Dark Matter: Merely an Illusion?

Understanding dark matter is crucial to our modern conception of the universe. Now, Oxford physicists wonder if it really exists, or if it is just an illusion created by our location in the universe. They make their proposal by challenging the Copernican principle, the working assumption that every place in the universe is just as good as every other for making observations; in essence, the assumption that Earth is no better or worse for observing the universe than any other place:

Although dark energy may seem a bit contrived to some, the Oxford theorists are proposing an even more outrageous alternative. They point out that it’s possible that we simply live in a very special place in the universe – specifically, we’re in a huge void where the density of matter is particularly low.

Read here.

Father Coyne Speaks Again

The Vatican’s chief astronomer, Father George Coyne, has spoken out against the ID movement again. Read here.

Father Coyne’s well-known opposition to ID is not really the controversial part of his statement. The position that design inferences do not belong in science as a strict empirical discipline is one that can be held by Catholics without a problem. (It is, to be clear, certainly not a position which MUST be held.) Unfortunately, though,  Father Coyne’s further statements reveal his continued theological and philosophical confusion:

“If (the universe) was created by chance, who needs God?” Coyne asked. “If by necessity, then someone had the necessity. Someone designed it.”

However, Coyne said this argument is not adequate enough for him.

He said although he believes in God, and believes God created the universe, he cannot believe in intelligent design as a scientist.

“God gave the universe a certain structure so we could come about, but he didn’t predetermine it,” he said. “He created the universe and then let it go.”

First, Father Coyne appears to be confusing the role of chance in the development of the universe after its creation and the act of creation itself. The rolls of a pair of dice are determined by chance; the existence of the dice themselves is not. Unless the universe is eternal (which it is not according to both Catholic doctrine and a strict interpretation of currently available cosmological data), it couldn’t have been “created” by chance, as Father Coyne here says, anymore than a pair of dice could come into existence by chance. If Father Coyne simply means that the current conditions of the universe developed by chance and law interacting within the existing universe, his argument makes more sense.

(Some scientists have postulated that the Big Bang was an event that occurred inside of a larger, possibly eternal super-universe, but such is still speculation. Empirical evidence goes only back to the beginning, the Big Bang, and not any further.)

Further, Father Coyne’s statement about God not “predetermining” the development of the universe is ambiguous, even contradictory with his previous statement that God designed the universe in such a way that mankind would develop. Is that not “predetermining?” In the most charitable reading he is making a statement against special creationism, the idea that God directly intervened and miraculously created things like the Earth, animals, and the human body. One may hold that He did, but it is also possible to believe that God allowed them to develop by natural processes.

However, when coupled with Father Coyne’s previous statements that the Scholastic philosophers’ conceptions of God as omniscient and omnipotent have been “proved wrong by modern science”, his statement seems more problematic. God’s omniscience and omnipotence are matters of doctrine, not merely Scholastic philosophy. Furthermore the appearance of chance and randomness from a human perspective are not evidence of randomness and chance in the eyes of God. To imply that the development of the universe is not along God’s plan would not be compatible with Church teaching.

Father Coyne’s statements are ambiguous and inconsistent. As his expertise appears to be mostly in scientific matters, it would be helpful to the faithful if he were to clarify his meaning and fit his statements into the larger historical, theological, and philosophical understanding of Catholicism’s views on creation.

Linking in the Bible

Above is one of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge’s best science images of 2008. It is a visual representation of the cross-references contained in the books of the Bible. Go here to see all of the images.

Who’s More Irrational?

Atheist critics of religion like to compare belief in God to such things as belief in astrology, aliens, and Bigfoot. It’s all pseudoscience, they say, and the world would be freed from belief in superstitious irrationality if it could just rid itself of religion.

Not so, says a new report from Baylor University. The study reveals that traditional believers are actually far less likely to believe in the paranormal and pseudoscientific than their more modernist, atheist, and agnostic counterparts. Traditional Christians have more confidence in science than liberal Christians or the non-religious. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener,” skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.

This fits in, of course, with the historical fact that it was Western rationality rooted in Greek philosophy and Christian faith that gave birth to modern science. Science is not possible unless investigators first believe that the world operates according to rational laws, as it is when created by a reasonable God, and that men are able to truthfully investigate and interpret the world around them, as they can when they have rational souls.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know

Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog presents these interesting lists:

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Earth

Ten Thngs You Didn’t Know About the Milky Way

Very interesting, take a look!

Comet Reveals New Information About Early Solar System

Chemical analysis of Comet Wild 2 is revealing that the early solar system seems to have been more mixed up than previously thought.

Read here.

Conference on the Multiverse

Sky and Telescope reports:

We usually think of the universe as being “everything there is.” But many astronomers and physicists now suspect that the universe we observe is just a small part of an unbelievably larger and richer cosmic structure, often called the “multiverse.” This mind-bending notion – that our universe may be just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of real, physical universes – was front and center at a three-day conference entitled “A Debate in Cosmology — The Multiverse,” held at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, earlier this month.

The multiverse concept was originally born as an interpretation of the indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics. Because at the quantum level physical outcomes cannot be determined (at least as far as we know), scientists proposed that all of the possible outcomes do in fact occur, just in alternate universes. It was soon recognized that this also provides a solution to the anthropic problem, the fact that the universe is suspiciously suited to human life. The multiverse concept says that it’s not the case that we just got lucky;  instead every possible universe, with every possible set of physical characteristics, exists. The universe we’re in happens to be one of the ones that is suitable for life. This way, a life-supporting universe isn’t an impossibly lucky lottery win — or worse, the product of design. Instead, universes where life and humanity develop are inevitable.

The problem is that the multiverse hypothesis is untested, and many physicists believe, untestable. Inasmuch as it is a solution to thorny problems in physics, the multiverse concept is an interesting and possibly useful thought experiment. It may even in fact describe reality. But as a philosophical position adopted to avoid the conclusion that the universe is specially suited for man, it is another example of atheistic philosophy masquerading as “pure science.” And despite its trendiness at the moment, the multiverse theory doesn’t have everyone convinced. In the words of one of the conference participants, physicist John Moffat, the idea of multiple universes has “come up often in science fiction, and that’s where it belongs.”

At least, that’s what he said at the conference in this universe.

Where Darwinism Does and Doesn’t Apply

Telic Thoughts offers commentary on Suzan Mazur’s interview with NASA researcher Chris McKay. Read here.

Chris McKay: Something had to precede Darwinian natural selection. The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways.

First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Secondly, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level.

Suzan Mazur: So you’re saying Darwinian natural selection sets in at what point?

Chris McKay: I think it must set in after life has started. After there’s a genome, genotype. That’s the one obvious place where Darwinian natural selection fails – is in the origin of life. It can’t be Darwinian all the way down.

The statement that Darwinian selection cannot account for the origin-of-life is hardly news. Natural selection of inherited traits requires, obviously, that reproduction is occurring so that traits can be inherited. The interview does reveal, though, the lack of any hard empirical data about the origin of life, a field still, and perhaps forever for science, dominated by speculation.

Faith Dulls Pain, Study Says

This study from Oxford shows that practicing Catholics who view religious images while experiencing painful stimuli perceive the pain as less intense than when they receive the same stimuli without viewing the images.

Practicing Catholics perceived electrical pulses delivered to one hand while viewing an image of the Virgin Mary as less painful than pulses delivered while looking at a non-religious picture. Functional MRI showed a change in these volunteers’ brain activity only while viewing the religious icon.

In contrast, professed atheists and agnostics derived no pain relief from viewing the same religious image while getting uncomfortably zapped on the hand.

Some might view a study like this as debunking religion — “See, your faith is just a neurochemical reaction!” — but that’s not the case. Catholicism is not a dualistic religion that believes that the human body is merely a dead shell inhabited by a soul, in which reside all of the faculties of the human person. Rather, the natural material world, including man’s physical body, is a created good and is integral to the human person. The brain runs on electrochemical interactions, but man is not reducible to his brain. That something important to a person as a whole should correspond to measurable physical phenomena in his brain is merely evidence of the importance of the physical processes crucial to our interaction with the world; it is not evidence against a supernatural aspect of human nature in addition to the physical one.

New Clues About Oxygen in the Early Solar System

Scientists have long been puzzled by the mismatch in the ratios of oxygen isotopes in the planet Earth and in material from the early days of the solar system. New evidence shines some light on this puzzle. Read here.