to any changed minds. They are, most often, mere exercises in showmanship and attempts to catch out opponents. As quoted in the article:

“Scientists are trained to review an exhaustive list of literature and information, gather all the evidence, then cautiously make their way to reasonable, logical conclusions,” says Ginger Pinholster, the director of public programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The public wants to know the headlines, the punch line, and what’s in it for me. It flips the scientific communication process on its head.”

Which is a fair characterization of the quality of most of the debate around these issues. However, we also find this little story:

“Though [Nye] grew up in the Episcopal Church, he eventually drifted from it. At one point, he sat down and read the Bible all the way through, twice, taking notes and following the story with maps, only to arrive at the conclusion that people had pretty much made the whole thing up.”

But then, that evolution is “just made up” is a tiresome creationist claim, as well. What would Nye say about a creationist, I wonder, who had read all of Darwin, twice, but still found evolution implausible?


Who was Kennewick Man?


RealClearScience summarizes their editorial positions here. One I find interesting is there statement that “embryonic stem cell research is necessary.” By “necessary” they mean that embryonic research can accomplish ends that can’t be reached with adult stem cells.

Those who object to embryonic stem cell research usually do so for two reasons: embryo-destructive research is unethical, and adult stem cell sources are more promising. The “and” is important, because even if adult stem cells are not more promising, embryo-destructive research remains unethical. Promoters of ethical research need to keep the distinction clear, and their critics need to correctly understand the objection. No matter how scientifically enticing, nothing that is unethical is “necessary”.


Neptune from New Horizons (NASA)

New Horizons is still en route for Pluto, having just passed the orbit of Neptune, coincidentally on the 25th anniversary of Voyager 2’s Neptune flyby on August 25th, 1989. New Horizons will make its closest pass of Pluto in July of next year. Neptune and its moon Triton are pictured above in an image from New Horizons rom July.

Image: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The Soul, & Exploding Rockets


An immaterial cause is not the same thing as an unknown material cause. In other words, it does no good to claim (as Sean Carroll does here) that we know all the relevant fundamentals about the physics governing the operation of the human body, and that therefore there is no need for immaterial causes like “the soul”. To propose the soul is not to propose another physical thing; it is precisely a nonphysical thing, and therefore unevaluable by physics. The arguments for the soul can be made just as soundly if we have only rudimentary scientific knowledge or if we have quite extensive scientific knowledge, and they would remain fundamentally unchanged if our scientific knowledge increased significantly in the future (although the details may change). The soul is just not a physical, material thing.

Perhaps more emphatically: the soul is not some form of ghostly, vaporous, diffuse, or otherwise vague matter or energy or field that acts as an element within a physical system. The soul is not made of any known matter or energy; the soul is not made of any unknown matter or energy. The soul is not proposed to answer the need for some material structure or to scientifically account for the working of the body.

The soul is proposed to account for the intellect and the intelligibility of reality as a whole.


“Rockets are tricky,” says Elon Musk via Twitter, in response to one of his (SpaceX’s, that is) rockets blowing up during a test flight this weekend. The Falcon 9R is being used to test SpaceX’s plan to allow rocket first stages to return to their launch site for a controlled landing after being used to boost upper stages into flight. This time, it didn’t work. Tuesday’s scheduled Falcon 9 launch has been delayed while the accident is being investigated.


Vantablack (Surrey Nanosystems)

This stuff absorbs over 99% of the light striking it. The black portion of the image above is just ordinary, crumpled foil painted with a carbon nanotube–base substance called “Vantablack”; it absorbs so much light all of the ordinary shades and gradations that would indicated the surface texture are hidden. Read more about it at Nautilus.


Video: Garrett Frankson
Image: Surrey Microsystems

Dawkins, Plankton in Space, and Polkinghorne on Induction


What is there to say about Richard Dawkins’ recent statements about parents expecting a child with Downs’ syndrome—that it is “immoral” to allow them to be born? One wishes to simply ignore him, but the abortion rate of children with Down’s reveals that his callous approach is too common. Dawkins claims that it is a sense of “wonder” that motivates his passion for science—yet individuals with Down’s, in my experience, tend to have especially strong capacities for wonder, curiosity, and delight at the world around them. Perhaps if Mr. Dawkins were to volunteer to teach some of them a science class (about animals, say, as his field is zoology), rather than suggest that they just ought not to be around, he might get a glimpse of what truly honest wonder, untainted by narrow cynicism, really is.


 International Space Station (NASA)

Plankton living on the exterior of the International Space Station? Such has been the rumor over the past few days, and it is now being reported in the Telegraph and also at Space.com. The original source for this seems to be Russia’s ITAR-TASS agency, but there’s nothing else official that I can find, and I am skeptical—especially the part about the plankton being “living.” It’s not entirely unlikely that the exterior of the station had been contaminated with organisms either before launch or afterwards by visiting spacecraft. Also within the realm of possibility, although remarkable if true, is the idea that plankton or microorganisms were deposited on the station after being swept by wind up into the upper atmosphere. That these organisms are living there, and how that could be effectively determined with equipment onboard the ISS, is the least likely part of the story. I suspect there’s something that’s been lost in translation here, and hopefully we’ll have this cleared up soon.


“Those who balk at induction do so because there is no exhaustively specifiable set of rules which enable one to lay down a priori when its application is justifiable. Its employment involves an act of judgment, even though in the case of a theory well tried in a definite domain, such as Newtonian mechanics, one cannot fell that great powers of discrimination are required for its successful exercise. We have already recognized that such acts of judgment enter other aspects of the scientific enterprise. That being so, an answer to the Humean criticism which is preferable to the partial surrender of Popper is simply to assert that we shall rely upon inductive method exercised with an appropriate degree of skill. Undoubtedly that attitude corresponds to the actual practice of science, and it seems to have stood the subject in good stead.”

—John Polkinghorne

Image: NASA

Myotis lucifugus

The multiverse: to begin with, I object to the name more than the idea, for if it is correct, it does not really mean there are multiple universes, if “universe” is understood as the totality of all causally connected physical reality. It just means that the universe is divided up into many more domains or regions than we previously thought. The worst reason to accept the multiverse hypothesis is because it accounts for the “fine-tuning” problem; the worst reason to reject it is because some people accept it as an alternative to fine-tuning. It works with the math, yes, but we need observable evidence, and the biggest lead in that direction so far, the polarization of the CMB reported earlier this year, seems to have fizzled out. In particle physics, the multiverse has been raised as an “explanation” of sorts for the improbable and inscrutably precise values attending particles like the Higgs boson.

Natalie Wolchover at Quanta writes about another alternative being floated, in light of the lack of progress in the most recent particle physics data: perhaps one way to rescue the Higgs from the multiverse is to suppose that, described mathematically, size and mass don’t matter at a fundamental level. This will be one of those conversations that likely won’t go anywhere, but you never know quite where the next developments in physics will come from.

“Nature, at the deepest level, may not differentiate between scales. With scale symmetry, physicists start with a basic equation that sets forth a massless collection of particles, each a unique confluence of characteristics such as whether it is matter or antimatter and has positive or negative electric charge. As these particles attract and repel one another and the effects of their interactions cascade like dominoes through the calculations, scale symmetry “breaks,” and masses and lengths spontaneously arise.”

Read here.


Another study to add to the Neanderthal files: a new survey of Neanderthal and ancient modern human remains dated via radiocarbon techniques places the date of the Neanderthals’ demise at about 40,000 years ago, which is earlier than other evidence which suggests they persisted until closer to 30,000 years ago. The earlier date, however, still allows a substantial period of time for early modern human and Neanderthal groups to inhabit Europe side by side. Read here from Nature.


Ethan Siegel gives five reasons why dark matter probably exists, despite the continuing failure to find direct evidence for it.


Blogger DarwinCatholic points out an overlooked excerpt from Pope Francis’ recent interview on his flight back from Korea:

Q. There’s been talk for a long time about an encyclical on ecology. Could you tell us when it will be published, and what are the key points?

A. I have talked a lot about this encyclical with Cardinal Turkson, and also with other people. And I asked Cardinal Turkson to gather all the input that have arrived, and four days before the trip, Cardinal Turkson brought me the first draft. It’s as thick as this. I’d say it’s about a third longer than “Evangelii Gaudium.” It’s the first draft. It’s not an easy question because on the custody of creation, and ecology, also human ecology, one can talk with a certain security up to a certain point, but then the scientific hypotheses come, some sufficiently secure, others not. And in an encyclical like this, which has to be magisterial, one can only go forward on the things that are sure, the things that are secure. If the pope says the center of the universe is the earth and not the sun, he’s wrong because he says a thing that is scientifically not right. That’s what happens now. So we have to do the study now, number by number, and I believe it will become smaller. But going to the essentials, to that which one can affirm with security. One can say, in footnotes, that on this there is this and that hypothesis, to say it as information but not in the body of an encyclical that is doctrinal. It has to be secure.



Myotis lucifugus. This little brown bat was brought into our house last night by one of our cats. Bats are common here, dwelling in the dead trees in the woods around our house, and we seem them nightly swopping around catching insects. I’m not exactly sure how the cat managed to snag this one, but he brought it inside and then let it go, where it ended up flying in circles around our living room for several minutes; unlike the flapping and chirping of birds that have gotten into the house before, the bat was eerily silent as it raced around the room. Eventually the bat crashed into a wall and fell stunned to the floor. Despite his injured right wing, which you can see in the picture, he flew away outside later.

Mars & the Comet, Wine, & the Bee Gees

Comet Siding Spring will be passing about 82,000 miles from Mars on October 19th of this year, meaning that the planet may pass through the outer regions of the comet’s coma. Several spacecraft are currently orbiting Mars, which means there are a number of platforms ready to study the effects of this rare planet/comet encounter, but it also means that controllers are concerned about the potential damage that cometary dust may cause to the probes. This story, and the video above, describe some of the possible effects of the close encounter, and the steps that controllers are taking to protect their spacecraft.


At RealClearScience, Ross Pomeroy describes a wine-tasting study in which subjects described two glasses of wine quite differently, despite the fact that they were the same wine. One glass contained a white wine, and the second contained the same wine dyed red; the white was described with typical white terms, and the dyed-red white with typical red descriptors. The study has been taken to show just how bunk much of wine tasting is, which is fair, but I’d like to see more. How would they have done, for instance, blindfolded? Does this outcome show that tasters really can’t discriminate by taste, or does it show that they can be easily “primed” by visual cues?


William Carroll discusses physics, cosmology, and creation via the LHC:

“Confusions concerning creation and cosmology, as I have suggested, run the gamut from denials of creation because the universe is conceived as having no beginning, to explanations of a beginning in exclusively scientific terms which avoid any appeal to a Creator, to opposing claims that the Big Bang itself offers a kind of scientific warrant for belief in God’s creation of the universe. Contrary to all these claims, we need to recognize that creation is a metaphysical and theological affirmation that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from “nothing” to “something.” Cosmology and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation. It is also a mistake to appeal to cosmology as a confirmation of creation. Reason (as well as faith) can lead to knowledge of the Creator, but the path is in metaphysics not in the natural sciences. Discussions of creation are different from arguments from order and design to a source of order and design. Creation offers an explanation of why things exist at all.”

Read here.


I recall once reading a study which showed that something like 90% of attempts at CPR on television and in the movies were successful, whereas in reality, in 90% of cases where CPR is attempted, death is nevertheless the final result. Also, in many cases, CPR is not implemented even when it could be, due to bystanders’ lack of knowledge of how to perform CPR or their reluctance to do so. In recent years, therefore, there has been an effort to increase public knowledge and willingness to perform CPR by simplifying the process. The latest recommendation is to forego the rescue breathing altogether, and to simply perform chest compressions. Surveys suggest that compression-only CPR is just as effective relative to final outcome as regular CPR, perhaps due to an increased willingness to perform it. One challenge, though, is that most people tend to perform the compressions too slowly. So Dr. Edward Stapleton of Stony Brook University, who is organizing the largest CPR training event in the U.S., provides an easy tip: responders should perform compressions to the beat of a popular, well-known disco song… the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive.”

Alien Dust, Hallucigenia, and Man


The AP reports that NASA may have found “alien visitors.” The story under the absurd headline is a fairly decent science report about the identification of several grains of dust gathered by the Stardust mission. Stardust flew past Comet Wild-2 in 1999, and captured dust grains from the comet using superlight “aerogel” panels. Amidst the fragments of comet dust, seven grains have been identified as potentially of interstellar origin, rather than cometary or solar system origin, hence the “alien visitors” of the headline. For NASA’s release on this story, see here.

The trouble with sensational headlines like the AP’s is not only that they mislead, but that they work against a real interest in science. Someone who lives on a diet of candy and sweets will lose the ability to appreciate good food. Someone who is constantly dazzled by extreme scientific claims may lose the ability to appreciate legitimately interesting science. The media’s bad habit, encouraged by none too few scientists themselves, is to couch space science stories in terms of the “search for alien life”; when alien life is not found again and again, one’s attention wanders…unless you are looking for real science to begin with. For the sake of science: stop talking about aliens.


Venus and Jupiter were in conjunction early this morning (for North America). A conjunction occurs when two celestial objects appear close together (in this case, within 20 arcseconds of each other) in the two-dimensional sky from our perspective on Earth (although, of course, in the three-dimensional reality of space.) From here on out, they will be getting farther and farther apart until their next conjunction in June of next year. SpaceWeather.com is hosting a gallery of images of the conjunction here.


Hallucigenia (Smithsonian)

Speaking of aliens, one creature that is not an alien but might as well be, due to its appearance, is the enigmatic Hallucigenia. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget, although it can be hard to get your bearings. The first descriptions of Hallucigenia described it as upside-down and backwards compared to how it is presented today: its original “tail” is now known to be its head, and the long projecting legs it was thought to walk on are known considered to be spikes projecting upwards from its back. Hallucigenia is an ancient creature, and is known most famously from the Burgess Shale Cambrian explosion–era rocks.

The latest news is that Hallucigenia‘s evolutionary history has been cleared up a little bit more by means of an examination of its claws.  The relationship of Hallucigenia to modern phyla has been long debated, with one position being that Hallucigenia lies in an evolutionary branch with modern arthropods, the branch that contains insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. The latest offering links the structure of the fossil’s legs to the jaw structures (which are modified leg segments) of modern velvet worms, soft-bodied creatures that dwell in southern hemisphere rainforests, crawling through the leafy humus on the forest floor.  Hallucigenia‘s modern legacy is to be found, it seems for now, in the velvet worms rather than the arthropods. The story is here, and the paper here.


Finally, at The Imaginative Conservative, Joseph Pearce asks, by way of Tolkien, “Who is man?”:

For the Christian, in contradistinction to the materialist, man is not simply homo sapiens. He is not simply a “naked ape” or the most intelligent of the primates. He is a creature made in the image of God in a manner that distinguishes him radically from the rest of the animals. As Tolkien reminds us, “there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’” and is, therefore, “wholly unsatisfied by it.” A better name for man is that given to him by the Greeks, who called man anthropos, meaning those who turn upwards. Unlike the other animals which, governed by instinct, are unable to do so, man looks up at the heavens, seeking a purpose and meaning to life beyond the mere creature comforts of everyday life. Reminding ourselves of Oscar Wilde’s epigram that we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars, we might see the gutter as the symbol of natural instinct and the stars as the symbol of supernatural desire. Man looks up; the lesser creatures do not. Man gazes; the animal grazes!


Image: Smithsonian