Sunday, 23 December 2007

'twas the night before christmas .....

Inner & Outer Space tends to concentrate on human foibles and things we need to learn to do better. But at Christmas time, we need some good news. Of course there's the best news of all, the good news of forgiveness and new life that was the original source of Christmas, but is there anything else?

I came across some interesting figures in the Sydney Morning Herald today. Paul Sheehan, at the end of an article mostly about other things looks at statistics on global poverty. And using either of two standard measures, the situation is at least improving, and rapidly.

  • If poverty is measured by those whose income is no more than $US1 per day, then the percentage of people worldwide living in poverty declined from 15.4% in 1970 to 5.7% in 2000. When the rising world population is factored in, the numerical decline was 43%, from 540 million to 310 million.
  • If an alternative measure of poverty is used, of $US3 per day, the decline was from 47% to 21%, with about 400 million people rescued from poverty in 30 years.

Either way, we can feel very pleased.

However much more needs to be done. The great majority of those released from poverty live in east Asia, but Africa remains a real problem. And we can all do something - maybe sponsor a child in Africa?

Here are a few suitable organisations:

Merry Christmas and best wishes to all who read this.

P.S. It may be 20:13 on December 23 in Blogger time, but in Australia it's just after 3:00 pm on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

dawkins vs god - the latest score

Richard Dawkins has long been a popular science writer, but has achieved a greater level of public recognition through his book, The God Delusion. He has stated that his aim in writing the book is to lead readers to disbelief in any god.

I'm not sure how well he's succeeded in that, but he's certainly generated loads of reaction, both positive and negative - newspaper articles, interviews, a zillion blogs, and several books in reply. I have referred to Alister McGrath's two books previously, and now another book has been published: Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell from Cambridge University.

I have not read either Dawkins' book nor Cornwell's, but I am interested here more in the public reaction and debate.

When confronted with a wide range of strongly-held opinions, I usually downplay the views of those at either end of the debate (we all know what militant atheists and fundamentalist christians will think about Dawkins and his critics), and look for fair-minded people closer to the centre, or people who are willing to criticise their own viewpoint or see merit in the opposition.

Thus it is easy to find strong atheist criticism of Cornwell (they think he's too cute by half, playing the man and not the ball, misrepresents Dawkins, or simply presents weak arguments) - these Amazon reviews, these comments on the Richard Dawkins website and this blog contain some of this. But is not so easy finding christian supporters, perhaps because Cornwell is more of an agnostic or liberal Catholic rather than an evangelical christian.

But, although there are those who are underwhelmed by or have mixed feelings about Cornwell's book, most of those closer to the middle, including journalists, and fair-minded atheists and theists, seem to be fairly consistent in their support of Cornwell's critique of Dawkins. The following seem to be the main criticisms (Wikipedia provides a useful summary of Cornwell's points):

  • Dawkins tends to judge all theists using the worst excesses and extremes he can find, which is not what we should expect from a world class scientist.
  • He tends to blame religion for all of the world's ills, when studies show that many apparently religious conflicts and acts of terrorism are in fact motivated by national and racial issues.
  • Dawkins' understanding of philosophy, theology and sociology seem to be at a very low undergraduate level at best, leading him to miss or distort much of the evidence and to propose ideas that have been shown to be incorrect.
  • Dawkins uses extreme, almost fanatical language himself, leaving scientific objectivity far behind, and verging on promoting hate and derision towards believers, who he presents as, in a sense, diseased and delusional.

These criticisms echo comments by many thoughtful people, including even some of Dawkins' fellow atheists:

Dawkins has not, of course, been silent, and his responses include this response to Cornwell's book, this reply to David Sloane Wilson, and this general reflection. He has argued that it is not necessary to be well-read in theology because that is the study of something non-existent.

So what's the score?

It seems that Dawkins has succeeded in putting "strong atheism" well into the public consciousness, in providing reluctant cultural christians with support for their move into more overt disbelief, and stirred up the believers. Few people are convinced by rational argument to change their beliefs (just ask christian evangelists and apologists), but he may also have succeeded in promoting a more subtle change in our culture, strengthening the irreligious prevailing view.

On the other hand, the responses from McGrath, Cornwell and others are also likely to strengthen the conviction of many believers, and Dawkins' own belligerence seems to be a turn-off for many agnostics, in this age of postmodern tolerance.

I think the militant atheism wars have a good way to run yet, and it's probably too soon to call, but I'm guessing he will have had some small wins in the short term, but may prove a bit of a storm in a teacup in the longer term.

Read a summary of the current state of play in the atheism vs theism war from the Australian newspaper.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

the very weird world of quantum physics

Quantum physics goes against a lot of what we "know" to be true, and has long fascinated me (in a very non-expert kind of way!).

Quantum physics deals with atomic and sub-atomic particles and radiation, and the relationship between them. The word "quantum" (= "a small discrete unit of energy or mass") is based on the fact that radiation, such as light, while generally regarded as a continuous wave, can be considered to be composed of discrete energy packets which behave like particles.

There are many curious aspects of quantum physics which seem very unusual, even impossible:

  • In the world we experience every day, things are solid, and they are either in one place or another. But in the quantum world, things are composed of very small particles surrounded by relatively large spaces, and we cannot be sure where a particle may be - we can only say where it probably will be (Heisenberg's uncertainty principle).
  • In our world, things are there whether we know about them or not. The tree really does crash down in the forest, whether anyone sees it, hears it or cares, or not. But in the quantum world, things aren't necessarily "there" until we observe them - and when we observe them we change them. And if we measure some aspects of a particle (say its position) we may be unable to measure other aspects (say its velocity) - it just can't be done.
  • In the "normal" world, things happen because of detectable cause and effect. You push a barrow and it moves, don't push it and it stays still - and if you are too far away from it, you can't push it. But in the quantum world, action can happen "at a distance", with no discernible connecting forces. Particles which have once become "entangled" (they have each been created or affected by some process which leads to them being linked) remain linked even across great distances, so that what happens to one will affect what happens to the other, even if there is no physical connection between them. It's impossible, but it's been proved to occur.

The combination of these and other findings of quantum physics can lead to bizarre outcomes, where measuring a particle beam in one part of a laboratory changes the state of an entangled beam in another part of the laboratory, even though the only connection between the two beams occurred in the past and some distance away.

Einstein famously was suspicious of quantum physics because it seemed too peculiar, and because it was difficult to see how it could be integrated into his theory of relativity to create a "grand unified theory of everything". Yet it has been experimentally proven, and forms the basis of much modern physics.

However a view is coming into vogue that there may be an even more fundamental understanding of physics (just as quantum physics is more fundamental than the classical physics that we are all familiar with), that will one day be discovered to explain the quantum peculiarities in a simple and logical (and non-peculiar!) way. The key seems to be in using a different form of mathematics than we usually use.

I have read a few research scientists who say that inspiration and a general feeling of the "fitness" of things play a big part in their developing of ideas, which they then flesh out using the familiar route of scientific hypothesis, data and hypothesis-testing. I find it interesting that we somehow expect the world to be logical, ordered, mathematical and explicable, even if we believe it to have occurred by random chance.

Check out Quantum Physics and Entanglement in Wikipedia, or new theories and speculations in New Scientist and a science forum.