That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 054 - TSSM Season 2

Episode 054 - TSSM Season 2

April 8, 2019

In this episode we roll out a new format for Season 2.

We recap Season 1 (April 2018 - March 2019) and the three focus areas of the podcast so far:

  • Discussion of the fundamentals of the question whether it's reasonable to believe in both science and the Catholic Christian faith, and some exploration of particular topics, like the role of geology in the interpretation of the book of Genesis.
  • Review and comments on the speakers at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018.
  • Interviews with scientists and scholars living out their Christian faith, many of whom are actively trying to spread the truth that the presumed conflict between science and religion is false, born from shoddy understandings, strawman arguments, and reactions against hypocrisy. Three of these people (Patricia Bellm, Chris Baglow, and Jay Martin) do this work at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

We then go on to discuss our plans for coming episodes, turning to topics of religion, spirituality, and psychology (including topics like child development and addiction) where the intersection of faith and science allows us to build new solutions or give tremendous new life to old solutions to the problems of human life.

Episode 050 - Craig Lent: decoherence, entropy, and faith

Episode 050 - Craig Lent: decoherence, entropy, and faith

March 11, 2019

0:00 - Three issues: entropy, decoherence, Schrodinger vs. Dirac equations

2:30 - Schrodinger uses a non-relativistic Hamiltonian, with a p^2/2m kinetic energy

3:00 - Dirac equation absorbs special relativity by shifting from scalar to spinor field

4:00 - Quantum field theory as a further extension, accommodating fields that include many particles

5:00 - Field Lagrangian and all the particles and interactions in the Standard Model

6:00 - Even "everyday" gravity is in some sense accommodatable in the theory, just not extreme gravity capable of "separating out the vacuum"

8:00 - Decoherence, not to be confused with the measurement problem

9:00 - Decoherence arising from the interaction of a simple system with other systems

10:00 - Reduced density matrix begins to look classical

11:00 - Zurek and the work on decoherence: states that are "chosen" to survive interaction with the environment

11:30 - Measurement problem not solved by this work

12:30 - Entropy: the proposal that entropy is most fundamentally lack of information

progress from the special case of thermodynamic entropy, to statistical mechanics,

to von Neumann's quantum definition, to Shannon's information theory

21:00 - Craig's career: why is an engineer so interested in the fundamentals of physics?

24:00 - Journey of faith

30:30 - People of Praise in Indianapolis

31:20 - Final thoughts

Episode 049 - Craig Lent: physics and humanity

Episode 049 - Craig Lent: physics and humanity

March 4, 2019

0:00 - Introduction

1:00 - The power of physicalism/reductionism: a tremendously powerful method

2:00 - Course on physicalism and Catholicism; Sean Carroll's least hysterical "poetic naturalism"

3:00 - The lack of evidence for "emergence" in the sense of "downward causation"

3:30 - Soft and hard emergence

10:15 - Materialism vs. physicalism and reductionism: philosophical materialism

13:00 - Are human beings exhausted by this account of reality?

14:00 - The break with the mechanical universe of 19th century physics underappreciated

15:00 - Laplace's demon

16:30 - Thermodynamics

17:30 - Future not contained in the present

19:00 - Einstein & hidden variables

20:00 - Bell inequality experiments

24:00 - Entanglement

26:00 - Human experience: both, as physical, but also as having choices

27:00 - Quantum physics on many body systems

28:00 - The hard problem of consciousness

29:00 - The explanatory gap

31:00 - The tendency to explain the brain as "just like" some recent piece of technology

33:00 - Complexity of neurons, the continuing relevance of physical laws amid the complexity

35:00 - Continuing relevance of quantum effects at the level of neurotransmitter molecules, etc.

36:00 - Quantum effects in weather and rock mechanics

Episode 041 - TSSM in 2019

Episode 041 - TSSM in 2019

January 7, 2019

Themes we'd like to grapple with in the Year of Our Lord, 2019, and beyond:


Last year was largely about the intellectual challenge leveled by many against religion, and we will continue talking about that as the podcast moves forward.

Paul's mission this year to work through Road to Reality

This year we also want to broaden the scope to include places where religion and faith converge, which means we're going to discuss psychology.

Looking forward to the SCS conference topic for this coming year: what it is, and has been, to be human. Neuroscience and what it implies for anthropology, and where it meets Catholic Christian anthropology coming the other way.

What is consciousness, anyway? What parts of the brain seem to be involved, and what do they do?

What is free will, anyway? Where are those breakpoints where the soul would have to affect the body in order for that to even work?

Crisis points in the way people in the post-Christian West approach the world.

Center for Ethics & Culture annual conference in 2018: Wilfred McClay & John Waters

"we care about everything, but without God... we have responsibility for everything, but we know that we are flawed and unable to provide solutions"

Post-Christian in this context includes both people who have explicitly renounced the Christian faith of the West and those who have a Christian identity in their back pocket somewhere but in reality are not relying on Jesus Christ or his teachings to guide their lives in any conscious way.

Christianity is a demanding religion. If you suck away all the grace and help it promises, but leave some of its demands for social justice or purity of intention, you have a recipe for constant internal condemnation.



CEC video

Wilfred McClay (University of Oklahoma) on “Guilt in the Immanent Frame”, and John Waters on “The Importance of Not Being God: A Higher Power Is Indispensable for Human Beings and Human Societies”


No, not THAT John Waters.

Episode 034 - Stephen Barr on Why to Be a Religious (and Catholic) Scientist

Episode 034 - Stephen Barr on Why to Be a Religious (and Catholic) Scientist

November 19, 2018

~0:00 Question: advice for students
1:00 Don't be afraid to be a religious scientist
2:00 Particular issues
3:00 Keep awake to the wonder of the world
4:00 Bill: ignorance of the common man about both science and religion
5:00 Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
6:00 Christopher Baglow: science and faith textbook
7:00 Church beginning (at long last?) to address the need to catechize & educate about this
Phone ringing can't be excised without gutting Bill's question!
8:00 Media's portrayal of religion as boring and science as exciting
9:00 Science explores the world as it is, but there must be issues beyond: "why" issues
10:00 Intellectual freedom necessary for science to make any sense
11:00 No reason for Catholics to fear science uncovering fatal problems for faith
12:00 20th century overturn of 19th century mechanistic, unfree universe
13:00 Advent of the big bang theory, verification through microwave radiation
14:00 Bill: "free will on steroids" in uneasy coexistence with materialism
15:00 Barr: inherent conflict there
16:00 Pernicious recurring feature of intellectual history: excuses not to be free
17:00 Bill: does faith make one a better scientist?
18:00 Wonder: "ears to hear and eyes to see"
19:00 Summation: join Society of Catholic Scientists!
20:00 Sign off

Episode 033 - Stephen Barr on Lemaitre-Hubble Law and the Society of Catholic Scientists

Episode 033 - Stephen Barr on Lemaitre-Hubble Law and the Society of Catholic Scientists

November 12, 2018

Minute Comment

0:00 Paul introduces

1:00 Bill: Lemaitre announcement

2:00 Lemaitre: faith & science not opposed

3:00 Barr: Lemaitre announcement

4:00 Ignorance of Lemaitre

5:00 Ignorance of the Christian, Catholic origin of science & famous Catholic scientists

6:00 Barr: late 19th century critical period for the forging of the myth of Church as anti-science

7:00 Science only professionalized in the late 19th century, looking for influence

8:00 More famous Catholic scientists

9:00 Mission of the Society of Catholic Scientists; religious people looking askance at scientists, 10:00 Scientists timid about showing their faith in the presence of a few loud atheists

11:00 Catholic scientists joining SCS & finding others like themselves

12:00 Witness to the world

13:00 Conferences, past and future: next June at Notre Dame

14:00 2017: origin of universe, life; 2018: mind and matter

15:00 2019 conference: what is it (and has it been) to be human; speakers from outside the faith

16:00 Past non-Catholic conference speakers

17:00 Peter Koellner's talk at 2018 conference

18:00 Koellner and Godel's theorem

19:00 Neaderthals, language, reason

20:00 Godel's beliefs about mind and mathematical truths

21:00 Mathematical truth and religious truth

22:00 Depth & sophistication of the law that governs the universe


Episode 019 - Conclusion: SCS Conference

Episode 019 - Conclusion: SCS Conference

August 6, 2018

We pick up from last week's episode with the next speaker. Kara Lamb followed Andrew Sicree; her research is about the atmosphere and climate. She mostly talked about climate, and got a ways into specifics about her research on black carbon soot in the atmosphere. She did stop to draw a parallel between Laudato Si and Pacem in Terris, that in both cases the Popes stopped to address humanity at large and not just the Church.

Juan Martin Maldacena was after her, and was presented the St. Albert Award. You don't schedule Juan Maldacena and not have him talk about his own physics research; he is famous for research on workable forms of string theory in anti-de Sitter space and some results on the shape and nature of black holes. His talk was very technical and rather hard to summarize, but an intriguing aspect of it was the recurring notion that black hole singularities and the original singularity of the Big Bang might have a lot in common.

Sunday morning after Mass Michael Dennin led off with a talk structured around a book called "The Big Picture" by somebody I think I've heard of but don't know why named Sean Carroll. In this book Carroll apparently divides reality into "poetic naturalism", where "poetic" means "stories we tell ourselves about large complicated objects" and "naturalism" means "quantum physics, which is actually reality". Dennin made four points:

  1. Emergence. Reality does not appear to be just quantum physics (or, I would elaborate, not even just a unified theory that somehow gets gravity and relativity united with quantum physics). There are really new laws that emerge as you go to larger, composite, varied objects...the laws of thermodynamics, entropy in particular, are an example.
  2. Physical reality. It's a little much to talk about "reality" so cavlierly; it ignores basically metric tons of philosophical questions people have spent centuries debating. Is physical reality basically sense data? Is it the particles we theorize to be out there to explain, ultimately, our sense data in the context of the experiments we do and the natural objects we observe? Isn't there nonphysical reality: mathematics, wavefunctions (they can't be completely physical), conscious reality / qualia? How can we be sure there aren't nonphysical "forces" acting on physical objects? In some way, don't they have to? (mathematics and logic in some way constrain reality, that's a rumination of mine while writing this)
  3. Free will...the Comptonesque observation that quantum physics leave room for this nonphysical soul or mind to affect the physical body
  4. MIracles. Dennin actually led off the talk with an exercise, asking us to define miracles, and then he went on a fairly vigorous campaign against the idea that miracles ever incorporate the violation of physical law, or at least that they require it, that that should be in the definition. I noted "Contrasting focus on God's will/purpose..." but I cannot really reconstruct what he seemed to be driving at.

Craig Lent, a professor at Notre Dame, went next and gave an interesting talk that interfaced with others. He actually seemed to conflict with Barr in that he commented early on that the "state vector," which had be be the wavefunction since it had the same Greek letter psi for its symbol, contained all the information possible to have about a system and not just one observer's (the concept Barr used). He also addresses the measurement problem, but my note broke off mid-sentence. He went on to summarize the content of Scarani's talk, that Bell inequality experiments all show that the universe is not deterministic. He then addresses the claim that while atom-scale particles show quantum indeterminism, larger stuff does not, and nerves are enough larger that the human brain must be deterministic. That's probably not true; even 10,000 atomic mass unit molecules like neural transmitters show quantum behavior in experiments. We are left again with the Arthur Compton point that while obviously physics constrains us, our brains are not deterministic machines; if our souls are not affecting them, then at the very least some of their functionality is random.

The final talk was by (Padre) Javier Sanchez-Canizares on "Mind, Decoherence, and the Copenhagen Interpretation." This again comments on many of the topics in previous talks. Unfortunately the talk seemed to paw about problems already discussed without coming to any new realizations. I cannot tell from my notes whether I learned anything about decoherence, which I was really hoping to do; I think I had to look it up afterward, and even then the answers I've found so far are not satisfying. He asked the "Wigner's friend" question that Barr mentioned about the "cut" between the observer and the system in a quantum physics observation. He also made some intriguing comments on the nature of classical physics: if quantum physics is reality, why is it so hard to get rid of classical physics terminology? We still describe things that way. A recent physicist, Zurek, comments that classical physics entities somehow embody a "survival of the fittest" (the sort of comment I start questioning for influence of the divine name of evolution). Heisenberg apparently said that classical physics terms are just unavoidably part of how humans interact with the world.

Episode 016 - Valerio Scarani at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018

Episode 016 - Valerio Scarani at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018

July 16, 2018

Dr. Scarani opened the talk by noting a paper he placed on about Aquinas and the sense that the universe would not be perfect without randomness.

He moved on to discuss randomness in two senses: Process Randomness, which implies that there is an observer unable to predict the output of the process; and Product Randomness, the lack of structure of a product, which turns out to equate with the need for a very long algorithm to replicate the product. Products are tested for randomness by a battery of statistical tests. He gave an equation embodying a mathematical definition of [product] randomness. Not being an information theorist, I had not seen it before.

He went on to note the difference between the randomness of classical physics, which is always about a lack of complete information about a system. If one had that information, the system under the classical assumption would be perfectly defined, and as we have noted a number of times, Einstein among others desperately wanted to get back to that deterministic paradigm. "The Old One doesn't throw dice."

The core of the talk was what Scarani called a "high school level" presentation of Bell's theorem. I would like to meet the high school student who could follow it at the speed at which he gave the talk, but probably could have unpacked it given a couple of hours to do so even at that age. Bell's theorem is one of those cunning little mathematical gems that seems to prove the unprovable, namely, to make a prediction about something going on in a process one by definition cannot see into. Bell sets up a statistic that, if there are hidden rules governing physics below the scale at which the uncertainty principle lets us see, must nevertheless in real experiments end up being less than 2. Since the 1980s a series of ever more careful experiments have been done, and the answers in the papers Scarani reviewed had answers between 2.4 and 2.7; the answer is never below 2. According to Bell's theorem, this means that there is a really random process going on down there, and not just random products.

At the end, as we discuss in the audio, Scarani ran down the list of remaining possibilities for understanding the quantum foundations of the universe:
- There is real randomness.
- "Superdeterminism." This depends on breaking an assumption of the Bell theorem, which is that the quantum process is being fed input that itself is not really random from the perspective of that process, which would seem to imply some sort of physics puppet master controlling the experimenter.
- The many worlds hypothesis, again something we have mentioned a number of times. I am still not buying that stock.
- The only allowable sort of hidden variables (the name Bohm is attached to the most commonly discussed of these) would require particles communicating with each other at infinite speed, "deliberately" trying to wreck the experiment, and with the interaction hidden in a way workers in the field have called "conspiratorially hidden." I.e., we would be living in a universe run by a sort of Cartesian evil deity.

On that theme, note that I blundered off into talking in a sort of Cartesian dualist fashion about the relationship between soul and body there after the 14 or 15 minute mark.

Episode 015 - Stephen Barr at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018

Episode 015 - Stephen Barr at the Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018

July 9, 2018

In today's episode we discuss Stephen Barr's talk at the SCS conference on June 9. His topic was the observer question in quantum mechanics. The observer problem is closely tied to the issue of probability and wavefunctions. We spend quite a while discussing what this problem is and how the question arises in the context of experiments like the famous two-slit experiment. The example of "Schrodinger's Cat" is an attempt to make this problem more understandable to the non-quantum mechanic. The cat is in some uncertain state, neither alive nor dead, until the observer opens the box and "collapses the wavefunction" to either a live cat or a dead one. In a two-slit experiment, a particle exists in some distribution of possible positions until an observer collapses the wavefunction and "forces" it to one tight range of locations (and for that matter momenta...).

This is very weird. Barr cited a long list of quantum theorists (von Neumann, London, Bauer, Wigner, Peierls, and others) who considered the problem and whether mind as such is crucial to whatever it is that does the measuring and observing to collapse quantum systems. Wavefunctions, with their consequent probability distributions, evolve according to Schrodinger's [or Dirac's?...a question I've had in the back of my mind many times...] equation with no internal mechanism to cause this collapse. Clearly two very unlike things interact to form quantum mechanics as we know it, as von Neumann stated explicitly (calling the observer / collapse phenomenon "process 1" and the wavefunction evolution "process 2").

It is clear that we can shift our mathematical formalism to incorporate any physical measurment device into the "system" and thus recognize it to be in the realm of wavefunction behavior. There is the "Wigner's friend" thought problem where even a human observer of an experimental setup can be placed in the "box" from the point of view of another human observer.

When we consider the observer problem from the point of view of a descriptive science (geology, astronomy, zoology, etc.) there is the immediate and rather alarming philosophical question: What was happening to, say, this star or tectonic plate or ancestral population of invertebrates before there was an observer to collapse the wavefunctions? Someone raised this question with Dr. Barr in the question and answer session after the talk. There is a phenomenon called "decoherence" (warning: that link is informative in places but far from the clearest read) which occurs for systems that are very open, interacting with their surroundings. Broadly speaking, the observable in question can trade uncertainty with its surrounding and settles down into a tighter range of possible states, simulating to some extent the effect of an observer collapsing the wavefunction. However, the two phenomena are not the same.

Episode 013 - Human Mind and Physicalism (Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018)

Episode 013 - Human Mind and Physicalism (Society of Catholic Scientists Conference 2018)

June 25, 2018

Overview of the conference - schedule
Edward Feser & connections to Bishop Barron
Theme: Human Mind & Physicalism
Development of the problem and the amazing change in intellectual climate since the 19th century
Laplace and absolute determinism - 19th century consensus

Quantum mechanics demolished this intellectual basis for determinism, although it is clung to fiercely down to the present day, including the profoundly horrifying "many worlds" hypothesis

Bell inequality and the talk by Valerio Scarani about the closing of the loopholes that would allow a "hidden variables" interpretation of quantum mechanics (which would also save determinism, in a much saner way than the "many worlds" hypothesis)

Materialism and "spiritualism" (if you will) are on an equal logical footing, even if cultural issues continue to propel many scientists and intellectual citizens of the contemporary world away from belief in extramaterial beings

Society of Catholic Scientists as a place of refuge from this social pressure toward materialism

The gap between spiritual and material in ancient thought versus modern thought

The problem of qualia, choice, and consciousness and the lack of an actual materialist model for these, as opposed to evasive and reductionist language

On the other hand, the reality of a physical manifestation of all (or nearly all) mental phenomena, the dignity of matter in this detailed participation, and the absolute need for human souls to have bodies in order to be complete human beings (in contrast to Manichean, Platonic, or Cartesian dualism)

The scholastic notion of the human soul as form of the body
The Aristotelian soul / souls
Are vegetative (and animal) souls the forms of those bodies...are those essentially their genetic structure?
This ties back to our existing discussions about "hylomorphism for the third millennium" (so to speak)

The need for a new metaphysics and philosophy in general to rise up and deal with the strange new world that modern science has brought to our attention.

The scholastics, Aquinas of course being the one we remember, had a philosophy that was capable of being constructive...Chesterton's comment that modern philosophers ask us to accept some crazy thing in order to found their system, while Aquinas' starting point was common sense.

The difficulty of thinking and doing interdisciplinary scholarship in the modern world, despite decades of recognizing that we need to do it, due to the volume of human knowledge today and also the whole economic and sociological apparatus that depends on measuring scholars' output somehow...which is tremendously easier for single-focus scholars to maximize.

There is a unique joy that we can have as scientists of faith...both in our subject matter and in our fellowship with each other.

Our next few episodes will look at the subject matter of specific talks at the conference.